Have you ever wished you could get a reset in your life? That you could push a button and suddenly be able to start over? That’s what Ezra and the people of Israel did after the country was destroyed by the Babylonians. They rebuilt the temple, and came together to listen to the Word of God fresh, and start over. We have the same promise (and we badly need it), a God who is merciful and forgiving, and a Savior who died that we might be able to start fresh. Here is Drew’s sermon from January 27th, 2013, “The Reset Button,” from Nehemiah 8:1-10.
The Reset Button
Ezra stood before the people at a very difficult time in their history. The Babylonian destruction of Judaism and the exile had passed, but that history was still fresh in their memory. Their newfound freedom and support from Cyrus of Persia was relatively untested, like the skin of a baby, or that film that forms on jello when it hasn’t fully set yet. Everyone was treading carefully that they wouldn’t ruin their nation once again.
The people’s relationship with God was very different as well. The time before the exile was a time marked by corruption, idolatry, and indifference to God and the problems of the poor and forgotten. But the exile had changed much of that. Living in a different country, with only a few families even understanding their language, the Jewish community had to fight to keep their identity and pass it on to their children. It was a time of increased devotion to God and a time of longing for the Jerusalem that once held their hearts.
They had now returned to Jerusalem with Cyrus’s approval, and found it a different place. All their old enemies were there, and new ones as well, none happy to have an old enemy resurface on their doorstep. The new sense of community held together as they rebuilt the walls with armies lying in wait for them. Each laborer laid stone with one hand, and held a sword in the other, to be ready to fight. But when that ended, the people began to revert back to the old ways. They started to take advantage of the poor, and abuse the power they’d been given. They started developing relationships with their neighbors, and adopting some of their practices and gods. They stopped thinking so much of their faith, and started positioning themselves to succeed, trying to use God for themselves instead of be used by God. In short, they started doing all the things that led God’s wrath to fall down upon them in the first place.
What they needed, was a reset. A chance to start over. They were rebuilding Jerusalem from scratch, could they not rebuild also their way of interacting with God? One of the ways that they clung to God when the people were in exile was to tell stories of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, who lead the people out of Egypt. In order to maintain their tradition, they had written down many of these stories, codified them, into a great book, a book of the law, that told them what it was to be the people of God.
This is what Ezra carried up the platform and read to the people. Ezra read from early in the morning until the sun had risen high over their heads. While he read the priests walked among the people, interpreting and explaining what they were hearing, so that the people could understand. When Ezra finished reading, he carefully rolled the scrolls back together and rested it once more against his shoulder.
When the people heard and understood the law, they wept. They wept for what God had done for them, they wept for what they had done, they wept for what they had not done. They wept for their ancestors and they wept for themselves.
At the end of the month, they gathered together in sackcloth and ashes with dirt on their heads. They read the law and they confessed their sins, and they rededicated themselves to God. They signed a Covenant committing themselves to follow the law that had been given to them by Moses, and to observe and obey all the commandments of the Lord. No longer would they live in ignorance or in sin, God would reign in Judah once more, and it would be evident in every thing they did that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was their God once more.
This is a great story, and it’s almost criminal how rarely we hear it. At its heart is this moment where all of the people of Judah come together after their nation had been destroyed to rebuild it and reestablish God’s justice within its borders. They listen to Scripture and they hear their own story being told, and they weep for their sinfulness, and for God’s greatness, and they are moved to covenant themselves with God once more.
It’s like Ezra and Nehemiah gather up all of the people and they push the reset button. You know, when you’re working on the computer or the printer or whatever piece of electronics you’re fighting with, and you hit the reset button, and suddenly everything starts over. It goes back to start, and you’re allowed to start fresh and do things right.
A reset is powerful, with one push of a button it erases the mistakes we made before, it gets us out of infinite loops, it automatically forgets what went wrong so that we can go out and do right. A reset is a fresh start, a chance to finally do it right this time, with the knowledge of our old mistakes, but without the baggage. And its something we desperately need.
