Theme: By owning the odiousness of their idolatry, the people of God can live into the healing that awaits them.
Purpose: Help members understand that they must let go of what the church once was in order to discover what the church must become.
If you were here last Sunday, you may be feeling a little whiplash right now.
Last week, we read the glorious opening chapter of Ezekiel, a vision, a splended one: the Lord on his throne, gold, amber, sapphire, a heavenly portrait of the people of God in their place, guided by the kingdom of God on its heavenly wheels, covering the earth with God’s sovereignty.
Well, it was nice while it lasted! As far as heavenly vision, it looks like we just fell off a cliff!
Those prophets! – you can’t really depend on them to keep a nice linear plot – they’re all over the place. Can we really trust these prophetic writings?
Unfortunately, because Ezekiel is so grounded in history, because these passages contain almost photographic memory of times, places, and scenery, and because his perceptions are so lucid, we can’t write him off.
What was he saying?
Well, if you remember, the year is 582 BC, five years after Jerusalem has been sacked, many of the Jews taken captive, the temple plundered and the city burned. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t just take over Jerusalem; he obliterated it.
So some of the Jews are scattered around the countryside of Judah, eeking a life out in the back country, others are prisoners 900 miles away, overwhelmed by daily reminders that they are NOT in their home country.
What now? What was going to happen? What was God’s next move?
Think about it: you are the people of God, God is a great God, God has always been faithful to you, you are the chosen race, the royal priesthood, God’s chosen nation, the treasured possession of the most high . . .
How does a faithful and powerful God respond to such desecration?
“Time to show your stuff, Lord. Time to come through for your people! This is your moment to prove your power!”
You can imagine what the popular prophets were preaching at this point. There were two popular lines of thought:
a) The exiled Jews in Babylon had only one theologically correct solution: God would miraculously swing down and rescue his people from the enemy and bring them back to their home land. What else could a good God do?
b) On the other hand, the Jews in the Judean backcountry had an easy scapegoat: those exiled Jews – they were the bad ones. They needed to be banished from the land. Good move, God. Now you can return and restore our fortunes and our city. Come on back now, Almighty Father, I see you hiding behind that mountain!
Their theology says that either God will rescue them right now or their religion is over! As Donald Gowan says, instead of buying into either option, Ezekiel offers something different: a better theology.
Ezekiel’s premise: the exiles are NOT going home, Jerusalem is NOT going to be restored, the land is NOT going to be returned. Not now. Not for a long time. Instead, some of you will killed in warfare, some of you will starve, and others will die by epidemic. End of story.
If Ezekiel sounds harsh in this passage, it’s because he’s driving the point home that there’s no turning back. The people of God will really have no home for years to come.
Thanks, Ezekiel! Love you, too!
In lieu of reading several chapters of explanation, let me give you Ezekiel’s rationale.
You blew it, Judah! You blew it. I’m ashamed of you. You made a mockery of our God’s name, His law, His history, of the faith of your forefathers.
Ezekiel 22: 6 – 12
The Jewish people were experiencing the consequences of their actions, pure and simple.
And Ezekiel’s point is: any quick turnaround, any miraculous rescue, any fast track out of this mess will not do your sins justice; it wouldn’t be consistent with the crimes of your state!
To get you out of this bind easy wouldn’t do the process justice.
You see, this isn’t about revenge or retribution or punishment.
The aim here is repeated over and over again in v. 7, v. 10, v. 13, and v. 14 and countless other places in Ezekiel: “so that you shall know that I am the Lord .”
If the Jews are spared the full consequences of their actions, they will never understand how holy the God they worship really is. They will never get his plan for his people.
No, when their slain lie among their idols around their altars, on every high hill, on all the mountain tops, under every green tree, and under every leafy oak, wherever they [used to] offer pleasing odor to all their idols, then . . . then maybe they’ll get it. Maybe they’ll understand.
Fire and brimstone always sounds bad to the people in power. But the ones who suffered abuse, injustice, slander, tyranny, and corruption for year after year at the hands of those powerful people? Fire and brimstone doesn’t sound bad to them; it seems very appropriate to them, doesn’t it?
1929 stock crash: “we didn’t have any money, anyway?”
Well, that’s terrible, but what does it have to do with us today in 2016 in America?
As church membership declines, as Christian values seem to be on the wane, as our culture gets more secular by the year, there are many prophetic voices among church leaders clamoring to convince us that a glorious new day for God’s people is imminent. There are not two but three frequent narratives:
A. The Rapture
B. Better Techniques
C. More Relevance
· Headline: “A new crop of D.C. churches has discovered the secret to appealing to millennials”
· Pastor Aaron Graham, 36, District Church
· Why so successful? “That might have to do with his intuitive sense of what young people in Washington are seeking, which has resulted in a potent combination of social justice, multiculturalism and unfiltered evangelicalism.”
