March 30, 2014 Fourth Sunday in Lent
In Search of Comfort
Psalm 147, Ezekiel 39:21-29, Galatians 4:21-31
God’s people languish in exile in the land of Babylon, forever cut off, it appears, from their homeland, that good land their God had given them.
But now comes Ezekiel, prophet of Yahweh, with an oracle of hope. In his oracle, Israel has returned from her foreign captivity and is dwelling in peace in her land of milk and honey. Unbeknownst to Israel, Gog, the mysterious potentate of Magog, is organizing an invasion from the north.
Yet while Gog schemes in secret, Yahweh, God of Israel, is keeping His own counsel as well. His people may be unarmed but their Sovereign Lord is not without resources.
Gog’s mighty force attacks, intent on plundering the defenseless nation. But Yahweh had visited plagues on Egypt to rescue His people of an earlier day from one captivity and He has more in store for Gog and his minions.
And not plagues alone but earthquakes, hail, fire and brimstone, to name only some of the arrows in the divine quiver. Mountains tremble and crumble. Gog’s grand army does not depart with the spoils of war. These once-mighty men do not depart at all.
God’s man Ezekiel is not one to pull rhetorical punches. It’s best to read him without much on your stomach. Following the annihilation, it takes Israel seven months to bury all of the enemy’s dead, even with the help of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.
Not now do men sacrifice animals and feast on their flesh. God has sacrificed the men to the beasts. And for a final flourish, the prophet reports that Israel will take seven years using up all of its captured weapons for firewood.
And now, who will deny it? Yahweh, Lord of Israel, is Lord of all.
With that for background, we arrive at our Old Testament reading for this morning, these few verses that draw conclusions from the bitter lesson of Gog of Magog and wrap up this section of Ezekiel’s prophecy.
First, Israel gets lucky – or should I say “blessed”? She learns a lesson, too, and survives to put her new knowledge to good use – if only she will. If any doubt as to her Lord’s ability to deliver her has grown within her, fungus-like, in the long years of her foreign captivity, Yahweh smashes them and grinds them into the dust along with Gog and his soldiers.
At the same time, the surrounding nations learn the truth about this God of Israel when they grasp that He has judged His own people as well. Unlike their pint-sized localized gods who cannot out-think their creators, when Yahweh metes out justice He does not stint when it comes to His chosen people.
In fact, He holds His own to a higher standard, chastising them with deportation and exile when they defy and deny Him. The creation confronts a new paradigm of thought, a God of perfect justice precisely apportioned. And this justice for all proclaims His glory over all.
The redeemed of the Lord have something here to ponder. We must not gloat in His victories over our enemies for we, too, live in constant need of His mercies, without which we, too, would be consumed.
Ezekiel is singing a new song. For chapter after chapter he has raged, declaring that Yahweh will withhold His mercies from this stiff-necked people Israel. Don’t ponder for very long how much they’re like us; it’ll give you the chills. But now the prophet relays a sweet refrain from on high: “I will . . . have mercy on the whole house of Israel . . .”
In her new peace under God’s protection Israel will be a light that shows the world that His grace proclaims His glory as eloquently as His justice has. In all ways in all times, His name is holy.
No more hiding His face from His people. Now, “I will not hide My face from them anymore .” When He hid His face they could not offer acceptable worship, their only approach to their Lord. Now the door to the divine presence has been flung open to them.
No more does He say, “I will pour out my wrath on Israel.” Now He says, “I shall have poured out my Spirit on the house of Israel.” Like cool, clear water, His Spirit will wash over His bedraggled people, refreshing them.
What an odd, almost jarring, choice of lessons during Lent. For a Christian, hope springs eternal, of course, but during Lent are not more somber matters supposed to occupy our thoughts? Perhaps not today.
Dating back to what were days of yore even in Dr. Cranmer’s time, this fourth Sunday in Lent, the midpoint of the season, has been known as “Refreshment Sunday.” It offers us a brief respite from the days of fasting and abstinence. We get a little wink from God, encouraging us to persevere as we trail our Lord along the Via Dolorosa.
Our collect drips grace. “Grant . . . that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved . . .”
Like Israel in her Babylonian bondage, we have done nothing to merit God’s favor. But like her as well, we may hope and even expect to be mercifully relieved of our punishment through His grace.
I can think of only one thing wrong with grace: Some folks refuse to accept it. And so while God’s grace drenches our lesson from Galatians as well, we find the Apostle Paul begging members of the church in Galatia not to scurry back to bondage under the law but to receive the free gift of grace.
He implores them: Choose the free woman Sarah over the slave woman Hagar; the son born through promise Isaac over the child born according to the flesh Ishmael; freedom over slavery; the heavenly Jerusalem over the present Jerusalem which teems with Jews who have not turned to Jesus.
And I think of the story of the Shabos elevators. In New York City, some apartment buildings that house and hospitals that serve observant Jews make them available. These Jews refuse to press an elevator button on their Sabbath – from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.
They cite a prohibition in their law against creating sparks and fires. Apparently, for those inclined to descend into the fiery bowels of electrical engineering, it is tediously true on a technical level that pressing the button sets off a spark that delivers a signal through the wiring that tells the elevator’s brain to haul tail to a certain floor.
Beloved, I’m not clever enough to make this stuff up.
