Monday, December 16, 2013

Series Post #4: It's Not About Ezra

             Ezra 7:6, 10:  “this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.”
For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”

             I had a phone conversation with my 22 year-old son recently, and the topic, as it often does, turned to theology. I asked him, “What is the point of theology?” We discussed this for a while, and then I said, “You know, I don’t care how well anyone can exegete a passage of Scripture if there is no living it out.”
Many theologians do not read Scripture; they read other theologians take on Scripture.
So, how does Ezra measure up as a theologian? Our Scripture verse states that he “was well versed in the law of Moses” and  “ the study and observance of the Law of the Lord and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”
Pretty straightforward: He was a theologian in the sense that he was “well versed” in God’s Word and devoted to its study and observance, but Ezra was also a teacher. And it sounds a lot to me like Ezra spent regular, consistent time in the word out of a dedication to teaching and living it. His prayer in verse nine is described by one Biblical commentator as part sermon to the people. So Ezra is also a leader and pastor. Nowhere in Ezra do we see him attempting to draw folks to his ideas. In fact, after his prayer, it was the people listening who came up with the solution to the problem of the Israelites marriages to foreign women, not Ezra!
Fast forward to the year 2006. I walk into my church worship hall to what has increasingly become dramatic theater for the 30-something pastor to orchestrate his “radical, counter-cultural” worship ideas he is learning in Seminary. This day he has outdone himself in creating a circus atmosphere. This emerging hipster pastor had brought in a guest hipster pastor (I think they both wore black). The auditorium was dark, the video screen spitting images at the speed of light. The Christian rock music was blaring. Congregants shouted greetings to their neighbor over the cacophony. My head hurt and it was only 10:30 a.m. The pastors were “revved” and the fair trade coffee was flowing. Wide-eyed toddlers held their baggies of snacks tightly. I wondered if there would be elephants.
The guest pastor energetically hopped onto the stage and began his  “challenge” to us to imagine a “radical” faith based on a new paradigm. He wanted us jazzed about Jesus! But I wasn’t so sure. The pastor of this church is the same one who, weeks earlier, had told my husband and I that the congregation “wasn’t ready” for the Gospel. He said the congregation was “asleep.” So the Sunday morning service now finds its only function to be an alarm clock to the people (and on this particular morning, that it was!) But an alarm clock to what?
Perhaps that was the underlying reason for my disposition this particular Sunday morning, and my perception that the guy on stage was more ringmaster than proclaimer of the Word. When a pastor says the people in his own Christian church congregation “are not ready” for the Gospel, everything flowing out of that will feel empty, because it is. When presenting the undiluted, pure Gospel is deemed “something to be done later,” then the message being presented up front is a show.
Peter Furler of the Christian band the Newsboys sings, “I dunno when it’s a ministry and when it’s a show.” That’s a good distinction for worship and teaching leaders to keep in mind: what is the purpose and motivation of worship and who, ultimately, is the service to glorify? If it’s to elevate the praise band or the charismatic pastor—or their creative “take” on church—then the congregation is relegated to being groupies. How much of Ed Sullivanesque qualities are we to tolerate before we say “enough?”
I mention this so as to contrast this strong-arm, trying-way-too-hard-to-be-relevant (which in many ways is very condescending) leadership with Ezra’s approach.
Why did our man Ezra elicit the response from the people that he did when they, not he, decided they should divorce their foreign wives? Because Ezra lived out the word when he repented for the people. He taught the word by reminding the people what God said. He gave them God’s truth whether they were ready for it or not! And obviously, when he did this, they all showed they were ready, as there were only 4 dissenters when it came time to adopt the people’s solution. If Ezra had thought they “weren’t ready,” it would have been an insult to God, who alone knows the heart, as well as to the people.
When Ezra’s listeners felt the conviction of God, helped along by Ezra in his humble godliness and repentant prayer, they responded with a call to action. None of this would have happened if Ezra had thought, “they’re not ready.”
Here’s what Ezra did next:

Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water,...” (Ezra 10:6).
Great leadership is non-manipulative. It is honest. It is humble. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. It never assumes. Ezra doesn’t condemn the people but he doesn’t excuse their behavior either. He is grieved over their deeds, tells them so, reminds them of God’s goodness to them and His law, prays and voila! The people repent and want to turn away from sin and make things right.

             In addition, Ezra surrounded Himself with spiritually mature leaders:
  Ezra 7:25 “And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them.”

            Verse 25, in a nutshell, is the basis for how to go about a church plant: Find a leadership team and initial members who are filled with and have produced fruit born of God’s wisdom and who can pass it on through discipling others. Pretty simple, right? The leader and his team are to teach the Word of God and administer justice in the knowledge and under the authority of God. There you have it: “How to run a church, 101.”
            Ezra was devoted in all aspects to the Word of God. It was his first and only priority. As the leadership goes, so goes the congregation. We desperately need Ezra’s today to lead the people out of exile and back into right relationship with God, His Word and each other.

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