The Sun will Rise November 23 (Ezra 3) Looking over the development of the Old Testament story, at least

from the time of slavery in Egypt, there seems to be some parallels with how we have come to understand human development. With the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt God birthed a new community. To infants the world is magical. Children use a tremendous amount of imagination in order to understand the world around them. I can remember racking my brain trying to imagine how swallowing bubble gum would implant a small seed in my stomach that would grow into a tree. Their attention and thinking is immediate and they may not always be able to connect discussions to a larger framework. On the first day of Kindergarten a teacher told the children that if they had to go to the bathroom they should raise their hand. One brave young boy in the back of the class responded by asking how that would help. The dots are not all connected in a child’s world and so the world around a child is always on the brink of transforming into something entirely different. A backyard becomes the site of a great adventure and a cardboard box quickly becomes a spaceship. The birthing of the people of God in Egypt and through the Red Sea was filled with signs and wonders. God was close to them in fire, smoke, and miracles. The people were daily shown something new from God. As we grow older the world becomes less sporadic and changeable. We begin to understand that there is order and firm shaping to the way things are. At this age perhaps around 10 years old children become keenly aware of what is right and wrong and form rigid and clear guidelines for these decisions. It can be difficult to explain to someone this age that certain decisions were right for mom and dad even they were not right for their son or daughter. Why do parents get to stay out later, why do they get to watch different shows? At this time in Israel’s life God gives instruction on Mt. Sinai and guides the people in the wilderness for 40 years where this law can be clearly lived out with few external influences to deal with. In the wilderness the people are more isolated from the influence of strangers much like we are growing up at home. But even here you have some people beginning to ask questions outside of the moral framework. You have the daughters of Zelophehad asking Moses whether it is right that no daughter is allowed to be given inheritance when they are not married. God is raising the people in the wilderness, a relatively protected environment, to be able to discern right from wrong. Then the people enter the land of Canaan. The child grows up and moves out of the house and God’s presence takes a step back from what it was like in the wilderness and begins to speak to Israel a little differently. This is our teen years and perhaps early adulthood where all of life revolves around us. We have experienced drastic change. Our bodies have matured, our emotions have developed and we are getting used to living in a new land. But our relationships or our ability to relate is often still quite immature. Relationships are based on how much another person is like us or how much we want to be like them. This is the age of the most clear and intense form of peer pressure. It is critically important for most of us at that age to dress and act in certain way to fit in with certain people. This is the expression of the people of Israel as they enter Canaan where at first they allow no one and nothing that is not like them to enter their community. Over time however they are lured by the people and practices around them and become conformed to them and forget their true identity.

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There is very little space here for critical thinking, which is the ability to look at your beliefs and practices knowing that some of them may need to be changed. The prophets come and try to help the people see how they are going off track. The prophet Isaiah say things like, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. The prophets like many good parents tell their growing children to reconsider their ways. Perhaps they are getting involved in activities or relationships you don’t approve of and so you tell them with the best of intentions that, you know what, it may be best for them to make different choices. And the words of the prophets tended to be about as effective as the words of many good parents to their teenagers and young adults. At that stage in life most of us are utterly confident in our ability to make decisions for ourselves. This confidence however, is often unexamined and consists of whatever environment we immerse ourselves in. Most of the kings throughout this period of Israel’s history lived as though they were in charge and not God. One image of this stage of life is king Uzziah who died just before the prophet Isaiah’s vision. Uzziah decided that as king, as the centre of his world, he could also offer sacrifices on the alter in the Temple even though God commanded that only priests should do this. And as most often happens when we stray from where God calls us Uzziah suffered for it being struck with leprosy when he entered the Temple. This is the trajectory that many of our lives arc towards that Jan explored last week. We get into relationships or relationship patterns that are not healthy and suddenly we find ourselves feeling alone or estranged from the person next us. We make lifestyle choices that seemed harmless and suddenly addictive tendencies start manifesting themselves. We pursue careers for wealth, stability or status and suddenly they start feeling like a prison. And as Jan also pointed out sometimes things happen that are out of our control. Tragedy strikes in the form of illness or the loss of loved ones. Perhaps depression sets in for no apparent reason. The vigour and assurance that once marked our lives has been eroded and we are left in exile, in the foreign land of uncertainty. As most of us will or have already experienced, part of the development of life is be estranged from a life of clarity and security; a life that is centred on our wants and needs. But this morning there is a strange rumour. There is a rumour that some people and families are beginning to return home from exile. We heard that the Babylonians who captured us have been overthrown by Persians but what is the difference between one world power and another? But another rumour is spreading. Some people are saying that this Persian king Cyrus is supporting the Jews in their return to Israel. They say that Cyrus will even provide resources to rebuild the Temple. Something is different this time. God always needed to deliver us from these sorts of nations. Things were black and white. God destroyed the nations or when we were bad God used the nations to

