By Pastor Kali Freels
Tonight, we’re continuing with our Lenten series, looking at the things that God is leading us away from. Traditionally, Lent is a solemn, reflective season during which we contemplate the weight of our own sin as Jesus prepares to bear the weight of that sin on the cross. It’s a time when --as Adam said last week-- we examine our own lives to see what unnecessary things on the periphery have been dialed up too much and distract us from the truly important things. It’s a time when we can turn down the volume on those distractions so we can turn our focus back to God.
Tonight, I’ve been tasked with preaching about ungodliness. What is it? How do we even define it? How is God leading us away from it? It’s a challenging thing to put into terms. But before we jump into the meat of it, I want to start with a story. About 20 or 30 years ago, there was a young woman who grew up loving God deeply. She was at church every time the doors were open and grew into several leadership positions in the youth group. She felt drawn to ministry too, but had been told her whole life that God never called women to be pastors; that was sinful. So --wanting to be faithful to God’s word-- she opted to become a missionary, much to the joy of her home church. She --of course-- went to a private Christian liberal arts college, where she was surprised to learn that so many women in her dorm believed God was calling them to be preachers and pastors; it rivaled everything that she’d been taught about women’s role in the church. So, she committed herself to a quiet, unseen ministry: every morning, she woke up between 5 and 6 o’clock and walked down to the prayer chapel in the dorm to pray for those “poor, misguided women” who had been so “deceived” as to think God was actually calling them to pastor. She did this every morning for years.
Tonight, we’re going to look at another story of someone who happened upon a community living in a way that he didn’t agree with. It’s a story that often gets overlooked --it’s one that I certainly never heard growing up. It’s from the book of Ezra.
We’re going to be camping out in Ezra chapters 9 and 10 tonight, but before we get there I want to set up a little bit of the context. The books Ezra and Nehemiah are actually on the same scroll in the Hebrew Bible, and the events in Ezra lead right into the events of Nehemiah (which we examined together a couple of weeks ago). The Israelites are still in exile in Babylon, but it’s been a while since the initial Babylonian conquest happened. The relationship between the Israelites and the Babylonians is actually pretty good at this point in time. The previous king allowed (and partially funded) the Israelites to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. When Ezra becomes prominent, King Artaxerxes (the same king who later allowed Nehemiah to go rebuild the wall around Jerusalem) wrote Ezra a letter instructing him to teach the Israelites in the ways of their God, the Hebrew God. The King specifically asks Ezra to do it because Ezra is an expert in the Hebrew Law. Ezra agrees, and takes a group of people to return to Jerusalem. If we remember the events of the initial Babylonian takeover, only the Hebrew nobles had been taken to serve in the king’s courts-- the impoverished Israelites had been left behind in the demolished towns surrounding Jerusalem. Ezra was returning to teach those Jews.
When he gets there, however, he realizes that a large number of Hebrew men married women from all of the neighboring nations. He is distraught, because earlier Hebrew laws dictated that Hebrew men should only marry Hebrew women. He tore his robe and disheveled his hair and beard --making his mourning public-- and wept until the evening sacrifice. When it came time for the evening sacrifice, he prays this prayer:
“I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.
“But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.
“But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’
“What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”
After Ezra prayed this prayer, some of the men in the community came to talk to Ezra about what they should do. Ezra decreed that all of the men should divorce their foreign wives and give up their mixed children, because they were not purely Jewish. The men in the community agreed, and took oaths renouncing their marriages and casting out their children.
What happened to the women and children? The text doesn’t tell us. Based on common laws at the time, though, we can make some accurate guesses. Because their ex-husbands were still alive, they were ineligible for remarriage. Because their ex-husbands were still alive, it would have been considered adultery. Because they were women, they were not eligible to own land. Unless they had brothers they could return to, they were shunned into a life of poverty and exclusion.
That much pain and seems to run counter to the God of love and forgiveness that we know and love.
Two things strikes me in this story. The first is Ezra’s prayer. It’s a long prayer, which is uncharacteristic of the prayers in both Ezra and Nehemiah. It’s also odd that God doesn’t reply. In this prayer, Ezra says that he’s quoting scripture. Usually when scripture cites other verses, our Bibles provide a footnote saying where that verse was previously stated. It’s chapter 9:11-12:
“The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.”
At the end of this quote, however, is no footnote for a specific verse. Instead, there’s a footnote saying that it’s a paraphrase, a combination of a verse in Deuteronomy and a verse in Leviticus. The verse in Deuteronomy chapter 7 provides instructions on how Israelites are to treat people that they have conquered. These instructions include massacring the people they conquered. It doesn’t say anything about how to act when they are the ones who have been conquered. The verse in Leviticus comes at the end of chapter 18, which is a long list of sexual perversions the Israelites needed to abstain from (like sleeping with your brother’s wife, your own daughter, or an animal). It even said that foreigners in their land needed to abide by these same laws-- none of the laws in this chapter say that the Israelites are prohibited from marrying foreigners, but is instead saying all the foreigners needed to follow the Israelites’ laws. Because scripture is hesitant to cite Deuteronomy or Leviticus as the direct source for Ezra’s quote --which isn’t a direct quote at all-- it seems that he’s conflated two pieces of scripture and interpreted them in the light of his own personal prejudice.
