From Ezra 8: 21-36
“You as well as these articles are consecrated to the Lord…. Guard them carefully until you weigh them out in the chambers of the house of the Lord.” Ezra 8: 28-29a
This is not a very familiar passage from a very familiar part of the Bible. So, who are these people? That’s the first question I’d like us to consider. There are at least seven things we can say about Ezra and the people with him, seven things I’ll say quickly.
First, Ezra and his fellow pilgrims are Hebrew Exiles, returning to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild their city, their temple and their religious life and institutions, just as Jeremiah had said they would, seventy years before. Actually, these are mostly the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Exiles, whom the Babylonians brought to Babylon after they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, 600 years before Jesus. Any survivors of that catastrophe would be in their seventies, eighties and nineties at the time of today’s story.
They get to return because the new king in town, Artaxerxes, is favorably disposed toward the Hebrews. With his blessing, Ezra, a Jewish priest, scribe and scholar, is leading this group of Hebrew Exiles back to Judah and Jerusalem.
That makes theirs a homeward journey. That’s the second thing we can say about these people: they are a people on a journey homeward. But they’re not going home empty-handed. For the third thing we can say about them is that they are a gifted people. They are carrying treasures for the new temple under construction, treasures of gold, silver and bronze, mostly utensils and articles for worship in the temple, things necessary for sacrifices, feasts and other special occasions and celebrations. Some of them were likely the very original items that the Babylonians had looted from the Jewish Temple seventy-plus years before. Some of them were new items; some were even donated by the Persian King Artaxerxes.
But even with all this valuable treasure, there’s no armed guard with them. So, the fourth thing to know about these people is that they are a very peaceful, unarmed, defenseless people, humanly speaking. King Artaxerxes may have offered them an armed escort, because Ezra had specifically told him that God would see to their defense, without the help of Persian soldiers. And yet their journey will take them across what was then, and is still, one of the world’s roughest neighborhoods, the desert between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.
So, the fifth thing to know about Ezra and his fellow pilgrims is that they make this journey under very grave danger, particularly, under two kinds of danger: external and internal dangers. The external dangers are easy to identify: bandits and brigands with no qualms against robbing, even killing, pilgrims. The natural environment can be just as deadly. It’s beastly hot out there by day and freezing cold at night. The distances between watering holes and waystations are dangerously long. Check your sleeping bag before bedding down, for scorpions and vipers. At night you’ll hear the shrieks of jackals and hyenas, and the roaring of lions as they patrol the edges of each encampment. By day, the vultures will follow you in the air out of hope…. and experience.
But worse than those external dangers are the internal ones, the pitfalls and booby-traps lying about in human nature and human relationships. Like fear: “What’s making that cloud of dust over there? What about those lights we saw on the horizon last night? Are bandits gathering around us? How many of you would vote with me for turning around and going back?”
And discouragement: “If I’d known that the journey would take this long and be this hard, why would I have left the comforts, the culture, and the grandeur of Babylon for a dusty pile of rubble and ash, a million, trillion miles from any vibrant night life?”
Or envy, dissension, competition and contention: “It’s bad enough having to travel with the Ben-Yacob family, but will we have to be neighbors, too? Just because they’re distantly related to King David, Sarah Ben-Yacob acts like she is the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral, as all the Ben-Yacobs have ever done, by the way. What have they ever done for me and my family? The way they’re flaunting their wealth and living it up out here, they better not come to me looking for help if they eat up all their supplies before we arrive.”
Or greed, discontent and a sense of entitlement: “Dried fish and barley crackers for dinner, again? And just when the figs, the melons and pomegranates are coming fresh into the markets back in Babylon? I bet I’ll never see one of those in Jerusalem any time soon!”
Or worse: “That’s a lot of treasure I’m carrying with me. Just think of how much it will be worth where we’re going! For all the danger, toil and trouble I’ve taken on in this journey, surely, I’m entitled to something to show for it. So what if I keep back for myself just one of the golden spoons I’m carrying, or a napkin ring, or a brooch for a priestly headband? Why would anyone even notice? Why would it even matter?”
