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Sermon: Packing for the Journey. March 10, 2021

March 10, 2021

Today’s Dispatch is the sermon I preached for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer today at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. The text was Ezra 8:15-23. You can view the worship services and the bulletins here. The image is what it looks like when my family prepares for a trip, in this case 3+ weeks in Europe in 2018. You’ll note Oshki and Woofster are ready to go. Be well, friends. You are loved.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this day in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Not that we’ve travelled much of late, but it’s nice to be at a point in our lives where we can let our children pack their own suitcases. Of course, the end result can be humorous; one suitcase might contain six stuffed animals but no pairs of socks. Still, they usually do a good job. We facilitate the process by giving each of them a checklist to follow. While I don’t usually write out a list for myself, I carry one around in my head: If we’re going to be gone this long, I’ll need this many of these and that many of those. And, because I like to be ready for anything, I’ll throw in a few extra of pretty much everything. We always end up with so much stuff. Journeys require planning and provision. Who sets out on a trip with nothing in hand?
  2. Our reading today brings us into the perhaps unfamiliar biblical territory of the post-exilic period. The starting point is familiar, however. It is the beginning of a journey. We see thousands of Israelites gathered at the river Ahava in Babylon, ready to travel home to Jerusalem, the city of their ancestors. Ezra, the scribe who leads them, makes no mention of the physical preparations made or the supplies obtained. There is no talk of wagon trains or beasts of burdens, no listing of food supplies and clothing. Surely they had such things, but the focus of the people was not on their fullness but on their emptiness.
  3. Ezra is worried that asking for a military escort from Artaxerxes, King of Persia, would make it look like he didn’t really trust in God to protect the people. But protection they dearly need. They are embarking on a journey in which they will travel 900 miles over the course of four months. So, Ezra calls a fast at the water’s edge, that in denying themselves before God, God would grant them safe passage home. This is precisely what God does. Ezra, descendent of Aaron, restorer of the Law of Moses, leads the people of God on a second exodus, walking home on the straight, level path through the wilderness foretold by Isaiah.
  4. For those who us who do not fast often or ever, this passage may be hard for us to wrap our heads around. Is it transactional? Does fasting force God’s hand? Would God have not protected the people had they not fasted? As Pastor Bruce Modahl writes in today’s Habits of Grace devotion, “Perhaps what Ezra offered up was not as transactional as it sounds. Jesus tells us to petition God in the prayer he taught us. In his Small Catechism Luther explains that when we pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ we are asking for everything we need to live.” Ezra, at the beginning of this journey to Jerusalem, hearkens back to the people’s journey out of bondage. Having fled the Egyptians without time to sufficiently prepare, the people were dependent anew, day after day. Each day, God met their needs with manna and quail in the wilderness. Ezra knows that to successfully journey home requires an emptying of oneself and an openness in faith to the provision of God. The journey depends less upon what you bring and more upon the God who journeys with you. To begin the journey with a fast is not to bargain with God; it is to open oneself to the saving presence of the Lord by creating an ever-deepening dependence upon God.
  5. Ezra’s fast anticipates the self-emptying love of Christ at the beginning of his journey. We, finally, are unable to find our way home. We are always entirely dependent upon the grace of God. So it is that Christ comes to make level the homeward path by conquering sin and death. As Paul recounts for the Philippians, Jesus begins his journey by emptying himself, taking the form of a slave; by humbling himself, even unto death on a cross. It is through this pouring out of self that the Father works glory and wins victory through the Son. In the weak emptiness of the cross, the fullness of resurrection hope rushes in. Jesus journeys home on our behalf, inviting us now to follow. We need not bargain with God nor seek to prevail upon him. The work is complete in Christ.
  6. As we continue along the homeward road this Lent, we ask: “What shall we bring?” Our emptiness is a good place to start. The reformer John Calvin writes, “Let us show ourselves to be such disciples as our Lord wishes to have – poor, empty, devoid of self-wisdom; eager to learn but knowing nothing, and even wishing to know nothing but what He has taught.” Friends, there is so much for which we yearn during these ongoing days of pandemic emptiness. God knows of these needs and cares for our provision, just as God cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. But God can use our openness and fill our emptiness. Whatever fasting may look like in your life, I commend you to the work. Perhaps it is the ongoing fast from one or two things this season or perhaps, as Pastor Modahl invites today, it is a fast from food for a day (health permitting). Perhaps it is simply but powerfully a recommitment to adopt what we might call a posture of fasting in which we continually call to mind our total dependence upon the grace of God. Discipline yourselves, friends, that you might better know and learn to depend upon the free gift of our God in Christ.
  7. The journey is always long. We can neither plan nor prepare for all the eventualities and vicissitudes of this life. Trust in the emptiness. Have faith in the God who delights still to give us our daily bread. Believe in the Christ who has gone ahead to prepare a place for you, who journeys now with you, who died and is now raised to make safe the journey home. No more are we exiled in a land of sin and death. We might begin the journey empty-handed, but we travel together, hand in hand, held in the hand of Christ. For his sake, God will keep us safe. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep you hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

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