For those who want a change from the Gospel
Sunday after Ascension Day – Ezekiel 36:24-28
Whilst it is a bit of a miserable book, blaming the people of Israel for their behaviour which led them into exile in Babylon, there are a few passages about blessing and restoration, such as this passage for today. But before we go ‘Ahhh, that’s lovely!’ too readily, there are a few things we ought to know, and a few harsh lessons for us to learn from this seemingly benign post-Easter message.
The first thing is that nowhere in the entire book does the prophet speak of God’s love for the people. That may seem shocking, but the message is reinforced if we read on a few verses: God tells the people in no uncertain terms ‘I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!’ (v.32) This is not about the people: it’s about God’s reputation. When he does restore their fortunes, the next few verses tell us, it is so that ‘the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’ (v.36)
Of course the love of God for his people is not absent from the biblical accounts, but it is worth asking the question as to why it doesn’t feature big-time in Ezekiel. But there is yet worse to come: the only way that God is going to be able to present to the world a holy, cleansed people is by taking away their free will! A new heart and a new will is going to replace their stubborn hears and wills, so that they will simply be unable to sin. The precious gift which was given in the Garden of Eden, but which led to so much disaster, is going to be taken away. The oft-repeated idea that God did not make us to be robots is going to be proven wrong: we will have no option but to obey him.
Suddenly this passage has taken on a chilling aspect, and while like all texts it has to be read in the context of the whole Bible, there are maybe some things for us to learn from what it actually says. I am currently doing a piece of work on the way in which some modern churches have sold out to the gospel of consumerism and therapy. In other words, God is there to make me feel better, to answer all my prayers, and to fill me with joy and peace. I have listened in several churches to testimonies from people who have found faith through some kind of evangelistic course, and without exception their stories have been about finding healing, confidence, a better self-image, calm and peace in difficult situations, and so on. Since I met Jesus, my life has felt better. Not once did I hear anyone bewailing their sinful lifestyle and rejoicing in forgiveness, or people having been sent out in costly service to the world as a result of their conversion. And certainly never once have I heard anyone saying that they had become convinced that the gospel was, quite simply, the truth. Now of course Jesus does give peace and all the rest of it, certainly in the immediate post-conversion honeymoon period, but when we preach a gospel which only promises those things, rather than the suffering and persecution which Jesus promised, it is not surprising that people can be headed for a fall.
So Ezekiel reminds us that God is not there for us: we are there for him. His reputation is at stake, and he will do what it takes to protect it, even from the behaviour of his people. I have recently completed another five or six hours of safeguarding training. Don’t get me wrong – we need to do this, but my goodness how tragic that we need to. The church has become a byword for child abuse. You only have to listen to any stand-up comedy and it’ll come up sooner or later, and God’s reputation has been dragged through the mud, because of the behaviour of a small but significant number of people who were more concerned about their own appetites than about the reputation of their Lord.
Of course none of us would ever do anything so terrible as that, but it is worth asking the question ‘What is it that I do do which causes God’s name to be dishonoured?’ Even something as simple as choosing to speak to our friends after church rather than approaching those newcomers can result in people telling others ‘I tried church, but nobody seemed to want me there, so I won’t bother again.’ We used to sing that it was all about you, Jesus. We still do have free will – let’s make sure that it is all about him.
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