Uniform Lesson for March 6, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Ezra 1:1-8, 11; 2:64-70
This week we begin a new series under the heading “God frees and redeems.” We lead off with a unit entitled “Liberating Passover,” with three lessons from Ezra and one from Deuteronomy. It may seem like a strange place to kick off a series on liberation. Surely Exodus would be a better pick. However, as we will see, the return from Babylonian captivity was a second exodus of sorts. The recognition that neither liberation nor resurrection can be one-off events (because human communities can be both redeemed and fallen) goes to the heart of the Passover meal and the later communion meal it inspired. Reformed and always reforming? How about, redeemed and always redeeming — as in “set free” from oppression?
A second exodus
Way back in Israel’s history, the storytellers remembered the wilderness wanderings as divided between a first and second generation. The first generation kept looking back to Egypt, wondering whether slavery to the Pharaoh was preferable to following Moses through a land with little water or food. God disciplined this first generation by forbidding them from entering the Promised Land (with two exceptions — Joshua and Caleb). God’s people, then and now, have a tendency to fall back into slavery, both through the disciplining actions of God and the misplaced loyalties of God’s people.
Likewise, the entire Hebrew Bible can be read as a story of two generations. The first generation was ushered into the Promised Land and became a nation united under one king with its capital in Jerusalem. But later this same people, divided into two, began to chase after other gods, and entered alliances with other nations. According to the storyteller, God then sent them back into “Egypt/Babylon,” where they found themselves serving other kings and surrounded by the worship of other gods.
As we see in our passage today, God then prepared a second exodus. Note the way the author interprets these events: “In order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished”; and “the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout his kingdom” (v. 1). Cyrus then attributes all of his success to “the Lord, the God of heaven,” and charges this God’s peoples to go and rebuild the house of the Lord, declaring, “may their God be with them!” (v. 3). As God set the Israelites free from Egypt by throwing Egypt’s horses and riders into the sea, so God sets the Israelites free a second time – this time from Babylon – by inspiring the King of Persia to allow a second journey through the wilderness toward home. As people like David and Ruth, Peter and Paul and the disciples and the prodigal learned — our God is a God of second chances. One act of freedom and redemption is not enough.
The plunder of the nations
One of the marks of this recapitulation is the “plunder of the nations” theme that we see in Ezra. Back in Exodus, the signs and wonders performed by God (with the help of Moses and Aaron) “inspired” the Egyptians to share their silver and gold with God’s people to facilitate their escape (see Exodus 12). So, here in Ezra, God’s “inspiration” of Cyrus leads him to order the survivors to contribute to this return and rebuilding through the sharing of their silver, gold, and animals (v. 4). When Cyrus adds to this booty the materials and accessories stolen from the Jerusalem Temple, it becomes quite a haul indeed. Not only are the captives set free, but their freedom “inspires” an offering from some of the very people who brought them there. Whether voluntarily or involuntarily, God invites all the nations to participate in acts of freedom and redemption, even at great cost to themselves.
A mixed liberation
One little detail may help us understand why liberation and redemption must be ongoing projects in the human community. Did you catch it? Along with all the singers and priests and animals who were set free, and in addition to all the silver and gold and booty that these celebrants carried, we read this: “besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty-seven” (v. 65). A better translation: “slaves.” We begin this series with the themes of freedom and redemption. And the return from exile is a great illustration of these themes. But there’s still unfinished business in this story of liberation, as there is in our own.
Why is redemption a repeated biblical theme? Is God still a God of second chances? How are we “inspired” to participate in acts of liberation today?
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