Assignment … Chapter 21

assignment_icon This week we’ll be reading the story of Rebuilding Jerusalem.  That’s Chapter 21: Rebuilding the Walls.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Ezra 7Nehemiah 1-246-8Malachi 1-4. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory

 

Know Your Place

Know Your Place

Blogger, Brian Zahnd, posted on the site OnFaith this week.  He began with the catchy premise, “I have a problem with the Bible,” and went on to say:

Here’s my problem…

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.

Reading Esther, it’s clear that the Jewish people were outsiders in Persian society.  They had been displaced during the overthrow of Jerusalem and were now making the best of it in their new land.  They were acclimated to their new society, but they kept their native/family/tribal language, they followed Jewish law, they were “different.”  Haman says to King Xerxes:

There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. (Esther 3:8 NIV)

One of the themes in Esther is that of knowing and keeping your “place” in society.  Queen Vashti refuses the King’s request for her to parade in front of his male guests to show off how beautiful (read: sexy) his woman is.  As a result, she is banished from the King’s presence and looses her crown … her “place.”  And, just so we don’t miss it, this decree is sent to all corners of the kingdom and written in every language so that “every man should be ruler over his own household.” (Esther 1:22 NIV)  This is the order of society Persian society: women are subordinate to men.  Women need to know their place.

Haman sees his place as right hand to the King.  Such a privileged position!  But when Mordecai doesn’t bow to that “place”, Haman becomes irate.  Mordecai is a Jew.  The Jews need to learn their place.  Everyone had a place, including the Eunuchs, the slaves, the concubines … this is order, this is good.  Or is it?

A friend and I were having coffee and chatting about racism.  She said to me that racism, sexism, etc. is all about people challenging their “place” in society.  When the people in the privileged position are challenged by those who are lower in the pecking order, they don’t like it.  Who would?  The hateful political opposition to President Obama, many point out, is race- and place- related.  It is brought on by the blatant challenge a black president has on the privileged place of white males in our culture.

Well, Esther knew her place — she was an orphan, a woman, and a hostage of the King.  She obeyed Mordecai when he told her not to let anyone know about her Jewish heritage.  She listened to the counsel of Hegai, the King’s Eunuch.  She did all she could to “please” the King.  And, even, when she dared approach the King without him summoning her, she did so with all of the reverence you’d expect from a servant to her lord.  She knew her place.  She knew the risk she was taking on behalf of her people.  The risk was so great, in fact, that she asked her family and inner circle to offer three days of prayer and fasting on her behalf.  Their prayer and fasting wasn’t in reverence to the King, but in supplication to God.  Esther knew, if she came out of this with her life, it wasn’t because of her worthiness, it was God’s miracle.

It was a miracle.  Not only was she spared her life, but she was offered all of Haman’s estate.  This is the “Good News” time and time again.  That God is in the place of the lowly, the peasants, the exiles, the shepherds, the poor, the Samaritan, the lepers, the blind, the tax collector, the woman, the prostitute, the slave … that God loves them, and God upholds them.  In fact, Jesus says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  (If Haman being impaled on his own pole isn’t an example of the first becoming last, I don’t know what is)

For those of us in the more privileged classes of our own society … it can be a difficult message to hear.  We are not in these places because God loves us more, or values us more.  We are here to listen to the Word of God and to be ready to hear the cries of the oppressed.  We are placed here “for such a time as this.”  To help up end the “order” of society and take risks for justice.  For what does the Lord require of us?  To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8)

Hoist By His Own Petard

Petard

A “petard” was a bomb used to blow open a gate to a city. To be hoist by one’s own petard was to have your bomb blow up in your face, literally lifting you off the ground (and killing you)

For me, a recurring theme throughout all of the stories we’ve read has been that of pride, in a negative sense. (That probably says as much about me as it does about the text.) Not simple pride in an accomplishment, but rather the inflated ego of one who thinks they’re better than everyone else, and deserve special treatment because of it. This week is no exception, though, for a change, it’s not the Israelites who are prideful. No, they’re still suffering from the humiliation of their exile. Instead, we see the pride of Haman, an Agagite. For reasons unexplained in the text, Haman was raised up by King Xerces to a station above all the other nobles in the kingdom. By the king’s command, all were to bow down to Haman. But one Jew would not. Sound familiar?

