Ezekiel

the gift of repentance

I imagine we have occasionally come upon some characters dressed in unusual garb, professing to have a word from God.  They often are dressed in robes, crying out their appeals / commands.

I recall one such individual, who was poised on a traffic island in downtown Nashville.  He was wearing a sign bearing the message, “Repent in the raw.  Nudist Christians.”  If my recollection of the fellow is accurate, it seemed underneath the sign, he was wearing no shirt.  However, he did have on some pants.

Below the delightful invitation was a phone number.  I didn’t bother memorizing it.  I had no intention to follow up and get more information on his group.

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[photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash]

The nudist fellow aside, the call to repent is usually understood to be a stern warning.  It’s a demand to get your act together!  If you have ever encountered any of those oddballs on the sidewalks, it would be easy to get that idea.  Or maybe you’ve been in church with a wild-eyed preacher pointing and shouting, “Repent, ye sinners!”

The fellow in Matthew 3 could fit the bill.  “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (vv. 1-2).  He seems to be a rather formidable force, with a bit of fanatic thrown in, at least according to polite society.

“In those days” he appears.  No particular time period is intended.  We might think of life going on as normal, when suddenly this prophetic figure arises.  It happens in the wilderness—a region “off the grid,” so to speak.  The reason for repentance is due to the kingdom of heaven as drawing near, as being at hand.

It’s right here, within our grasp.  The pure of heart are graced, as the gospel later tells us, to “see God” (5:8).  The kingdom can be sensed in moments of awe.

We’re told John is prefigured by Isaiah with the message, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (v. 3).  By this time, those in the Jewish faith had come to see this as a messianic scripture, a reference to the end times when the Messiah will establish universal peace.  There’s a slightly different spin from Isaiah 40, which says, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Being in the desert, in the wilderness, is far from the structures erected by human ingenuity.  Having said that, the wilderness is less about outward structures than it is about inward ones.  The desert is a place of utter openness, of exposure that is complete vulnerability.

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[photo by Ahmad Ardity on Pixabay]

The clothing of John the Baptist has been an inspiration for those characters I mentioned earlier.  It’s not exactly what would be seen on the runways of fashion capitals around the world.

How about his menu, consisting of locusts and wild honey?  In Leviticus 11, which deals with ritually clean and unclean food, “locusts of every kind” are pronounced kosher (v. 22).

On a side note, locusts have been and are still eaten in many parts of the world.  They are rich in protein, and can be prepared in many different ways, including frying in olive oil, perhaps with a dusting of salt and spices.  They are a tasty and crunchy biblical food!  So accompanied with wild honey (as opposed to the product of domestic bees) we have a combination of savory and sweet.

3With verses 5 and 6, we see why John is at the Jordan.  He’s baptizing folks from near and far.  They are confessing their sins, heeding the call for repentance.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says of him, “When John waded into the water with people, he was cleaning them up for their audience with God, which he believed would take place very soon. He begged them to change their lives in preparation for that event, and he was not below scaring them half to death if that was what it took.”[1]

That especially applied to the Pharisees and Sadducees who approached him, who he referred to as a “brood of vipers” (v. 7).  John compares them to snakes fleeing a fire.  In doing so, he’s hardly saying their ministry and leadership are based on such noble and godly qualities like love and concern for the people.

He warns them against relying on their status as sons of Abraham.  Quit acting like big shots.  Demonstrate a conscientious desire to serve the Lord.

Taylor continues, saying John “offered to hose them down, if they were willing.  If they could come out of their comas long enough to see what was wrong and say so out loud, then he would wash it away for them, forever.  Or God would.  The same God who could make children of Abraham out of river rocks could make children of God out of them right there, if they were willing.  All they had to do was consent, repent, return to the Lord and they could start their lives all over again before they even dried off.”[2]

That was an amazing gift.  “The past would lose its power over them.  What they had done, what they had said, what they had made happen and what had happened to them would no longer run their lives.”

