Dear church,

Our reading today – Ezra 4 – is an interesting one. It is interesting for the way in which it is written because it contains a large “aside” – basically a portion of narrative that seems slightly out of place and seems to tell a different story. But it is there for a reason. This is an “aside” with a purpose.

The chapter starts out describing the initial opposition by the local people to the rebuilding of the temple (4:1-5). And then the “aside” begins with a record of future opposition that would occur to the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and its walls (4:6-23). The three letters mentioned in 4:6,7,8 were written to the Persian kings Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes. Both of those kings reigned in the 400s BC, more than 50 years after the initial reconstruction of the temple.

I think Ezra wanted to paint the picture: The people of the land wanted nothing to do with the Israelites’ return. They wanted the work of rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem to stop. They didn’t want this “nation” to be rebuilt. There was long-standing opposition to the Israelites. Forces were at work against them.

The thing that stood out to me as I read this chapter was the strength and weakness of God’s people. When the people of the land asked to share in the rebuilding of the temple, the Israelites rejected them. “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God.” That’s some pretty impressive fortitude.

In our modern ears, when we read this section, we might think the Israelites were being harsh, judgmental, and intolerant. We might ask, “Why not just be inclusive?”

The people of the land at that time were, essentially, pagans. They worshipped a range of deities. They probably worshipped the God of Israel from time to time, but it was not the kind of worship the God of Israel demanded. The God of Israel is the One True God. To worship him, a person must set aside all other gods. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God …” (Exodus 20:3-5).

We must remember that God had called his people to relational purity. His relationship with his people is supposed to be like a marriage. (How “inclusive” do you want your spouse to be in your own marriage?) And the people of God refused to include among them people who weren’t fully committed to worshiping the One True God – and only him. “You have nothing to do with us.”

And so these Israelites were strong.

And they were weak.

They were antagonized into stopping their work on the temple. “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose.” On the one hand, the Israelites talked a big game. They gave a hard “no” when they needed to do so. On the other hand, they lacked perseverance. They were prone to discouragement. They were prone to fear.

They weren’t yet what they should be. They were a people in process. Maybe we all should examine ourselves in this light.

And then there is that long “aside” from 4:6-23. What caught my attention was how the people of the land, in writing to the Persian King Artaxerxes, reminded him of how “rebellious” Israel was before it finally was destroyed in 587 BC. Israel under the leadership of God – as the people and kings were faithful to him – was a powerful nation. The Persian king was encouraged not to forget that fact. Nor should we forget that fact.

And so there is strength and weakness here – a people who were striving to follow God but who couldn’t shake their frailty. And there is a memory. Do you remember what God has done for his people in the past?

I wonder if there are some lessons here for us as individual Christians – and perhaps even for us as a church. In what ways are you strong in the Lord? In what ways are you weak? As a church, how are we strong and weak?

Weakness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We also have a memory. It is of Jesus Christ hanging on a cross. God’s power emerged from a moment of ultimate weakness. Sin was forgiven, death was defeated, the temple veil was torn in two, and the people of God were united with him. The way was paved for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Out of weakness came the glory of God.

All this was God’s doing. I remember our reading in Matthew’s Gospel: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matthew 21:42). The rejected “stone” is Jesus. He was rejected by all. The world saw weakness there. Even God’s people saw saw weakness there – a thing to be rejected. But out of that weakness, he’s become the cornerstone for the new temple of God, the church.

So another question might be this – How might we let our weaknesses make way for the shining of God’s glory?

You might want to read Ezra 4 again, slowly and prayerfully, and let God speak to you.

Chris

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s