Ezekiel blog: Little gems

Ezekiel chapter 16 – final stretch

My wife is a big fan of watching the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”.  Over the years of watching that production with her, I’ve also developed an appreciation for period pieces like that story.  One of the things that made watching that mini-series so fascinating was observing how every time we followed the story, my wife would recognize some new gem of insight about the motivation of the characters, or extract some new connection between events.  She would express such excitement about these discoveries and insist that I get it too.   Yes, guys, real men can watch chick-flicks.

What does this have to do with the end of Ezekiel though?   In many ways, verses 35-63 are like reading a very complicated story over and over again.  The same context is repeated eg.  Israel had a bad history, current practices were terrible, and God enacts judgment followed swiftly by punishment.  Ezekiel takes us through this as if he’s trying to be sure that we get the circumstances. No disrespect intended, but he seems to have been very anal that way.

But along the way, we are treated to little bits of gained insight that Ezekiel has prized from the narrative.  Here are some of them that stand out to me:

1. It is because Israel did not remember her humble origins that God brings it all down on her head.  So: remember where you come from.

2. “Hey, you wanted all these lovers and all this attention?  Then I’m not going to step in and stop it when things get totally out of control.  Maybe an overdose will scare you enough.  ”  Yikes, hope I don’t need an intervention like this in my life.

3. God really doesn’t like proverb quoters.   I’m not talking about the book of Proverbs, but those annoying little platitudes that really don’t express any kind of real theology or faith, but are used as pseudo-religious bandaids of the moment.  Proverb-quoters….you know who you are.  Pay attention to this chapter for real.

4. Crimes of Sodom:   Arrogant, over-fed, and unconcerned.  Haughty and unresponsive to the poor and needy.   We all know what happened there.  Uh-huh, ‘nough said.

5. Ok, I know I said ‘nough said, but Sodom only measured up to HALF of how bad Israel was being at this point. That’s HALF as bad, and they got blown off the map.  What were you saying about God’s patience?

6. “Israel ! You broke our covenant! ”   God takes covenants very seriously.  It’s a big deal….and something God will work very hard to create, protect, rebuild, and recreate when necessary.

7. More on covenants, this is the one thing that God believes can actually be healed with Israel.  It’s the one thing in the entire chapter that is discussed in future tense.  God says He “will remember” and He “will establish”.   The object here?!  If he can find hope in such a disaster of a situation, then he can find hope for each one of us.

8. My anger will END. I will turn away my anger and be jealous no longer. When I make atonement for all that you have done…. etc. etc.

Can you imagine what a boost this must have been to Ezekiel who is still sitting out there in the desert wondering what is to become of his people who have been chased from their ancestral home and away from their spiritual center place? To hear that there will be a time when the covenant will be renewed and a time when anger will be turned away. At last some good news and something to hope for.

I’ve heard again and again how the Old Testament seems to be focused on an “Angry” and “Vengeful” God. In this chapter, I see quite the opposite. This story is about a long suffering and patient beyond patient God. He wants to bring His anger to an END. And can anyone doubt what He has in mind for the phrase “atonement for all that you have done”? There is a group within the Christian community who dismiss and ignore the Old Testament because it appears to have little to do with the New Testament message. From my perspective, I find a rich connection between the two collections of written scripture….as did the original believers in the message of Hope.

And now, I am done with Chapter 16. Thanks for hanging in there with me if you are reading along.

 

 

Ezekiel blog: Still in Chpt 16, and how not to gain popularity.

I remember working for a very large company once in Wisconsin.  The management there was fond of using the phrase, “Will this be good for the business?”  This seems to have been their only moral compass to guide their decision making process.  Not surprisingly, when the company stock took a small dip, the managers walked out into the main office floor and randomly fired enough people right there, on the spot, in order to make up the cash flow deficit. These people were happily sacrificed for the supposed “good” of the company.

Which brings me to the fact that I’m still digging around in Ezekiel chapter 16.  There is so much here and symbolism at so many levels, it’s taking a long time to sort through it all.   The commentaries are almost useless in many instances, many of them falling back to literal association attempts.  I’m hovering somewhere between vs 20 and vs 35.  Ezekiel is expanding on the accusations against Israel.

We are pressed constantly to appreciate the odd condition of prostitution that Jerusalem had created. In the middle of all this there is a reference to the sacrifice of their children, to which again the commentaries make a direct reference to actual child sacrifice of pagan religions in the area. I’m not so sure that is what Ezekiel is focusing on.

