Sunday, April 22, 2012

For Christ's Sake

For Christ's Sake from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Ezekiel 36:22-38

22Say to the House of Israel: Thus said the LORD GOD: Not for your sake will I act, O House of Israel, but for My holy name, which you have caused to be profaned among the nations to which you have come. 23I will sanctify My great name which has been profaned among the nations - among whom you have caused it to be profaned. And the nations shall know that I am the LORD - declares the LORD GOD - when I manifest my holiness before their eyes through you. 24I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you back to your own land. 25I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes. 26And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; 27and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules. 28Then you shall dwell in the land which I have given to your fathers; and you shall be my people and I will be your God.

29And when I have delivered you from all your uncleanness, I will summon the grain and make it abundant, and I will not bring famine upon you. 30I will make the fruit of your trees and the crops of your fields abundant, so that you shall never again be humiliated before the nations because of famine. 31Then you shall recall your evil ways and your base conduct, and you shall loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abhorrent practices. 32Not for your sake will I act - declares the LORD GOD - take good note! Be ashamed and humiliated because of your ways, O House of Israel!

33Thus said the LORD GOD: When I have cleansed you of all your iniquities, I will people your settlements, and the ruined places shall be rebuilt; 34 and the desolate land, after lying waste in the sight of every passerby, shall again be tilled. 35And men shall say, “That land, once desolate, has become like the garden of Eden; and the cities, once ruined, desolate, and ravaged, are now populated and fortified.” 36And the nations that are left around you shall know that I the LORD have rebuilt the ravaged places and replanted the desolate land. I the LORD have spoken and will act.

37Thus said the Lord God: Moreover, in this I will respond to the House of Israel and act for their sake: I will multiply their people like sheep. 38As Jerusalem is filled with sacrificial sheep during her festivals, so shall the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people. And they shall know that I am the LORD.

This is the Word of The Lord
Thanks Be to God

This text belongs to a people in exile. It belongs to those who have seen their buildings crumble, the crops burned, their people taken captive. This text belongs to those who are scattered and have no home. This text belongs to Lent’s not yet, and yet it has made its way into the already of Easter.

It’s found its way here because even though the women who went to the tomb have already seen the Lord, and even though the travelers on the Emmaus road have already dined with Christ, we are still living in an exile of our own making, waiting for God to establish the Kingdom here on earth. And Ezekiel’s prophesy concerning the restoration of the kingdom has not yet happened, and so it belongs to us.

Here I am, a young preacher. I read this text, and feel called to preach on it, and I want the sermon to be good. I mean, real good. I want to deliver the kind of sermons I’ve read in my literature courses, beautifully composed works of literature that testify to where God is acting in the world. I want to deliver sermons that stick with you for the long term. I’m sure that whatever it is that is important to us is something we want to be good at. We want to look good for our peers.

For me it’s preaching, but for others it may be playing bridge, or chess, or cooking. Or writing, or music, or any number of the other talents with which God has graced us. We want to be good. My struggle is: do I want to do this because I want to bring glory to the God who gave me these gifts, or do I want it for my own sake.

Truth is, my answer changes back and forth depending on the day you ask me. My full name is Joseph William Taber IV, and that name comes with a long and rich heritage, but this text tells me that the focus is not about the greatness of my name, or my Dad’s, or Grandaddy’s, or Pappy’s, or any name I pass on to my eventual son, hypothetical being that he is. But while we are busy trying to build ourselves up, God speaks. “Not for your sake will I act, O House of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have caused to be profaned among the nations to which you have come.”

I think the way we profane the name is by assuming that we somehow have a claim on God, and this passage refutes that. Our prayers are not opportunities to grab God like a child who won’t listen and lay down what we think the law should be. The image itself is preposterous, but it’s how many of us approach God. The Lion of Judah is not, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, a tame lion. So God tells us that we are going to be restored from our exile, brought into Jerusalem from the wilderness, but makes a point that we are not being made holy again out of our own deserving. God is doing this because we’re making God look bad.

So God sends us into an exile of our own making, and we respond by trying to dig ourselves out. We maintain the idolatrous idea that if we got ourselves into this mess, we can get ourselves out. So our response is to do the same thing again. We haven’t learned, we only barely remember that this is what got us unto this mess in the first place. So our continued attempt at self-mastery in exile continues to profane God’s holy name, just as it did in Israel. Something’s got to change, and we have proven ourselves unwilling or unable to do it. So God promises a new beginning to us, for his name’s sake.