Even worse: “What if some night I just slip away over the sand dunes with all this treasure I’m carrying? Then I can start a new life of leisure and prosperity, and not have to put up with the likes of the Ben-Yacob family.”
Frankly, I might rather face lions, thirst, heat stroke and bandits, than greed, fears and resentments, because we can so easily dress those things up as righteousness, justice, and virtue, and not know just when or how much they’re killing us.
That they have undertaken such a dangerous, difficult journey without an armed escort, simply for the worship and the honor of their God, tells me a sixth thing about the folks in today’s story: that they are a people of faith: of faith in God, of faith in God’s Word and God’s promises to bring them home after seventy years of exile in Babylon, of faith in God to do through their weakness, vulnerability and peacefulness what they had failed to do in previous centuries with kings, weapons and armies. They had faith in God to bring them home to himself. Which he did, as we know by the end of the passage.
Such faith is what started them on their journey. And such faith is what kept them on their journey. Such faith is also what kept them from losing or stealing a penny’s worth of the treasure they carried. For when they counted it up in the temple, at the end of the journey, not a cent was lost or stolen.
And not because they didn’t want any reward for the danger, the distance and the risk they undertook. They did. We all do. But they brought it all home, safely, honestly, because of a greater reward that they sought, a reward that meant more and appealed more to them than gold, silver or bronze: the honor and pleasure of God.
So, the seventh thing we can say about these people is that they were committed and consecrated to God, to the will and to the worship of God. Such consecration and commitment are what got them onto the journey. That commitment and consecration got them through the journey, and they got all the treasure they carried there intact.
So, Why should we care about these people and their journey? The simple answer is: because of all that we have in common with them. They and their journey paint for me a compelling picture of the church, twenty-five hundred years later. They even serve for me as a symbol of our own personal journeys of faith.
What then do we have in common with these homeward bound Exiles 2500 years ago? Working backwards through what I just said: 1) We too are called to be a people committed and consecrated to God. We said as much in our baptismal vows. If you received baptism from a Mennonite pastor, you were asked, “Do you accept and confess the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Redeemer, trusting in his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of your sins?” If you got wet, it meant you said, “Yes.”
And then you would have been asked, “Do you solemnly consecrate yourself to Christ and his service, and do you seek the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit to turn from the ways of sin, foster communion with God, and as far as you know how, lead an upright Christian life according to God’s revealed will and to the honor of God’s name?” And if anyone said, “Well, are there any exception clauses to that? Any loopholes?” I hope they didn’t get wet.
No. What Ezra told the homeward-bound Exiles apply to us, 25 centuries later: “You as well as these articles are consecrated to the Lord…. Guard [what has been entrusted to you] carefully until [you give an accounting] in the house of the Lord.”
Do you see the parallels with our journeys of faith?
Such commitment and consecration require faith in God, to get us all the way home, even when circumstances stir up fears that God is not with us, that God is not for us, that we do not matter to God, or that God does not exist.
Like in my childhood, when Mom and Dad would sometimes load me and my two sisters into the car on a Sunday afternoon to take us on a drive, usually down two-lane country highways. Usually I was seated directly behind my Dad, who usually drove, with my two younger sisters to my right. But sometimes I was placed in the middle, between my sisters, perhaps because they had been hitting and pestering each other. I never did any of that, of course. From the middle of the back seat, it looked like every car we approached, coming down the other lane in our direction, was going to hit our car right in the front left quarter panel, at top speed. Have you ever noticed how it looks that way from the back seat? Neither driver was doing anything to slow down or move their car out of the way. “What’s wrong with my Dad?” I would wonder and worry. “Can’t he see that we’re all about to die! And then we’ll never make it to the Dairy Queen!”
And then the two cars would whoosh right past each other, with neither driver adjusting course. How did that happen? And that’s when I began to understand… Perspective. That’s when I began to learn to doubt my doubts and fears as strongly as I must sometimes doubt my certainties. Fifty-some years later, I am still learning to trust the Driver of my journey, to let him drive, and not panic and pester my heavenly Father with my back-seat driving. Secondly, then, like Ezra and his fellow returnees, we are a people of faith.