Too often we want to hold on to the past, even a past that was destructive and hurtful.  Have there been voices in our head telling us, “You’re dumb.  You’re ugly.  You’re worthless.  You’re an embarrassment”?  Or maybe we’ve inflicted that kind of pain on others, possibly without even intending to.

“As scary as John was,” says Taylor, “it was a pretty great offer.  No wonder people walked days to get to him.  No wonder they stood around even after their turns were over, just to hear him say it again and again.  ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them.  We hear guilt where they heard pardon, and at least part of the problem, I think, is our resistance to the whole notion of repentance.”[3]

Remember the wild-eyed guy I mentioned yelling, “Repent, ye sinners”?  As just noted, where we hear a threat, they hear a promise.  That goes to my title: the gift of repentance.  If that sounds counter-intuitive, please know there are scriptures in the Bible making that very point.  I could cite several, but I’ll just give one from both Old and New Testaments.

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks the word of the Lord to the people in exile in Babylon.  They are promised return and restoration.  “A new heart I will give you,” says the Lord, “and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).  They are promised outer restoration (their nation), and inner restoration (their spirit).

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In the New Testament, Peter is describing to his fellow Jews how God directed him to go to the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius.  Understand, Jews were forbidden to visit Gentiles—and certainly not to sit down and eat with them!  Peter said, “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” that is, on the day of Pentecost (Ac 11:15).  How do they react?  “When they heard this, they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (v. 18).

The Gentiles received the gift of repentance.  Do we also not play a role in that?  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Repentance leads to life.  The chains of death and darkness are shattered, torn asunder.  We are set free from the power of sin.  We are slaves no more.

However, having those shackles removed doesn’t mean we won’t be aching to put them on again.  Sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  Sometimes we like being stuck in the mud.  The hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” cries out the plea, “Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be.”  Poor wretched creatures that we are, we are prone to not only choosing sin, but loving it.

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We don’t want to give up the fun of spreading rumors or talking smack behind somebody’s back.  Why forego the enjoyment of berating the driver who cut us off in traffic?  Why is it called road rage when it’s such a thrill?  Why deprive ourselves of the pleasure found in getting revenge, which is a dish best served cold?

Worst of all, we too often refuse the love of God, who calls us to do the things—or calls us to love the ones—we would rather not do.  We might even notice our ignoring Ezekiel’s caution about hearts turning to stone.

Repentance is indeed a gift, but it also must be sought.  Without a desire to change, without a desire to know Jesus more deeply, there is no repentance.

John is baptizing, but he knows very well it’s not about him.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11).  Now he really sounds like that wild man from the wilderness.

If John the Baptist hoses you down, the one to come (a perfect image for Advent) sets you on fire.  Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He wields a winnowing fork, throwing the wheat into the air and allowing the breeze to blow away the debris.

The chaff will be consumed by flame.  It takes up space but contributes very little.  It’s not terribly nutritious.  It provides some empty calories, so to speak.

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There is chaff within us to be burned away.  (I’m addressing this to myself more than to anyone.)  It can be quite painful; burning usually is!  As noted before, sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  We want to remain stuck.  We love our sin.  And to submit to it being wrenched away feels like we’re losing part of ourselves.  And guess what?  It’s true, and it needs to go.

Once we let that stuff go, we find a liberty we couldn’t imagine.  A burden is lifted.  Dare we look inside and have the courage to face it?

We are freed to love and serve whose advent is nigh, Jesus Christ, the one who comes to us.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Journal for Preachers, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” 21:1 (Advent 1997), 16.

[2] Taylor, 16.

[3] Taylor, 17.


a corona confession

There are various moments when the coronavirus pandemic first entered our consciousness.  I was aware of the dreadful toll being paid by the Chinese and the Italians, but it still felt too distant, I say to my shame.  But then, on March 11, the NBA suspended its season.  I thought it might be a bit premature, but then the next day, the NHL followed suit.  I have become a big hockey fan, and that was the one the really struck me.  And oh my, what if the NFL delays or, as seems likely, cancels its season?

