Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 September 2013
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Readings: Ezra 1; John 7.14-36
There’s a first time for everything, and that includes a sermon on the Book of Ezra. You don’t expect Sunday evenings to be fun, do you? I always think that at Sunday Evensong there is a certain pleasing melancholy, which no jolly sermon should be allowed to dissipate. Perfect for a little bit of Ezra. I can’t get out of it, because Ezra only turns up once at Evensong this year, so it would be churlish to pass him by.
But I’m not going to tell you all about Ezra, who was probably a priest in about 450 BC. These days if you want to know something you can look it up. And if you want know all about the Bible, that’s all the books in the Bible, all you need is a one volume commentary, and I would recommend The Oxford Bible Commentary, all 1400 pages of it. It’s a start. But when you look up the Book of Ezra in such a commentary, it becomes clear that nobody’s really sure when or why the book was written. Maybe there wasn’t anyone called Ezra in the first place, maybe there were several Ezras. Perhaps he was Nehemiah. The history of that period is unbelievably complicated. I think we must start by admitting that it’s not up to us to work all this out. What are we left with? We seem to have a series of reports, maybe sent back to Persia, describing the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Temple, and what we had in tonight’s lesson, chapter 1, was the Edict of Cyrus of Persia sending the Jews home to rebuild the Temple. And that was the easy bit. If you ever get to the end of the Book of Ezra, you will discover the names of all the sons of the Jewish priests being ordered to get rid of their foreign wives.
So Ezra is a bit of test case for us. Why on earth do we bother to read all this? We can’t make much sense of it. The culture of the period is so alien to us, so obscure, that there are no parallels to be drawn, no lessons to learn, very little obvious connection with our religion, except that Ezra is somewhere deep in the roots of Jewish religion, and Jesus might have known about this rebuilding of the Temple. To say that we must read it because this is the Word of God, and that every line is bursting with hidden wisdom, is the lazy answer. The Bible, despite divine inspiration, is subject to much human limitation. There is an underlying truth, but it is not expressed in the literal words. Truth is revealed, but on the level of symbol, a mystery which is not obvious to us on a first straightforward reading.
A lot depends on how we approach the text of the Bible, it’s about what’ve going on in our minds, what we bring to the scene, even to the apparently barren soil of the Book of Ezra, it is the Spirit within us which is at work, not some magic in the written sentences themselves. That means the experience will be different each time we read the same book, because we change, we bring different concerns to our reading; so we must expect Bible reading to take time, maybe forty years of wandering in a literary desert before any meaning emerges from a text. I’m talking, I suppose, about lectio divina, which is sacred reading, a particular style of reading the Bible, with which it’s worth becoming familiar. We might not know the background to Ezra, but we know the background to ourselves and our usually rather troubled relationship to God. We bring ourselves to the reading. The reading and the writing are part of the same divine initiative. We are not on our own when we read the Bible, even though our interpretations will be personal ones. We are members of the Church, and this prevents an entirely selfish reading. The Holy Spirit comes to our aid. The Bible is about a God who does influence and change history, He is among us at all times. So in that first chapter of Ezra, Cyrus the Persian invokes a God, his God, but it’s cleverly worded so to those in the know, it is God Himself, the only God, who is directing Cyrus to bring the Jews home. So if God can act in history, and that of course is a foundational belief for us as Christians, then he can act in my life too. In my reading of the Bible, I’m not so much opening the text to a new interpretation, I’m opening myself to a God who can revolutionise my life and the way I live that life.
All this takes time, and discipline, I’m afraid, and there are times when we just have to be content with a superficial reading of Bible texts, or rely on the interpretations of others. It’s a voluntary activity. God speaks to us in our freedom, not as a captive audience. It is up to us to turn to listen to his spoken word, whether that is through reading the Bible, or the writings of holy men down the ages, or through events in the world, or through what happens to us day by day, it is up to us to turn to him. But the Scriptures are uniquely helpful, because they are God’s word reduced to a design and a content which we are capable of understanding and learning from.
Even Ezra chapter 1 – if I read that chapter again, not trying to learn about the fifth century BC, but with an open and willing heart, prepared to listen to whatever God might say to me, I might begin to see that all my life is a matter of coming home and rebuilding the Temple in my own land, maybe many times, that God is with those who want to rebuild their lives, that captivity of whatever kind, mental or physical, can have an ending. The chapter might help me to see that even the great ones of the earth, the modern equivalents of Cyrus of Persia who controlled all the kingdoms of the earth, can be agents of the living God. And maybe the fifth century BC is not all that far away, because there were men and women then that yearned for a world of peace and prosperity and harmony, as we do; they too were on the edge of that great discovery that we all must have, that everything depends on God, everything. It was God, we read in Ezra, who stirred up the spirits of those who were to rebuild his house in Jerusalem. Our Christian confidence can match their determination. Here is a fulfilment of a prophecy that an exiled people will return home, leading me to close the book believing that there is a God who does not desert us, indeed God is with me now on my journey home, for God is in all things. Meister Eckhart said, “God is in all things. Every creature is full of God, and is a book about God.” You and I are a book about God. Just like Ezra.