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destroy us. Now God appears to be using the nations and we are returning to a land now not to destroy the people but to live among them. What was the motivation of Cyrus? Is he just trying to establish us as puppets for his own political means, we hear that other groups are getting sent out as well? What can it mean now to live faithfully in the land when so much has changed? After experiencing exile you can return home but it is never really the same. To be quite honest I don’t feel like I can really speak to this sort of experience. Last Wednesday we had the final night in our series on the Bible and at the start of the night we were given some stories from the Bible and asked if any of them fit where we were in life and then we were to share our thoughts with two other people around us. One of the stories was the 40 years in the wilderness. But I think it was perhaps exile that more accurately described what the two people beside me described. Here I was with two people much older than myself. I sat between them and listened to them share briefly of coming out of a period of exile. I was humbled in their presence knowing that they had walked through something I have not. We can experience hardships and come out them stronger but there is something more I think that happens when the months stretch into years and what is experienced is not so much a crisis but a profound absence or loss. These are the dry bones that God asked Ezekiel whether or not they could live. And by God’s grace they return to the land of living but not as the same person and not to the same situation. People that emerge out of exile tend to understand that there are not only two sides to a story but multiple perspectives. Where there was once a zealous legalism for doing the right thing there is now at times a painful and conflicted spirit over what it is to be faithful. There is a heart-rending image at the end of the passage that was read this morning. The people have returned to the land and their desire is to return faithfully to God’s law. Throughout Ezra and Nehemiah, the books that chronicle the return from Exile, we have accounts of how the people are trying to establish a faithful community. First and foremost they attempt to re-establish the alter for worship and the foundation of the Temple. I wonder if there was almost a mechanical sense of purpose in approaching this knowing that this must come first for their community. When the foundation was laid there was a great celebration among the people but then something else emerges. It says that many of the elderly people who returned, those who still remembered the first Temple that Solomon built, began to weep while others were shouting for joy. The chapter ends by saying, “no one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping.” The people are conflicted. It is wonderful that the Temple, the center of worship, is being rebuilt. But it is not the same. We are not entirely sure what these people are thinking but it may be that the foundation is not as large as it was in the time of Solomon. Perhaps they were thinking that this was all funded by a foreign power who they suspect are using it to their own advantage. There is a profound sense of conflict in this time. Perhaps for some of us this can be experienced in the challenges that are facing the church or our morals or beliefs. Sometimes there is a divide between what our head thinks and what our heart feels about situation or issue. Or it is between what we believe and what we experience. Or perhaps your exile has left a physical and emotional scar that even when you are recovered leaves you unable to function the way you once did. Joy and sadness are mingled.

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We can see this conflict play out in the life of Israel at this time. In the book of Ezra there continues to be this strong desire to remain separate from the people around them as in the book of Joshua. Ezra scolds the people for so quickly taking husbands and wives from among the other people groups. He is concerned that this will once again lead the people to unfaithfulness and so tries to create clear lines of division between those who returned from Exile and those living among them. But in Isaiah’s vision for this post-exilic community the Temple and the land is now to be for all nations. Isaiah says that any who faithfully understand the spirit of Sabbath will be accepted. Isaiah says that for these people the Temple “will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Isaiah says that apart from the Israelites who returned God will gather together still others. Isaiah and some of the other prophets are not so interested in ritual and ethnic distinctions. Things are not quite so straightforward as we once believed. This is a crucial time in the life of any person or community. What does it mean to be faithful when truth and righteousness are perhaps beyond our control or understanding? We must first not reject the changes that happened while in exile, we must not return to the land as though nothing had happened. In the midst of our conflicts and in our humbled state we must allow ourselves to be taken hold of by God’s vision in a fresh way. Occasionally we encounter people who are so taken up by the love of God or the justice of God that they seem to function outside of our uncertainties. Martin Luther King Jr seems to have been someone taken up by the vision of God’s peace and God’s love and God’s justice. This was what directed and consumed his life. There are those saints among us who seemed to have simply grasped and incarnated what it is to love your neighbour; what it is to lose your life for the sake of the Gospel. This is the possibility that return from exile holds for us. It is the possibility of being restored to child-like faith in God’s will that is lived out in a fully matured spirit and mind. It is trusting in the truth of words that are represented in our final banner here. It is knowing that in whatever conflict or crisis you are in that the sun will yet rise over the darkness you are experiencing. These words are taken from the last book of our Old Testament. It is the prophet Malachi who speaks, as do other prophets, about the final day, the Day of the Lord. All things will be clarified. Evil will be burned like stubble and then it says that for those who revere God’s name, “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” The conflicted soul will be honoured for its humility in not trying to resolve what it could not understand. And then comes what to me is perhaps one of the most beautiful lines in the Bible. It is a simple line. On our farm growing up we raised cattle for beef. Early on we stopped breeding our own so instead we would buy young calves and raise them. I can’t remember where we got them from but we would bring them home in a 3tonne straight body grain truck. We would back the truck against a loading shoot where they would need to pass through a narrow path before it would open into pasture and I can clearly remember what each of them did as soon as they got out from that gate. They would jump and kick and run around with the greatest enthusiasm as they were now free to express themselves as they desired, as they were intended to. I always thought that was the most majestic and invigorating site. And so years later when I was to read this line for the first time in the Bible it sunk deeply into my psyche. Malachi says that after the sun will rise then “you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” This will be our faithful life.

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Our faith will be recognized by an uninhibited, free and reckless expression that is saturated in the presence of God. I suspect that most of us will have to wait until the next life before we experience that sort of expression but it is the promise of our story. It is how the story ends or perhaps we should say it begins for those who daily and yearly turn their face and their life towards God. This is God’s story. We can all find ourselves somewhere along here, from newborns to those approaching their centennial. Each part of the journey allows us the opportunity for faithful expression. It is okay to know that faithful expression will not always look the same way at each stage of the journey. It is good to be able to embrace the zeal of youth and the wisdom of the well-aged. May each one of us be blessed to know that faithfulness comes in turning towards and reaching out to Jesus wherever we are. For he was all we ever needed. Amen.

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