1 blogSuch were the trivial events that caught my attention.

Cancellations and closings of all manner became a new way of life.

In some small way, I have enjoyed the relative peace and quiet that exists, for example, when I take my dog for a walk.  For a moment, the introvert within me finds a sense of tranquility.

But the moment quickly passes.

I am reminded of the terrible hardships that have descended upon the world and upon my community.  I think of people being cooped up in their homes.  I think of people getting on each other’s nerves.  I think of children whose schooling has been disrupted.  I think of needed services that are largely unavailable.  I think of people losing their jobs.  I think of those for whom home is not a safe place.

Plus, there’s the constant annoyance of the continuous sanitizing of surfaces and avoidance of touching one’s face.  And oh yes, the 20 second ritual of washing one’s hands.  (Which is much easier if you have access to clean water.)

2 blogThere is the overall aggravation of not being able to meet in person.  It takes extra planning to get everyone set online.  And imagine the irritation—I’m being euphemistic—of visits being curtailed or even banned.  (I am a pastor, by the way.)  Regarding worship services, preaching to people, even in real time on the internet, is a weak substitute for the give and take that fosters the joy, creativity, and power of the Holy Spirit.  (Not to mention my often lame attempts at humor.)

My last sermon dealt with the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones in chapter 37.  “Can these bones live?”  I asked some questions.  What will come of our present exile, this new world we’ve been led to?  Will fear win the day?  Will hope win the day?  I think of science fiction / horror movies in which a biological or environmental disaster emerges and turns people into savage beasts.  But the Star Trek fan in me is encouraged by how the human race learns from past mistakes, past atrocities, and builds a new society of justice and peace—though not without its own problems, mind you!

3 blogEzekiel’s vision is more expansive than what Star Trek offers, I must say.  Our efforts alone do not suffice.  “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14a).

The coronavirus doesn’t get the final say.


we are not dead

Ezekiel is one of those prophets with whom most people never become familiar.  He seems too remote, too odd.  What can we say about a book that starts with a vision in which the prophet sees images of creatures flashing like lightning, with wheels all around?  Some people swear he saw a spaceship.

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And he often behaves in ways that are just flat-out weird.  He builds a model of Jerusalem and then smashes it to bits.  He shaves his head and beard and then publicly burns the hairs.  Ezekiel doesn’t lend himself very well to Sunday school.

Still, he does have an admiring audience.  People come to listen to him.  However, as the Lord says, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (33:32).

There isn’t much about this book that is familiar, with the exception of today’s scripture reading.  We’ve been helped by the old spiritual which tells us, “Ezekiel cried, ‘Dem dry bones!’”  Do you know this one?  “The toe bone connected to the foot bone / The foot bone connected to the heel bone / The heel bone connected to the ankle bone…”  I think I can stop there; you probably don’t want to hear me connect all the bones.

At the start of chapter 37, Ezekiel has a vision in which he finds himself in a valley filled with bones, and indeed, they are not connected.  They’re strewn all over the place.  He examines them and finds that they’re completely dry.  These folks died a long time ago.  The Lord asks Ezekiel, “can these bones live?”  What kind of answer can he give?  It doesn’t look like anything alive could emerge from that dismal scene.  Still, he knows not to limit the power of his God.  All he can say is, “You know, Lord.”

To really understand Ezekiel, we need to take a step back and look at his world.  He lived through one of the true turning points of Biblical and world history.  The Babylonian Empire has become a superpower, and by the year 597 (B.C.), after sweeping through most of the Middle East, the Babylonians are ready to conquer Judah.  People who might be considered a threat are deported.  Ezekiel is part of the first group of exiles.  Thus, Ezekiel comes to live in Babylon.