If Ezekiel were preaching in America in the year of our Lord 2016, preaching to God’s chosen people, his royal priesthood, the church of Jesus Christ, the bride of Christ, what might he say?
I’ve got an idea. I think he’d say:
This is the exile for the people of God in America.
You once had the moral authority over American society, and now you don’t.
You once lorded over all other religions as the go-to faith of the country. Not anymore.
People used to respect your church, and look up to you, and revere the words that came from your pulpits. No more.
Maybe you will remain small, inconsequential, and seemingly irrelevant for quite some time to come.
Maybe you need to get used to feeling like foreigners in your own religious landscape: changing moral values, Muslims and Buddhists vying for voice in the public arena, religious identities like ‘evangelical,” “religious right,” “moral majority,” or “street preacher” becoming bad words.
But why, Ezekiel? Has the church’s word and testament really been that heinous?
To answer that question, let’s recall what the church has been in the past:
St. Patrick’s chief concerns were the raising of native clergy and abolishing Paganism, idolatry, and sun worship. He made no distinction of classes in his preaching and was himself ready for imprisonment or death. He was the first writer to condemn all forms of slavery.
John Calvin wanted Geneva to be like the kingdom of God on earth. He had his work cut out for him. The Genevans had had notoriously lax morals before his coming, and they often balked at his attempts at improving morality. A school for many nations. Geneva became a powerful moral magnet, attracting Protestant exiles from all over Europe. The Scot, John Knox, described Geneva as "the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles." Through his moral authority, Calvin truly reformed Geneva.
Although many Enlightenment philosophers opposed slavery, it was Christian activists, attracted by strong religious elements, who initiated and organized an abolitionist movement.  Throughout Europe and the United States, Christians, usually from 'un-institutional' Christian faith movements, not directly connected with traditional state churches, or "non-conformist" believers within established churches, were to be found at the forefront of the abolitionist movements.
The Civil Rights Movement relied heavily on churches; leaders were born from churches, along with the actual church building acting as a meeting place for gatherings and discussions. At the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, once E.D. Nixon had bailed Rosa Parks out of jail, he notified Ralph Abernathy, minister of the First Baptist Church, and Martin Luther King Jr., the new minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, of Parks’ arrest. 50 African American leaders and one white pastor, Robert Graetz, met in the basement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church, Dexter Avenue Baptist, to endorse the boycott started by the Women’s Political Council. Graetz said he would spread the message to his predominantly white Lutheran church. The night of the start of the boycott, Dr. King gave a speech to over 7,000 African Americans in Holt Street Baptist Church.Throughout the rest of the boycott, meetings were held in various churches in Montgomery, calling African Americans in and helping them gain the strength needed during the boycott.
That’s great. But now what has the church become?
We’re not critiquing American society here, mind you. We can complain all day about Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, or the sectors of society they represent.
But that would be like Ezekiel complaining about the actions of Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. Since when did we expect secular culture to act like Christians?
No, we’re addressing the church, God’s chosen people. How have we been doing?
So, is God going to bring the rapture, give us a new miraculous church technique, or make us so relevant instantaneously that people will start flocking in droves to church again?
I don’t know: will that help us understand his holiness? Will that chasten us? Will that mold us and shape us to be the church He has called us to be?
Or do we need to live on the outside for a while.
Maybe in living small, struggling, being less visible, behind the scenes, not a major player in the public arena, marginalized . . .
Maybe there we will re-discover once again what it means to be the church.
There is a future for the church of Jesus Christ, just as there was a future for the Jewish nation.
But God would take them by the long road, by the wilderness, as it were.
As I hope most of you know, your Session, the governing board of this church, has embarked this year on a journey, a discernment process.
Each month when we meet, we are taking the first hour – sometimes more – and reading Scripture, praying, and asking probing questions about who we are, what we’re here for, what the community that we’re called to is like, what our gifts are, and what our community really needs.
It’s sober work. Tedious. Not straight-forward.
Soon we’ll be bringing in a larger swath of leaders from within the congregation to join the conversation.
Our goal is not how to make the church bigger. Or get more in our coffers.
It’s not how to make the building more appealing.
It’s not even how to get more people into church on Sunday mornings.
Because none of those demonstrate the holiness of God.
No, the goal is simple: how can we be a blessing to the Falls Church community? How can we show them the heights, the depths, the breadth, and the width of God’s love? What can we do that will embody the full character of our great and mighty and loving and compassionate God?
According to Ezekiel, the Jews were going to be in exile for many years to come, 70 years to be exact. More than a generation. Their job was not to get back to Jerusalem or get their power or their country or their dignity back. No, their job was to figure out what their real purpose on earth was.
Likewise, I pray that the church in America uses this embarrassing time in the life of our institution to re-discover what it means to be the people of God, to be salt and light, to be a royal priesthood, a holy gathering, that does His goodness justice . . .
So that we along with those around us might once again KNOW that He is LORD!