Sunday, September 6, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Ezekiel: 30 Years"

Ezekiel 1:1-4

In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.

2 (It happened on the fifth day of the month, in the fifth year after King Jehoiachin’s deportation. 

3 The Lord’s word burst in on the priest Ezekiel, Buzi’s son, in the land of Babylon at the Chebar River. There the Lord’s power overcame him.) 

 4 As I watched, suddenly a driving storm came out of the north, a great cloud flashing fire, with brightness all around. At its center, in the middle of the fire, there was something like gleaming amber.

(Common English Bible)

“From 40 Days to 84 Years: Waiting on God’s Word,” Week Two

I remember reading the news of it on my computer and subsequently spending the next week sitting at a table in front of the student cafeteria at my college, soliciting donations for the Red Cross. 

I remember it actually entering my dreams, of one in particular where I was flying through the storm until I finally reached its center, the eye of the hurricane.

And I remember the stories of how brokenhearted the people themselves who were most affected felt, of how they felt like a nation of 49 other states had left them to rot in stadiums and trailers.

It was August 29, 2005, ten years ago plus one week, and Hurricane Katrina had just decimated New Orleans, Louisiana.  And in reading the “where are things now” stories this past week, ten years later, I felt that great sense of brokenheartedness and disappointment seep into my soul once more like a sponge.

And it was then that I was reminded that the axiom “time heals all wounds” is oftentimes a load of hooey.  Time heals minor wounds, it’s a peroxide for scrapes and skinned arms and legs.  It doesn’t measure up to the lacerations that need stitches to tie them back together.

But it is precisely that sort of gaping wound that I felt still existed in the ten-year-old wake of Katrina.  And it is precisely that sort of aching wound the propels the prophet Ezekiel into ministry.

This is a new sermon series, just in time for the fall season of school years and football seasons alike starting, and that’s in fact very important for us to remember right now.  This series is really about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon our faith.  It was grown, in fact, out of an idea from one of our elders, Alisha Hayes, whose seed of a suggestion that she made to me for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Last week, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and we’ll continue this series next week by talking about the other—Moses.  But for today, we’re going to be talking about a lesser-known figure in the Hebrew Bible, but still one of great consequence who wrote one of the three long books of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible: the prophet Ezekiel.

The prophet’s own name gives some glimpse into how he survives the existential agony—some would say madness, but we’ll get to that in a bit—the prophet is plainly in.  El, as many of you know, is a shortened form of the Hebrew word Elohim, which means “God,” or “Lord.”  Ezek comes from the Hebrew hazaq, which means “strong,” or “strengthen,” or “fasten.”  Ezekiel’s name translates, then, into “God strengthens/will strengthen.”  When Ezekiel begins the entire accounting of his prophecies with the words, “while I was among the exiles,” you know that strength is needed.

The exiles Ezekiel is referring to in his introduction are the Judeans who were exiled from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, though Ezekiel refers to the exile as that of King Jehoiachin, the last legitimate king of Judah—after Nebuchadnezzar first invaded Jerusalem, he deposed Jehoicahin and replaced him with a puppet king, Zedekiah, before invading once more in 586 BCE and turning Judah fully into a Babylonian slave state.

The Babylonian exile is one of three events that the Hebrew Bible really centers itself around, with the other two being the exodus out of Egypt under Moses and the unification of Israel as a single kingdom under David and his son Solomon.  Almost everything else that takes place in the Hebrew Bible, except for the events in the book of Genesis, is documented under the immense shadow of these three watershed events, each roughly 400 years apart, from the Exodus circa 1400 BCE to the reigns of David and Solomon circa 1000 to 920 BCE to the previously mentioned Babylonian exile.

Ezekiel, though, is cut from a very different cloth than any of those Biblical heroes: Moses is an entirely reluctant savior whereas David is an overlooked one.  And Solomon’s defining characteristic is his wisdom, whereas Ezekiel’s is most likely his sheer outlandishness—this is a fellow who, shortly into his prophetic ministry, actually eats a holy scroll and says it tastes sweet to him, like honey.  He goes for shock value, not necessarily calm erudition.  He’s more the random person you see in the street corner holding up a sign saying that the world is going to end rather than an ordinary church pastor, seminary professor, or any other member of any institutionalized religion.