For about eight years, Jerusalem has been occupied by the Babylonians, but they’ve refrained from destroying the city.  But then the Judahites try teaming up with the Egyptians to fight back.  That doesn’t work, and the Babylonians lose their patience.

As a result, the unthinkable happens.  The temple is destroyed.  It’s difficult for us today to understand the crushing blow that was.  They couldn’t imagine the temple being destroyed.  There’s no way God would allow it.  They had a trust in the building—a superstitious trust, as it turned out.  They trusted in a building, but they didn’t trust God.  They constantly broke the covenant with the Lord.  They served other gods.  They oppressed the poor.  They were corrupt.

And so we arrive in the valley of dry bones.

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There’s a Hebrew word that appears over and over throughout today’s reading: רוּחַ (ruah).  It’s translated by three words that best capture its meaning: breath, wind, or spirit.

We see in Ezekiel’s vision the creative use of the word.  First he’s commanded to prophesy to the bones, as our little song puts it, he’s to say to “dem dry bones…hear the word of the Lord.”  Suddenly the bones reassemble, with sinews, flesh, and skin reappearing.  Still, the bodies are dead.  Then the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, to call out to the wind, to speak to the spirit.  It’s only then that ruah enters the bodies, and they come to life.

The exiles, defeated and taken captive far from their homeland, truly were dispirited.  They felt they were as dead as those dry bones.  With the news of the temple’s destruction, Ezekiel’s job has changed.  He’s been calling for repentance; now he must offer hope.

When the people felt that all was lost, that their enemies had vanquished them, the prophet came to them and told them of the promise of the ruah of the Lord, of the Spirit of God, which would revive them, which would bring them back to life.

So what does this vision of hope given to a group of exiles 25 centuries ago in Babylon say to us here today?

We might feel like our nation, our world, has become a collection of dry bones.  We might feel that way about ourselves.

Do we need to be brought back to life, like Lazarus?

We’re like the exiles, in a way.  We have been forced; we have been taken to a place we never would have chosen.  We have been exiled to a strange new world.

We’ve all had our own experiences with the virus.  Some have had truly dreadful experiences.  Others—not so much.  I have this feeling that there’s something out there, and it has ill intent.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.  Wouldn’t be nice if we could actually see the virus?  That would make things much easier!

Still, we’re here.  The crowds asked John the Baptist after his message of repentance, “What then should we do?” (Lk 3:10).  What should we do?  Let me ask the question from a different angle.  What opportunities await us?

Remember what I said regarding the news that the temple had been destroyed.  The prophet had been calling for repentance.  Now it was a time for hope.

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[photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Well, the temple has been destroyed.  We’re in the valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel’s vision is about a promise of return from exile.  It will be a second exodus.  What can these bones do, given a new life?  The breath, the wind, the spirit of God is still blowing.  We have the opportunity—we have the option—of allowing that wind to carry us to a new way of being.  Or maybe it’s a question of regaining what we’ve possibly allowed to lapse.

What are we doing to stay healthy?  What are we doing to stay healthy mentally?  What are we doing to help others stay healthy?  What are we doing to spread the love?  Friends, we are not dead.  As the Song of Solomon puts it, “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (8:6).  Or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message reads, “Love is invincible facing danger and death.  Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.”

Here’s another question.  How will we emerge from this?  Will fear win the day?  So much of what we see in the media, in my opinion, borders on sensationalism.  Sometimes it seems like the goal is to inspire fear, to inspire panic, rather than level-headed caution.  I feel like some people would almost welcome mobs who are setting fires and smashing windows.

So that’s one option.  Here’s another.  Will we learn from this?  Will we work together?  Will we learn to care for each other?  I don’t expect heaven on earth, but maybe some heavenly spirit can take hold.  There is an opening for a deeper and more vibrant faith.

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14).


be a man

Be a man.  That’s part of the closing message St. Paul gives in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

This, from the same guy who sounds like he’s downplaying being a man.  He says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:28).

