Ezekiel

A Sprig Held High

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
   from the lofty top of a cedar;
   I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
   from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
   on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
   that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
   I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
   and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish it.


As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.

Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.

Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:

  • He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year God said the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
  • During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
  • Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
  • He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.

It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.

For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.

Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.

We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life, being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.

This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.

In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.

And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.

Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.

Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.

Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.

Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.

The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.

Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.

 

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How to Bless a Nation

Ezekiel 2:1-5

The Scripture for today is sometimes known as “Ezekiel’s call.” God is summarizing what he would have the prophet do—go to a people who have forgotten God’s word and tell them, “Thus says the Lord God.”

Leading up to this call, Ezekiel has a truly ethereal vision, filled with images of heavenly creatures, wheels in the sky and a sapphire throne, all rattling him to the core and reminding him of who rules over all things. The vision initially stuns him, but it also strengthens him and equips him to go to the severely lost and broken nation of Israelites, whom God has turned over to their enemies as punishment for their turning away.

It is difficult to read Ezekiel so near the anniversary of our nation’s founding and not make some connections to our own situation. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we in recent decades have been uncoupling the nation’s values from traditional Christian values. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling a little over a week ago allowing homosexual marriage is just the latest evidence of how times are changing.

This disconnect between the secular and the sacred began long before this particular ruling, however. Where human sexuality is concerned, we’ve been creeping down the secular slope for about half a century now, becoming more accepting of promiscuity and divorce as part of the so-called “sexual revolution.” Pornography is now more accessible than the “I Love Lucy” show was in the 1950’s. Almost as a side note, abortion has become so acceptable that we hardly speak of it anymore.

There are other areas where we ignore the Bible. We have tolerated all sorts of abuses by business and industry in the name of free markets, even using our astonishing power to make war where we see our energy interests threatened. We prop up our economy with artificial economic “bubbles” that create short-term gain for the market savvy and long-term pain for the average person on the street. Occasionally an Enron or a Bernie Madoff draws a little confused outrage from the general public, but the system endures.

None of this is spiritually smart, of course. I say that as a Christian who believes the Bible is by far our best guide to God’s will. We pray for new revelations from God, but even those have to be tested against our best understanding of what God has already revealed. As you might expect, I don’t like the unbiblical direction we are headed as a nation.

At the same time, I have great hope regarding the direction American Christianity can now more easily go. If you have spent most of your lives conflating Christian and American values, my optimism is going to be a little confusing or challenging.

I used to watch (for a few minutes, anyway) a local televangelist in Upper East Tennessee who preached in front of a graphic rendering of a Bible morphing into an American flag. He probably is very agitated right now about what is happening in the good-old USA. I’m not. I believe American Christians are on the cusp of a great opportunity, assuming we can learn to separate the Bible and the flag in our minds.

Using our best hindsight, I think we have to admit the church makes a huge mistake any time it begins to rely on the secular world, particularly the political world, to carry out God’s will. Going to the polls and voting a certain way becomes a weak sacrament. Post a political rant on the Internet, write a few letters to our representatives, fund a lobbying effort or two, and we think we’ve done our part for God.

When the church functions this way long-term, the government eventually takes over many of the church’s God-ordained roles. The government becomes the primary caregiver of the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. It educates; for a time, we expected public schools to teach our kids about the Bible and how to pray, and I still hear church people complain this no longer happens. The government officially marries people. I can marry a couple before God, but if they want the marriage recognized in any official capacity, I or someone else has to sign a state document. How did we let all that happen?

Christians also manage to offend those we are most called to reach when we use the government to execute our mission. Be it the old “blue laws,” Prohibition or the Moral Majority’s lobbying efforts of the 1980’s, the unchurched don’t like to have someone else’s version of morality forced upon them. When they sense this happening, they are less open to the grace-centered relationship God offers through Jesus Christ.

So, if we are not primarily voters, political activists or Facebookers, what are we? I think we need to become what we once were, builders of deep spiritual community, an escape from what is worldly. Other than voting our consciences like any good citizen, let’s forget politics and simply treasure the freedom of speech, religion and assembly we currently enjoy.

The early church and its best successors through history have offered what the secular world could not, an environment where all people can enter with their sadness, brokenness and sin. There they can grow in their understanding of their worth to God—he did, after all, find them worth dying for—and what it means to be holy before God.

The best democracies speak of the pursuit of happiness in this life. Christianity at its best tells you about a relationship that gives happiness now and for eternal life. The best of the secular world provides freedom to move about and chase economic success. Christianity at its best helps you to find roots in a community and the love of a people you never want to leave.

Christ offers us big-picture joy, an experience transcending this nation, this world, even this universe. As these deep Christian communities grow, our nation will be blessed through the expansion of God’s kingdom from within, no lobbying, lawsuits or votes required.

Such a shift in thinking begins with you, Christian. Are you ready to take your faith seriously, placing Christ above all things? What will you do to make your church a true Christian community, one open to anyone wanting to enter the kingdom of God and its life of holiness and joy?