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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Made Ready for God's Kingdom (1 Corinthians 1:3-9)

1st Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014

          As I read 1 Corinthians 1, I imagine our church family.  The Apostle Paul traveled around the Greek-speaking world talking about the Jewish Messiah who he believed was God in human form, had been resurrected, and was and is the Savior of the world.  Himself a Jew, Paul believed God had come in the flesh in Jesus.  The Jewish Messiah had come for Israel and for all people.  Paul staked his life on this.  So he traveled about and churches grew from groups of people who accepted what he said about Jesus.
          After leaving the churches he wrote letters back to encourage them and keep them on the path of discipleship – the Jesus way.  First Corinthians is one of those letters.  Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit, so what he said to first century congregations fits 21st century congregations all around the world.
          His words speak to our church. 
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my[b] God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of[c] Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I am thankful because I am enriched by being one among you.  I thank God because we are a church family motivated to love people.  We hear the call to go into the world proclaiming good news, and we answer. 
As do the work of God church, we rest in the promise Paul writes in verse 8.  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The end of the world is coming and God makes us ready for it.
Of course we know we are not blameless.  We are sinners in a world of sinners.  Beth and John read from Isaiah 64.  In verse seven the prophet says, 
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

          When Isaiah says, “We all fade like a leaf,” he could be describing the American cultural scene at the outset of the 21st century.  We are impressed by our scientific advances.  It is the age of technology and people use the knowledge humans have acquired to do amazing things in medicine and communication and travel.  But, our tendency to sin covers over the good we do.  Before God, humans striving for greatness fall short and always will.
          It is the Spirit of Jesus that lifts us up.  Through death and resurrection, Jesus has removed our sin.  Through the continuing presence of His Holy Spirit, we who continue to be quite fallible and guilty are indeed blameless.  He makes us clean, innocent, and right.  As Paul says, by His grace, he strengthens us to the end, which is most definitely coming.
          During Advent we remember the coming of Jesus, we live by His Spirit, and we anticipate his return.  The world will be judged, history will end, and all who are in Christ will live eternally in the Kingdom.  Until that time, He strengthens us, makes us ready.  Right now, the Spirit is at work in our hearts, shaping us in the way of Christ. 
          Again, in Isaiah 64, we see a world moving further and further away from God. 
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered[c] us into the hand of our iniquity.

That is the world as it is.  Then remember Paul’s encouragement that as the world sinks deeper and deeper in sin, The Spirit strengthens us.  In the next verse Isaiah says it this way. 

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.

          A couple of things are clear to me.  First, the world is not going to become a better place by human effort.  We should strive for peace, for health, for love.  We should do our dead-level best to make the world as a good as we can.  But we do so as an act of obedience and appreciation to God.  We don’t have illusions that we will end hunger or find every cure for every disease or eventually come to a generation in which all mankind has love for each other. We reach for those things because they are all realities in God’s eternal kingdom.  But we reach knowing sin cannot be conquered.
          The second thing I hold onto is even though we know sin won’t be conquered by human striving, it has been defeated by Jesus.  His Spirit is at work.  As the world falls deeper and deeper into sin, those in Christ are made more and more ready to live in the eternal Kingdom where death and sin are no more.  Everyone who is in Christ has an assignment from God to invite all who do not know Him to turn to Jesus; this is a turn away from sin and death and a step onto the path of everlasting life. 
          One of the recommended readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent is the prophecy of Jesus found in Mark 13 and other places.  He speaks of suffering and the urgency of the hour.  Now is the time to hold tight to our faith and to lovingly, patiently, draw people to Jesus.  In our celebration his birth, we rest in the promise that His Spirit is holding us and guiding us until He returns.  We read Mark 13, and we don’t understand every word of it, but the Spirit helps us.  As we read, we know world is moving toward decay.  We also know the Spirit makes us ready for the day Heaven and Earth will come together in the eternal Kingdom.


