I was raised in the Roman Catholic church, and a prerequisite for taking communion was the rite of confession. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this practice, it involved entering a small confession booth and sharing the details of my transgressions with a priest who was sitting behind the screen. The priest would then say a prayer of absolution and send me off with, “Go in peace, child, and sin no more.” And then the next week would roll around—back to the booth!
Today’s reading in Ezra reminds me that the cycle of sin in which we find ourselves caught is nothing new. After being granted authority by the king to re-establish Mosaic law, the scribe Ezra has led a second group of exiles back to Jerusalem. Upon arrival, he is dismayed to discover that the people are once again defecting from the laws of God by intermarrying (forbidden, as other cultures worshipped foreign gods).
It is interesting that neither wrath from God in their exile to Babylon nor grace from God in their return is enough to keep the people from repeating this iniquity. It’s as though they can’t help it—they are stuck in the cycle. “For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem” (Ezra 9:9).
The scribe then reminds the people of God’s covenant promises, and addresses a lament to the Lord on behalf of the people:
“And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations?” (Ezra 9:13-14)
The result of this cry to the Lord is a mass repentance of those guilty. Repent and return. Repent and return. (Lather, Rinse, Repeat!) This cycle characterizes the people of the Old Testament, and the people of 2015. Yet we need not despair of this endless pattern. Ezra points out that God has not forsaken his people—he does not punish them as they deserve. God’s redemptive plan will be fulfilled, when four centuries later the perfect sacrifice will be made.
Quoting Isaiah 61, Jesus said:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
It is he who has broken the cycle of slavery to sin that we cannot break ourselves. In him we have true freedom from our idol-addicted selves; we need only confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. Mercifully, he has done the work for us!