Sermon for August 20th, 2017
1 After this, in the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, 2 son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, 3 son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, 4 son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, 5 son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of the chief priest Aaron— 6 this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.
7 Some of the people of Israel, and some of the priests and Levites, the singers and gatekeepers, and the temple servants also went up to Jerusalem, in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. 8 They came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 On the first day of the first month the journey up from Babylon was begun, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the gracious hand of his God was upon him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel.
A Commitment to Study
It was graduation day at Princeton Seminary and Dr. Jeffrey Frymire, distinguished professor of homiletics was giving the baccalaureate address. All of the graduates (including me) were in attendance, as well as proud parents, grandparents, and other family members. Dr. Frymire's message was on the importance of lifelong study, and also the need for humility--just because we were graduating from Princeton with a Master's degree did not, in fact, make us experts in the Bible or exempt us from the need to continue studying the Bible in the years to come.
At least, that's what I think his message was about. To be honest, like most of the graduates that day, my mind was very preoccupied--graduation parties and receptions, out of town family visitors, moving out of our seminary apartment, trying to find a job, among many other things. Adding to that, I was still exhausted and sleep-deprived from final exams the week before. I listened half-heartedly (half-awakedly?) to Dr. Frymire's address, something from the gospel of Luke. Near the end of his remarks, he asked us to take out our bibles and turn to chapter 25 of Luke's gospel, and when we had found it to stand up so that we might read it together.
I was grateful for the opportunity to stand and stretch my legs, so I immediately stood up, as I reached for a Bible. Most of my classmates did the same. A long awkward silence followed, and some chuckles from a few of the faculty members. Eventually, standing on our feet and thumbing frantically through the Bible, the illustrious and overly-wise graduates of Princeton Seminary, class of 2012, came to the abrupt realization that there is no chapter 25 of Luke's gospel. It only has 24 chapters.
And as our proud parents, grandparents and family members enjoyed a good laugh at our expense, we all learned a memorable lesson that day, more memorable than any words Dr. Frymire could have spoken. First, be humble in your great accomplishments, and second, no matter how much you think you know...about the Bible, or anything else...there's always more to learn.
In today's passage, from one of the last Books to be written in the Old Testament, we meet Ezra the scribe, who is considered by many to be the father of modern-day Judaism. Other biblical scholars believe that Ezra is the one who put the books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, in to their final form, and authored or edited many of it's later books.
Ezra is one of three late heroes in the story of the ancient Israel, after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem, and after the days of the exile or captivity in Babylon. The first wave of Jews who returned from Babylon to Israel are led by Zerubbabel, who begins the rebuilding of the Temple. The third wave are led by Nehemiah, who rebuilds the walls around the city of Jerusalem. But the second wave is led by Ezra, who re-establishes the Torah, the law of Moses, what we know as the first five books of the Bible,
For what it's worth--and to give you a sense of how important Ezra's contribution was--the re-built temple begun by Zerubbabel lasted for around 500 years but was then destroyed again, this time by the Roman Empire. The walls built by Nehemiah around the city of Jerusalem were also breeched by the Romans, and are largely in ruins. But the Torah--the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, where we find the creation story, the stories of Abraham and Moses, the escape from Egypt, the Ten Commandments--the study of these texts is still at the heart of Judaism and Christianity today, and these works have influenced art, literature, government, and philosophy throughout western culture.
So here's the first thing I want you to remember from Ezra's story: All of our buildings--our churches, our mansions, and our skyscrapers--will crumble and fall. All of our cities--our industries, businesses, our sports and recreation, our halls of power and influence--will fade into obscurity. But our ideas--the observations we learn, study, write, and record--these have the power to last and reach thousands of years into the future.
But studying has benefits in the present time as well. We read in verse 6 that Ezra "was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him." Why did God favor Ezra? That's in verses 9-10: "the gracious hand of his God was upon him, for Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel."