An observant Jew could take the stairs, of course, and some do. But for the very old, the very young, the disabled and those who live in Gotham buildings so tall even Superman could not leap over them in a single bound, the stairs are not an option.
In some buildings, the solution – after a manner of speaking – has been to program one or more elevators to stop at every floor. But slowing elevator traffic to a crawl has not proved a popular way to address the problem, especially among the many, including secular Jews, who find the entire proposition just plain weird.
Some buildings have gone to express elevators, which stop at pre-selected or pre-requested floors. But Heshey Jacob, general manager of a building that does not have express service, told a reporter that refitting elevators is not a casual undertaking.
“People like to make recommendations,” he said, “but when you tell them it costs a million dollars, there’s nobody home.”
Some hop an elevator like hopping a freight, riding it to a destination someone else has chosen and then hoofing it on the stairs to their floor. One further complication is that some rabbis have ruled that Shabbos elevators are not kosher, so to speak.
How’s Granny going to take Oodles the poodle out for his morning constitutional and get back up to her 17th-floor flat?
The reporter who wrote the story that educated me on this fascinating subject did an excellent job. But she failed to ask one question for which I’d like an answer: Do you honestly think God cares?
That’s essentially the question St. Paul was putting to the non-observant Christians who were considering reverting to observant Judaism in Galatia. You were once slaves to the law. You know the travail of tip-toeing through a thicket of rules each and every day, and even if you negotiate it successfully you will not have saved yourself.
Isn’t God’s grace a better deal? Isn’t it preferable for us who deserve punishment for our sins that we “by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved”?
Trouble is, some find more comfort in a list of rules. I’ve known prison inmates who found comfort in incarceration. They were hellions on the outside and choir boys on the inside. When rules hung over their heads like daggers they obeyed them almost cheerfully.
Secretly, I suspect, they had yearned for a structure they had never known and could not create for themselves on the outside.
Boys and girls of all ages find law more user-friendly than grace. Last Sunday we considered the superiority of a thorough knowledge of God’s will as He has given it to us in His word over a private hotline that reaches into the heavens. God rarely deals in details. He prefers that His people immerse themselves in the Scriptures and grow mature in discerning the path He would have them tread.
Just as some find it more agreeable to imagine themselves wired into the divine mind, many find grace ill-suited to their needs. Perhaps its most annoying feature is that it demands abject humility. Because we cannot earn it we may take no credit for acquiring it. Grace demands that we surrender ourselves to God’s mercy and accept His verdict.
It’s a tough sell in the “me generation.” A billboard I saw on a Texas highway offered a bold, if inadvertent, indictment of our culture. It showed a presumably tipsy fellow blowing into a breathalyzer, the contraption the police use to measure inebriation. The message read: “You just blew $10,000.”
The advertising mind behind the sign knows his audience well. He appealed not to civic duty, a responsibility to exercise reasonable caution to avoid harming our fellow citizens. Rather, do what’s best for you. In this climate, this grace that decrees that none should boast looks a moldy thing best left stuffed in the attic.
It has other defects as well. It’s not hard to violate God’s grace but it’s darned near impossible to make a public display of doing so. How do you hit a moving target, breach a norm when opinions differ on what the norm is?
The “me generation” craves outrage as a staple of their diet. So it is that our cult of celebrity parades before them an endless procession of superstar singers, actors and jocks who leverage fame and wealth into a life outside the rules. I can’t turn on my laptop without learning of the latest arrest, probation revocation hearing or rehab visit.
Their antics testify that they want to be spanked. Because no one will tan their famous little hides they carry on and on in this mournful rebellion, serving their fans the vicarious thrill of the unbounded life. With no rules to break life wouldn’t be worth living.
Lohan’s my name, dysfunction’s my game. Their quest is so tragic because it’s so futile. No one in the stupid industry will ever scale the heights to knock Dennis Rodman off his lofty perch.
In Galatia, Paul’s converts are straddling the fence. Grace looked good in the store window but buyer’s remorse has set in. Maybe they paid too high a price. And indeed, it has cost the apostle dear. He has suffered shipwreck, lashings, cold, hunger, thirst and more for the sake of the gospel of grace. But he knows too how precious it is.
Once the law has shown us our need for grace, we can take the summary of it our Lord left us – love God, love your neighbor – and be done with the particulars. We now have the formula for growth in grace.
Beloved, we must have it and we must live it because we will never make ourselves living sacrifices if we follow a list of rules and withhold those parts of ourselves the rules do not address directly. This is the way of the Pharisee. He justifies himself by offering a tithe of mint and anise and cummin and ignores justice and mercy and faith.
He refuses God the heartfelt devotion that will never be reduced to a code. Man’s heart is a laboratory of legalism. It allows us to segment ourselves and parcel out the pieces we allot to God and retain the rest.
Trouble is, God lays claim to every cubic inch of our hearts, minds and souls. He clings to the quaint notion that everything He created and redeemed is His. An obstinate sort of Chap, this God. He seems never to budge. Praise His glorious name because He does not. Only by His loving, unyielding grace may we be holy as He is holy.
And now as we prepare our hearts for Holy Communion on this Refreshment Sunday, let us take our refreshment from the knowledge that we are not in bondage to the law but have found freedom in Christ, that most magnificent expression of God’s free grace. Amen.