For those who want a change from the Gospel
Sunday After Ascension – Ezekiel 26:24-28
This week we are in a period of waiting, between Ascension and Pentecost. Just as the disciples spent these days in fervent prayer, so the Church has often used this time as a time of waiting and preparing for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with initiatives such as ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. But it is worth asking ourselves just what it is that we are waiting for. What exactly are we expecting to happen as we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost? I guess that will vary. For some, who already know and understand the Spirit and his gifts, it will basically be more of the same, with perhaps a chance to receive afresh, to be topped up with the Spirit, since we all leak. For others the story of Acts 2 remains a bit of a mystery, and a weird one at that, which engenders little in the way of expectation. I can remember being part of a team organising a Pentecost celebration in our local cathedral, and someone had the idea of showing children with sparkly (and now politically incorrect) shapes from the ceiling to represent the flames of fire coming down on their heads. When I suggested that we might just skip that and pray for them to receive the fire of the Spirit directly, I was greeted with stunned silence. We’re sometimes happier with the symbols that we are with the reality.
In an otherwise gloomy and negative book these few verses from Ezekiel speak of a people in waiting. The prophet has used the reality of their exile to blame them for getting into this mess through their own deliberate fault. As I have mentioned before, the prophet nowhere speaks of God’s love for his people as a motive for restoring them. But he does speak about four things God is intending to do in order to bring about their healing. Maybe there are some parallels with our waiting and our celebration of Pentecost, and how we might perhaps pray for the Church.
God will gather us
Sin often results in breaking and fragmenting, whether because of racism, sectarianism, or, in this case, displacement. God’s solution is not to try to ‘ban the boats’, but rather to gather people back together again and to give them a future. It has often been noted that Pentecost is a kind of reversal of Babel, where language caused the people to be scattered and separated, but now communication is restored through the Spirit’s gift. It is tragic that the work of the Holy Spirit has so often divided the Church, and so we wait prayerfully for his healing of our divisions and differences.
God will cleanse us
Sin pollutes us, and the image of sprinkling and cleansing, taken up in the sacrament of Baptism, is a major one in Scripture. Note that God never says ‘That’s OK’, but he does say ‘I forgive you’, which is a very different thing. Whilst the Israelites had committed many sins, it is interesting that it is idolatry which is specifically mentioned here. The prophet recognises that false worship leads inexorably to false living, so we pray for God’s church not just to be one, but also to be holy.
God will change us
Recently I have been teaching about discipleship and how we might measure it, how we can see whether in fact our ministry is helping people to grow more Christ-like. Two very different attempts to do this both contain one very similar metric. One calls it ‘perspective’, in other words how well people are growing to think and see things as God sees them, as the mind of Christ grows in them. It’s not so much ‘What would Jesus do?’ as ‘What would Jesus think?’ about any particular situation. And another scheme talks about ‘consequence’ the degree to which people’s so-called faith inspires them to live differently, and affects their finances, how they vote at elections, and so on. Discipleship is a long and gradual journey, a ‘long obedience in the same direction’ to quote Nietzsche, but here God promises a heart transplant which will change our desire to live for God, and to obey him. In a culture where we instinctively reject any authority, we might pray for a new heart for the Church, which gladly submits our all to God and to his purposes.
God will reaffirm the covenant
The words in v.28 about the relationship between God and his people are the standard form of the covenant, the ‘deal’ between us, and come again and again in the OT. They are going to be used again in Isaiah 40:1 when that prophet announces the return from exile to their homeland: ‘Comfort my people says your God.’ Ezekiel has roundly condemned the nation throughout his book for their sin, and yet God remains faithful and willing to give them a second chance (in fact an nth chance) to live in relationship with him. In spite of our sin, weakness, idolatry and compromise, the deal is still on! Perhaps that is our greatest prayer: that God will restore us to be the Church he has always intended us to be. Come, Holy Spirit!