Archive for August, 2012
For some reason, it seems to be human nature to dislike warnings – to bristle at the notion of being told bad news in advance. In the Bible, God goes to great lengths to warn people about the consequences of their actions. He sends prophets to speak words and, in some cases, to demonstrate what will happen. But in most cases, the message falls on deaf ears. In some cases, the message is rejected with outright contempt.
And so, this God who tries so hard to warn his people gets chided for doing so. For Ezekiel, this must have been exasperating. He was laying out for the people of Israel the total destruction that God had for them. No doubt, he thought, if the people would just turn back to God, they could avoid destruction. But the people would not turn back. Not only that, but they dismissed Ezekiel’s prophecies as being in the distant future. Interestingly, they didn’t discount him entirely, they just didn’t think the “bad stuff” would happen in their lifetime, so they didn’t really care.
So God, for his part, tells them, “You know what. No more warnings, no more delays.”
Therefore say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: None of my words will be delayed any longer; whatever I say will be fulfilled, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (Ezekiel 12:28)
If you were an Israelite in Ezekiel’s time, that was bad news. Even for us today, if God decided not to delay his punishment, that would be bad news. I’ve heard of individuals and groups who are trying to “hasten” the second coming of Christ. You see, they want all the “good stuff” of the second coming to happen in their lifetime and somehow believe that they can actually affect God’s timeline by “making” things happen – things that are prophesied in the Bible.
But even if they could do so, what they are really seeking to do is to hasten God’s final judgement on the world. Instead of working their fingers to the bone to tell people of the good news of Jesus, instead of trying to welcome as many people into the grace and love of God as possible, they are praying for those people’s destruction. Sure, that may not be their motive, but, if they got their way (and God hastened his return) the result would be the destruction of those people.
The bottom line is that we are always in error when we question God’s timing. Sometimes, we think he moves to fast. Other times, we think he moves too slow. We’re wrong. He’s right. And his timing is perfect, even when our feeble minds think otherwise.
It has been suggested that God really brought all this upon himself by setting up the people of Israel for failure. He gave them a standard to live by that simply couldn’t be followed. And, when they didn’t follow his commands, he got angry with them.
But here’s the thing: he wasn’t angry at them for slipping up. He wasn’t angry at them for making mistakes. Ultimately, he wasn’t even just angry about their open defiance of him. What was the thing that was really the tipping point – the thing that caused God to say, “I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again.” It was that he looked at the people who he had poured himself into and saw this:
You have been more unruly than the nations around you and have not followed my decrees or kept my laws. You have not event conformed to the standards of the nations around you. (Ezekiel 5:7)
In other words, the people who had been on the receiving end of God’s love and grace somehow managed to be even further from God than the people who had been on the receiving end of his punishment. That’s not to say that the neighboring nations were doing anything right – the people of Israel were just so wrong.
As I look around our nation and world today and I see the actions of some people who call themselves Christians, I wonder if God wouldn’t have similar words and feelings for us. As the recipients of his grace, are we extending it to others? As the object of his love, have we loved others in turn? As the adopted heirs to his kingdom, have we welcomed others into our family with open arms?
Or has the same fate befallen us that befell the people of Israel? Have we risen above the fray and set our sites on the things of God? Or have we fallen into the trap of thinking that we are better than everyone else, that we deserve something and that we somehow have the ability to make it on our own?
That was the downfall of Israel. Will it be the downfall of us as well?
I have, at various times, heard people dream aloud and with they could be blessed with the gift of prophesy – of hearing God’s voice and being able to deliver his messages to people. It seems like a cool thing – a Christian fortune-teller of sorts. The problem, though, is that not all news is good news, especially in a culture so steeped in sinful activity that people are not even aware of their sins.
It is in that sort of culture that Ezekiel is called out. Even worse for Ezekiel than the fact that God has bad news for him to deliver is that God seems to want to use some object lessons. He is essentially using Ezekiel as a prop. Now, Ezekiel isn’t the first or last that will be used in this way to make a point, but it sure does make for a tough existence.
