Sunday, July 23, 2017

Born Again to a Living Hope: Sermon on 1 Peter 1:1-5

His heart was pounding. The morning was still dark, save for the first touches of dawn coming over the snowy summit of distant Mount Ararat. The rain in Islahiye, a railway town on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, had been falling for fifteen hours by now. And Fr. Grigoris Balakian had only one thought on his mind: escape. Like the Prophet Ezekiel long before him, he was an exile far from home. An Armenian priest, rounded up and arrested in Constantinople and taken for a long march across Turkey, destined for the Syrian desert. The Reverend Father wasn't alone. They all were starved and dehydrated, and traumatized by the things they'd seen and heard. Scenes of massacre. Reports of death squads and eyeless bodies, cannibals and vultures. Fr. Balakian's blood had chilled when an eyewitness claimed the police soldiers were complicit. And he knew he had to escape.

And so on that rained-out morning in April 1916, in the thick of the genocide against his people, Fr. Balakian prepared a disguise, crept off a train, threw aside his priestly overcoat under cover of darkness, knelt for a brief prayer, met up with two other escapees, and rushed into the forest, bound for the mountains and the life of a fugitive living under a false identity as a German engineer. And what gave Grigoris Balakian, vartabed in the Armenian Apostolic Church, the courage and determination to escape, for he and his compatriots to put themselves “in the good Lord's hands” and confidently walk for hours into the unknown? In his own words, “we banished every pessimistic thought and remained excited by the indestructible hope of salvation.”

Hope is a powerful thing. And in hard times especially, you dare not lose it – or you might not make it through. Fr. Balakian knew that. And many centuries earlier, scattered throughout the very lands through which he and his friends had been made to march on their way down to Islahiye, a beleaguered network of local Christian communities in cities and villages were likewise struggling to hang on to hope. They were facing hard times – abused, robbed, harassed, mocked, socially excluded, hearing reports of violence against Christians, fearing no guarantee of the protection of law. And they weren't sure they could keep holding on to hope – maybe you know the feeling. Would their hope prove so indestructible as what Fr. Balakian would find?

It was into a situation like that that a letter began making the rounds, village to village, through five provinces in what today we'd call Turkey. The letter carried the voice of none other than Simon Peter, a recent arrival in the empire's capital, with help from Paul's colleague Silvanus. And this letter from “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” made its rounds through Christian communities scattered in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” We don't know much about those who read it. Scholars can't agree whether they were mainly Jewish or mainly Gentile. Scholars can't agree whether they first met Peter during a missionary journey he took through those provinces decades earlier or whether they were deported there from Rome. But they didn't fit in. They were looked on as outsiders to the place they called home. And they were scared and suffering through fiery trials. And so Peter wrote to them, with a compassionate heart to feed Christ's frightened lambs.

And he called them something strange. “Elect exiles,” maybe your Bible says (1 Peter 1:1). On the one hand, they were outcasts. They were foreigners. They didn't belong. Geographically or socially, they were far, far from the center of things. The word Peter uses here – it suggests people who are not permanent residents. They come, they settle for a little while, and they move along. They're in temporary housing, in other words. And that's who these believers are. The place where they find themselves, where they struggle to fit in and lay low, this whole society, is just temporary housing for them; they have no lasting place there. And it would be easy to conclude, as most of their neighbors surely did and as maybe some of them did, that they were unimportant. That they didn't matter. And yet Peter adds the word 'elect' – 'chosen.' The outsiders had been handpicked for rescue, for obedient living, for life-changing and world-changing things orchestrated by Father and Son and Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:2).

That's true of us, too, by the way. We have a lot to learn from Peter's letter. I admit, we live in a cozy place. A place where the professing Christians are many – so many, I have a hard time around here finding too many people who don't claim to be one! And that sounds very unlike what this letter's original audience was living through. But it still only masks the truth: we're in temporary housing. Relative to the larger society, we won't quite fit in – not if we take Jesus seriously. And in the grip of a big culture – big politics, big business, big media, big entertainment and all sorts of other industries and institutions and forces at work in the twenty-first century world – it would be easy for us to conclude that, because we're outside the mainstream and because we live in a seldom-considered, out-of-the-way place, that we're unimportant. But we, too, are God's elect – we're chosen, handpicked, by the Trinity for life-changing and world-changing things. And the same deep truths that Peter unpacks for Christian villagers then, he unpacks for believing villagers and town-dwellers now – whether we live in Pontus or Salisbury Township, Bithynia or Leacock, Galatia or East Earl.

And the first deep truth he gets to is that God, “according to his great mercy, has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). He uses a weird, rare word – literally, God has caused us to be re-begotten, to be conceived and born all over again. And Peter goes on to say that we've been “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23), which is the good news of Jesus. It's a strange-sounding thing to say. But what Peter is saying is a radical thing he first heard from his Master. 'Born again' – we use those words so flippantly, we're so comfortable with them, we miss what they mean. In the world where Peter lived, who you were – your character, your status, your identity – was in large part fixed at birth. There was no such thing as change, no such thing as reinventing yourself. Who you were born to be is who you were. Birth is destiny.

And then along comes this strange group of outcasts who start talking about being born again – getting a new identity, totally restructured – not a fake identity, like the German soldier Fr. Balakian posed as, but a real new identity, a new self, a new life. A new self made of a new stuff – that's what Peter means when he talks about 'imperishable seed.' Jesus died for you – and his blood was sprinkled to seal a new covenant. And then he rose from the dead. That's the crux of the gospel – it's the living and abiding word of God – and it's the power through which we can be re-begotten. If you believe, if you trust, if you follow Jesus, if you've given your life to him and let him tear it down and give you a new one, that's exactly what's happened to you. That's what it means to be born again. You are not your past. You are not who you were. You are not what you've done. In being born again, all your old shame, all your past sins, belong to someone who no longer exists. What you were born to be the first time around – it doesn't matter. If you were born and raised into the farm life, into riches or poverty, into slavery or prejudice, into drugs or crime – whatever it was, you are re-begotten through the resurrection of Jesus, a Messiah who left the company of the dead behind and raced into an indestructible life. You are not who you were.  You are forever new.

What's more, Peter says, you are re-begotten, born again, to an inheritance. The word he used here is the same one Greek-speaking Jews used when they retold the story of their ancestors approaching the Promised Land, the fruitful place promised to their fathers where they could put down roots and live in peace, after all their listless wanderings. That was their inheritance, and all the generous bounty contained within it – sweet water, planted trees, walled cities, great treasure, all ready for inheriting. The Promised Land and all it holds – that was what they meant by their inheritance. 

And Peter turns to these rootless Christians, excluded and unwelcomed in their society, possibly already deported once and with the prospect of more sufferings to come, and he says: You have an inheritance, too. You have a homeland all your own, with all that's in it. Only it's not one patch of dirt in the Middle East. No, it's much better. Unlike your property here, it's imperishable – it won't wither, won't die out, won't collapse or shrivel. Unlike the stuff you're used to, it can't be contaminated, can't spoil, can't go bad, can't be corrupted or damaged or polluted. Unlike this world's lands and things, it can't be extinguished, can't be snuffed out, can't be stolen or supplanted. 

This inheritance is “imperishable and undefiled and unfading” – three words Peter uses that, among Greek thinkers, described the realm of the gods. And Peter says that's what their homeland is. It's the new creation, the pattern and quality of the new heaven and new earth; and already, it's safeguarded in God's heavenly storehouse, beyond the reach of earthly powers, where neither moth nor rust can destroy, nor thieves break in and steal (1 Peter 1:4; cf. Matthew 6:20). That's what we have waiting for us – what we'll find when it comes busting out of storage for us. It's on lay-away. You have an inheritance. No one will fight you for it. No one will steal it. No one will break it. No one will ruin it. It won't die, it won't fade, it won't get old. None of that is possible. No matter what happens to your land or house or property here, you have something divine waiting for you – a place you can really call 'home.'