To be sure, the children are always targeted when religious extremity rears its fanatical head. Just look through news, current and past, and you will find religious zealots attacking schools, kidnapping children.  Add to that the political extremes which constantly try to pass laws of one flavor of another which affect how children learn, or what they have access to learn. It’s here, it’s there. The language and culture of origin may be distant or right here in our own backyard.  Extremism is just another form of idolatry, so this should not be a surprise. You can tell it is idolatry, firstly because it is created by humans (though often supposedly in the name of God), secondly because of the unforgiving (when is God not forgiving) nature of its demands, and finally how you are required to love it but it does not love you back.

However, all that aside, I think Ezekiel is addressing something more fundamental here.  Elsewhere in scripture, the children of Israel are always the people, the common citizens of the country.  These people are being sacrificed in Ezekiel’s eyes to avarice of the rulers of Jerusalem.  We saw this earlier in the book of Ezekiel.  But, ….sacrificed??

Back to my earlier example about hard working people being sacrificed for the “good” of the company.  (And by the way, that’s not the only time I saw that kind of business stupidity being delivered from so called managers.)  It is common for management/leadership/ruling class to look upon the rest of humanity as disposable to the needs of the moment. The passages of these interim verses of Ezekiel mention the involvement of the rulers of Jerusalem with other surrounding nations.  High places were built to satisfy the whims of these other nations.  That kind of thing demands resources – the kind of resources that can be extracted from a population of people who are vulnerable or in debt.  Yes, they probably were sacrificed in order to secure a certain amount of status with the national peers of Israel.  And,  as I mentioned before, it is always the children who suffer the most. Given the circumstances, I have no doubt that families were torn apart, or forced to work for extended periods of time in order to bring these perilous acts to a conclusion. And none of it was hidden from God – as Ezekiel goes into extreme detail.

All of this for what?   Ezekiel compares Israel to a prostitute. However, there is a big distinction made.  An actual prostitute expects payment for services rendered. Israel was paying their so called customers for the honor of being a prostitute in Ezekiel’s eyes.  Quite backward, but neither situation being desirable in any form.

What is the message here then?   The question to ask is why was the leadership of Israel so insecure that they believed they must pacify their peers, live up to imagined expectations of the very nations that they were in a position to influence in a positive way?  It was a total desire to be popular, to be secure, to know and control the dynamics.  None of that can be described as faith.   Faith does not demand that the nations leadership be passive and uninterested players either. But it does demand that they listen to the voice of compassion, of justice for their citizens, that they hear the cry for fairness and have an openness to the guidance of the Spirit which often advices to Be Still, have patience, watch God at work, and err on the side of being mindfully charitable of and to your neighbor.

It is often said that the old testament is about an Angry and Vengeful God – one who is quick of temper and who offers no mercy of compassion.  Over and over again, as I read Ezekiel, I see quite the opposite.  Here, in these paragraphs, we see God patiently working with Israel and the other nations over generations, trying to move them into a better state; until a breaking point is reached and all forward progress has been lost.   I see parallels between the parables of the Gospels and the pleas for social justice from the prophets.

Oh well, next blog will be on to the pronouncements of judgment in chapter 16.  I’m sure that will be filled with all kinds of fun.  And we will see if there is any hint of charity, mercy, or compassion left to be had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: What’s in a verb anyways?

 

In any story, in any narrative, there comes a point where the voice of the storyteller shifts.  It doesn’t always happen. But, in most cases where someone is trying to convince you of something, or dissuade you of something, the tension will rise around how active the verbs are. To that point,  I remember my history professor in college challenging me to get out of passive voice and into active voice.

What does this have to do with Ezekiel Chapter 16?  As I was reading through some more of this chapter, I was struck by a couple of key sentences, verses 15 & 16 specifically.  The tone became very different as we hear God’s complaint get voiced in such a way such that we begin to hear the emotional overtones of betrayal and dismay.  Everything said from the beginning of the chapter was in first person.  “I” did this, and “I” did that ….all for you. Verse 15 starts in with “But you did this”, and “you did that”.   You, You, You.

I thought that the phrase, “You trusted in your beauty” was an interesting way to begin things. God is full of astonishment and disappointment at Israel whom he has brought forward from humble beginnings, through all the growing pains, little by little gaining grace and beauty, who has now taken a possessive ownership of that very same beauty. Israel basically says, “thanks, but it’s mine just the same” – a sort of self justification for any action yet to be taken.  It’s a form of arrogance that dismisses the gentle process of guidance towards perfection and revels in the apparent state of arrival as if nothing has happened before this point.

That devaluation is further characterized in the second half of that sentence where God continues, “and you used your fame to become a prostitute”.  So not only did you devalue the entire partnership and loving care to get you to this point, you chose to spend what remaining value you had towards a short term increase in popularity that was completely false.  “You used this – to become that”.  The next several verses use the verb “took”, as in “You took this – and did that with it”.

So:  Trust, Use, Took.

Looking at those three verbs, they don’t seem that harmful or out of sort at first glance. In cases like this, I find that working backwards is instructive.