Mark 13:24-37

Reader 1: 24 “But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Reader 2: 26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Reader 3: 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[e] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Reader 1: 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[f] for you do not know when the time will come.

Reader 2: 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

Reader 3: 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

          We hear Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  Shortly after he spoke these words, he was crucified and he rose.  A few decades later Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.  In the sense that the center of God’s work on earth shifted from the City of David, Jerusalem, to the person of Jesus, then what he said was literally true.  That generation of disciples met the risen Christ before any of them died.
          In a representative sense, his continuing presence in the world, the Holy Spirit at work in His Church, has not passed away.  The church will always be present bearing witness to Jesus until the end.  Paul reiterates the promise when he says God will strengthen us to the end.  We can count on it.
          We cannot predict it.  Jesus is very clear.  The Advent message over and over is “Keep awake.”  We don’t know when the end will come.  We only know, the world is falling away from God, in Christ we are being made ready to be with God and we are commissioned to invite the lost, dying world to turn from death by turning to Jesus.  We have the promise of eternity and the mission to live into eternity as we invite others to come along with us.
          Paul’s words from the last chapter of 1st Corinthians sum up our stance, how God equips us especially in Advent.  This is how we live as Jesus’ people – people who bear witness to Him in a secular age.  This is from 1st Corinthians 16: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (v.13-14).
          I pray we will, filled with the Spirit, be examples of God’s patient love as we show that love and show great patience in waiting for the day of the Lord and in living among fallen sinners as we wait.  Remember, we are empowered by the Spirit, empowered to love.  We have the promises of God to motivate us and the Spirit of God to uphold us.  Those around us who are mean or short-tempered or foul-mouthed or insulting need the Spirit that fills us and the promise that gives us hope.  I pray Jesus will be seen in us and the world around us will be drawn to him through us as we go about our lives in the hectic but also blessed season that has begun.


Monday, November 17, 2014

A Picture of Life (Ezekiel 47:1-12)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