What's more, in the middle of our suffering, in the middle of our worldly exclusion, in the middle of our doubts and questions and anxieties and fears, Peter tells us that there's a rescue operation on the horizon – words that must have been music to Fr. Balakian's ears a century ago. It's a “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,” Peter says. This big rescue, this big 'yes' to whom we are in Christ, is already set. God has no need of further planning. Unlike your pastor, he doesn't procrastinate! God has no need to work out further logistics. God has no need to gather supplies. This big rescue is ready. It's complete, finished. All that remains is implementation – or, as Peter says, unveiling. Like at a magic show, the real work of the trick is already done; all that has to happen is for the curtain the assistants are holding up to be dropped to the floor, revealing the astounding change that's already taken place. And the unveiling is scheduled for “the last time,” the final hour.

All God asks of us is faith – faith to keep watching, faith not to turn around or leave the theater and miss the big reveal. Faith like a faith that makes a dangerous escape on an unknown forest road in the rain. Fr. Balakian himself said: “What saved me was not an unreserved belief in fate, but rather pure faith in providence. Therefore I had to walk with powerful faith toward final salvation.” So must we. And when we have that faith, we are protected by the power of God – that's what Peter says. Read it for yourself: We “by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). Our inheritance, our promised homeland, is securely stored in the heavens. But even better news is that you are just as securely safeguarded – watched over diligently and protected – as your inheritance. Keep living by faith, and the chance of missing it is zero. You have been chosen to be re-begotten into a new life with an inheritance waiting in store and a rescue operation that's in the wings – you are not neglected, not unseen. God has his eyes trained on you like a hawk, and nothing you go through goes unnoticed. And he will protect you for what's to come.

And in the meantime, Peter says, we've been born again to “a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). He doesn't say 'a dead hope,' one that's long since been crushed and defeated. He doesn't say 'an extinct hope,' one that came to pass but has gone by and is relevant no longer. He doesn't say 'an unborn hope,' one not even yet conceived, a hope in the future with no relation to now. He says 'a living hope' – alive and present here and now. Final salvation already exists, on the other side of the curtain, where we gaze in faith. And because of that, it totally changes the terrain, and totally changes who we are and how we live.

Hope is a synonym for the Christian life. For the new identity you have as someone born again. You relate in faith, not to a passing society or a fleeting arrangement of the world, but to a God who has the final word – and has already whispered it behind the curtain. Our whole reborn existence is a living declaration of hope. Just like the Reverend Father Grigoris Balakian, whose escape from the train and life as a fugitive was possible because he “remained excited by the indestructible hope of salvation,” that's what your life is like. You must “walk with powerful faith toward final salvation.” You have every reason to be excited by an indestructible hope of salvation. Your whole life consists in exactly such a hope, right here, right now, alive and well and free.

Peter's entire letter is going to unpack that for us, in so many different ways, as we'll see in the coming months. He'll teach us, as people who don't fit in, what it looks like when an “indestructible hope of salvation” is alive in us, here and now. In these few verses, he's just laid the groundwork. You may question your significance, you may feel excluded, you may wonder if there's a place for you anywhere, you may struggle to keep your head above the water, you may look around at all your fleeting things as they fall apart and become obsolete and you wonder if there's any real inheritance to be had or any hope to live for or any way to be free of who you've been.

And the answer is yes. Through no effort of your own, no planning by you, God has “caused you to be re-begotten to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that's imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice,” in spite of any present trials! And with that ahead of us, as guaranteed by the living and abiding word of God through which our new life came, “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who took one look at us and had great mercy indeed (1 Peter 1:3-6). All praise and glory to God! “May grace and peace be multiplied to you” all. Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

New River, New Garden: Sermon on Ezekiel 47-48

When I was a young lad, I remember some pretty good days. I remember, for instance, that my parents used to take me down across the Mason-Dixon Line, down just south of the Havre de Grace Marina at the lower stretches of the Susquehanna River before it feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. Dad – Randy – had a motorboat, a fine, reliable motorboat he knew how to handle like it shared his soul. Once or twice each summer, there we'd be, speeding atop the water, maybe on a day-trip, maybe camping on the islands. I can picture it now: beneath the ever-clouded heavens of blue and gold artistry, how we'd glide across the wide, glossy river, which gently flowed and rippled between the banks, with their lush, forested hills; their craggy, tree-spotted cliffs; their eerie graffiti eye surveying the river's flow; their high, outstretched bridges; their thin outposts of civilization. With the foliage and the soothing flow of such broad rivers, well, between that and this very land where we live – hey, it's no mistake they called our region the “Garden Spot of America” – well, they make me think of an old, old story. A story about another river and another... garden spot.

I found this old, old story, you see, near the front of my Bible. There I read that “the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). 'Eden' – it's a word that means 'delight.' A place on the primeval earth, as Genesis bids us imagine it, where God set up his home, his Holy of Holies, his palace, and gave it a garden courtyard. And in that holy place, he introduced his image, to till and work the land, to protect and expand the garden (Genesis 2:15). And this garden, we read, was full of life and beauty: “Out of the ground, the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). Think of that – every tree! All the vegetation you can imagine, all the trees and all the bushes and all the flowers, with chirping birds and cute critters and all the rest.

What's more, “the tree of life was in the midst of the garden” (Genesis 2:9). The hope of living forever in this beautiful garden, in total harmony with God and with nature, was assured by that tree, ready to sustain life. And how could this garden be so lush? Because there was a river flowing in from the heart of Eden proper, from the place where God himself, the Life-Giver, dwelled: “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers,” the four mightiest rivers the ancient patriarchs could have dreamt of (Genesis 2:10-14). And with only one exception we weren't ready for, we had the free enjoyment of this whole green garden, to savor and taste and admire and simply be at peace (Genesis 2:16). It was idyllic. It was lively. It was spiritual – our home in the presence of God, in perfect balance with the world from which we were made. It was work without struggle, this steady and carefree tending to the garden. It was refreshing, it was relaxing; everything was so alive, so fresh, so healthful, so glory-soaked. In a word, it was paradise.

It could have lasted. But it didn't. We refused to be satisfied with life in the garden – refused to live there on God's terms. We listened to the whispers of temptation, the ones that suggested greener pastures beyond what we could see. But there were no greener pastures – this garden was greenest. All the trees' fruit was ours to eat and savor, save one – so we chose to transgress for the sheer sake of transgression, chose our wisdom over God's. We thought we, the tenant gardeners, knew the garden better than the God who gave the growth (Genesis 3:1-7). Refusing to be satisfied, we became dissatisfied – with the garden, with each other, with the gaze of our loving God on our suddenly shameful vulnerability (Genesis 3:8-11). Our harmony with each other crumbled away into a chain of recriminations (Genesis 3:12-13). And it's no surprise the harmony between us and creation would follow suit: that there should be such a thing now as cursed and painful soil, a substitution of pain for pleasure, and a confrontation with the harsher side of the plant kingdom, these thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:17). The garden was good, very good, beyond very good; but we no longer were fit to tend it. “Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:23-24).

It's really no surprise, then, that even the best gardens and best rivers we see around us fall short. Sure, in their better moments, they give us glimpses – dim reflections – of what was, what could have been, what should have been. But the blue-gray of the Susquehanna isn't perfect. It holds so much discarded refuse at its bottom. The “garden spot” around us isn't perfect. It's divvied up by developments. It doesn't always reliably yield what it could. It needs to be replenished and enriched from time to time. For our crops, we have to scrape them from the earth, wrest the growth from the clutches of a sometimes-unwilling patch of dirt. And through the land there flow the dull mud-hues of the Cocalico and other creeks.