Here's the second thing I want you to remember from Ezra's story: If you want to find God's favor in this life, here's a clear path: Study the law of the Lord, do it, and teach others. That path is not just for pastors and Sunday School teachers, it's for everyone. We read in verse 7 that "Some of the people of Israel, and some of the priests and Levites, the singers and gatekeepers, and the temple servants also went up to Jerusalem." Later in the book of Ezra, judges and magistrates are added to that list. So, many vocations, not just teachers, formed the core of Ezra's reform. All of them committed themselves to studying God's word, which was necessary in order for them to practice it in their own lives, and even more necessary for them to pass it on to their children and their grandchildren.
This is just as true for us today as it was for Ezra and the people of Israel. And that brings me to the third thing I want you to remember from Ezra's story: If you want your children, and your children's children to study God's word (or to study anything for that matter) you have to lead by example. As a pastor, and before that for many years as a high school teacher, and also as a church youth director, I can't begin to count the number of times I've had parents tell me, "I want my children to learn about God, to develop good values, to be good students."
That's a great aspiration, but if it just means dropping your kids off at school, dropping them off at Sunday School, or signing them up for a class or activity somewhere, the only thing they'll learn is that you want them to do these things. Actions speak louder than words--if they see YOU reading and studying the Bible; if they see YOU going to Sunday School; if they see YOU making time to study and learn new things, then it will become part of the fabric of their world. They will grow up with the assumption that this is what people do--they learn, and keep learning. They study, and keep studying.
Even if you don't have children, or your children are all grown up, there is still value to being a life-long learner (and teacher!). A significant amount of research has demonstrated that people who continue to study and learn new things live longer and remain healthy for longer. Like any other muscle, the brain must continually be stretched and challenged in order to maintain it, and to avoid atrophy.
All of this is a major reason why I'm proud to be a Presbyterian. Our denomination has a proud heritage of valuing education and study. Scotland, where Presbyterianism was born, was the very first country in history to achieve a near 100% literacy rate. Why did this happen? Because the Presbyterians in Scotland realized that in order for everyone to study the Bible for themselves, they had to be able to read. So they made that happen.
The Presbyterian Church today is a church where you don't have to check your brain in at the door, or blindly accept doctrines or teachings without question. If you have questions? Bring them. If you have doubts? Bring them. Disagree with the Pastor? Join the club! We study, we debate, we examine, we argue (respectfully!), we come to a consensus, we follow reason and truth wherever it leads, even if it leads us to change our traditions and our long-held opinions and doctrines.
None of that is possible without a commitment to be people who study together. In fact, when you join the Presbyterian church, you make four promises: The promise to PRAY, to GIVE, to SERVE, and to STUDY. I'm not entirely sure about this, but I think we may be the only denomination that actually makes studying a requirement for church membership. And if we're serious about being faithful, favored, well-educated Christians who know God's word, who do it, and who teach others, then that's not a bad commitment to make.
If you made that commitment a long time ago, but haven't put much time or effort into it lately, know that's it's not too late to jump back in. We have plenty of opportunities to study and learn together for people of every age. If you're not a member, but you want to grow in your faith through the study of God's word and God's people, know that you don't have to be a member to attend our Sunday School classes, to sign up for a Bible study or other educational opportunity.
Personally, I think that we learn best in community, when we are exposed to the ideas, insights, and experiences of others--but even if you study something on your own, or with your family--that's a good start. Read the Bible. Read a book (a challenging one!). Learn a new language. Learn to do something you've always wanted to do. I was 40 years old when I first started learning to play the bagpipes. I was 42 (this summer) when I started taking violin lessons with my daughter.
There's an old saying, often attributed to Gandhi, but it's actually quite a bit older than that: "Live as if you might die tomorrow...learn as if you might live forever.
As followers of Christ, we believe in eternal life: By the grace of God, I can't wait to see what I'll be learning when I'm 60 or 70...or 243.