Even though the entire kingdom was paying obeisance to Haman, the fact that this one Jew was not robbed him of all the enjoyment that he expected to feel from his lofty position. Even after he used his position and influence to arrange for what we today would call an ethnic cleansing of all the Jews in the kingdom, the lack of fear and respect from this one man stuck in his craw and would not leave him any peace. He was the second most powerful man in the kingdom, but he wasn’t happy.

Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? No matter how great we have it, we’re bugged that it could be better. A while back, Pastor Stephen’s sermon included a reference to a study that showed that, once income crossed a certain threshold, further increases in wealth did not correspond to a similar increase in happiness. In fact, the opposite often was true. More money often leads to less happiness.

In Haman’s case, that dissatisfaction with what he had lead to his downfall. Had he simply ignored Mordecai, no doubt he would have continued for many years in comfort. But, instead, by plotting the destruction of Mordecai and the rest of the Jews, he planted the seeds of his own destruction. He didn’t know it, but Esther, also known as Hadassah, who was the queen, was a cousin of Mordecai, and a Jew. Esther had also been elevated to her position of great power by the king, but, unlike Haman, she remained humble. She risked all in order to free her people from the order of mass extinction engineered by Haman. And she used Haman’s own pride to lure him in. She invited Haman to join her and the king at a banquet two days in a row — a high honor indeed. Yet even while Haman was boasting of this, and all his other accomplishments, to his friends, it was Mordecai the Jew that was foremost in his mind. So he decided to erect a giant pole in front of his house, and to ask the king to have Mordecai impaled on it the next day. Surely that would finally make Haman happy!

Of course, that’s not how it worked out. That night, the king discovered (accidentally?) that Mordecai had earlier thwarted a plot to have the king assassinated. So when Haman arrived at the palace the next day, before he could ask about Mordecai, the king asked for a recommendation of how best to honor somebody. Haman of course assumed he was the one to be honored, so he came up with an elaborate plan to raise up himself and lower somebody else. I can only imagine what Haman’s reaction must have been when he found out it was Mordecai who would be honored, and Haman who would be humbled. God clearly has a sense of humor. And when it’s revealed that Haman is the one trying to wipe out all of the Jews, including queen Esther, Haman is the one impaled on that pole, not Mordecai.

So, what does all of that have to do with us today?

To me, this story is an indictment against our greedy, “whoever has the most toys wins” mentality. We spend so much time and effort trying to acquire more and mores “stuff.” Just like Haman. And, just like Haman, we focus on what we don’t have, and not what we do. And I fear that, like Haman, it will lead to our downfall. Haman is clearly the villain in this story, but I can empathise with him to an uncomfortable degree.

There’s No Place Like Home … No, Really, No Place

There’s No Place Like Home … No, Really, No Place

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel.  With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:

“He is good;
his love toward Israel endures forever.”

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.  But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.  No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:10-13, NIV)

The people had been away from home for a generation.  What grabbed my attention this week is the reaction of the people when the foundation of the temple was laid … crying and shouting.  Those who knew the old temple wept, and the younger ones shouted for joy.  The text does not say why the older priests and family leaders wept, but we can imagine that the tears were both tears of joy and tears of grief.  There is a bittersweetness to coming home when “home” is just not the same.

I found an old highschool/college journal of mine as we were cleaning out a closet this weekend.  It was written in November of my freshman year of college.  I had just turned 18 years old.  I wrote, “I am so much different now than I was when I left for college only a few months ago.  I’m grown up now.”  Yeah, right, just like we all think … but there is some truth in the fact that I HAD changed, even if I wasnt yet “all grown up”, and we can never really go back home to the way things were.