And those are the best-case scenarios. In Kenya, I saw the edges of the jungle – a reminder that this earth is not tame, but is filled with vibrant foliage and wrathful insects half the size of my fist. I danced from grass-tuft to grass-tuft on the wide open savannah in the eyes of a bemused herd of zebra. I wandered in and out from the presence of baboons, watched lions laze about in the moist heat and sticky blood and clouds of flies. But I also walked the streets, if they can be called that, of the Nairobi slums. And down the midst of the streets of the city, there flowed what I suppose you could call a river. Not of water, but of open sewage. Trash – bottlecaps, paper pulp, plastic bottles, discarded rubber tires – fills the 'river' and the 'land,' as goats and feral dogs roam sorrowfully between the rows of ramshackle shops and falling shingles. On the sides of the sewage ditch, some faint spots of green grow – certainly nothing “good for food” – and the rest of the ground is a firm and fruitless brown.

But even that may hold more life than where a certain prophet named Ezekiel found himself. Out in the desert under the Middle Eastern sun. The only 'river' within reach was a product of human craftsmanship – a canal for transporting water from the mighty Euphrates to the smaller irrigation ditches carved through the hot soil, but a canal wide enough to sail down, if just barely. And Ezekiel's job, now that priesthood was no option, was borderline slave labor in hauling loads of silt from the canal, stopping it and the irrigation ditches from being clogged up with silt and debris and all manner of other things that would cut off the life-supply from Babylonian farmlands and garden plots. Ezekiel would be no stranger to cleaning out our church's downspout! And without this constant intervention, the water might be polluted; might not reach its destination. And what lay beyond it was often bare rock and desert and fruitless wilderness where we were never made to live.

That, in fact, is the world we see around us – as much as the relative enjoyments of our “garden spot” and our forays to the wide rivers may obscure it from our sight. We live in a world of cursed ground. We live in a creation out of balance, and we out of balance with it. We live in a polluted place, often barren – and that was especially the experience of the ancient Israelites, who knew exactly what barren desert looked like. It's not enough for us to be the right people if we don't live in the right place, a life-giving and life-nurturing place, a place we can enjoy, a place for which we were made... a place we could have kept but abandoned through our pride and lust and greed. And so we keep fighting with creation, keep struggling to tend it, sometimes wage outright war against it... for our pride and lust and greed. And we spoil the earth. Cursed is the ground for our sake, and sometimes doubly cursed by our efforts, and far from home are we.

It's a sad story, any story that opens in the garden and veers deep into dry desert. But that story is not done. Onto the scene walked a man, a man named Jesus. On these rocky, sin-cursed slopes, he set his beautiful feet, calling out to Zion the good news that their God really does reign, is coming to reign through him, that the kingdom is drawing near (Isaiah 52:7). He urged the people that God didn't want to curse them; he wanted to bless them, wanted to parent them, wanted them to live like it was that first week all over again. But human pride and lust and greed had built ways to profit from life far from the garden. And so the tenant laborers of the vineyard slew the Son of the Owner. On a lifeless tree between a dark sky and a cursed earth, they hung him 'til life left. But... he was the Life. He was the Vine. He was the Tree. And he there was no way he wouldn't flourish again. No mortal axe could thwart his fruitful bounty from sprouting anew forever in resurrection.

Over the past couple months, we've been exploring – using the writings of the prophet Ezekiel as our lens – just what difference it makes that Jesus Christ is risen. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he lives as a New Shepherd over God's wayward, mistreated, rowdy flock; he judges between sheep and goats, weak and strong, and holds all accountable to keep peace while he feeds and leads us. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he transplants a new heart, soft and pliable to the will of God, in place of our stony and resistant heart of old. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he breathes a new Spirit down on our hopeless dry bones and bids us live again when all had been lost. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he binds two sticks in his hand, binds together nations, overcomes our fractured society with a new unity that only he can give. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he'll gain a new victory over all the collected forces of evil, even Gog and Magog, and share that new victory with us, to deliver us from evil forever. Because Jesus Christ is risen, he'll build a new temple in a new holy city – and as we saw last week, in some way, that temple Ezekiel saw is us – and it's an assurance that God will make his home in our midst and not leave; that God will set things right; that God has said he'd make us holy and will in fact do just that, for good.

And yet for all that... how great is it really to have a new heart and a new Spirit, to live with a new unity under a new Shepherd, to enjoy a new victory and a new temple, if it's all still on cursed, lifeless ground? If the streams are still dry and polluted, if the crops still don't grow, if we have to see sewage ditches and garbage heaps, if the world isn't beautiful and isn't full of life and isn't yet where we belong... can all the rest really be where it ends?

And so we come to the closing section of Ezekiel's vision, the last things he sees. A heavenly guide, you might remember, has been giving him a tour of this new temple, this rich representation of God's presence restored to the earth in our sanctified midst. In the heart of this temple, God has established his throne. And then Ezekiel sees his final sight of the temple: “He brought me back to the door of the temple, and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the temple faced east. The water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me on the outside to the outer gate that faces east; and behold, the water was trickling out on the south side” (Ezekiel 47:1-2). Where's this water coming from? From the presence of God, somehow – and emerging from the temple as a thin stream. But not for long.

Going on eastward with a measuring line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits and then led me through the water, and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was waist-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen. It was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. And he said to me: Son of man, have you seen this?” (Ezekiel 47:3-6). In other words: “Do you get it? Is it sinking in?” This thin trickle, in defiance of all physics, all geometry, all hydrodynamics, all the laws by which earthly things work, is, without any addition from precipitation, getting bigger and deeper and faster and stronger all at once: with no abatement of speed, the volume increases as it flows onward, multiplying like loaves and fishes in the Messiah's hand. This little trickle becomes a creek, becomes a brook, becomes a stream, becomes a mighty river, broadens like the Susquehanna. It's wider, faster, than the Cocalico Creek or the Chebar Canal. And no need to clean out the silt. But what will this river do?

Ezekiel's going to find out. His guide, he says, “led me back to the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw on the bank of the river very many trees on one side and on the other” (Ezekiel 47:6-7). Those weren't there before! He didn't see those the first time; they're not a coincidence, they're an effect, an effect of the river miraculously enriching the soil. They sprang up faster than anything can grow, sprang up like creation all over again. That's what Ezekiel sees. And he doesn't just see one here or there. He sees fertility, sees vitality, seeping out through the land on either side of this river, so that the whole earth all around is chock-full of leafy trees and bushes and grass and flowers and all manner of beautiful things.

And then his guide explains something: “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will be healed” (Ezekiel 47:8). Now, it sounds like just a geography lesson, but it's actually astonishing. The 'eastern region' means the mountainous eastern slopes beyond Jerusalem, which were notoriously devoid of precipitation. Dry as dry bones. And the 'Arabah' is the Jordan Rift Valley, which, along with the eastern slopes, were notorious for exceptional dryness, save for the Jordan River itself. So this river is going to flow over the dry mountains and water them, and into the Jordan Rift Valley and water it, and join forces or cross the Jordan River, and flow down... where? What sea? The Dead Sea. The most sterile place on earth, the lake where nothing can possibly live, where any fish, anything other than some exceptional bacteria, will inevitably die. This river that produces trees on its banks will flow through the driest places imaginable into the deadest places imaginable... and what happens? The water will be healed – healed of its saltiness, healed of its sterility, healed of its pollution, healed of its deadness.

And wherever the two rivers go, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may be healed; so everything will live wherever the river goes. … It will be fish of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea” (Ezekiel 47:9-10). The Chebar Canal was wide enough to travel, but I doubt much lived in it. The Dead Sea certainly had nothing living in it. And yet because of this river, the Dead Sea will be a Sea of Life – will have biodiversity you can't even fathom! Every kind of fish that lives in the whole Mediterranean, and much more besides – it's there! And every swarming thing, every sort of life will flourish and thrive; there'll be no need to artificially stock these waters, no need to plant or sow on the riverbanks – it will teem with flora and fauna beyond our wildest dreams!