          In Ezekiel 39, which we read last week, God says, “Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel … 28 Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land” (from verses 25, 28).  They shall know that I am the Lord their God.  The prophet Ezekiel’s entire program of speaking prophecy to Jews in exile came down to this.  Israel and the world would know who the only God is and would know that God is in control.
Holiness stands out as a major theme in this profit’s work.  The sovereignty, that is the unquestioned authority and power of God, stands out; Ezekiel’s message is clear.  Nothing that happened to Israel diminished God’s identity.  Everything that happened to the chosen people took place because God is God.
          So where does it lead? 
          Ezekiel ends his prophecy in chapters 40-48, showing the eternal vision God has given for Israel.  Ezekiel is shown pictures that make sense in the 6th century BC.  Even though the Babylonians had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, the Jews still thought about it.  They dreamed of the day they might again live as God’s people in Jerusalem, the city of David and worship in a newly built temple. 
The city was the center of religious life.  Everything flowed from there and returned there.  So, Ezekiel’s picture of the future of God’s blessings for God’s people and for the world is Jerusalem-centered and focused on a new temple, an eternal dwelling of God.  I think the picture in Ezekiel 40-48 is an extended metaphor representing eternal life in God’s presence.  The blemishes of sin and past mistakes are removed.  Ezekiel tells us God has promised to give His people a new heart.  By way of God’s grace given to Israel, the world can have a right relationship with God.
          Ezekiel tells us the hand of the Lord was on him. 
“He brought me, in visions of God, to the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city to the south. When he brought me there, a man was there, whose appearance shone like bronze, with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand; and he was standing in the gateway” (40:2-3).  From there, at the prompting of this man of Heaven, Ezekiel walks through a vision of the end times. 
Within this vision, one picture stands out to me - chapter 47, the river.  Ezekiel’s river shows life – life in the kingdom of God both in the end times when Heaven and Earth have come together and the dead in Christ have been raised, and also life we as live it right now. 
The river flows out from Jerusalem and everywhere it goes, life springs up.  Recall Genesis chapter 9.  After Noah and his family came off the ark and the flood waters receded, it was time to get back to the purposes of God.  Genesis 9 says, “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill this earth’” (v.1).  God gave the same command to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28).  “Go out.”  Jesus gave the same idea to the disciples.  “Go … and make disciples of all nations.”
To live in the world is to expand under God’s watchful eye with God walking alongside every step of the way.  God wills us to go and as we do, we bring life.  Ezekiel’s river flowed from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is so salty, nothing can live in it.  But in God’s Kingdom, the water of life flowing from God’s throne empties into the sea bringing new life.  Ezekiel’s river makes the water pure, fresh, clean and renewing.  It becomes the Living Sea.  The river’s flow is the flow of God working through God’s people to share the good news of hope, peace, life and love that we receive from God.  In his the death and resurrection, and in the announcement of his gospel by you and me – his church, Jesus fulfills Ezekiel’s vision of living water bring new life to where there was no life. 
Where people are defeated in addictions, we flow with grace and love and the hope that life can begin again.  Where people are broken by loss, divorce, grief, and dreams that have been crushed, we embrace them, introduce them to God’s love, and help them dream again.  Where people are paralyzed in poverty, we lend a hand as we are blessed by the richness of their spirit.  Whether our going out is throughout our region, the Triangle, or parts of the world far from here, we are that river flowing from Jerusalem, carrying Jesus’ gospel, carrying the hope of resurrection to dead places.
As the prophet describes this river, something beautiful happens.  “People stand fishing beside the sea; … it will be a place for spreading nets” (47:10).  The now fresh Living Sea will draw people to it.  And the church – the body of Christ – will draw the lost and hurting world to him.  We have drunk the living water.  We go out.  Those who do not know God are gathered to the living. 
Jesus said as much in John chapter 7.  “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and the let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow streams of living water’” (v.37-38).  Ezekiel’s river, the life of the eternal Kingdom of God, spreads out and scatters.  It also gathers the world together into the salvation of God.  Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel each imagined the world coming to God by way of God’s holy city. 
From Isaiah 60: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you” (v.3, 10).  Ezekiel says even strangers and aliens who live among the Jews will be as citizens of Israel, recipients of all the promises of God.  In Romans chapter 9, 10, & 11, we see that in Christ gentiles are as citizens of Israel.  Ezekiel’s river spreads and gathers.  Life in God, is both going out, and coming together, spreading and gathering.
And Nourishing.
Ezekiel saw trees along the river.  Chapter 47, Verse 12 - “On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing”. 
People imagine life in Heaven.  From time to time, I hear it.  Sometime I entertain myself with such fantasies.  In Heaven, I am going to have a 10-scoop chocolate and caramel Sunday for every meal and I’ll never gain a pound!  I wonder if ice cream with chocolate and caramel sauce would get old after 10,000 years.  I wonder if the fruit off those trees along Ezekiel’s river would make me forget any ice cream I ever had.  In Christ, we don’t need to dream about our meals in Heaven.  We know the promises of God either have come true through all Jesus has done, or are coming true. 
We eagerly anticipate resurrection, Heaven and Earth coming together, renewed.  We know our eternity has begun – life with each other and with God.  The blessings we experience in the life of the church, in worship, in sharing the gospel of God’s love – these are hints of what is to come. 
When John was shown a vision of eternity, Heaven and Earth joined, he, like Ezekiel saw the holy city, Jerusalem.  He describes it in Revelation 21-22.  In his image, there is one key difference from Ezekiel’s picture.  In Ezekiel, the living water flows from the temple.  In Revelation, we read John’s words.  “I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22).  Of course the Lamb is God as we meet God in Jesus.
Then John writes the following.  
22 Then the angel[a] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life[b] with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants[c] will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants[d] what must soon take place.”
“See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”