In addition to hosting international students for five years, I volunteered with the organization, AFS, as a trainer and liaison to students.  When we prepared the high school students to return to their home countries after being in the United States for a year, we talked about the unexpected culture-shock they’d experience when they got home.  It was often more difficult to cope with than the culture shock they expected coming here.  Two things contribute to that.  First, the young people had adjusted to a new normal, their expectations were different, they’d been changed by their lives here.  When they went “home” they would “see” their own family and culture through a new set of eyes.  The familiar will seem strange.  And, secondly, their own families and hometown have not stood still while they were gone … they, too, are different.  Friends will have new romantic partners, new teachers might have come to the school. Because they’d have changed too, they’d respond to the student’s change and growth in new and different ways.  You really can’t go home.

After years in exile, after the God of the Israelites moved the heart of Cyrus, the King of Persia … the King announces he will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.  Those who wish to return to work on the temple may do so, bringing gold and silver and other resources of the people with them.  “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:5, NIV)

We cannot know exactly how each person’s “heart was moved” by God, I can only assume the people and families who went back to rebuild Jerusalem went with a set of expectations … maybe a yearning for the way it was, maybe a love for the stories that their parents or grandparents told them of the way it was, maybe the hope for a place to belong, maybe the desire to do something new, maybe to leave a broken relationship … whatever it was, the fulfillment of those expectations were symbolized in this groundbreaking ceremony … the emotions were high … and loud.  Shouts of joy  look to the future and what will be; tears of grief look back to what was lost.

We’re experiencing that same juxtaposition in the Church today.  In fact, this time in the life of the church is being described by some as the Church in exile i.e. living in a strange land, surrounded by a culture which may or may not embrace our faith, our values, our heritage … a culture which no longer shares our memories.  There are some of us who yearn for the way things were.  We miss the traditional hymns, the large choir, the inspirational preacher, the huge Sunday School.  Our hearts are moved to restore the way it was so that we can be at peace knowing that our grandchildren will be able to experience Church just like we did.  But our grandchildren are not like us.  They don’t read books, they use iPad apps.  They don’t write thank you notes, they tweet.  They don’t listen to pipe organs, they download lady gaga.  When the Church is left in the hands of our children and grandchildren … when they lay the bricks of the foundation of the temple … they don’t see the grandeur and glory of what was, they will only imagine what might be.   When they build the new temple, it WILL be different.  The memories are gone, the potlucks may be replaced by community gardens, the choir will be transformed into a praise band or a drama team.  The people may gather in jeans and Uggs instead of their suits, dresses and patent leathers.  The weddings may be between two people of any of the 50 gender identity options on Facebook.  The new temple’s foundation may not be all that we had hoped it would be.  As the bricks are laid, we realize it may last longer than the temple we loved, but it may not be as brilliant or golden.  There is both joy and loss in that realization.  There is no place like home, because home was fifty years ago. Home is different now.  God is restoring … not by turning back time, not by putting things back the way they were … but by re-creating, by doing something new.  Just as God always does.

Make a Joyful Tummy Rumble To the Lord

FastingAfter seventy years in exile in Babylon, this week finds some of the elders of Judah and Benjamin returning to Jerusalem to begin the process of rebuilding. Of course, it doesn’t go smoothly, but, for once, the problem is not primarily the result of God’s people  Cyrus sends the people to rebuild the temple, but those currently living in Jerusalem aren’t happy with the changes in the status quo. It seems that, at least for now, the Jews have learned their lesson, and are looking to place God first in their lives.

In particular, I see this in Zechariah’s prophecy: (Zechariah 8:19-20)

The word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be season of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace.”

I haven’t spent a lot of time with the discipline of fasting, other than doing a fast-a-thon in high school.. I do know that I don’t tend to be thinking about things like “joy” or “gladness” when I’m hungry. But that’s exactly what Zechariah is telling Judah will be the case. What that tells me is that, in God’s kingdom, times of dedication to God will be of such joy that the discomfort of the hunger will be overwhelmed to the point of insignificance.

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? I certainly wish I had that sort of relationship with God. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, that prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. It certainly wasn’t by the time of Jesus. Otherwise, Jesus would not have had to say (Matthew 6:16)

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

Has anyone else ever experienced that sort of all-consuming joy in the midst of what would normally be considered and unpleasant activity, as a part of a spiritual discipline? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.