If this is just a picture of the transformation of a valley in the Middle East, well, it may have made Ezekiel glad to hear it, but it wouldn't mean very much to us. But like we heard last week, the temple is a rich pointer to a reality beyond one spot on a map – and so is this river. As we keep listening to Ezekiel's guide, he tells us, “On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47:12). These are no ordinary trees – these are super-trees, bearing fruit every month – not the summer months, not the spring months, but year-round fruit, unfazed by weather or climate, untouched by blight or rot, ungnawed by insects – in other words, perfect health. And every fruit will be fresh, every fruit will be edible, every fruit will be delicious and refreshing and good for sustaining life; and even the leaves have medicinal properties for the benefit of all who come near. These trees and this river, with all the fish and flowers and everything else, sounds like everything you could ever need!

And if these lines sound familiar, there's a reason. How does the Bible's final chapter go? “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Revelation 22:1-4). The trees Ezekiel sees – it's the tree of life. The beauty Ezekiel sees – it's growing out of uncursed ground. The river Ezekiel sees – it's “clear as crystal,” unpolluted, uncontaminated, never cloudy, never discolored. It brings life wherever it flows. Where this river flows from the throne of the Father and the Son, Eden sprouts all over again, and creation is made new – there's new life where once was dryness, and perfect blessing where once was a curse.

In short, it's home. It's the home we were made for. It's a garden city – Ezekiel portrays an organized society arrayed around the temple precinct in this well-watered land (Ezekiel 47:13—48:34). John likewise sees it as a city, sees the river – not of filth, but of purity – flowing down the central street, sees all this civilization and natural beauty tied together in perfect balance. All society dwelling in a perfect paradise, organized in harmony in a pure creation, back in the garden – New Eden and New Jerusalem all in one, watered by the new river. No more flaming sword standing between us and the tree of life; nothing standing between us and healing, nothing standing between us and sustenance, nothing shielding our eyes from beauty. No more curse, no strife, nothing but wholeness in the presence of God. We'll bear his name on our foreheads, it says – in the Old Testament, that was the exclusive privilege of Israel's high priest, who alone could dare to enter the Holy of Holies, the hotspot of God's presence on earth. We each – you each – will be everything the high priest ever was, and more. We'll see our God face-to-face, as the whole garden-city will be a holy of holies. And those will be so much better than “pretty good days.”

The river of his life-giving Spirit, which even now makes the water of life flow out of our hearts (John 7:38-39), will water all of creation and make it all the Garden Spot of God, resplendent with everything we lost and far more than we ever hoped to gain. And in this perfect world of satisfaction guaranteed, the name of it all will be: “The LORD is There” (Ezekiel 48:35). Does the resurrection of Jesus make a difference? Absolutely it does. It promises that here, where we live and where we die, home will yet be planted again – and in eternal health we'll gather at that ever-deeper, ever-broader river in his name, by his side... forever. “Let the one who thirsts come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17) – a free gift of grace for all whose robes are washed white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14; 22:14). Hallelujah! What a home! What a hope! Hallelujah!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

New Temple: Homily on Ezekiel 40-46

The prophet was nearing his fiftieth birthday now. He could scarcely believe that he'd spent half his life in the lands of Babylon. He was older now than his hero Jeremiah had been when the letter came – we talked about that letter last Sunday. But Ezekiel thought now about the life he used to live, half a lifetime ago. How he'd dwelled in the land God had promised his ancestors – this day was, in fact, the anniversary of their crossing of the River Jordan. Ezekiel remembered his youthful adoration for the temple – his love of watching his father serve as a priest, his grandfather and uncles as priests, his yearning to serve as a priest himself. He recalled the day the Babylonians came and tore him screaming from Jerusalem – recalled the day he lost sight of the temple. He remembered the day the LORD came to him by the irrigation canal. He remembered the day he was given a vision of the temple one more time – and was horrified at the disgusting idolatry that filled its hallowed halls. And he remembered the day his neighbors heard the news of destruction. But it was just no temple any more.

Ezekiel thought long and hard about it. And on this dry spring day when he thought his thoughts, he slipped away from the preparations for the Passover feast, scheduled to happen in a few days. Ezekiel slipped away, he found a secluded space out by the canal again, and he poured out his heart to his God. And then he felt it – an old familiar feeling, the sensation of being totally in the LORD's grasp. A dizziness descended, and adrenaline pounded through his veins, and before he knew it, he was... home (Ezekiel 40:1) – home in a grand divine vision. Home, not amidst smoldering ruins, not in a valley of dry bones, but home on a mountain that wasn't even there – a “very high mountain” he'd never seen before (Ezekiel 40:2). And thus begins the vision – one of the most perplexing passages in the whole Old Testament, and that's saying a lot!

See, for all the rest of the book, Ezekiel stands with a mysterious “man whose appearance was like bronze, with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand” (Ezekiel 40:3) – in other words, a heavenly surveyor armed with measuring tape and a supersized yardstick. And the man takes him on a very detailed surveying tour of an unnamed city but especially the heart of the city, which is an exquisite temple complex, perfected in every way, bigger and better than Solomon's Temple, surrounded by a wall ten feet high and ten feet thick. Ezekiel goes on a tour inspecting this perfect temple, where God comes to dwell permanently; he receives detailed instructions, almost a new mini-Leviticus, to govern it; and the list of measurements, chambers, and all sorts of features is, to be totally honest, just exhausting. Go ahead, read it!

And this really is a challenging passage to work with. Because, what exactly is this new temple? Is it the one the Jews will build when they return from their exile in Babylon? Well, Ezra and Nehemiah tell us all about that – and it doesn't measure up. Not even close. The half-hearted thing they build doesn't measure up at all – not even to Solomon's original, much less to this vision. Centuries later, Herod the Great expands the temple, tries to use this as a template – but still the Second Temple never comes close.

And so a lot of people these days have made the guess that Ezekiel is seeing a literal Third Temple that will be built near the end by the people of Israel on the Temple Mount. That's popular among dispensationalist readers of the Bible today – this idea that it's a physical Jewish temple to be built within modern-day Jerusalem. But that doesn't actually add up either. The whole thing is just too big – not just the temple, but the description of districts around it. The Temple Mount is hardly the “very high mountain” Ezekiel sees – notice he avoids using the word 'Jerusalem' for this city he's seeing. The measurements of the temple in his vision aren't meant as a blueprint – there's no command to build, and most of the vertical measurements are just ignored, not to mention there's no mention of the materials its built out of. The activities of the temple include the Levitical priesthood and atoning sacrifices, both of which were abolished by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, according to the writer to the Hebrews. And Ezekiel narrates this vision right after the defeat of Gog, and when you compare that to Revelation, it doesn't leave much room for this temple to fit within history as we know it.

All that suggests we should remember that the visions of the prophets were seldom straightforward – they don't peer through a window and see things other people will ever capture exactly on film. The visions of prophets are chock-full of symbols – and so is this mystery temple. It's meant to communicate a powerful message to Ezekiel, the dejected priest who never got to serve in the corrupted temple in Jerusalem that's now rubble; and it's meant to send that same message to the exiled Judeans who corrupted the First Temple. This is a vision of a temple that's kept pure – that's why there's so much emphasis on the priests stationed in each gate on guard duty. This vision is an elaborate way of picturing an alternate reality, a perfect temple where purity is actually taken seriously, where worship runs smoothly. This is the beautiful truth of which the real temple was only a shadow.

And in this vision, Ezekiel beholds the glory of the LORD taking up permanent residence among the people – this is the sort of temple in which he could do that: “As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple. While the man was standing beside me, I heard one speaking to me out of the temple, and he said to me, 'Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of Israel forever, and the house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name...'” (Ezekiel 43:4-7). And he's told this message is to be told to the other exiles, “that they may be shamed of their iniquities” (Ezekiel 43:10).