The second thing that strikes me in this story is a little more obvious, but just as easily overlooked: God never instructs Ezra to do anything. Throughout both the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, there is no command from God. There is no prophet speaking on behalf of God, giving instructions to the people. There is no voice from the heavens instructing the leaders of the law. There’s no burning bush carrying the voice of God. In fact, all of the actions in Ezra and Nehemiah-- the rebuilding of the temple, the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem-- are done out of the desire of individuals to do those things, even though there are prophecies saying that God cannot be confined to a temple and that Jerusalem will be a city without walls, accessible to all. And it seems odd that God would sanction an entire community to divorce their spouses for no other reason than they weren’t Jewish.
This seems especially bizzare when we look at other stories around this one in the Hebrew Bible. Quite a bit earlier, we have the book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite-- not a Jew-- and marries a Jewish man. When her husband dies and her mother-in-law Naomi is left widowed and son-less, Ruth marries another Jewish man to provide for both her and Naomi. Ruth is praised as a loyal companion to Naomi, and as an ideal daughter-in-law. Ruth is also one of the only women included in the genealogy of Jesus, even though she’s not a Jew.
The book right after Ezra and Nehemiah is the book of Esther. This book is about Esther --a Jewish woman-- who is summoned as one of several candidates to become the Persian king’s new wife. She was encouraged by her uncle to hide her nationality so that King Xerxes would pick her. When he does, she reveals that she is Jewish convinces him to stop the slaughter of her people, which had just been sanctioned by the Persian government. Esther’s actions are still celebrated by the Hebrew people to this day. The yearly holiday Purim retells Esther’s story again and again, where she is still celebrated as a hero, even though she married the Persian king.
When we get to the book of Jeremiah, the Israelites are still exiled in Babylon. Jeremiah is a prophet God raised up to encourage the Israelites to repent of their wicked ways and turn back to the Lord. In chapter 29, Jeremiah pens a letter that he has delivered to the Jews in Babylon, which says thus:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says.”
Shortly after that, we find the most well-known verse in Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
So, why is this story here? I firmly believe that every story in scripture is here to teach us a lesson, but I also believe that lesson might not be written verbatim in the story. If we cherry-pick the story of Ezra, we can quickly make a biblical case against interracial marriage, and we know that’s not God’s heart, especially when we look at the ministry of Jesus and the welcoming of Gentiles. When we look at the story of Ezra in the context of these other narratives, this story becomes a warning. It warns us that we must listen for God’s voice instead of speaking over God. It warns us that good people are harmed when we act out of our own prejudices. It warns us that entire communities are alienated when we act out of our prejudices. It warns us that ungodliness reigns supreme when we act out of our own prejudices.
What is ungodliness? Ungodliness is using God as a means to justify our own prejudices. Ungodliness is using God as a “trump card,” because nothing can top it. It’s the thing we rashly throw down when we know there’s no fair way to win our argument. It’s the thing we throw on the table when we’re fed up and just want people to see things our way. Because --of course-- our way is the right way. The irony is they also think their way is the right way, and they have the same God trump card to throw down, too.
In order to even begin thinking about moving toward godliness, we have to surrender our prejudices. We have to surrender our disdain for being wrong. We have to surrender our dislike of people who are different from us --who believe differently than we do. We have to surrender our loyalty to our political parties. We have to surrender our idea of what a just society looks like. We have to surrender our preconceived notions of what good Christians are. We have to surrender all of our ideologies, else we run the risk of missing God’s will altogether.
You see, when the elders wanted to rebuild the temple earlier in Ezra, the younger generation wanted to help. The elders in the law forbade the younger generation from helping and sent them away. When they finished building the temple, they were so busy celebrating the fact that it was put back together that none of them noticed that the presence of God wasn’t there.
When Ezra finishes finalizing all these divorces, he’s too busy celebrating the “return to morality” of those men that he’s completed neglected the fact that they just broke countless laws in the hospitality code about how the Israelites are to welcome foreigners and care for widows and orphans, that they were obligated by law to treat them as kindly as they treated family. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
If we cling to our prejudices, we miss God’s will. When we surrender our prejudices, then and only then can we hear God’s voice.
I want to go back to the story that woman I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon tonight. Eventually, she stopped telling God what was wrong with those women who felt called to the pastorate and started listening for God’s heart. Only when she laid down her prejudice did she realize God was calling her to the pastorate. That woman is Dr. Julie Pennington-Russell, one of the most well-known pastors in Baptist life today.
We can’t begin to surrender our prejudices until we stop talking and start listening. I believe that if Erza had stopped talking long enough to listen for God’s voice in that prayer, he would have heard something different. When we stop talking, we can instead fix our eyes upon the life of Jesus, the one who perfectly models a godly life. When we shut off the cacophony our prejudices fill our hearts, we can listen to the compassion in Christ’s teachings and model our lives after that. But we have to be willing to surrender our prejudices.
Are you willing to surrender yours?