Sermon for Pentecost 17

Year A – September 27, 2020

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Today, we heard from one of my favorite prophets: Ezekiel! Like Jonah, whom we heard from last week, Ezekiel is a quirky book — albeit for different reasons. His work is strange enough that many tried to dismiss it over the centuries. Some Jewish traditions believe those under the age of thirty-five should not be allowed to read his prophecies. He almost didn’t make it into the Jewish canon of scripture. Some commentators even argue, based on Ezekiel’s colorful visions and bizarre behavior, that Ezekiel was mentally ill. Though it is possible, there is no evidence from either inside or outside of scripture to support this hypothesis. Prophets of that time and across diverse cultures of the ancient Near East wrote about and even did crazy things. This was not an expression of illness but to make their point clear to their audiences. It is easy to be distracted by the colorful things Ezekiel said and did. While these were and are important (and interesting to learn about and from!), I would like to focus instead on the arc of Ezekiel’s life — what we can learn from it and how it may speak to us in our times.

Ezekiel led an interesting and hard life. Like Mike and I, Ezekiel was a priest of the Most High God. Unlike any priest or other religious “professional” living today, Ezekiel served in the great Temple of Solomon. As a part of my seminary education, I took a three-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of our many stops was the remnants of the Temple in which Ezekiel served. We walked on a massive and ancient staircase originally just outside the Temple. It was so worn in places it was more like a ramp. How amazing it was to stand near — perhaps even on! — the very step where Jesus taught! We also saw one of its bricks, laying on the ground in ruins. At slightly larger than a pickup truck, it was massive, and a small hint at the grandeur of the original building. What a privilege it must have been to serve our God in such a magnificent building!

Now, imagine what Ezekiel saw, felt and experienced at the arrival of the Babylonians. He was a part of the first group of exiles forced to leave Jerusalem. In ancient Israel, houses of worship were not like they are today. They couldn’t be built just anywhere. There was but one rightful place of worship: the Jerusalem Temple. When Ezekiel was hauled off with the others, he was forced to leave behind not only his home but also his vocation and the religious practices and Temple he loved dearly. Only later would he hear, secondhand, of  the Temple’s violent and spectacular destruction. (The bricks which I described were made of porous limestone. Those pores trapped moisture. When the Babylonians set the Temple aflame and the heat met the trapped moisture, the bricks exploded. The noise of the blasts could be heard for miles into the countryside, for weeks on end — a regular and painful reminder of the terrible war upon Israel’s doorstep.)

The heart of Jerusalem worship, the place which Ezekiel and his fellow believers were convinced was their only connection to God — was gone. Only ashes remained. The world as they knew it was simultaneously rent asunder and turned upside down. How were Ezekiel and his fellow exiles to reconcile their new reality with their faith?

While the circumstances in which we find ourselves are quite different from those of Ezekiel and his fellow exiles, the questions they asked echo our own. We aren’t facing the fallout of war — at least not in our corner of the world. But we do face fear — and particularly so since the pandemic began. Yes, we fear for our health and that of our loved ones. But that is not the only thing: we also fear change. We no longer know what to expect in so many aspects of our lives. We know even less about what the future will hold. Even a question as simple as, “When will the children start school?” has become a moving target. We know things will not go back to the way they were in January, not for some time and perhaps not ever.

How were Ezekiel and his fellow exiles to reconcile their new reality with their faith?

So…How will we react to this fear and change? And how will we move through it?

Ezekiel and the exiles faced similar questions. Through discernment, it was revealed to Ezekiel that God was not limited by the bounds of the Temple as they had once thought. God never was and never will be. God was not only as big as the world they knew but bigger, bigger than the seemingly omnipotent empire who conquered them, bigger than all their fears, bigger than the universe itself. The same God walks with us, bigger than all our fears, bigger than even the most virulent pandemic.

The God of Love, the God of No Limits, was with the Exiles, and is with us, too, walking with us through the fear and into the unknown.

Photo Info: Stairs of Ascent before the Double Gate, circa 1st century CE Photo Source: Wikipedia