Ezekiel gets this vision on the tenth day of the first month in the Hebrew calendar – assuming he's using the same calendar, that's a few days before Passover. It's also the same day of the year that will eventually become Palm Sunday – the day Jesus enters Jerusalem as people hail him as king. According to the first three Gospels, it's the same day when Jesus goes to the Second Temple and announces God's judgment on it – the same day when he says that his own body is the real temple of God, which he'll tear down and raise up in three days (Matthew 21:12-14; 26:61). That's the day of Ezekiel's vision. And because the apostles recognize the church as Jesus' body on earth after the Ascension, they see the church itself as the earthly temple: “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16), that's what's written. There can be only one, and we're it. And then, when we read the end of the story, what comes after the final defeat of Gog and Magog? John repeats Ezekiel's promise that God would dwell among his people (Revelation 21:3), and then he sees the symbolic city with its gates and its walls, even bigger and grander than Ezekiel saw it, and yet “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22), from whom flows the river that Ezekiel sees flowing from the temple in his vision – more on that part next Sunday. But this is what Ezekiel's glimpsing in a way that makes sense to him and his people. Which is why things are explained to him in terms from the old covenant, like continued atoning sacrifices and his type of priesthood, which are symbols pointing ahead to what Christ will bring.

See, in a way, we are this new temple Ezekiel sees – though we're still under construction. And we are the priests who serve there. And the main point is this: All the pollution Ezekiel once saw in the temple will be done away with. This temple – the temple that we are – is bigger and more glorious than the one Solomon built, and we are made to dwell in God's holy city. More important than that, we are made to be the place where God sets up his throne. We are made to be filled with the glory of the LORD. And he has given us a promise, a promise that must have been sweet music to the exiles' ears: that he will “dwell in the midst of the house of Israel forever” (Ezekiel 43:7). His dwelling is here, in his church, and he will never leave us. One day, we'll see him face to face, and celebrate the feasts with him, the heavenly wedding banquet.

Until then, his altar is still in his temple. Ezekiel's vision includes the altar. It also includes sacrifices, which the priesthood serving in this new temple will eat. Ezekiel beholds “the holy chambers, where the priests who approach the LORD shall eat the most holy offerings” (Ezekiel 42:13). He's told outright that “they shall eat the grain offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering, and every devoted thing in Israel shall be theirs” (Ezekiel 44:19). In fact, the last thing Ezekiel sees in chapter 46, before what we'll talk about next week, is a tour of the kitchens where the sacred meals are prepared (Ezekiel 46:19-24). This morning, we approach the LORD at the altar of his new temple. And an offering is laid out unto God – the offering of the loaf and the cup, which Christ called his body and blood. But with thanksgiving to God, we will eat this offering, as the priests of the new temple. When we gather at this altar, when we eat these most holy offerings, be aware of this truth: that the glory of the LORD has committed to dwell in our midst forever, and bids us safeguard the purity of his beautiful temple – not a building, but a fellowship, where we worship our Father in spirit and in truth (cf. John 4:24). Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

In the Meantime...: Sermon on Jeremiah 29 for Independence Day

What do we do now? There's the question. If you've been here with us recently, we've been delving into the prophecies of Ezekiel, written from his exile in the lands of Babylonia to which he'd been carried away captive. And in his prophecies, he spoke of the many blessings that God would eventually bestow upon the people. He'd appoint them a new shepherd. He'd give them a new heart. He'd revive them, like dry bones come to life; he'd breathe his very own Spirit into them, so that they could live again. He'd restore them to where they belong and settle them in safety. And in the end, when the forces of evil empires all around the world finally gathered into one force to squelch their liberty, God himself would win the final fight and make everything okay for good.

That's where we left off last week, with that prophecy – a prophecy about the mysterious “Gog, of the land of Magog” (Ezekiel 38:2). We surveyed the brokenness, the evil, the violence and injustice and dehumanizing bureaucracy in the world around us. And even though we're tempted to despair that it'll be with us forever, we learned from this prophecy that, in the end, it will have an expiration date – but we who belong to Christ will not. And so, knowing that these sufferings are not forever and that we will receive the plunder from those who have plundered us in this world-as-we-know it, we can endure with confidence.

And it's all well and good to set our eyes on that distant day – or maybe, God willing, not so distant now – when these things will be made right. And it's good to take away the lesson about bearing patiently under the difficult things of this life. But is that all there is to do – to resist, to endure, to suffer? Or is there more? What do we do now? There, again, is the question. And I think, to answer it, we need to remember the story of where this prophet Ezekiel came from. Before he ever gave any prophecies, he was stolen from his home as a young man, dragged far from Jerusalem to a foreign land, where he and his people were made refugees and told to haul silt in the shadow of a pagan temple. In this unclean place, they wondered if it was even possible to worship their God, so far away from his holy land (Psalm 137:1-4). A number of Jewish prophets – or at least they said they were prophets – predicted it was only temporary, that God would destroy Babylon quickly, so they should be ready to run and rejoice. They maybe whispered that, when the time was right, they should be ready to help the Babylonian leaders on their way down – ready, in other words, to rise up. And so the people were torn – torn between believing these prophecies of a quick return, or surrendering to despair and languishing away in hopelessness.

In the meantime, Judah was still there – as a client-state, under Nebuchadnezzar's thumb. And some of the other client states had been getting uppity and rebellious and had to be put down. The mighty king of Babylon had questions whether the puppet he'd installed on David's throne would be like them in this rebelliousness. And so Zedekiah sent a pair of ambassadors to the Babylonian court – Elasah and Gemariah – with plenty of tribute and plenty of assurances. But along with them, they brought copies of an open letter from a prophet back home, a message answering the deepest heartfelt questions of the Jewish exiles. Ezekiel was my age when he finally heard and read it, and it changed his life; his entire ministry was carried out in its light.

See, the exiles wondered, “Should we be ready to run?” And to this, the letter of the Prophet Jeremiah had this resounding answer: “No!” And there were five basic things Jeremiah said to the people. First of all, they were to ignore the false prophets who were spreading false hope. “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 29:8-9). These false prophets would, in fact, shortly be judged (Jeremiah 29:21-32). There is such a thing as false hope. And in this case, it was a hope that things would be easy and quick, instead of messy and slow. There are plenty of preachers who make the Christian life today out to be easy and quick – lots of blithe talk of “victorious living,” “your best life now,” and so forth – and, in fact, the preacher who first shared salvation with me said much the same thing. Thankfully, I didn't listen to that part! Because the truth is, that's a false prophecy. It's not easy; it's not quick. It's messy and slow – God's workings usually are, or at least seem so to us. So no, Jeremiah says, don't get ready to run.

Second, Jeremiah does not want them to lose sight or to lose heart. Because, although the ready-to-run angle is a bad one, so is the moping-in-despair approach that seemed like the only other live option at the time. That's not right either, because just because life in Babylon isn't going to be over quickly, that doesn't mean it's a lost cause. God says through his prophet, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. … I will gather you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:10,14). So they shouldn't lose heart – God has not abandoned them there – or lose sight of the eventual promise.

Third, Jeremiah encourages them to persist in prayer. They may wonder if prayer is even something they can do in Babylon, where they feel too far away to be heard – can they sing the LORD's songs there, after all (cf. Psalm 137:4)? But God is saying to them that they can and should pray; they should use this opportunity to reconnect with God, as a matter of fact. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD – plans for peace and not for evil, plans to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11-13). He tells them outright, “pray to the LORD (Jeremiah 29:7). Never give up on prayer. Never.

Fourth, Jeremiah gives them some more radical advice. Their two options before had been a stark contrast. On the one hand, they could live a sparse life in their tents, ignoring all the concerns of this world and being ready to run, focused on staying unencumbered for their impending escape – think of all the apocalyptic cults who avoid education, jobs, marriage, stable living, because they're convinced the end is so nigh that there's no point to any of it. That was one option. Or, on the other hand, they could give up – they could resign themselves to a meaningless life in Babylon, abandoned by their God, and sit down and waste away in hopelessness. And then, too, they would live a sparse life in their tents, ignoring all the concerns of this world because they're too down to do otherwise. The result looks almost the same.