          Ezekiel shared all that he saw, but he did not have the benefit of knowing that after God had ended the exile, God would take the more radical step of becoming human and ending death’s power by the sacrificial death of the Messiah.  Ezekiel’s vision leads to Jesus and Jesus’ resurrection and invitation to all people leads to the picture in Revelation.  I believe in the eternal kingdom, in the resurrection, we will continue to spread life as the river flows.  We will continue to gather to God.  Yes, the trees of unending fruit like we cannot imagine and the river itself are metaphors.  But they are metaphors for something that will be far greater than we have the ability to describe.  We can count on that as our eternity.
          Until we enter resurrection, we live in hope and when we meet defeated, hopeless people, we love them and invite them to share in the hope that we have.  That is Gospel work and when we do it, the river flows on.


The Holiness of God

Sunday, November 9, 2014

          Not to get ahead of ourselves, but Christmas is in sight.  The core story is the birth Jesus, the Messiah, and Jesus is God in human flesh.  We celebrate how close we can be to God.  In Jesus, God can be touched.  We believe His Holy Spirit resides with us, among us, and in us.  We don’t touch the Holy Spirit the way we touch a table or a podium.  But a central belief in our faith and life in Christ is that in the Spirit, Jesus is real, present, active, and felt.  We feel the Spirit in a way that we feel nothing else.  In Advent we celebrate the coming of Christ, anticipate the second coming of Christ, and rejoice in the closeness of God. 
          Before we get there, I invite you to pause with me and ponder the distance of God.  “Otherness” is a better way of saying it.  However much we know of God in our life of faith, I believe there is far more we have not seen or experienced.  Not only is God bigger than us, God is bigger than we can comprehend. 
          In our journey through the fall season and through Ezekiel, the importance of holiness becomes obvious.  Ezekiel 34-37 and 40-48 discuss God’s gathering of God’s people, the return from exile, the command to rebuild the temple, and the declaration that life for all people begins in Jerusalem among the Jews and flows out from there.  It is this way because God has said so and reality proceeds as it does according to God’s intentions. 
We find these strange chapters, Ezekiel 38 & 39 stuck in the middle of this story of reclamation and restoration.  The prophet tells of a Northern threat – Gog.  Who is Gog?  Commentators offer numerous opinions, all based on speculation.  No doubt this speculation comes from the minds of experts who have dedicated their lives to Old Testament study.  Still, their conclusions about Gog are incomplete. 
God leads Gog to Israel (38:2), only to be defeated by Israel and obliterated (38:3ff).  Why?  God’s answer is straightforward and if you went through Ezekiel and highlighted this phrase, every page would have bright yellow streaks.  God does what God does with Gog so that everyone will know, as God says, “That I am the Lord.”  God to Israel, God to the nations, God to us: This is happening so that you will know that I am the Lord.
I must insert here that Ezekiel does not say every event in history happened at God’s initiative.  Some ancients thought that.  Jesus dispels such superstition (Luke 13:1-5).  The holocaust did not happen so we would know God is the Lord.  The Rwandan genocide was not Heaven’s declaration of God’s divinity and sovereignty.  Sometimes the worst, most unthinkable tragedies come about and the only real answer we can offer is sin has run amok and wrought suffering on the world.  However, in no way does sin undermine the authority, majesty or purpose of God. 
Our text for this morning, Ezekiel 39, adds to our consideration of the holiness and grandeur of God.  Previously God allowed Babylon to take Israel into exile as a punishment, a reminder to God’s own people that God is the Lord and they must live by God’s commands.  Now, nearing the end of the prophet’s story, God restores Israel.  Just as the exile demonstrated God’s Lordship to Israel, the return to the land, the rebuilding of the temple, and the restoration of life under the Law of Moses testifies to God’s sovereignty before the entire world.  God declares through Israel, He has “displayed [His] holiness in the sight of many nations.  Then [all] shall know that [God] is the Lord” (39:27-28).  It all happens at God’s initiative, according to God’s design.
