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.