But Jeremiah gives them radical advice. Listen to this: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives, and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). In other words, live as normal a life as you can. Yes, you've been uprooted; yes, you're living amidst pagan idols and mocking soldiers and every other depressing thing. Yes, you want to get out or give up. But no – no, take back normal. Do the normal things of life. Make a home, make it pretty, have a family, and keep holding on.

But the fifth thing Jeremiah says, in the heart of his letter, is probably the most revolutionary idea there is. He writes, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Think about what that means. There are other exiles living alongside them from other nations, and if there's one hope that all of them have, it's that Babylon will be destroyed. And that's the hope that the false prophets are stoking – they can't wait to see Babylon come to ruin, to downfall. Its destruction is their chance for freedom, after all. I mean, this is the city that oppresses them, the city that lords injustice over them. Why should they wish anything good on their new unwanted neighbors, their captors? Why should they want this society, to which they're aliens and treated as such, to prosper?

And yet that's exactly what Jeremiah says, as a word from the LORD. It's not easy for them to hear, but he tells them to actively seek to make Babylon a success – to collaborate with their captors for the common good of all. They should pray for it – pray for the city, pray for the soldiers, pray for Nebuchadnezzar and his court. They should act kindly toward the Babylonians, not out of servile fear, but out of the will of God. They should try to make Babylon a better place, a more prosperous and peaceful place. The word Jeremiah uses – 'shalom' – it's a broad Hebrew word that suggests not only peace, but harmony and wellness. Comprehensive healthfulness and prosperity. That's what Jeremiah wants to see the exiles work toward and pray for – for Babylon. Because, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats: since the Jews are here for the long haul, they should try to make Babylon a more healthy and prosperous society, because that will make them more healthy and prosperous, too. Yes, the big deliverance is on the distant horizon; but in the meantime, work for Babylon's benefit.

It's a crazy and radical thought, one that set Ezekiel free for his prophetic ministry – once a vision of God made him see that it was true. We talked about that at the end of April. But the influence and impact of Jeremiah's letter didn't end there. No, those words have echoed throughout time. Hundreds of years later, when Jeremiah's LORD walked the soil of the promised land himself, it was advice too often forgotten for a people under Roman rule. And yet his apostles learned from him, the Crucified and Risen Teacher whose death and life set them free, and so they encouraged the early Jesus-followers to be a blessing so they could share the blessing; to “seek peace and pursue it;” to focus on doing good, yes, even to a society that would treat them as strangers, foreigners, aliens, exiles (1 Peter 3:9-17).

And then fast-forward many more centuries – about 2300 years after Jeremiah wrote that letter on parchment and handed it to Elasah and Gemariah – and zoom across the ocean to lands yet unseen. In this land, there lived thirteen colonies, established under the distant rule of the British crown. Many – not all, but many – of those who lived in these places would have described themselves as Christians, as followers of Jesus, as heirs of the prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah. And they hadn't stopped reading Jeremiah's letter. Their preachers still turned back to this ancient note, with its advice for living in Babylon. But they didn't see it as out-of-date.

There was one preacher, a 28-year-old pastor named Joseph Sewall – his dad Samuel was a repentant Salem witch-trial judge and one of the first abolitionists in colonial New England – and Joseph preached on this message. He didn't see it as limited to Babylon, but as good for all societies, all families – after all, he said, “Civil societies consist of particular families combined and associated.” He wanted to see families reformed, so that civil society itself, the society of Massachusetts where he lived, could be reformed. And here's more of what Joseph Sewall said:

Now, every man is under strong obligations to seek the prosperity and the welfare of the community which he belongs to. God commanded his people of old to seek the peace of the city whither he had caused them to be carried away captives, and to pray unto the Lord for it, Jer. 29:7. … No man is born for himself alone, but also for his country. And it should be everyone's ambition to be a blessing to the public; and in nothing can we more truly promote the public weal than by endeavoring that true piety may flourish; that the kingdom of Christ which is righteousness, peace, and joy may be set up and established. True religion is the glory, the safety, the happiness of a people.

So our lives aren't ours alone. They're God's, first and foremost, of course, but also with “strong obligations to seek the prosperity and the welfare of the community” where God has planted us. Our goal is to be a “blessing to the public,” to “promote the public weal,” the public common good. After all, if it was true in Babylon for a foreign people in exile, how much truer does it have to be here, in this nobler society? 

A few years later, a 25-year-old preacher named Thomas Foxcroft, grandson of a former governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, used this passage to encourage colonists to pray for the public good of their fellow neighbors in the New World – after all, he said, “God expects their intercessions, and the public has a just title to the benefit of them,” and in praying for the public good, “they,” the godly, “will consult their own peace and welfare,” because if God answers their prayers, “they will have their share in the public tranquility and prosperity: the prospect whereof should encourage 'em to prayer.”

In 1748, an elderly New England pastor named Nathanael Eells pointed to this verse to argue that the influence of the godly is a support to “the peace and order of this world,” and “is no enemy to the public peace, to the well-ordering of the state, but a friend to them.” And twelve years later, Eells' successor in the pulpit of Slatington, Connecticut, one Rev. Joseph Fish, dealing with a fractured church and fractured town, offered these words against the partisan nonsense weighing his society down:

A party spirit is a dangerous evil. … Should any plead, that the constitution is weak, the government bad, and the rulers tyrannical, all this won't legitimate a party spirit, nor justify its ruling, so long as there is a public common good, upon the securing of which the safety of individuals, under such a government, may be obtained. The holy religion that God has taught his people is of such a generous temper that it not only forbids their touching the public peace but requires them to seek and promote it, even under an idolatrous and tyrannical magistrate. Hear the direction and charge of the God of Israel to that people, in the Babylonish Captivity: And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. All parties and sects, however they may differ in sentiments as to other matters, are hereby taught to be tender of the public safety of any state that gives them protection. … How unreasonable then, as well as hurtful, is the indulgence of a party spirit in a well-founded Christian government?

These are the things people were hearing from the colonial pulpits – messages brought from Jeremiah's advice. The godly, the people of the church, are to be committed to the public good, to actively “seek and promote it” – if that holds true in Babylon, how much more in these thirteen colonies, they reasoned? That is the will of God: to settle down, to live peacefully, to work for the betterment and prosperity of the community where God has placed us – not to wall ourselves off from our neighbors, not to shun them, but, to the extent possible while worshipping God and following his ways, to be actively involved in promoting the public good for everyone – for Jew and Gentile, for black and white, for young and old, for rich and poor, for Christian and Muslim and all the rest, in a healthier and more prosperous society.

Sixteen years after Joseph Fish preached against “party spirit,” there were parties in the colonies who had come to believe that King George III and his Parliament had plans for evil and not for peace; that their policies were so harmful to the public good and the welfare of colonial society that it had become intolerable. It had, in fact, become time to stop being “colonial society” and instead to become a confederation of “free and independent states” – not out of malice, but out of a concern for the public good. And so representatives from these thirteen states met together in Philadelphia, and 241 years ago today, they unanimously declared their independence.

Two days later, they formally ratified an explanation of their decision. They felt it had become “necessary” for them to do it, in the name of “self-evident” truths – chiefly, the equality of people with respect to the “unalienable rights” with which we all are “endowed by [our] Creator,” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The role of a government, they said, is to “secure these rights” – governments are only instruments, and when they become a hindrance to the public good as measured by these unalienable rights, a society has not only the right but the “duty to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security.” The former government under King George didn't serve their public good – that was, in fact, the colonists' first complaint, that “he has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” They had many other complaints as well. The king nullified their representative assemblies. The king tried to stop immigration into the colonies. He limited their free trade with the rest of the world. And much more. As the colonists saw it, the only way for them to “seek the welfare of the city,” to further the public welfare of the thirteen colonies, was to become free and independent of a king like that. And at the end, they “appeal[ed] to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of [their] intentions.”