Can this God be known?  To say God is holy is to say we aren’t.  Our sin, our potential to sin – this separates us from God in a way we cannot overcome.  God can step from where God is to where we are, but the power to cross the gap from holy to profane, from holy to banal and mundane, is a power only God has.  We can seek God.  Our search only ends in success when God, seeing us earnestly reach to Him, decides to allow Himself to be found.  Holiness means we cannot reach God.  It also means we are overcome by God’s holy light unless God holds back and only reveals as much as we can take.  Some writers say when God took on human flesh in Jesus it was God “condescending” coming to us so God would be approachable.  But that only works if God decides to do it.
Even knowing all we know about Jesus, the otherness, the unreachable reality in God continues to be.  Many here have been in church for a long time and have called themselves Christians for decades.  Is there a temptation to be so comfortable with the nearness of Jesus and the familiarity of the gospel, we lose sight of the terrifying holiness of God?  Singing “What a friend we have in Jesus,” is it possible to be too comfortable?  Does Jesus become a buddy?  Do we forget the God we meet in Jesus appeared to Job in whirlwind and reduced him to repentance for sins he did not even know he committed? 
Job said, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  … Now my eyes see you.  Therefore I despise myself in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3b, 6).  Theologians have for decades debated about what he was really saying there because as readers of Job know, he suffered unjustly.  Maybe it is as simple as this.  When a human sees God, it is too much. 
I came across a testimony from a young artist, Christian Platt.  You can look him up if you want to know more about him.  As I share his thoughts, contemplate your own God thoughts, especially your questions and doubts.
I’ve wrestled for years with a Christian faith that focuses on personal salvation, on many levels, some of which I’m still excavating. First, the emphasis on individual salvation always seemed ironically selfish for a faith that seemed otherwise to be about putting yourself second to others. I also struggled with the idea that Christianity is about getting a certain set of beliefs right, articulating them before a group of peers through a statement of faith and then you were official. Is it really so rote? So didactic? So…human?
All my life, I’ve heard stories of people who felt utterly transformed by their faith proclamation, or at the moment of baptism, in the throngs of prayer or during some particularly stirring worship service. They spoke of these feelings for which I longed. I wanted the mountaintop experience, after which I would never be the same. I wanted to be turned inside-out by God, illuminated by the Holy Spirit with a fire that never subsided. I wanted to feel what all these other Christians claimed to be feeling.
I’ve been to literally thousands of worship services in my life. I’ve been back and forth through the Bible, taken communion more than a thousand times, was baptized, sang the songs, said the prayers, and yes, I’ve had moments when I felt as if God was so close I could nearly reach out and touch whatever it was that I sensed. But that inevitably faded, usually sooner rather than later.
What I was left with was a longing, a tugging, a hunger for something I could never quite name
No matter how much I pray, worship, serve, write or struggle, the longing is still there.
It was like trying to capture a cloud in my hand, only to open it again and find nothing was there. Was this a cruel game? A bad joke? Was I just doing it wrong?
[He refers to an author who calls this longing for transcendence a “gap.”  He continues. 
What if the “Gap” itself is God? What if it’s already right there, within each of us, pulling at us, regardless of where we spend our Sunday mornings, how we pray, or even if we pray?
I have considered this drive, the persistent hunger, the insatiable longing, as a tragic flaw of my own human condition, a failure of my lifelong pursuit of a stronger faith. But now, I’m coming to believe that the only real peace to be found is in accepting that, ironically, there is no peace. The hunger is its own gift, and not a sign of lack or deficit in the least. It is the still, small voice that stirs persistently, opening our eyes to something new, something more.[i]