Ezekiel, in other words, is a prophet on the margins.  That’s who he is.  And when the earliest of the Hebrew Bible prophets, Isaiah, happened to be a prophet in the royal court of multiple kings, this is no small distinction to make.  Isaiah is in the palaces—though it will end up costing him his life, when the reign of King Manasseh rolls around—but Ezekiel is in the streets.

Put a different way, Ezekiel was in the heart of New Orleans when the hurricane warnings of Katrina began coming in.  He went into exile just like thousands of New Orleans citizens as Katrina, like Nebuchadnezzar of old, utterly demolished his beloved home city.

Or, Ezekiel could right now be in the masses of refugees, literally washing up on our shores like that little boy's body that made all of the news stories, after their homes were likewise heart-wrenchingly taken from them.

But as Ezekiel writes, that is also how the word of the Lord arrived to him as well, after thirty years of living, five of them in exile: God’s word “burst in” upon him and “overcame” him.  The Word didn’t walk up and politely tap Ezekiel on the shoulder and hold out a hand, no, it swept over him the way the Psalmist says that God cascades over him in the 42nd Psalm.

Being called by God is very much an immersion.  It is, in a way, why it is appropriate that we then baptize by immersion: somebody is signaling that God has spoken out to them by choosing to be quite literally immersed in water…sometimes of uncomfortably cold temperatures!

Does that mean that God’s word shone out to somebody as, say, New Orleans itself was immersed by Hurricane Katrina, or Japan was by its tsunami in 2011?  I think so.  Not because God uses natural disasters, or “driving storms,” as Ezekiel says, as tools of wrath—that’s a beastly, ghastly theology—but because those disasters are what necessitate soul-sized heroes in the first place.

Think about it: Moses would have had no need to be a savior if the Israelites were not already enslaved in Egypt.

Ezekiel would have no need to be a prophet if the Judeans were not already in exile in Babylon.

And Jesus Christ Himself would likewise have had no need to be a savior—THE Savior—had Israel not been enslaved to the Romans, the Jewish religious leadership enslaved to Pontius Pilate, and humanity itself enslaved to sin.

When everything is copacetic, we do not think of ourselves as needing a Nietzschian ubermensch, an ultimate person capable of saving us when we are unable to save ourselves, because what on earth could we possibly need saving from?

It is only when our backs are against the proverbial wall that we realize who, and what, we truly need.  And until we really begin to understand that, it's difficult to put ourselves in another person's shoes...and that's what the saying is, right?  Walk a mile in someone else's shoes?

But...what if that person doesn't have any shoes to begin with?

It was five years—longer than I have been here as your pastor—into the exile before God came to Ezekiel, and it was thirty years that Ezekiel was alive before receiving that divine word.  A lot has changed in just five years, never mind thirty--we still had troops in Iraq, the World Cup had just been played in South Africa rather than Brazil, and Law & Order was still on the air!

Yet even then, it would be another forty-some years before Israel would finally be delivered, not by Ezekiel, but by a non-Israelite: the Persian king Cyrus the Great.  So stretch your mind back to the year 1970, and that is how long the Israelites have waited their saving.  Think of how much has changed since then.

That's the kind of waiting on God we are talking about with this sermon series.

So the waiting on God will in fact continue for Ezekiel and his flock, even as he fills chapter after chapter of Biblical verse with his vivid and enervating prophecies.

As it shall continue for each of us, even as we live out our lives in the comforts and securities of our own homes and vocations.

Because, in truth, however comfortable and secure we may be, there will remain in each of us, for as long as we continue to be alive, at least part of us that will forever long to be closer to God, to not be so far in exile from our creator.

And so to the closing of that exile I will soon send you forth, and pray that you, like the saints who have come before you, will one day ultimately and truly find.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 6, 2015

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