And this, from the same guy who admits at times his frail and even sickly appearance.  People say of him, “His letters are lengthy and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Co 10:10).  He thanks the Galatians for not being disgusted by him.  He says, “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (4:14).

1 be a manHaving said that, I admit he says some stuff which seems to demean his sisters in Christ.  One example would be, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Ti 2:11-12).  That doesn’t appear to line up with his other thoughts.  It’s been said he’s referring to a particular situation, but I won’t get into that now!

You might ask, “Where does he say, ‘Be a man’”?  Most translations don’t use that phrasing.

There are four commands in 16:13.  “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  It’s that third one—be courageous—which comes from the Greek word, ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe).  And it literally means, “be a man.”  I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”

If you’re wondering what the command to “be a man” has to do with the other half of the human race, don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a few moments!

Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.”[1]  He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness.  I wouldn’t say the ancient Greeks’ point of view is the epitome, or the final word on the subject, but since there is that cultural background in the apostle Paul’s world, maybe it deserves a look.

“Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now.  For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.

“For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service.  Braying after money was the opposite of manliness.  For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.”

2 be a manI think we definitely can see some parallels with our society.  We even see it mentioned sarcastically in the psalms: “you are praised when you do well for yourself” (Ps 49:18).

Brooks talks about certain traits the ancient Greeks considered indicative of a manly man: being courageous, assertive, competitive, demonstrating his prowess, being self-confident.  Still, there is something else about the manly man.  “[H]e is also touchy.  He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due…  They are hard to live with.  They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.”

When he says, “Be a man,” I really don’t think Paul is telling us to act that way!  He’s had plenty of run-ins with characters like that.  For example, in a couple of places, he mockingly refers to “super-apostles” (2 Co 11:5, 12:11).  These guys are flexing their apostolic muscles!  (Like bragging about the size of their audience.)

Brooks mentions a corrective the Greeks had.  They “took manliness to the next level.  On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity…  The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but uses his traits not just to puff himself up, but to create a just political order.”

And accordingly, Paul warns us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Co 8:1).

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Has there been a leader in recent history who better defined magnanimous than Nelson Mandela?

Here’s where I get back to the question of what “being a man” says to women and children.  Clearly, the apostle is addressing the whole church.

He praises women who have served Christ and the church, sometimes at personal risk.  Paul refers to Chloe as one of the church’s leaders (1:11).  And in his closing statements to the church in Rome, he gives God thanks for Phoebe, a deacon, for Mary (one of several Marys, we don’t know which), the sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, among others (16:1,6, 12).

It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated, they have lived, the four-fold command of verse 13.

What they have not done is spread gossip, look with a greedy eye at their neighbor’s possessions—or at their husband (if they’re in the market for that sort of thing!)  Their favorite song is not “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  (Apologies to fans of Marilyn Monroe.)  And they don’t have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos did.

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Something else about this business of being a man is the term “son of man.”

In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, “son of man” (בֶן־אָדָם, ben ’adam) appears 93 times.  For him, it simply means “mortal.”  It doesn’t have the messianic tone it takes later on.

However, for Jesus there is a sense of being the messiah, the Christ.  Still, aside from that, “Son of Man” describes him as the essence of what it means to be human.  It’s Son of Man as opposed to Son of God.  He is “the human one.”  To the extent we are like Jesus, to that same extent we are human.

Jesus embraces, personifies, both what are often thought of as masculine and feminine qualities, such as might and meekness.  Over and over in the gospels, we see him moving beyond what his culture rigidly assigns as the realm of men and the realm of women.  He welcomes women as his disciples; he actually teaches women!  That’s a big no-no.

So, having said all of that, we immediately have verse 14.  “Let all that you do be done in love.”  That comes right after being told, “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  Be a man.  Be courageous, but do it in love.  Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!

What does all this mean?  Well, let’s look at Ezekiel and Jesus again.