The language of this text is full of rich imagery of restoration and rebirth. But it is not for our sake that the restoration and rebirth occurs. It is not for our sake that we are given wealth, and talents, or called to this holy task. God is doing these things so that all the world will know that the LORD is God. Because when we seek to make ourselves look good, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are our own masters. But we are not our own, we belong to God.

The desire to be our own master is one of the many things we share with Israel, and both we and Israel go into exile on account of it. Israel’s desire to be its own master led it to abandon the instructions given to them by God to set them apart from the rest of the world. Our desire to be our own masters leads us to try and fill this text with what we want it to say, so that we don’t have to read what it actually says. We look at this strange text and have problems with it. We want God to act because God loves us, because we’re special to God. But this text tells us that “Not for your sake will I act, O house of Israel, but for my Holy name.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it. God acts for Godself, not for our sake. Preacher that I am, I asked myself “How do I take God acting for the sake of God’s holy name and use it to preach the Gospel?” To me, the rest of the passage is specifics on how that will be accomplished, and much of the first draft of my sermon was concerned with justifying this highly contextual language into our own place and time.

But the text doesn’t need to be justified, we already confessed that it was the Word of the Lord, and therefore it matters to us, just as God’s reputation matters to God. But we are compelled by this passage to move a little more slowly past our problems. “Be ashamed and humiliated because of your ways, O House of Israel.” Though this passage immediately promises a restoration, the whole of this text is wrapped up in how we once again become holy.

We’ve got to remember that God has to be the focus. When I did all of my exegetical work, all of my theological thinking, it was because I wanted to write a good sermon. I wanted to impress my colleagues, I wanted to impress my friends, I wanted to impress ya’ll here. And even though I had read the text a dozen times, and worked on it for many hours, I had not internalized it, and I hadn’t let it work on me. I wrote brilliant thoughts and beautiful lines all about why we didn’t want to deal with this text. I tried to force what I was thinking into a form that had worked for me before, and no matter how long I worked and thought and puffed on my theologian’s pipe I could not make my thoughts fit inside this text. Because this text was already full of its own meaning, and I was learning that the hard way.

That restoration doesn’t happen because of us. Our actions haven’t changed the way God looks at us, instead we’ve made God look bad. The peoples of the world look at us, hear what we say, see what we do, and we have represented a church full of hypocrites. Seeing how the world responds to God’s action and God’s people, God chooses to act in a new way.

God certainly doesn’t need our approval, God isn’t feeding some ego trip where the peoples of the world validate God’s existence. God is God, and does not depend on us. But the holiness of God matters because God refuses to disengage from creation. God does not make a habit of ignoring what is going on in our lives, even when it is offensive to God’s nature. Instead, because God insists on being in relationship with what God has created, God gathers us out of our exile and brings us back to where we belong. For us, a shift in our own mindset. For our spiritual ancestors, a shift in the political and physical reality.

There’s a shift at the end of the scripture too. After hearing time and time again that it is not for our sake that God will restore us to the kingdom, God says “In this I will respond to the House of Israel and act for their sake. I will multiply their people like sheep.” That shift is what attracted me to this passage in the first place. We start with God acting because it is God’s nature to be both holy and involved in creation, and now God is once again acting on our behalf, comparing us to sacrificial sheep, an animal that was set aside as holy, belonging to God, not to those of this world. That’s where this text enters the Easter tale.

At the end of this passage, it is not too far a leap to say that the link between acting for the sake of God’s holy name and our sake is acting for Christ’s sake. Through Christ, we are, as Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us, adopted as God’s children, and are fellow heirs with Christ. God and humanity are united again, brought home from exile among the nations where all we could do was to reflect poorly on the God who claims us.

So now all who see how we are changed will know, as the passage states, that the LORD is God. Because the LORD has spoken and acted. It is for Christ’s sake that in baptism we are sprinkled with clean water and our uncleanness is washed away. It is for Christ’s sake that our iniquities are cleansed and we who had not born fruit are made to produce again. It is for Christ’s sake that our homes and our lives are rebuilt, and that our hollowness is replaced with a fullness of life. It is for Christ’s sake that we are made holy again, set apart as a people of God, to fill God’s kingdom for the celebration to come.

That’s what we celebrate at Easter, and though we have to go through Good Friday to get there, at Easter we are brought back to the kingdom of God, and are set apart as belonging to God so that all the world may know that it is Christ who redeems, and that the LORD is God.

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