How he'll answer them on the last day, I won't profess to know. But as Americans celebrate Independence Day, it behooves us to ask, as Christians living in these United States yet looking forward to the day of Gog's defeat: What do we do in the meantime? We know that all kings and kingdoms are temporary – yes, even America, and even our Constitution and our vaunted independence. All these are subject to Christ's lordship, and we must never forget the difference. And yet Christ, the “Great God our King,” bids us to “seek the welfare of the city... and pray to the LORD on its behalf,” because in the betterment and health and harmony and beauty and success of our community, that's where we'll find ours, too, as we go through this life in the meantime (Jeremiah 29:7).

That's true when America is an easy place for believers to get along. It's also true when America looks more like Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, as I think it so often does these days. In either case, God calls us to seek the welfare of our community – to make it fare well, a better and healthier place, a place full of more shalom for all. This week, I want to challenge you to do that. Put aside any “party spirit” you might have – Joseph Fish would insist on no less! – and get out there with your neighbors. You have not been born for yourself alone, nor have you been born again for yourself alone, but to be “a blessing to the public,” as Joseph Sewall would say. Make this community healthy and beautiful, make it peaceful and prosperous, make it a “sweet land of liberty” indeed, in Jesus' name – for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Final Fight: Sermon on Ezekiel 38-39

What's the world coming to? Have you been watching the news, reading the newspaper? There must be dozens of wars going on right now in the world. This year so far, I don't think a day has gone by without at least two “terrorist incidents” somewhere – just last night, a man in Brussels tried to ram a car into the police, and earlier this morning, another car bomb claimed more lives in Syria. There's been so much violence and mayhem – stealing parents from children, children from parents, spouse from spouse, friend from friend.... We've watched in horror as kids wash up on beaches, as people get burned by bombs or chemical weapons. And the guilty so often walk free. Even in Lancaster County, people may well 'settle' arguments, not with a better argument, but with a bullet. And I read in the paper just this morning about an assault here in Salisbury Township. It seems like theft, violence, and injustice always win the day. It seems like pain, sorrow, and death always have the upper hand. It seems like greed, exploitation, and media frenzy always follow in their wake. It seems like that's just the way the world is – hopeless and cruel. It seems like we still aren't so far from the way Thomas Hobbes described the 'state of nature,' where he described human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So in light of that, what we read here in the prophecies of Ezekiel maybe doesn't sound so unfamiliar, so out of place. All this talk of a vast army, their heavy equipment, and their talk of an evil scheme to attack the innocent and carry away plunder; this portrait of fire and blood. It's not a pretty picture. But it is a meaningful one. And it starts like this: “Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him” (Ezekiel 38:2). Oh boy... Gog and Magog... They're play a pretty prominent role in eschatology – that's a fancy word for the study of the end times, the study of the last things. If you've ever listened closely to an “end-times prophecy expert,” you've heard about them plenty, since they show up in Revelation again. That's one of the big questions they're often so sure about – “Who exactly is Gog? Where exactly is Magog? What will all this look like?”

And throughout the years, they've been very sure. Some Christians in the third century were sure that, when Ezekiel (and, later, John) said 'Gog' and 'Magog,' they meant the Roman Empire that was dead-set on persecuting them. But then, in the fourth century, the Roman emperors started believing in Jesus – so maybe they weren't Gog and Magog after all. But there were these heretic barbarians called Goths, so a bishop called Ambrose suggested that they were Gog and Magog. Fast-forward a few centuries, and now the empire is being challenged by a sweeping tide of Arabs, propelled by a new religion called Islam; and you start to get a few people suggesting that they're Gog and Magog. Then, in the thirteenth century, barbarians from northeast Asia start invading everything, sweeping across the world, and a missionary says these Mongols are the people of Magog – even Marco Polo gets on board!

Fast-forward a few more centuries, and there are a few ideas. Joseph Mede suggests that the 'Gog' and 'Magog' might be the American colonies! But more popular is Martin Luther's idea that 'Gog' and 'Magog' refer to the Ottoman Empire, the great Muslim world-power in Turkey that then ruled over the Holy Land. Up through the Revolutionary War, that was the most popular notion. A few decades later, after the bloody and godless French Revolution, there's a pastor in New England who makes a case that the French Empire under Napoleon is what's meant by 'Gog' and 'Magog.'

A few decades pass, and the Crimean War in the 1850s pits Russia against Britain, France, and the Turks – and now that Russia looks like the bad guys for a moment, somebody says that they're 'Gog' and 'Magog.' But that passes, and during the Civil War, one Methodist pastor thinks that Europe as a whole might be 'Gog,' and that after the Union wins, they'll attack America. Then World War I comes around, and someone suggests that 'Gog' and 'Magog' might be Germany. But in the wake of a pair of world wars, and as the Cold War begins, a lot of people set their sights on Russia again, on the Soviet Union, as 'Gog' and 'Magog' – Hal Lindsey spread that idea in The Late Great Planet Earth, and even Ronald Reagan believed it.

Then the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell, and most of the “prophecy experts” – by the way, any time you hear somebody call himself a 'prophecy expert,' change the channel – but most of them were still fixated on former Soviet powers, so they just downgraded Gog's importance. Tim LaHaye, John Hagee – in the nineties, they still insisted Ezekiel was talking about a “Russian-Muslim alliance” against Israel. Joel Rosenberg says the same thing now, focusing on Russia joining forces with Iran. And in the past couple years, you've started to see a new idea come out of the woodwork: Ron Cantor proposed that ISIS is actually 'Gog' and 'Magog.'

That brings us up to today, so... what are we supposed to do with all that? And I'd like to suggest that they're all missing the point of what Ezekiel is saying here. Earlier in his book, he has a set of seven judgment messages against nearby nations. And now, at the climax of a sequence of prophecies about God's people being restored, he has one last judgment oracle... and it's against a mysterious “chief prince” from a people-group who haven't really been mentioned since the Table of Nations in Genesis 10! What's more, if you count, he's got seven military allies, all from Israel's distant north and south – but none of them are the same as the earlier seven countries. But a lot of the language comes from those earlier messages. So it starts to look like 'Gog, of the land of Magog' is actually a symbol – a symbol for something mysterious and vicious – a symbol that sums up what was wrong with all those evil empires Ezekiel had called out earlier.

And that's what 'Gog' is – he's a really vivid image for evil's last effort. He's a summary of evil powers, with a complete set of seven military allies and a complete set of seven merchant powers trying to cash in on his spoils and plunder. In our world now, we see all sorts of different countries, different gangs, different terror groups, different factions using violence and robbery to prey on the weak, to exert their power, to augment their prestige and privilege. 'Gog' is that, but projected on the big screen of creation. 'Gog' is what they all aspire to be. 'Gog' is the summary of human evil, the summary of oppression and injustice, the summary of what it means for a nation to be given over to sin. It doesn't matter what mask he wears – whether it's the mask of red tape, or the mask of terrorism, or the mask of gang warfare, or the mask of identity politics, or the mask of nationalism or internationalism or any other mask – Ezekiel is unmasking him, the him to which all history's violence points.

One day, Ezekiel says, that full fury gets unleashed in the direction of God's people – by God's permission. But when we look at Gog and Magog and all their host, when we eavesdrop on their plans, we aren't seeing just one nation or another nation – we aren't seeing and hearing just the Romans, the Goths, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Germans, the Russians, the terrorists – we're seeing the exposure of something that's everywhere, even here. Because this is how evil operates, even now. The strong, greedy, and envious use death and pain as a weapon to silence anyone who resists them; to take what isn't theirs; to gain more power, more wealth; to impose their vision on an unwilling world.