Imagine having to live life lying on one side of your body for over a year just to make a point. Imagine the toll that would take on your body – muscles would atrophy, joints would stiffen. It would be almost unbearable. Still want to be a prophet?
But here’s the thing: God gets it. He understands what it’s like to suffer for the sake of ungrateful people. He knows what it’s like to give up everything in the hope that somebody will take notice and change their ways. He’s been there and he knows it’s painful. He also knows it’s worth it.
I wonder sometimes how we, in our modern culture, have come to define “suffering” and “sacrifice” so inefficiently. We decide that, in order to get out of debt, for example, we “need to make some sacrifices”. You know, things like not eating out or going to the movies as often, not buying a new car or maybe *gasp* not going on a vacation. Our “sacrifices” are petty, and suffering? Yeah, we totally don’t know the meaning of that word. For most of us, spending a day or two without internet access is our definition of suffering.
But here, we have a guy (Ezekiel) and a God who both understand suffering and sacrifice and who both see the value of it. No matter how much suffering it takes, it’s worth it if people return to God. What would happen if we took that attitude in our everyday lives?
The author of Lamentations, like so many other Biblical authors, seems a little bipolar. One minute, he’s saying that he knows God’s love will not fail and the next he’s complaining that God has forgotten them. But in the middle of Lamentations 3, the truth is spoken loud and clear:
For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever. (Lamentations 3:31)
In the midst of all of the other clutter of life, those words are the truth. And that truth will never change. God’s punishment may sometimes seem severe to us, but since we all deserve death, anything short of that is mercy. And our hope lies in the fact that God will not pursue that justice against us and that no matter how sever the punishment, “no one is cast off by the Lord forever.”
I, for one, take great comfort in that fact – not only for myself, but for others – friends, relatives and others who live their lives in defiance of God’s plan and will. I know that God promises punishment for those who turn their back on him, but he also promises that we will not be punished forever. We will not be cast off forever.
In a world so full of sin, it’s an incredible thought that God has the kind of love that can absorb all of those blows – the punishment of death that we all deserve – and still have grace. He is not a pushover, but he is hopelessly in love. And that love, like a bright light or a rushing water, will seek out even the smallest crack. The tiniest space where love can come into the equation will serve to bust the whole thing wide open.
May God’s love find the cracks in us, our friends and our families and may it break the scales of sin off of this world. After all, that is what we long for. That is what God longs for in this world. Let it be so!
Lamentations is a really interesting book. The persona is actually the entire nations of Judah and Israel. This is the lament of a nation weeping for its losses and begging for release from this torture. But in today’s reading, I think the most telling aspect of this story is highlighted in just six words in chapter 1, verse 9:
…she did not consider her future. (Lamentations 1:9)
That’s really what it boils down to, isn’t it. These people who God had chosen and for whom he had planned a future beyond their wildest imagination, failed to truly consider their future before deciding to go against God’s will. They were living for today, or perhaps for a year or ten years from now. They were doing what they thought was best and what they thought could gain them the most here and now. Basically, they were acting just like we do today.
In my own life and in the lives of my friends and family, I see this play out every day. We make so many decisions without really considering our future. Sure, we might make an investment with a 20 or 30 year strategy behind it. But I think God sort of sits back and shakes his head when we present him with our 30 year plan.
First of all, 30 years is like the blink of an eye to him. Us planning for the next 30 years is like your kid saying they’re making a long term savings plan with their lemonade stand money – they’ve got something picked out that they want to buy tomorrow. “The future” is a different length of time for us than it is for God.
Secondly, even if 30 years were a real look into the future, we absolutely can’t plan that far in advance. We try, but our situations and circumstances change. What never changes, however, is our God. And so, if we are to truly consider our future, we have to tap into the plans that he has for us and abandon our own brilliant schemes.
The trouble is, his ways don’t always seem as enticing as our ways. Even though we know he loves us and wants what’s best, it doesn’t always seem that way…especially if we fail to consider the future (by God’s definition).