Did you ever get into an argument, and as the other person attacks you tweak your arguments a little bit to respond to their attacks, and you start to make points that aren’t that important to you but weaken the other’s argument, and eventually you realize that that you’ve been arguing passionately for twenty minutes about something you’ve never cared about? Only now, you care about it more than anything else because you think if you give up this one point your whole argument will unravel and fall apart. That’s when you need a reset.
And Christianity badly needs a reset. We’ve drifted so far from the tree that sometimes I hear Christians say things, and I think “What? How did we get here?”
At the very beginning of the Bible, humans are entrusted to be stewards for the earth, caring for it not as if it is ours, but as if it is God’s and must be kept in good condition. Now prominent Christian leaders (often in conjunction with political campaigns) declare that caring for the earth on which most of our lives depend is anti-Christian? We need a reset.
When Jesus began his ministry (we read about it today), he proclaimed good news to the poor, but our nation has aggressively cut programs that feed and educate poor children or take care of impoverished or disabled adults, while strenuously defending anyone’s right to have a weapon that can kill dozens in seconds.
Jesus said he came to proclaim release to the captive, but our prison population has quadrupled since 1980. We have more people behind bars than nearly any other country, including China, even though they are a socially repressed country with 5 times as many people as we have. Offenders are not just sentenced to time behind bars, while they are there they are unusually likely to endure rape, assault, and abuse, with no job training or mental health care to rehabilitate them. And when they get out, they can’t find jobs or homes because no one wants a criminal around. And a Christian nation turns a blind eye. How did we get here? We need a reset.
We’ve let our religious leaders turn into politicians, and they in turn have lent out their voices to whoever gives them the most power. During the inauguration, Mark Driscoll, a pastor whose church has thousands of members, and who has hundreds of thousands of twitter followers posted this during the inauguration: “Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.” It’s phrased as a prayer, but it’s not a prayer. It’s a cheap insult based on a lie. It’s disturbing when one of the biggest pulpits in America abandons “Love thy neighbor” and instead decides to start throwing rocks. How did we get here? We need a reset.
The truth is Christians have been picking fights and taking sides in so many battles and for so long that it really is easy to lose sight of the big picture. And what we need is to come together like the people of Ezra’s day, and listen to the word of God, not so that we can find verses to throw at our conservative or liberal cousin next Thanksgiving, but so that we can be convicted by the word and be reminded of what we undertook when we chose to follow Christ. Because if we read the book and hold the mirror to our faces we will weep.
The people of Judah all stood together and confessed their sins before God and each other. This is a practice that Presbyterians have taken very seriously. Each week we confess our sins against God and our neighbors, and are reminded of how sinful we are. Some folks find this a little bit disturbing, a little morbid. They say it’s depressing to always be focused on human depravity.
But in truth it is just the opposite. The whole thing is a double edged sword. See, for as bad as we may be, Jesus has the power to bring us back into God’s good graces. John Calvin used to talk about a pair of glasses to help us understand. Only through the lenses of our own sinfulness can we really understand how great God is. When we confess our sins, we’re not just acknowledging the things that we have to work on, we’re proclaiming that we believe in a God who can forgive all sins.
That’s why when the people weep Ezra and Nehemiah tell them not to mourn, but to celebrate instead. Why do they celebrate? Because God’s grace is THAT big. Because over and over again, in spite of the sinfulness of the people, God has brought them back into the fold and forgiven them, once more.
When Jesus stood up in his synagogue, he proclaimed that the day of the Lord was upon them. Reading Isaiah’s passage about good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind, he said, “The scripture is fulfilled today in your hearing, he said”. In other words, he said “Through me you can find your reset.” Jesus is the one who reconciles us to God, and it is through him that we can find the chance to start over. Instead of being forever punished for our wrongs, in Jesus we have the chance to do what the people of Judah did, go back to the book, and study it, see where we’ve gone wrong, and choose to put ourselves on a different path.
Lent is coming up in a couple of weeks. Traditionally it is a time of confession and repentence. In recent years, many have coopted it for the purpose of self-improvement, a chance to try a new diet or exercise regimen, which is laudable, but not exactly the purpose of the fast. This year let us truly look at where we’ve failed, and push the reset button, so that we can understand fully the magnitude of God’s grace, and put ourselves back following the path that Jesus brought to us.