“Renewing the Covenant” – Ezra

This morning is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, and we’re wrapping up our sermon series “A Priest Forever,” looking at Old Testament priests and how they point forward to Jesus Christ, our High Priest. This morning we consider Ezra, one of the last great priests before Jesus Christ’s arrival.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah might not be too familiar to you. They’re separate books in our Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible they are placed together. Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of Israel’s restoration. After the appointed time in exile, God stirred the spirits of the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, to give His people favor with these kings, and He did it through men like Daniel, and women like Esther. These kings allowed the Jews to return, to rebuild the city walls and the temple. As they left, God also stirred the spirits of their Babylonian neighbors, and they gave the Jews gifts of gold and silver to use in the restoration. As God’s people arrived at Jerusalem, they began to rebuild their faith first, celebrating the religious festivals again. The priests who came with them started to offer sacrifices again to restore the people’s covenant relationship with God. They rebuilt the temple together, and dedicated it with worship and sacrifice and celebration. But they needed someone to organize and lead these spiritual reforms:

[Read Nehemiah 7:5-10, 9:1-38, 10:28-29]

The Law of God

Ezra is lifted up to us as a man who loved God’s Law. He desired to study it and to obey it, and to teach others to also study it and obey it. And God’s people are in a spiritual state where they are ready and eager to be led by such a man. Ezra and the other priests are asked by the people to regularly stand in public spaces throughout Jerusalem and spend half the day or more reading from God’s Law, the Hebrew “TORAH,” the first five books of our Bible. Now, if I stood reading the first five books of the Bible, and told everyone to come, you might show up, and you would maybe stay through Genesis and Exodus, but as soon as I got to Leviticus, you’d all go home. But God’s people are so eager to hear again what God requires of them that they all come out and stand listening for hours at a time. and they are so cut to the heart by what is read to them that they spend weeks lamenting their sins, wearing rough clothing made from sackcloth and putting ashes on their heads to physically remind them of their spiritual misery.

As Christians, ones in whom the risen and living Christ dwells and delights, we have a complicated relationship with the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, we believe that the commandments and statutes and stories are God’s Word for us and for our salvation; but on the other hand, we have Christ – the Word of God made flesh – living in us through the Holy Spirit, so God’s Law is written on our hearts. That tension in us Christians living in the 21st century is what makes Ezra’s story so compelling to me. Here is a man who loves God’s Law, what many of us find to be antiquated, confusing, and constrictive. Ezra loves it so much that he desires with all his heart to study it, to do it, and to teach it. Where we find a list of meaningless rules, Ezra finds a record of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

The Love of God

The Law of God read correctly reveals to us God’s covenant faithfulness. It also reflects back to us our own faithlessness: all our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our stumblings. Knowing God is holy reminds us that we are sinful; but remembering God is faithful draws us to Him in repentance. No one loves reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy, because we get lost in the ancientness of it, confused about what it means for us in 2016. But the story that is told in those first five books – creation, covenant, deliverance, provision – shows God’s tender compassion and infinite mercy for His people precisely when we are lost in sin. That is why, when God’s people are weeping for their sins, humbling themselves before their holy God, Ezra tells them the story of God at work in their lives and the lives of their fathers and mothers, all the way back to the beginning.

Ezra simply tells them their story. God, in His love, made all things good, and made us in His image to take care of those good things, and to enjoy them with Him. We rebelled. God, in His love, made a covenant with Abraham to begin building a people for Himself through whom He would someday redeem and restore and reconcile all things to Himself. That family that God chose wasn’t perfect, and they got lost. God, in His love, went and found them – over and over again – to bring them back to Himself, so that He could work His full salvation through them someday. Ezra didn’t know how that story would end. We do! We live after Christmas, after Good Friday, after Easter Sunday! We have seen how God’s Story is fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, born as a human baby into this broken, stiff-necked, peculiar family, to save the whole world from the crippling, corrupting power of sin.