We need such faith because we are also, thirdly, a vulnerable people, a people in danger, just like our Hebrew ancestors. Like theirs, our greatest dangers are also within us and between us. As the Apostle Paul put it in Ephesians 6, “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But we can give these spiritual enemies a lot of help with our own fears, dissension, discontent, resentment, envy, and entitlement.
Worldly weapons and warfare are no match for these most dangerous kinds of enemies. In fact, violence and worldly powers only play into their hands. We are at our best whenever we must rely most on God’s power and protection, like Ezra and the Exiles. So, the fourth thing we have in common is that we are a peaceful, defenseless people, if our trust is in God to bring us home safely.
Like Ezra and his fellow pilgrims, we are also a gifted people, bearing treasures from God and for God, for the worship, glory and honor of God. Treasures such as the time and the talents that God has lent us for his service. The gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, humility, and more. Treasures and gifts like our callings and our ministries. The people and the places in our lives. All these are treasures that God has entrusted to us, to bring home faithfully and fully to God.
The place to which we are bringing these treasures is our final, eternal home, a new heaven and a new earth, the answer to our prayers, “in earth as it is in heaven.” Like Ezra and his friends, we too are on a journey homeward, even though we have not been there, yet. If our destination is our true home, then between here and there, between now and then, we too are Exiles. The Apostle Peter says so in his First Letter, chapter 2: 11: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” Being spiritual exiles in this world we also have in common with Ezra and our Hebrew ancestors.
Which brings us to my third question: So what? What do we do about this story, and our commonalities with it? First of all, 1) Remember who we are and whose we are. Remember and Embrace our true identity, as Exiles, foreigners and aliens in this fallen world. We are Not exiles of this beautiful planet; we were made for it and it for us. But we are exiles, aliens and foreigners among the values and the vices of the media, the markets, the fears and the fashions of human society. That’s something we have in common with over 65 million people in the world today, who are also displaced and exiled from their homes by conflict, chaos and corruption. Exile we have in common with people languishing in prison nearby, separated from their children and parents, often just for coming to seek asylum. But even if we live freely where we and our ancestors were born, to be in Christ is to join Christ in his Exile, for “he came to his own, and his own received him not.” We are Exiles, because in God we have another, eternal home.
2) Remember and Embrace also our true identity as people committed and consecrated to God. Do like Ezra and the people who prayed and consecrated themselves to God before their journey homeward from Exile. They did it at the end of their journey, too. Let’s remind and recommit ourselves regularly, here and every week with each other. But let’s keep doing it also alone, taking responsibility for ourselves every day.
3) Remember and Embrace also our true identity as gifted persons, and as a gifted people, entrusted with treasures from God, bearing treasures for God. To have faith in God is also to have faith in what God will do for us. It is also to have faith in what God can do through us. To trust God is also to trust the gifts that God has given us, enough to try them out and use them, and not just hide them in the name of false humility. For we too will give an accounting for all that God has entrusted to us for our journey.
4) Remember and embrace our identity as members of the caravan, on a homeward journey together. Start on this Homeward Journey with Ezra, the priests and the people, and Jesus, and with us, if we have not yet done so. And if we have begun this journey homeward, then Stay on it; don’t run off alone into the darkness and the desert. Stay with the people who share this journey, however imperfect, difficult and frustrating we might be to each other sometimes. Because other people are not finding the journey any easier with you or me than we do with them. However hard the journey might be together, no one will survive the darkness, dryness and dangers of this desert world alone.
Finally, follow and stay close to the One who calls us and who accompanies us on this journey, as he accompanied Ezra and his companions, to protect, to guide, to sustain and to encourage them. For, as the song says, his “grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” This powerful, but invisible companion eagerly awaits the arrival home of all his priceless, precious treasure. Not only do we carry that treasure; we are that treasure, each one of us. Guard these treasures carefully until you get home.