This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Don't Rebel, Stand Up!

Ezekiel 2:1-5.

            On July 31, 593 BC, a man named Ezekiel had a spectacular mystical vision as he was sitting in meditation on the banks of the Chebar River, in the city of Babylon.  Ezekiel was one of the Jews forcibly relocated to Babylon five years earlier, in the first deportation from the land of Judah.  He was far from home, living in the land of his people’s conquerors, in a very unsettled political and military situation.
            You may read his description of the vision in chapter 1 of his book.  The centerpiece of it is “four living creatures” who are bound together by spinning and whirling wheels within wheels, surrounded by fire and lightning, under a shining crystal dome. 
            After this vision dissipates, and Ezekiel has fallen on his face in awe and terror, he hears a voice speaking to him.  And this is where we pick up the reading for today.
            The first thing the voice says is that he should stand up on his feet.  God does not like to see us groveling on the ground.  It’s as if God wants to respect us and lift us up.  God wants us as conversation partners, not as unworthy worms who don’t have the guts to stand before God.  It is the kings of this world who demand that kind of subservience, who enjoy humiliating people, and who demand that people show their complete, abject obeisance.  But God’s preference is to speak with us face-to-face.
            If God stands us on our feet before God, certainly God does not want us groveling in the dirt before each other.  Anyone who can stand in God’s holy presence, will fall prostrate to no human being.  What God wants for us relative to God’s self, God surely demands for us in relationship to each other.
            By lifting Ezekiel up, God is saying to the whole Jewish people in exile: “Stand up.  Rise up!  Stop moping around bent over before these people.  They are no more than murderous barbarians.  I will deal with them in good time.  In the meantime, don’t bow down to them.  You are my people in spite of everything.  There will be no self-humiliation.  Get up!”
            And the Holy Spirit enters Ezekiel and straightens him up so he can face God. 
            God then tells him that he is being sent as a prophet to the people of Israel, a nation of rebels who have rebelled against God.  So it sounds like groveling and bowing down before God is not Israel’s problem.  It sounds like they stand up to God too much.  Indeed, they are continually rebelling against God.  That’s their problem.  That’s why they have drawn down upon themselves this horrible set of consequences, this comprehensive catastrophe, the near total destruction of their nation, which has been going on for year after agonizing year.

            The problem is that the Jews have been standing up to the Babylonians.  That’s why the Babylonians keep tightening the screws by ordering more deportations, increasing the intensity of the siege of Jerusalem, and so on.  The Jews keep rebelling.  And in rebelling against their conquerors, they are rebelling against God.  Because the prophets have been telling them for a generation that this disaster is the consequence of their disobedience of God and they should not try to escape or mitigate it.
            Now, if a country ever conquered us, or even if we were just attacked, and someone came along and said we should just endure it because we got ourselves into this mess, I feel confident in saying that that prophet would not get much of a hearing.  Imagine the reaction if someone said we deserved what happened on 9/11!  We would probably feel quite justified in hating him or her as a traitor, someone who is undermining our resistance and bringing aid and comfort to the enemy attackers.  We would much rather conspire with others to throw off the yoke and get free, even by violence.
            The Babylonians were not the good guys.  They were a brutal and oppressive regime bent on genocide as a matter of policy.  How could the Jews do anything else but resist and fight against an enemy who was arguably even worse than even Pharaoh of old?  And yet the God who liberated them from Pharaoh is telling them to stay enslaved to Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian Emperor.  Every time they rebel against Babylon, they suffer a defeat more horrible than the last.  God is clearly not with them in this fight.
            So the Jewish people might at this point claim to be confused.  How can the God of justice and freedom leave them in bondage and defeat?  How can that God favor a regime as unjust and brutal as that of Nebuchadnezzar?  Why is God not favoring them, the weak, the poor, the broken, the defeated, and the needy?  What crimes could the Jews have possibly committed that warranted this wall-to-wall atrocity?
            This is a question a lot of us have, when we see gross injustice and violence loose in the world.  Where is God?  Why doesn’t God intervene?  Psalm 73 talks about this.  Why does God seem to favor the wicked?  Why do good things happen to bad people?  People who mock God and get rich on the backs of hard working people… they appear to thrive.  God seems to reward greed, gluttony, lust, hatred, and violence.  They reject the life of faith, and adopt an existence of conspicuous consumption of ill-gotten gain.
            Where is the God of justice?!  Many Jews simply stopped believing in the God of their ancestors, transferring their allegiance to the gods that gave the Babylonians victories and wealth.

            So the Jews are supposed to rise up… but not rebel.  And they were having a lot of trouble making this distinction.  Aren’t rising up and rebelling the same thing? 
            When the children of Israel were liberated by God from Pharaoh’s bondage in Egypt, God gave them a law.  The purpose of the law was to ensure that this new nation would not be like other nations.  Most of all, they would not be like Egypt.  In other words the new nation would not be characterized by slavery, oppression, idolatry, and injustice.  The new nation would not have spiritual or political hierarchies.  There would be no economic or social classes, because everyone would be equal before God.  The new nation would walk lightly on the earth and live simply.  They would worship and serve one God, the God of liberation.  Then God promised to bless them and make them safe and prosperous.
            Unfortunately, this did not hold.  The new nation was under constant pressure from enemies, and they eventually instituted a monarchy, mainly for purposes of national security.  And they got seduced by the other regional gods of economic growth, like Baal.  God grudgingly tolerated the monarchy and tried to work with it, but most of the kings were unsatisfactory.  They flirted (at least) with idolatry, and they allowed social and economic inequities to develop.  In other words, they rejected God and God’s law, and intentionally became more and more like every other nation in the area.  They failed to uphold their part of the deal, the covenant with God.  And when you decide to become a nation like any other, you become liable to the consequences of being a nation like any other.
            Jesus says that if we live by the sword we will die by the sword.  If we live by violence, injustice, inequality, greed, and idolatry, we will die by these evils.  If you live like every other nation, you will suffer the fate of every other nation.  The people of God had forfeited their “exceptionalism.”  They relinquished their right to be treated differently by God because they didn’t treat others, especially the weak and the poor, differently than any other nation.  As the prophets repeatedly remind us, they allowed the rich to get richer and everyone else to get poorer.
            Hence, when a succession of powerful empires rose in the east, the people of God had no moral strength to stand against them.  And they had to suffer the consequences: vassalage, defeat, destruction, and finally exile.

