Monday, August 30, 2010

God Chooses Exile

The Temple represented God's presence with Israel.  It was God's house.  It was the place where Yahweh's glory dwelt.  And yet, from before the Temple's existence, God had promised/warned David that he would not be bound to a building.  In Ezekiel 10, God makes good on that promise.  

Ezekiel 10 is just part of a whole vision that is recorded in chapters 8-11.  That vision begins with the tour of Israel's idolatry which we saw in last week's sermon text.  It is those idolatries and abominations which drive Yahweh out of the Temple.  Ezekiel essentially paints a picture for us of God stepping out of his house and into his chariot.  It is the same chariot which Ezekiel saw in the opening vision of his book on the Chebar canal in Babylon.  In this vision, God is communicating to Ezekiel that he is leaving Jerusalem in order to be with the captives in Babylon.  

Here is a God who would rather dwell in exile than be surrounded by sin, a God who would rather be homeless than have his house filled with idols.  Of course, this should come as no surprise for us who believe that this God is revealed in Jesus Christ; the one who said "foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."  In Jesus is the God who chooses the exile of crucifixion over the comforts of earthly power and bondage to sin.  

Are we a church that chooses exile over sin, homelessness over idolatry?  Of course, we would like to succumb to the happy delusion that we don't have to make this choice, that we can have the kingdom without the cross.  But for us to identify sin in all of its ugliness and refuse to participate in it will almost certainly mark us out as an odd sort of people, a people whom the dominant culture will quickly disown just as our savior was despised and rejected.  To choose the way of Jesus in this world is almost certainly to choose an exilic existence...but one which leads to true freedom for it is an exile in which God dwells.  

Monday, August 23, 2010

Happy is a Yuppy Word

Ezekiel 8 is a kind of tour of Israel's idolatry and syncretism.

While sitting with the elders of Judah in his house in Babylon, Ezekiel is shown a vision of those who are still in Jerusalem.  The first is some vague vision of an "image of jealousy" outside the north gate of the Temple complex.  It's not clear what this image is exactly but we are told it is an abomination which threatens to drive God away from his sanctuary.

The next stop on the tour is a hole in the wall which Ezekiel is commanded to dig through.  When he does, he sees images of "creeping things" and "loathsome beasts" having been engraved on the Temple wall, precisely the kind of images that God had forbid Israel to worship.  Meanwhile, seventy of the elders of Israel are offering incense before these images.  This could well have been an imitation of some kind of Egyptian religious ritual in hopes that the gods of Egypt (who at times had been a political ally of Israel's against Babylon) might save Israel from destruction by Babylon.  Whether this is specifically Egyptian in nature or not, it is made very clear that these rituals exhibit a lack of trust in Yahweh since the elders say "The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land."

But Egyptians gods are not enough of an idolatry for Israel.  In the next few verses, Ezekiel sees a vision of women "weeping for Tammuz".  Tammuz was an Assyrian God of vegetation who was thought to have died every dry season and only to be resurrected every year when the vegetation returned and begin to blossom and bud with new life.  It was a rite of Tammuz worship to weep for him every dry season when he died.  Add Assyrian religion to Israel's eclectic worship.

Finally, Ezekiel is brought into the inner court of the Temple between the porch and the altar.  There are a group of twenty-five men gathered there worshiping.  Surely in this mostly holy of places at least these men will be worshiping Yahweh?  No, they have literally turned their backs on God, facing away from the Temple to worship the rising sun in the east.

As a result, God promises to act in his wrath and to not have pity.  In the past God has heard the cries of Israel when they have cried out to God for mercy but this time he promises that he will not.  Chapter nine begins by saying that God cried into Ezekiel's ears "Bring near the executioners of the city...".  God is about to put a stop to this.

As I read Ezekiel 8, I pondered what our idols, our acts of syncretism might be.  Of course, the obvious things came to mind: money, status, power, politics, nationalism, etc.  These are all things that too often we give more importance, more glory, more worship to than we give to God.  But then I ran across this blog post which perhaps states it best.

We may be in little danger of bowing down to Egyptian or Assyrian gods in our churches but there can be little doubt that most of us have mixed our faith in God with a gospel of self-fulfillment and self-centeredness which is really no gospel at all.  For the most part, those other idols of money, politics, etc are probably just extensions of of our belief that we have an "inalienable right" to the "pursuit of happiness".  But what course does that pursuit take when it meets the shadow of the cross?  We should make no mistake: God wants to slay any part of us that still submits to our own happiness as if it were a god.  Images of slaughter like those contained in Ezekiel 9 are surely disturbing... perhaps they will disturb us enough to wake us up from our own happy, idolatrous sleep.