The first time the Lord calls Ezekiel “son of man” is when he gets his commission.  He’s given quite a task.  “Mortal [son of man], I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” (2:3).  Hmm, I’m not sure I like where this is going.  Is there anything else?

“The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (v. 4).  It doesn’t sound like the prophet will get a welcome reception.

Hostility is not the only reaction.  Later in the book, we see him being disregarded.  In chapter 33, the Lord tells him about the people, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (v. 32).  These folks aren’t mad at him.  They applaud and say, “Wonderful job,” and then go on about their business.

Even so, Ezekiel loves his people.  He demonstrates loving courage.  Love is no easy thing.

What about Jesus?  He tells his disciples, his friends, something that will shock and dismay them.  He lets them know what is in store.  Jesus will be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, and crucified.  Now there is the tiny bit about being raised from the dead, but they can’t get past the laundry list of insane stuff coming first.

Knowing what’s ahead of him, Jesus demonstrates loving courage.

What does loving courage mean for us?  What does loving courage mean for me?  I wonder, in what ways do I ignore St. Paul’s call to live a life of courage, shot through with love?  How often do I imitate the admirers of Ezekiel, finding joy in art, books, film, and music­­—even the scriptures—and yet not allowing it to change me?  How often do I lack that courage—to not fully be a man—to not fully be human?

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What does loving courage mean for all of us?  Do we have the courage to ruffle some feathers?  When the loving Holy Spirit prompts us, do we change the way we’ve been doing things?  Do we make room for others?

These are questions to ask the person in the mirror.  Do I help others to be courageous?  Do I help others to be human?

In his final words, Paul cries out, “Maranatha” (v. 22).  Maranatha means two things.  “Come, our Lord,” and “Our Lord has come”!  May we be people who find the loving courage to live out those words.

 

[1] www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/opinion/scaramucci-mccain-masculinity-white-house.html


famine to feast

When I started planning this sermon, the local paper reported that southern Cayuga County was experiencing “moderate drought.”  (The scattered showers we’ve had since then have provided little help, at least where we live.)  I know that Banu and I aren’t the only ones who can testify to having brown, crunchy grass in the yard.  And we’ve seen some crops that looked mighty thirsty.

When we lived in Nebraska, excessively dry weather sometimes led to grassfires.  On one occasion, a spark from someone’s pickup truck started a fire that raged all night.  We had been serving as workers at our little town’s youth center, and after closing, a couple of the kids whose parents were helping out with the fire, waited at our house for a while.  (So we had a grassfire get-together!)

I’m sure plenty of you have your own stories to tell about drought, whether moderate or severe.

image from media.npr.org

Maybe you’re wondering why I begin with drought.  That’s pretty dry and dusty stuff, isn’t it?  How about something more mouthwatering and juicy?  Sorry, I can’t help it.  The prophet Amos compels me!

Technically, in chapter 8 Amos isn’t talking about drought; famine is what’s on his mind.  Admittedly, drought isn’t the only thing that causes famine.  Scarcity of food has its genesis in a number of distasteful things.  That includes poor agricultural practices and misguided political policies.

And on the point of governmental goings-on, sometimes they are well-meaning but terribly conceived and poorly executed.  On a darker note, sometimes political leaders have a deliberate intention to artificially create famine—hunger as an instrument of public policy.

Then of course, there’s war.  Nothing works in ravaging a country and spreading starvation like war.

So, those are the cheerful thoughts that came to mind while reading the prophet Amos!

Here’s a quick background on Amos.  He lives in the northern kingdom of Israel, which by the way, split apart from the southern kingdom of Judah about 200 years earlier.  Amos is active as a prophet during the time of King Jeroboam II, who reigned from 786 to 746 BC.  During Jeroboam’s time, Israel enjoys military might, territorial expansion, and economic prosperity.  Happy days are here again!  Life is good.

But it’s more than simply good.  Because of their affluence, many of the people, especially the elites, believe that God’s blessing rests on them.  And more than that—they deserve that blessing.  Seriously, how could they not, considering the way they so richly fund the national shrines?

Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, this wealth has been accumulated on the backs of the poor.  Fulfilling the prophetic role to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, in chapter 5, Amos brings the word to those who think their religiosity pleases God.  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (v. 21).

As we get to chapter 8, that theme is infused with some really colorful images.  (I think “colorful” is a good word to use!)

It begins right away with a pun, a play on words.  (You do realize that the noble tradition of the pun is enshrined in the words of the Bible?  It’s all over the place.)

In a vision, God asks Amos what he sees.  It turns out that it is a basket of summer fruit.  The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” is קָֽיִץ (qayits).  God’s response is “the end has come upon my people Israel” (v. 2).  The word for “the end” is הַקֵּץ֙ (haqqets).  qayitsqets.  “Ripe fruit…the time is ripe.”  (I like that!)

The “colorful” language continues with wailing and dead bodies being cast out.

Amos puts those wealthy folks on notice.  They’re saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?  We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances” (v. 5).

I like how they’re itching for the end of the new moon festival and for the sabbath to be over.  They can’t do business at those times.  They want to get back to gouging their customers.

Once upon a time, people could enjoy Thanksgiving without having to get up extra early the next morning.  Unfortunately, stores began opening earlier and earlier on what has come to be known as “Black Friday.”  I guess some of the boys in the corporate offices figured letting a few extra dollars get away was too much to bear.

Please understand, I’m not saying these business practices are unscrupulous, unless you consider denying a good night’s sleep to be unscrupulous.

In the next few verses, the colorful images become overshadowed.  Darkness and sorrow are the prophet’s themes.  “Friends, you’ve had a good run with Jeroboam at the helm.  But party time is almost over.  This pleasure cruise is about to become a ship wreck.”

Then we come to the final part of the chapter, which is my main focus.  “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (v. 11).  So this isn’t a literal famine, like I was talking about earlier.  This is spiritual famine.  This is famine that inflicts hunger and thirst on the soul.

Just as with literal famine, people become disoriented and disconsolate.  “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (v. 12).  Another translation says, “People will stagger from sea to sea” (New Jerusalem Bible).

image from upload.wikimedia.org

I will send a famine on the land, a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.  This sounds like a deliberate plan on God’s part.  How could that be?  Why withhold the word?  It sounds like the people need that life-giving substance more than ever.  Doesn’t God love the people anymore?

I’ve sometimes heard of being inoculated against the word of God, against the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s inoculation in the sense of being given enough of it in weakened form to build up our immunity.

The idea is being deluged, inundated, stuffed to the gills (nice words while thinking about famine!).  It is being in an atmosphere in which the word is pervasive: on billboards, on bumper stickers, on clothing, on knick-knacks, on Facebook, and so on.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that stuff is bad.  Banu and I have some clothing and knick-knacks with scriptures on them.

Still, we have to guard against manipulating the word so that it loses its power.  It becomes a question more of trappings than transformations.

That’s one reason why God might, so to speak, withhold the word.  It’s important to avoid self-deception.

A more serious concern is what Amos addresses.  There is often an attempt to use the word of God as a shield or a weapon.  It begins with self-deception but escalates into keeping others down, politically and socially.  The word is shown to be empty; it becomes useless when justifying ourselves.  We can quote the letter of the law while violating its spirit.

These are what we might call external factors.  The word of God is used, or misused, as mechanisms for outward purposes.  The more serious and insidious concerns are what we might call internal factors.  Within ourselves, we resist the word.  We harden ourselves to it.

In a phone call with my mother, I referred to our recent “week from hell” as a nation.  Two high-profile killings of black men by police, followed by the murders of five officers, to me, constitutes a week from hell.  Sometimes current events oblige us to speak, and I feel like this is one of those times.