Beginning with “took”, why is it took and not receive.  Every asset mentioned was freely given by God to his cherished Israel. It reminds me of the parable of the prodigal son that Jesus told.  One son demands everything and cashes it in. The other son is jealous of lavish attention while forgetting that he has access to anything of the household by the grace of his father.  Do I continually go to God with demands of what I want?  It has always been a point of work for me to try to be aware of what I have received – most times without even asking.  Some people refer to this as the discipline of being thankful.  I think that is part of it, but it is also a discipline of recognizing all the little steps and pieces that are continually there supporting you even though things may be hard and you feel burdened.  To me, it’s not to dismiss my feelings of anxiety, pain, or sorrow over hard issues, but a reminder that there is a presence working with me.

Next up, “use”.  That’s not so bad one would think. We do that kind of thing all the time such as use the butter knife to butter toast. Use the phone to say hello.  Except – “use” implies autonomous control; and said autonomous control implies ability to make responsible choices.  When God says “…you used your fame to become a prostitute”, God is questioning the overall sense of good judgment that Israel claims to have.   This is not what the proud Father of Israel intended as a beacon on the hill for all to see. It all was thrown away and became as nothing.  What a waste.   The message of Ezekiel is that you don’t use what God has given you for dark purposes. You don’t let your own judgment seduce you into thinking your very limited vision is greater than God.

Which leads us to “Trust”.  The accusation is that Israel ceased placing faith and trust in the God that lead them out of Egypt and began to place their trust in their own self-concieved political maneuverings; buying and selling favors, etc.  Jeremiah had given the same warning:

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.

Much is going on in this chapter, a lot of emotion, a lot of tension. And, it forces me to ask questions of myself:

How aware am I of receiving what God is ready to give?  How will I know when these things come along – am I even looking?

Am I taking and then using? or am I trying to align my efforts with what God already has going on around me? How do you know what God already has going on?

Who am I trusting in? Is it my own agenda, my own sense of wisdom? Am I praying for the success of my own maneuverings, or placing faith in what God is doing?

I am not sure I know the answers to these questions all the time. I suspect that my answers change from time to time. I suspect that is what it means to be an imperfect soul.

 

 

Ezekiel blog: A long story begins

Ezekiel chapter 16 is one of the longer chapters, and if I do say so, a bit creepy in some respects (at least one commentary agrees with that).  We are taken away through Ezekiel’s visionary experience into a long metaphor of the history of Israel.

Ezekiel paints a picture of a truly undesirable beginning.  It’s a common story even today eg. wrong parents, undesirable lineage, bad neighborhood, no economic standing, bad hygiene, living in rags and poverty. No one would want her, Israel that is.  We are told that God took enormous care and patience, long suffering to watch over Israel as she grew.  All the growing pains, correcting measure by measure.  This is a process that took centuries of history.

If we look at this today, it flies in the face of the modern accusation that the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath and quick vengeance.  Absolutely not true.  Here we have a patient and nurturing God who forgives blatant imperfection. He see’s the potential of what could be. God planted the seeds of richness and watched them grow.

There is a line in this chapter that I really love – though it sounds so much better in the poetic text of the KJV. It says,

Then washed I thee with water;
yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee,
and I anointed thee with oil.

It is a promise to each one of us, spoken clearly into the middle of the mess we find ourselves living every single day.

What’s more, we see in this chapter that the neighboring nations are directly referenced, and this is for a reason.  Ezekiel tells of God’s excitement about presenting his precious jewel of Israel to all the other nations. Why?  Why is that?

I think it tells of us the intention to bring hope and improvement to the other nations – who are also of God’s creation – by showing Israel as an example.   It’s almost as if He’s saying, “Look! Look at what I was able to do with the poorest of the poor, the weakest of the weak.  I can also bring you closer to perfection if you come to my presence and forsake your pride and evil ways.  Here is the example. Here is what is waiting for you”

Isn’t that what Jesus said in one of his sermons too, when He said “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.”  I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, that there is such a huge connection between the Gospels  and the Old Testament prophets.

It is the same message, but you have look closely.

From  a personal perspective, does that mean you or I are supposed to hold ourselves out as examples?  I submit to you that the answer is No.  How do you know when you are perfect in God’s view?  No, it was for God to decide the moment and time, and present His work to the nations. Similarly, it is for God to decide when to use you for an example

All we can do is present ourselves to our neighbors and community as imperfect creatures – a work in progress.  And share that message that if God is willing to invest time and materials in me, then He surely is willing to do the same for you.

I find a certain amount of peace in this message – and this is the good news of the Gospel.

Next blog will traverse further into Ezekiel chapter 16 to see what happens next. What does Israel do, and how does the vision progress?