Monday 14 September 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (24/50) – The Reality of Life After Exile

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-fourth of the fifty emails, this one written by Helen Parry.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
‘The LORD has done great things for them.’
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Psalm 126:1-3

‘The Return’ is one of the great themes of history and of literature. And none more so than the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem after seventy years in captivity. But it was only when Babylon was superseded by Persia that the time of release finally came.

Cyrus was an enlightened ruler, who followed a policy of ‘multiculturalism’ throughout his empire. Prompted by God, he proclaimed the release of as many Jews as wished to go, to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Unlike many other ‘returns’ – of refugees or exiles, whose first concern is to find their families and homes and retrieve their possessions – this first return was focused on the temple.

The Jewish people’s relationship with God was intrinsic to their identity. It was expressed in terms of place – the land, the city, the temple. The land was lost and the buildings destroyed, but when the time came for the return the first opportunity that was granted to them was to reinstate the worship of God at the centre of their corporate life.

Against opposition, the temple was completed in twenty years amid great rejoicing, but it wasn’t until sixty years later that Ezra, ‘a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses’, led a further wave of immigration. Once again, the emphasis was on the temple and its worship, but Ezra was given administrative and disciplinary authority as well.

The walls and gates of the city, however, were still in ruins, and it fell to Nehemiah, a decade or so later, to organise the rebuilding. Like Ezra, Nehemiah had the blessing and concrete help of the Persian king. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were conscious of the ‘good hand of the Lord’ over all their plans and actions. But what of the people?

They, too, entered fully into the vision of their leaders. They flung themselves wholeheartedly into the building projects. The walls were finished, houses rebuilt, towns resettled. But rather than settling back into a purely material way of life, they never lost sight of the Lord.

When all the work was finished they asked Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of the Lord, and as they listened, understood and responded to it, they recognised that the restoration of their community rested on the restoration of their relationship with God.

Might this be a recipe for the restoration of health to our own society today?

Helen Parry

For further reflection and action:

1. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah show how the restoration of God’s people involves ‘practical’ matters (like rebuilding the broken Dung Gate in the city wall) as well as ‘spiritual’ matters (like confessing sin). And it deals with both these things in a way that suggests that there’s actually not much difference between what we sometimes think of as the ‘practical’ and what we think of as the ‘spiritual’. What is your equivalent of ‘rebuilding the broken Dung Gate’ today, and how will you serve God through it?

2. How might the church take the lead in challenging the ‘sacred-secular’ divide in society day?

3. For further reflection on this period in the history of God’s people, focusing on Nehemiah 8, see the article by Antony Billington – ‘The Word of God and the People of God’ – available online here.

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