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.