Monday, August 16, 2010

More Than Words

In Ezekiel 4, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy without saying a word.  Instead of speaking, Ezekiel is to carry out a series of symbolic acts that represent the siege which God through Babylon is about to bring upon Jerusalem.  He is commanded to take a brick and draw the city of Jerusalem on it and then build a miniature battlefield around it.  Then he is commanded to lay on his left side for 390 days to represent the 390 years of Israel's exile and then on his right side for another 40 days to represent the exile of Judah.  But in all these instructions there are no instructions to speak.

Most of us have heard our whole lives that "actions speak louder than words" but I think that in reality that slogan takes much more patience, trust, and perseverance than most of us are willing to commit.  At some point in those 430 days, as Ezekiel lay there watching the same people pass by as he had for so many days before, people who had now seen him lay there for so many days that they didn't even bother to mock him any more, he must have wondered what the point of all this was.  No one was repenting of their sin.  No one was consulting Ezekiel about what words had come from God.  Wasn't this a waste of God's time as well as Ezekiel's?  Wouldn't another sermon about the wrath and judgment to come be just as effectual as laying here doing nothing?  Nevertheless, God commands and Ezekiel obeys.

It's not that words aren't important.  Ezekiel will do a whole lot of speaking before the book that bares his name comes to an end.  But Jesus washing the disciples' feet, healing the sick, turning over the tables of the money changers, sharing the passover meal with the disciples, all say something that mere words can not.

This is a prophetic tradition in which we, the Church, find our feet firmly planted.  We too are called not only to prophetic speech but also to prophetic acts, not least of which are things like baptism and communion.  At times, the water, wafer, and wine may seem plain, ordinary, and ineffectual things.  They may seem powerless to affect any real change in our world.  They may seem about as meaningful as laying on our side for 430 days.  And yet, our constant gathering around a broken and bloodied Lord says something that no sermon can speak.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Prophet Among Them

We are a results obsessed culture.  How much money will it make?  How fast will it go?  How much change will it affect?  These are the questions we ask.  They're not bad questions.  They drive us toward success as it is typically defined.

The Church has taken much of this cultural obsession upon itself.  How many people can we get into church?  How efficient is this program?  How much of a difference are we making in our community?  Even in the Church these are not entirely bad questions.  There must be a place for evaluating our methods.  The problem comes when we equate success with the production of certain results instead of equating it with faithfulness.

Ezekiel 2 tells us of Ezekiel's prophetic call, his ordination to be the mouthpiece of God.  We might think that with a specific call from the mighty God of the universe there might come some guarantee of results; something along the lines of "as long as you proclaim the message I have given you everyone will listen to you."  Instead, v.4-5 read
"I am sending you to them who are stubborn and obstinate children and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God.'  As for them, whether they listen or not - for they are a rebellious people - they will know that a prophet has been among them."
God gives Ezekiel no guarantees.  The people might listen or they might not.  Making them listen is not up to Ezekiel.  Ezekiel's mission is not to manufacture results.  It is only to proclaim the message that he has been given regardless of what happens.  And God says that if Ezekiel will do that then regardless of whether or not the people respond they will at least know that God's prophet has been among them.

This is the mission of the Church - to be God's prophet among the peoples of the world.  We must live and speak in a way that proclaims the good news of Christ's victory regardless of whether or not there is anyone willing to listen.  This doesn't mean that the guy on the corner with a bull-horn is justified in his evangelistic approach.  After all, he may be speaking the right words but his method of proclamation is not a faithful representation of Christ.  It does mean that we continue (or begin) to do the right things, to live the life we are called to as a church even when  it doesn't cause our church to grow.  Ezekiel is told that even as he is surrounded by thistles and thorns and sits on scorpions he is to have no fear but is to continue to proclaim the message he has been given.

Of course, proclaiming the message faithfully presumes that we know the message.  As a part of Ezekiel's call, he is commanded to eat a scroll given to him by God (which we can safely assume contains the message which God is calling Ezekiel to proclaim).  Ezekiel must do more than simply read the scroll.  He must devour it, ingest it, internalize it.  God's message has to become a part of Ezekiel himself.

So how much time have you spent devouring the good news over the last week or so?  How much have you studied Scripture?  How much time have you spent listening to God?  Whether you do the traditional "read your Bible and pray every day" or you get more creative with spiritual disciplines doesn't really matter.  Are you devouring the word?  Are you so hungry for God that his message is inside you, that it has become a part of who you are?  Only when we commit ourselves to eating the book that God has given us will the people of the world know that there is a prophet among them.