As I am working my way through the book of Ezra this week I came across an interesting story in the fourth chapter. The Jews have started returning from a long (70 year) exile in Babylon, thanks to an edict from King Cyrus of Persia. It seems that God had told the King to set them free to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. They were excited to return to start the huge project, renewing the significance of that holy space: that God was present in and among His people. At the beginning of chapter 4 we read…
It’s an interesting request, isn’t it. The question is whether it’s a legitimate request from these “enemies of Judah and Benjamin” or whether it’s just a ploy, lying to the Jews in order to infiltrate and weaken them. The scholars are divided on this, with some seeing it each way. You can look into that if you want, but as I read the text this week I was confronted with a question, “What if this was a real enquiry?” What if these people, misinformed about the reality of who Yahweh really was and how to worship Him, nonetheless were real seekers of the God of Israel? Maybe they are seeking to worship the best they know how, but lack the history and the teaching that the people of God have had for many years prior? What if they are like many people today who sense a deep yearning for God, but aren’t really sure how to address it? And what if their approach to us is a reaching out to know more? Our text doesn’t help us with the answer to that question, because the story quickly continues in a way that shuts down any enquiry.
Regardless of whether the request is legitimate or not, it is nipped in the bud. The proposed “helpers'“ are dismissed out of hand because they have “no part” with the true people of God. Notice that they base this decision on the command of the Persian King, and not any word (that we know of) from God. The same can be said of today when often we take our religious cues from those in political or cultural power. In this case their preferred status as given by King Cyrus was enough to make them “different’, “special”, and “a cut above everyone else.”
I’ve been around the church for my whole life and one thing I have always found to be true is that when people feel a sense of religious/spiritual rejection it is a very deep and painful wound, often one that lasts for years and years. It’s a wound which often leads people to hate and resist the very thing that they are being drawn to. Their desire for God turns into anger and hatred toward what His followers represent. That’s what happens in our text.
They started by wanting to help build the temple. When their offer was rejected, they set their hearts and minds on frustrating and ending the very process they had initially desired to support.
I think the same thing happens today in this crazy thing we call the church. Far too often we come into contact with people who are hungry for God; people who are seeking to know the God we love and worship. They are the people described in this poem a friend shared this week:
They want to join in, to participate in worship, to get to know the God whose very nature is to know and be known by them. But they don’t have the history or experience or knowledge. There are things in their life that look different, sometimes radically different, things we see as sin. Their theology doesn’t quite fit with the way we interpret things. So we shut the door, pushing them to fix what is messed up before they come and join in. Here’s the problem, despite our history and our experience we are often just as misled in some other area of faith that we are not even aware of. We use what we see in their lives to elevate ourselves because we have that aspect of behaviour “all figured out.” It conveniently allows us to dismiss our own issues and reject others based on theirs. We force people to change in order to belong (more about that here), but don’t impose the same standards on ourselves, so our religion just becomes a club of people who only struggle with socially acceptable sin (as we define it). The goal becomes keeping out the ones who don’t fit the mold. In the words of Jesus we come experts at being Pharisees:
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
This type of behaviour wounds people deeply. And trust me, spiritual wounds leave deep scars. People begin to react against the very God who loves them, all because we have marketed Him to be more like us than who He really is. What I am talking about is our need (as the Church) to welcome people to worship with us, trusting that God will accept them by grace (just as He has done with us) and that He will work out what is messed up in their lives over time (just like He is doing with us).
“But Jeff what about obedience? What about following Biblical teaching?” you say. I agree, we have to seek to be obedient to the wisdom and truth that we find in the Scripture. But part of that is realizing that God accepted us where we were at the time we met Him. He didn’t withhold love and grace until we changed. He calls us to do the same with others. To be sure, as people come to worship and move into a relationship with Jesus, that will involve hard conversations about topics that seem way too personal. But these discussions are entered into as a means for all of us to walk together in a way that is growing in Christlikeness, not as a way to use the grace of God to manipulate “better” behaviour. I’ve had hard conversations with people about their moral choices. I’ve had people who love me call me to account as well. It’s never fun, but it is necessary. Part of following Jesus is the openness to others and what they speak into our lives. The point is that those conversations are within the context of the love of God, not trying to change a person into someone worthy of God’s love. None of us are loved because we are good enough.
So can we slow down the rejection of people outright because of behaviour or beliefs? Can we remind everyone of that basic truth - “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). The hard conversations will come, but to exclude people from the love of God is something that I hope we can avoid. “Freely you have received,” Jesus said, “Freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)