Regardless of your opinion of him, or of his speech in Dallas last Tuesday, President Obama did make some points that I think bear repeating.[1]

He said he was “reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel.  ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you.  I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’

“That’s what we must pray for, each of us.  A new heart.  Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

His primary point was the racism that still endures in our country and the pain and violence of many sorts that flows in all directions from it.

Moving away from that speech and the president who uttered it, we still have (as just one example) the sin of racism and the way we participate in it.  To some extent, we all deal with that sin.  America didn’t invent racism; we’ve just done a good job of institutionalizing it.  Racism isn’t simply racial prejudice among individuals; it is a system.

If we don’t recognize it within ourselves, we become hardened.  We become hardened to the word of the Lord, the word that changes our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.

But as I say, that’s just one example.  Too often, we refuse to hear the word of the Lord.  We plug the ears of our heart, the ears of our spirit, and shout, “La la la la la!”

How do we refuse to hear the word of the Lord?  It happens in many ways.  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as blowing stuff up or having a bonfire with Bibles as the kindling!  In a less forceful way, it doesn’t have to be something we deliberately set out to do.  We need not consciously say, “I will not listen to that.”

Much, if not most of the time, it just happens.  We just get caught up.  We fill our minds with everything except the word.  We fail to take heed of that wisdom; we pay attention to voices of trivia.  I fall into that myself.  Sometimes a jingle in a commercial or a song played in the background at a store gets stuck in my head.  I might dwell on it all day or all week.  (I especially hate it when it’s a song I don’t like!)

Sometimes we live our whole lives that way, sleepwalking through life.

There’s a quote by Thomas Merton that I have loved for many years.  He talks about moments when we wake up “and discover the full meaning of our own present reality.”[2]  Regarding such a moment, he says, “In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”

image from www.browngirlgumbo.com

We squander our lives when we refuse the word of life.  To return to the imagery of the prophet, we go hungry, we starve, we needlessly endure famine, while a feast is within reach.

So, avoid refusing the word of life.  Don’t settle for crumbs, while that succulent feast beckons!  Here’s a crazy thought: actually read the word.  Read the scriptures.  Don’t race through them; that’s hardly the best approach.  Let the word of the Lord soak into you.

Come with expectation.  Open your mind.  Let “the trifles that occupy our minds” be put on a starvation diet.  See what changes our Lord can make.  Move from famine to feast.

 

[1] time.com/4403543/president-obama-dallas-shooting-memorial-service-speech-transcript/

[2] Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.


bittersweet

In the case of John, and other biblical prophets, “bittersweet” probably isn’t the best way to put it. Maybe “sweet,” then “bitter,” is closer to the mark.


In the vision of Revelation 10, John is presented with a scroll by an angel, who says, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth” (v. 9). So what happens? According to John, “it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter” (v. 10).

The specific language may not be identical, but earlier prophets, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, also have experiences of the word of God being sweet (Jer 15:16, Ez 3:1-3), with bitterness quickly following (Jer 15:17, Ez 3:14).

The Old Testament is filled with references to God’s word as sweet and delightful. (Psalm 119 is just one example.) But what is the “bitterness”? Could it be the burden that comes with greater understanding? The bitterness of having to play the role of sentinel, as Ezekiel is called to do in chapter 3? The bitterness of seeing the insanity we bring on ourselves?


great minds...

It’s often said that great minds think alike. If that’s true, then Jeremiah and his contemporary, Ezekiel, might be a case in point. As we continue “journeying with Jeremiah,” looking at various scriptures in chapters 3 to 6, we’ll notice some distinct similarities in the messages of both prophets. Jeremiah is still in the land, while Ezekiel has been hauled off to exile in Babylon.

However, I’m afraid both of them could be accused of having a potty mouth; their descriptions of their fellow countrymen (and women) are hardly flattering! In fact, they’re downright disgusting. (Ezekiel’s parallels come in chapters 16 and 23 of his book.)

Still, Jeremiah stands in solidarity with some notable figures in his people’s history, including—as we see in chapter 5—old Father Abraham.