I read the Beatitudes, Matthew chapters 5, 6 & 7, and I cannot say with this seeker that there is no peace.  Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness; they will be filled.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  They will be called children of God” (5:6, 9).  Jesus assures that God satisfies, but the artist Christian Platt is not yet satisfied though he is happy with the longing God has placed in him.  He accepts that God is so Holy Other that the best he can have is his search.
Another perspective on this comes from a Jewish man, Les Berman, a radiologist in South Africa.  This doctor grew up in the Hebrew Scriptures amazed by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses and Joshua.  He wanted to know God with the same intimacy enjoyed by these patriarchs of the faith.  But no matter how he searched, the God of Abraham was distant.  He tried to double his efforts in religious practice and study of the word, but God was as far from him as ever.  He was frustrated.
Then he surprised himself.  He went to a Baptist church and heard a Christian, not even a Jewish Christian, teach on Ezekiel 38-39.  He was stunned that he could meet God in the teaching of his scripture from a gentile.  He heard the Gospel and found what he had longed for in Jesus.  I often say Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises we read in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  For this Jewish doctor, this was literally the case.[ii] 
The bohemian urban artist found purpose in seeking the unreachable reality of God, knowing his quest will always be just out of reach.  The faithful Jewish doctor could not understand the holiness of God until he saw God in Jesus.  The exiled community experienced God’s wrath and God’s salvation.  In Ezekiel, God tells his people, “I will give [a] new heart and put a new spirit within them.  I will remove the heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”  Paul reiterates this truth in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
In your life, where does faith in God make complete sense?  Where or in what way is it utterly clear that God’s holiness is something you cannot comprehend, attain, and even contemplate?  When God’s awesomeness – and this is truly the correct usage of “awesomeness” – overwhelm you?  I one more story.
Many years ago, I knew a man whose life was a mess.  His wife’s mental disorder left his home in shambles.  He made enough money that he would probably be called working poor.  He could pay the mortgage and had food, but he could not buy new clothes.  He always looked like he had borrowed what he wearing from a homeless guy.  He had some kind of skin condition so shaving was painful.  But he couldn’t grow a full beard.  He worked third shift, 11PM-7AM.  He was always tired.  The guy’s life was a struggle.
But it all transformed on Sundays when he stepped across the threshold and entered the community of the worshiping body of Christ.  When he came into church on Sunday, he stormed in.  It was as if his clothing was on fire, and the only source of water was inside the church building.  Get out of the way because he was there to worship. 
In that gathering he sang his lungs out, praising God with everything that was in him.  He sang off key; he sang tunes different than the song we were actually singing.  And he sang much louder than anyone.  There were times I cringed.  But I never said, “Hey, could you turn it down.”  I never said it because I realized this man saw something.  Every Sunday, he saw the holiness of God.  Now, I thank God for that off-key hymn singing because as I look back I realize it was a witness.  Every worship service for him was resurrection.  It was the highlight of the week, but more than that it was a statement that because of God, the difficulties of his own life would pass, but his life would be eternal.  His unbound joy pointed to God’s holiness. 
The exiled community’s final note was a homecoming God instituted because God’s holiness demanded it.  God is a God of salvation.  The name ‘Yeshua,’ Jesus, means ‘salvation.’  It is in God’s nature to raise us to life, to make us new, and to keep us in His embrace forever.  God said, “I will never again hide my face” (Ezekiel 39:29).  With Job, we know the face of God is to be feared, but not because it is awful.  We fear because God is holy and we are not.  With Jesus, we are made holy so when God promises to never again hide his face, it is the best news we can have. 
No matter who you are, you are invited into the embrace of the Holy God.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ezekiel 36 - God's Nature