            They rebelled against God and God’s law.  But God gives the law so the people can stand up in the face of regimes of chronic injustice and violence.  The law prescribes a way of living together in peace and justice, equality and fairness.  It is by living according to God’s law that we stand up and live as free human beings before God. 
            But how does that help us in the face of such horrible violence as we see in empires like the Babylonians or their predecessors, the Assyrians?  Ezekiel, like Jesus, recognizes that fighting against these forces with violence is futile and self-destructive.  Not only does it bring down terrible retribution by a stronger power, but it caves in to hatred, anger, violence, and fear, and is thus wildly unfaithful to God.  We become like them and we suffer the fate of all violent entities.
            Ezekiel’s whole ministry is about urging people not to resist militarily against the Babylonians.  Mostly he was to alert people to the horrific consequences of continued disobedience.  He was supposed to deliver this warning no matter what.  If he didn’t, if he chickened out and kept this unpopular warning to himself, the consequences would be on his own head.  But if he proclaimed God’s Word of warning and people didn’t respond it would be on them.
            The people didn’t listen.  They resisted by violence.  They rebelled against God’s will.  And they suffered the consequences. 
            In order to understand what God wants from us here we have to expand our imaginations beyond what we consider normal.  Like Ezekiel, Jesus understands that his mission will not necessarily be popular with his own people.  He announces resistance to evil, but this resistance is to take a dramatically different form.  He wants people to stand up, but he advocates no violence.  Instead he sends his disciples out with the opposite approach of radical simplicity and dependence.  His is an under-the-radar revolution, in which people’s lives are changed and relationships altered, people repent, which is to say, change their way of thinking about the world and acting in the world.
            In other words, Jesus advocates non-violent resistance to the forces of injustice that rule our world.  He wants a resistance that builds a new community among the common people, especially the poor, powerless, diseased, and possessed.    Instead of advocating collecting weapons and going into the hills to mount a terrorist insurgency, which is bound to fail, Jesus says start at the bottom and change the hearts and relationships and behavior of the people.

            And we know that what happened was that the people in exile organized themselves quietly to live a different kind of life according to God’s law, even in a foreign land.  They learned how to live with integrity in exile.  They learned how to maintain their identity and independence even while they were a tiny minority in a hostile regime.  They discovered how to make their faith portable, not tied to a specific piece of real estate or building.              
            Over 500 years later, the people have been back in their home country.  They’re not in exile anymore.  But they are again subject to oppressive, violent, exploitative, corrupt rulers.  They are again sunk in an order in contradiction to God’s law, given at Sinai.  They are again subject to a new Pharaoh.  Their leaders have again been seduced by violence.  Their society features the same old immense gap between rich and poor which the commandments were given to keep the people free from.
            And Jesus comes along and says that God has given up on working with the leaders.  God has given up on kings and emperors and governors and priests.  God has moved away from speaking to the heads of government or business or even religion.  Because it is they who historically have led God’s people into rebellion.  It’s the leaders who develop the hubris, and who work with each other to consolidate their own power and wealth, and who make deals with other regimes, and even drive the people into war.  And throughout history, every time the church has pledged its allegiance to a leader or an establishment class it has eventually suffered for it. 
            Now we are reminded that we have only one leader, one King, one priest, who is Jesus, the Son of God.  And he directs us to find our power in what the world calls weakness, and our authority in service, and our wealth in giving and even poverty.  And it is when we start living in this way, as exemplified by the strict instructions Jesus gives his disciples when he sends them out, that the world will see and know that we are prophets who have been send into the world with a message of peace.
            At the General Assembly last week Brian McLaren talked about the emerging nature of authority in the church.  Instead of authority being something wielded and hoarded by a centralized leadership, he suggested that now authority is measured by how much you give away, how much you empower and authorize others, how much authority you lose.  The more you lose the more you have. 
            This is exactly what Jesus is talking about and what he demonstrates and exemplifies in his own life of self-emptying.  When he sends us out into the world, as with the disciples he sends on that mission, it is also for our own self-emptying.  It is as if we are finally able to stand up when we lose the weight of the baggage holding us down.  Those missionaries, who carried almost nothing with them, were radically free.
            Maybe we too are called to a ministry in his name that is unburdened by our own preconceptions, agendas, and self-importance.  Maybe we are called to live with people, depend on them, heal them, gather them into communities of peace, and so free them from the oppression that feeds on our alienation and separation.  Maybe we are called to exercise authority by giving away the authority the Lord has given us, so that he may find us worthy to receive even more.

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