That story now belongs to all of us. This isn’t just the story of one small tribe of people living in the Middle East thousands of years ago. God’s plan was to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things, so He sent His Son Jesus for all of us. This story now belongs to all of us. God’s love has reached us, here, in 2016, because His new, renewed covenant of love has been opened to include all who receive Christ Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

So when guilt and shame grab hold of you, accusing you of the sin in your lives, you need an Ezra to come and tell you the story again: God is good and faithful and loving, and He has done for you what you could not do for yourselves, so you could receive what you could not earn on your own. Sin has no power here: you are new creations in His Son Jesus Christ. Live like it. And when you see each other, or your neighbors, or your family members, stuck in their sin, be an Ezra, and tell them the story: This is who we are now because of Christ, not that dead, sin-stained shell you were; Be who you are.

The Priest of God

This is the story that Ezra and all the priests tell God’s people, to comfort them and to call them to new obedience and renewed covenant faithfulness. But notice how they tell the story. The priests weren’t talking to the people. They were talking to God. They prayed their story with God to God, to remind themselves and God that this is how the story goes. It is as if the priests are reminding God – when they need Him to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast – that God has promised to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast. They are calling God to be now who He has been before, and who He has promised to be always.

That is a bold prayer. That is a priestly prayer. That is the kind of prayer that Jesus Christ is offering for us all, for you, even now, before the throne of God above. When it feels like God’s not listening, or like He’s far away from you, remember: the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is standing in the throne room of heaven, holding out his nail-pierced hands to His Father, saying, “This is what We do. We save them.” And the Spirit alive in us agrees, praying with groans too deep for words. And God remembers. And we remember: God is faithful, and good, and merciful, and He keeps covenant with us, not for our sake, but because it is His desire that none should perish, but that all might be redeemed, renewed, and reconciled to Him.

Thanks be to God!

“Wait for him”

I wonder if I have every really paid attention to Advent in the past. Its texts all surprise me, baffle me. How is Isaiah a passage about waiting for the Lord’s great coming?

Isaiah 64:1, 4-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
   so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
From ages past no one has heard,
   no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
   who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
   those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
   because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
   and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
   and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
   or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
   and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
   we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
   and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

Sometimes waiting looks more like pacing and pleading than sitting and sighing. Isaiah stands in the supremely uncomfortable place of painful waiting, between the people set against God and God waiting for them to repent. Isaiah’s heart hurts for both.

I am surprised how rarely our celebrations of Advent include repentance. We relish the themes of expectation and anticipation and celebration; I don’t know that I’ve ever considered Advent to be an occasion for contrition or confession. Isaiah, however, sees it as just that. In the prophetic imagination, the coming Day of the Lord is both great and terrible. Waiting, both ours and God’s, means an opportunity for us to turn, to repent.

“God of all hope, in Jesus your salvation broke into our world, and his return gives purpose to our living in this broken world…Make me ready for that future day by living hopefully today. In the name of our soon arriving Savior, amen.”

“Keep Awake”

Advent is an odd time for the Christian.

Christ is coming!
But he was already here. Wasn’t he?
He’s Coming Again!

This conversation feels odd, but it’s no more odd than every other day for the Christian. We live in the tension of knowing Christ was already here, already walked among us, already saved us; and knowing that we are not yet with him, not yet fully alive, not yet rescued from the consequences of sin.

Maybe that’s why not many churches celebrate a true Advent season. We don’t understand this odd waiting, so we sing our Christmas carols before it’s time. We get bored of the dirge-esque “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and rush into joyful choruses of “Glo-oo-oo-o–oo-oo-o–oo-oo-o-ria!” and “Glory to the newborn King!”

But the Gospel texts for Advent aren’t “Christmas” texts. We don’t get to read about Jesus being born until he’s actually born. The Bible doesn’t rush into this; it insists we take our time. Instead, we read about waiting. Hear Jesus’ words today:

Mark 13:32-37 (NRSV)

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Keep Alert.
Keep Awake.

I don’t think the hectic hunt for bargains on gifts is the kind of alertness Jesus is asking of us. I don’t think the 2:30 AM lining up for Black Friday deals is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Keep Awake.”

I think Jesus is asking me to wake up, to keep my eyes open, to keep on waiting: where might Jesus be showing up today?

I think Jesus is asking me to not fall for the world’s idea of holiday waiting: counting down the minutes to Amazon.com deals, eating a fancy chocolate every day until Christmas, watching for clues as to what my wife might be getting me for my stocking. These are, in fact, ways of putting my soul to sleep.

“Unexpected Savior, you are coming again…give me a watchful heart full of expectation and wonder. Amen.”