            It is not for you sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name.  God says this in Ezekiel (36:22).  God proceeds to promise a return from exile to the land originally promised to Abraham.   Throughout his work on Old Testament theology, Elmer Martens asserts that land is a key component of God’s intentions for God’s people.[i]  Even when land does not literally mean Jews living in Palestine, Martens sees land as the word that points to gift, promise, and blessing.  Whether an Israelite ever again lives in Jerusalem does not matter.  God’s promise of land means God will always be with all Jews, all the people of God, giving blessing.  So, when God, in Ezekiel 36, promises to ‘gather’ his people (36:24), this amounts to a promise of presence and blessing, and it is a promise God keeps.
            This is who God.  God keeps promises.  God gives blessings.  God does it all for the sake of God’s name.  God’s holiness makes it impossible for God to do otherwise.
            Ezekiel 36:25-27 sounds baptismal.  “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; … I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes.”  If exile was a death, it was a death followed by a new day, one created by God.  Israel’s guilt along with the guilt of the nations led to this state of dispossession.  Our sins are not inconsequential.  When humanity rebels against God over generations at a societal level, pain and suffering follow.  But, God does not leave it there.
            “I will save you from all your uncleanness” God promises (36:29). God does this because it is in God’s nature to save and renew.  This is who God is.  God punishes with (sometimes with exile, sometimes with war, sometimes in other way).  But then God moves beyond punishment to a new day.  Without God, no new day comes, no new life is possible.  But there is no such thing as “without God.”  There is no time or place where God is not.
            Atheists would have us think there is no God.  Agnostics would say we cannot make any definitive statements about God: it’s just an unreachable mystery.  Deists would say there is God but one who is mostly uninvolved in the state of things.  Fundamentalists would say God is concerned about the future and afterlife of individuals but has nothing to say to humanity as a whole.  Ezekiel rejects each of these stances.
            God is in everything, in control of everything, and the events of our lives fall within the purview of God’s plans.  Remember, this is a big picture perspective.  God is in this, whatever “this” is.  God may be in it condemning ungodly behavior.  God may be the cause of the pain, using that pain to draw us back to himself, but God is omnipresent – everywhere.  And God is omnipotent – all powerful. 
            The good news (Gospel!) is God will end each story in which we find ourselves with a new day, new life, and blessing.  God does this for God’s own sake.  It is God’s nature to bless us humans.  That’s what God does.  Walter Brueggemann says, “Yahweh [God] is a Character and Agent who is evidenced in the life of Israel as an Actor marked by unlimited sovereignty and risky solidarity.”[ii]  The all-powerful God joins with humans in relationship for God’s sake, and the result is we have life with God which means blessing, love, and joy.
            I have tried to at least declare if not show God’s unlimited sovereignty.  The “risky solidarity,” to use Brueggemann’s term, comes in joining with humans, Israel in the Old Testament, and the church added in the New.  Israelites are not better than other humans.  Christians are not more holy than non-Christians.  We make mistakes and bow to idols and behave in a way that we deserve exile as much as those who lived in Jerusalem in 586 BC.  But when it comes, whatever the exile looks like, God does not bail out.  God stays with us.
            God does not impose unending wrath.  Even as we suffer, God is working on a new story.  “I will cause towns to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt” says the Lord (Ezekiel 36:33).  God’s siding with us when we are at our lowest gives the skeptic ammunition.  What kind of God do you worship that He would let you wallow in such misery?  God’s reputation is at stake, but He risks it because God is unmoved by the skeptic’s taunts.  God is not bothered in the least by the jawing scoffers.  God’s concern is God doing things God’s way.  As Ezekiel (and the rest of Bible, Old and New Testaments) shows, God’s way is to risk solidarity with people He knows will sin.  Because of who God is, God will love us when we are at our worst. 
            In what “waste place” do you find yourself right now?  God is going to rebuild it and you along with it.  We experience joy when we willingly yield ourselves and live in God’s ways by choice instead of by divine force.  Every knee will bow in obeisance (Isaiah 45:23; Philippians 2:10).  Those who resist the rule of God are “kicking against the goads” (Acts 26:14).  Those go God’s way, even while in suffering, find that as He rebuilds the waste places he works through them and they are renewed and invited to enter the “joy of the master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).
        As God, for his own sake re-creates the world humans who live by faith are remade.  With our new hearts, we live in joyful relationship with God.   

[i] E. Martens (1981).  God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, p.243.
[ii] W. Brueggemann (1997).  Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, p.268.