For those who want a change from the Gospel
Sunday after Ascension – Ezekiel 36:24-28
For God’s sake!
Once again our lectionary compilers have had their filleting knives out and changed almost beyond recognition the message of Ezekiel, and certainly the message of these few verses, by ripping them out of their context, both in the whole book but also in the immediately surrounding verses. It’s the kind of lovely few verses you’re likely to see on a fridge magnet or in a birthday card from a Christian friend: the reality is quite different.
The first thing to note is that the book as a whole hardly ever mentions God’s love for his people; rather it constantly points the finger of blame – this exile is your fault, and your fault alone. But the second half of the book, which perhaps has these few verses as its epicentre, appears to be about restoration. ‘Don’t worry: I know you’ve been naughty but now I’m going to restore your fortunes, out of my great love for you, and make everything OK again.’ As such it is a lovely purple passage about God’s forgiving love. But in context it’s nothing of the kind.
In giving people new hearts, you see, God is in effect taking away their free will. He himself will make them obey his laws, because otherwise they simply can’t be trusted to live good lives. So the heart transplant will ensure that they have no choice but to chose the right thing, every time. It’s Ezekiel’s way of undoing Genesis 3, taking away the option to sin so that only goodness is available to them. What a screaming condemnation of the human heart, if that’s the only way we can live good lives!
So why does God choose this drastic path? This is where the filleting is at its most destructive, because God makes it perfectly clear in the verses surrounding our passage. In v.23 God explains that when he acts
I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.
He says the same thing in even stronger language in v.32:
It is not for your sake that I will act, says the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and dismayed for your ways, O house of Israel.
The reason that God is going to clean up his people’s act is not for them, but for him, and his reputation. The nations look at Israel and see only corrupt and nasty behaviour, and so God is mocked. But if his people have no choice but to live good and attractive lives, his honour will be magnified among the pagan nations.
These are hard words indeed, particularly from such an apparently lovely passage. This side of the cross we do know, of course, that a heart-transplant is possible, although we also know only too well that we still retain the option of living sinfully. But what the passage does challenge is our 21st century consumerist, therapeutic gospel, that Jesus came to make us all have a lovely time, to take away our burdens and troubles, and to sail us gently to heaven. If I behave badly, I may feel that I have let myself down. But what I often lose sight of is the way in which I have let the Church, and ultimately Jesus, down. From being a trusted institution in the past, the church has allowed public confidence in it and its ministers to become eroded, and much of this has to do the high-visibility child abuse accusations. It would be great if God were to remove from our hearts the ability to choose to harm or abuse others more vulnerable than ourselves, but the evidence is that he has not. Rather the NT paints Christian discipleship as an ongoing, life-long struggle against sin, as our unredeemed nature constantly tries to assert itself. When we let it, it is not just our victims who are harmed: it is God’s name, his reputation.
In these days of waiting and praying for the Spirit, perhaps joining in with the Thy Kingdom Come initiative, Ezekiel invites us to consider why we think we need the Holy Spirit. To make our worship-times feel even better? To see the world evangelised? To end poverty? Very laudable aims, but perhaps Ezekiel would remind us that the Spirit also comes to strengthen our resolve in that daily fight against sin. For God’s sake.