You saw it in Castro's Cuba. You saw it in Soviet Russia. You saw it in the Third Reich, and in Mussolini's Italy. You see it in the streets of Chicago. You see it in the Middle East. You see it all around you. The past few months in our own county have seen multiple murders – people using death as a weapon to 'settle' an argument, to 'settle' a score. Families from our own church have been plundered of their belongings. Families from our own church have been exposed to the powerful pain of death. And all that – that leads up to Gog. So many powers in our world use the pain of death and the fear of loss as a way to control, and they wish that they could be like Gog. One day, they may just get their wish.

If that were all there were to the story, it would not be a pretty story. It would not be a happy one. If all human history leads to Gog, and Gog stands triumphant over his enemies, just like violence seems to stand triumphant over the world today... well, where would that leave us? If that's all there is to the story, then for the most part, death and violence work. People can be silenced. People can be crushed and destroyed by it. Millions upon millions have lost their lives, their dignity, at the hands of Gog's precursors. Millions upon millions have been turned into mere statistics, covered up by the sands of time. And if Gog is where it's all headed, what's the point of anything else? History would be nothing but a revolving door of oppressors, tyrants, and revolutions. The violence of the world would go unchecked, because the violence of the world is the real winner on the world stage. Beneath all the civilized veneer we try to use like a mask over Gog's face, it really is the law of the jungle out there, nothing but nature red in tooth and claw, nothing but might making right – or, at least, might making right irrelevant. Gog is on the right side of history, as they say. At least, if that's all there is to the story.

And yet the story continues! Because Jesus Christ is risen! Amen? And because Jesus Christ is risen, 'Gog' can never have the last word. 'Gog' can never finally destroy. Death and violence may be the strongest weapon in Gog's arsenal, but Jesus has the veto power over the death penalty – even after it's been carried out. And so for all those whom Gog or his precursors execute, for all those whom they gun down in the streets, all those whom they blow up, all those they burn away, all those whose property or heritage they steal and violate... their story is not over. Their story may just continue long after Gog's has reached its conclusion. For those who follow Jesus, that's not just a possibility; that's a guarantee.

And so the Prophet Ezekiel makes a few things very clear. First, God and Gog do not see eye-to-eye. In fact, when Gog exposes himself once and for all, so does God's wrath against our wrathful lives. God's judgment on human violence and greed is laid bare here in terms few other prophets equaled: “My wrath will be roused in my anger,” he says, “for in my zeal and in my blazing wrath I declare: … I will summon a sword against Gog on all mountains … Every man's sword will be against his brother. With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him, and I will rain upon him and his hordes and the many peoples who are with him torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur. So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations; then they will know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 38:18-23).

And Revelation makes it just as clear: “I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against [Christ] who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (Revelation 19:19-21). And when the devil “comes out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle, … they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:8-10).

It's a really graphic description, but what it shows is this: Gog does not have the last word. Gog does not have the final victory. Gog and his precursors may stride the world-stage for a time, playing their role, imagining that they write the script. But they don't. When we suffer at their hands – when we are oppressed, when we are opposed by governments, when we are threatened by terrorists, when we fear for safety in our own streets, when we don't know what to do or where to turn – God is not watching this with indifference. God is not ignoring us. God is allowing this for his purposes, but he will turn our sufferings into glory, and Gog's glory into destruction. When people imagine that violence will get them anywhere, it's because they're short-sighted. When people imagine that the battle goes to the strong, it's because they're short-sighted. When people imagine that violence and theft are forever, that's short-sighted. When people imagine that it doesn't matter what you believe or how you live, that's short-sighted, because “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

Ezekiel wants us to know, very clearly: Gog does not win; violence does not win; injustice does not win. The killers and thieves of the world, or the bureaucrats and thugs who aid and abet them, or the spiritual darkness that empowers them, or the political and economic powers who use them to their own advantage – they don't win. In the end, they will lose. They will lose. They will lose when they find that, in preying on the peaceful, they were picking a fight with fire from heaven. And we just need to decide, in how we live, whether we're on Gog's side, the “right side of history,” or on God's side, the right side of eschatology!

But Ezekiel has more. If Ezekiel 38 is about the defeat of Gog, Ezekiel 39 is about the disposal of Gog. And there are three major themes there. Gog doesn't get preserved in a fancy mausoleum like Vladimir Lenin, on display to be oohed and aahed at by adoring generations in perpetuity. No, Ezekiel says, “all the people of the land will bury them” (Ezekiel 39:13). But God also tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the birds and the beasts, calling them to come to the dinner God has set out for them, to “eat the flesh of the mighty and drink the blood of the princes of the earth” (Ezekiel 39:18). John records the same thing: “I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, 'Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men..., both small and great.' … And all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:17-18, 21). That is not exactly an honorable burial. All the strength of Gog, all the force of evil, all the power of violence – not only does it die away, but it dies in disgrace. Evil doesn't get to make a name for itself. Violence doesn't accomplish glory; it throws it away.

And then, Ezekiel says, “those who dwell in the cities of Israel will go out and make fires out of the weapons and burn them – shields and bucklers, bow and arrows, clubs and spears – and they will make fires out of them for seven years, so that they will not need to take wood out of the field or cut down any of the forests, for they will make their fires of the weapons. They will seize the spoil of those who despoiled them, and plunder those who plundered them” (Ezekiel 39:9-10). In other words, evil can do its worst to us – it can steal from us, it can hurt us, even kill our bodies for a while – but when everything is said and done, God “works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). What they mean for evil against us, God means as good for us (Genesis 50:20). If you've been stolen from, if you've been injured, if you've been betrayed, if you've lost loved ones – if you belong to Jesus, he's going to turn that to your benefit. He'll give you the plunder from those who plundered you; and every weapon that was meant to hurt you will end up fueling your life in the world to come. The meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Gog won't.

And finally, Ezekiel says, the land will be cleansed after the battle. “For seven months the house of Israel will be burying them, in order to cleanse the land. … They will set men apart to travel through the land regularly and bury those travelers remaining on the face of the land, so as to cleanse it. At the end of seven months they will make their search. And when these travel through the land and anyone sees a human bone, then he shall set up a sign by it until the buriers have buried it in the Valley of Hamon-Gog. … Thus shall they cleanse the land” (Ezekiel 39:11-16). I think that's what Isaiah meant when God told him, “Behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). I think that's what John means when he writes, “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away,” and God “will wipe away every tear from [his people's] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4). In other words, not only is Gog defeated, not only is Gog disgraced, not only does Gog's evil turn into benefit for God's people, but in the very end, Gog won't even be a memory. Nobody will still be haunted or traumatized by him, or by his precursors. There will just be no need to remember Gog, to remember violence, to remember the days of evil. All traces, all effects – they'll all be buried.

Brothers and sisters, we look at the world around us, we watch or read the news, and we see plenty of violence. We see plenty of evil. Sometimes it comes near – steals from us, hurts us, does injustice to us, taints our lives with death. And we cry out, “How long, O LORD, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction” (Psalm 35:17). We wonder if it will ever end. We wonder if all this could ever be made right, could ever be fixed. We wonder if Gog, and the aspiring mini-Gogs all over the earth, will always have the upper hand, if we'll always be caught in the middle or under their thumb. And the answer is no. Because Christ is risen, Gog's days are numbered. Violence has an expiration date. Evil will be vanquished. You will see a day with only good news.

So no matter how things look, no matter how terrible Gog's precursors and minions, no matter the harm they leave in their wake, no matter how bad or dark things seem to get, Gog is not forever. Tragedy is not forever. Injustice is not forever. Violence is not forever. Terror is not forever. Pain is not forever. Death is not forever. These things are not eternal. They will be destroyed, they will be disgraced, they will be discarded from life and from mind. Even if Gog can kill your body or take your freedom or property or dignity, that's only temporary. You will outlive Gog, if you follow the Rider who is Faithful and True, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:11,16), the Prince of Peace who died and is alive forevermore (Revelation 1:18). So take heart! Hallelujah – the ways and days of Gog are numbered, but we're with Jesus, and Jesus is forever!