Ezra and the concept of the Messiah

Sunday 22nd September 2019
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Ezra 1
John 6.14-31

One reason why I question whether the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were written by the same author is that the narratives are different in tone. The occasion of the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, under the benevolent edict of King Cyrus of Persia, is one of the most joyful episodes in the whole of Scripture, sadly, largely overlooked in our Biblical studies but whereas Nehemiah is cheerful, Ezra can never shake off his melancholy; a glass half empty person if ever there was one.

In our Gospel Reading from John there is, too, a marked contrast between the exuberance of the some of the crowd and sheer confusion and frustration on the part of others. The first faction acknowledged Jesus for what he was but only because of what they could get out of him; if they could receive a cure by shouting "Messiah!" then that was a price well worth paying. Others, in the effort to understand, got themselves into terrible theological tangles.

Coming from me, a paid-up theologian, a plea for simplicity must seem strange; but the more theology I read the less I am convinced by its complexities and subtleties; I rather subscribe to the idea that the essence of beauty is elegant simplicity.

In the matter of the return from Exile, then, I see an episode which closes the book of Judah’s woes and opens a book which leads from the return from exile, via the inspirational writing of Second Isaiah and the Book of Daniel, and Maccabean heroics, to the proclamation of John the Baptist and the arrival of Jesus. Because of the way we arrange the Old Testament we tend to overlook the fact that this period from Ezra to Jesus was almost as long as the period from Moses to Ezra. Whether it is this piece of accidental distortion or whether, more likely, it is the result of the Christian authorities' preference for sinful behaviour and bad news over righteous rejoicing, is a matter of speculation but I know where my money would be.

As to our Gospel Reading, we have the same kind of problem. There are two fundamental ways of understanding Jesus: the first, and more prominent in Western Christianity, is the mystical Jesus of John and Paul, as opposed to the practical Jesus, not of George and Ringo but of Matthew, Mark and Luke. These are not two different characters: the mystical Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah but the practical Jesus said that those who believed in him must work in a practical way for the establishment of the Kingdom and must forgive their enemies. These, of course, were not such attractive propositions to the crowd as receiving a cure for saying the right thing.

So where do we find ourselves in all this? During my latest bout of theological study I have been powerfully struck by the Western Christian obsession with being saved as if that was the primary purpose of Jesus. If we read a great number of Protestant tracts we will find that this is often the only purpose ascribed to Jesus who came, we are told, to save us from our sins, if we could only bring ourselves to believe it. Thus, the fervour of our individual belief is absolutely alloyed with the saving purpose of Jesus. Well, I don't know about you, but I don't really think the sum total of my sins, or your sins, would be worth a single drop of the blood of Jesus. On the other hand, being saved from the fatal flaw involved in exercising free will is a prize of a different order, separating the consequences of the exercise of free will from death.

But, at a much deeper level, it is scandalously egocentric to think that the sole, or even primary, purpose of Jesus was to save us from our sins, or even human Sin. The primary purpose of Jesus was to redeem his People Israel and, by extension, those like us who became his followers, through the building of his new, Messianic Kingdom. Thus, we were not permitted by the life and death of Jesus to sit back and be redeemed, we were commanded to be partners in building the Kingdom which the Incarnation inaugurated.

This is the end of the lazy idea of Christianity which is entirely concerned with "being saved" in exchange for our faithfulness which is a form of contractual religiosity. But Jesus is above contract. The extra mile and the extra coin, the love of neighbour, particularly the one we do not like cannot be contracted in much the same way that our Health Service relies on the unpaid overtime worked by nurses. To be a Christian is to be blessed with the Baptismal vocation to build the Kingdom, to live a life of unceasing prayer, Godly ambition, painful love, forensic self-criticism and an everlasting song of praise for having been given the privilege. The difference between the believer with her glass half full and the unbeliever with his glass half empty is that we might, objectively, be holding exactly the same amount of water but our lives are animated by the knowledge of salvation history and its constant reinforcement in the presence of God's Spirit. Further, the more we pray and give and build the more there is in our glass, whereas the glass of earthly splendour diminishes as its resources are spent.

Out of Exile, the people of Judeah came to a much sharper appreciation of what they had lost and therefore rejoiced more fervently when they regained their homeland; that, ultimately, was the case with the Disciples who came to realise the meaning of the span of Jesus' life from Incarnation to Ascension, but in our Reading we find them at a mid-point, not quite knowing what is going on. Or, to put this in context, we have here two episodes in fluctuating Salvation History but appearances are deceptive because the Disciples were already living in the new post Incarnational Kingdom whereas Ezra and his people were only just beginning to develop a concept of the Messiah?

So where are we, the Easter people? Sadly, we are in a bad place because we have been seduced into thinking that there is an easy, even comfortable form of Christianity, full of kind thoughts, warm words and uplifting liturgy, free of the world's harshness and the demands of the indigent. But Jesus was not born in a palace, nor did he die in one; he was born in an out-house and died on a Cross. We cannot help where we were born but surely we should all wish to die on some kind of Cross striving to imitate Jesus, not just to believe that he has saved us from ourselves.