Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Two meetings
September 13, 2011, 8:13 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday evening 11th September 2011

(Ezek 20.1-8, 33-34; Acts 20.17-38)

“In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month;” a very precise date, which Peake’s Commentary identifies as September 1st, 590 BC, and JB identifies as July-August 591. The place was Ezekiel’s house at Tel Abib, by the River Chebar in Babylonia, which a Google search tells me is the modern Khabur, flowing into the Euphrates about 200 miles north of Babylon.  Ezekiel was a priest, deported from Jerusalem with King Jehoiachin in 598 BC. Some five years later, when he was thirty years old, he received a vision of God enthroned and was commissioned as a prophet. He seems to have been recognised as such by the leaders of the exiled community, and from time to time they consulted him for guidance. There are at least two previous visits recorded (Ezek 8.1; 14.1).

It isn’t clear what the elders wanted to ask about on this occasion, but it may be they wanted to know how they were to worship God away from the Temple in Jerusalem (which of course was still standing at that time- it was not destroyed until about four years later). In reply, Ezekiel gave a great diatribe on the infidelity of Israel (most of which we left out in the reading). “Is it to inquire of me you come? As I live, I will not be inquired of by you!” There follows a list of the ways Israel has been unfaithful to the covenant with God, from the wilderness days down to the present. “And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, says the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you. What is in your mind shall never happen- the thought, ‘Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone.’” Yes, it looks as if the elders wanted to know if it would be all right to follow foreign religious practices- to adapt to the local culture, we might say. No wonder Ezekiel was furious!

But then we get the astonishing assurance: “As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you. I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out.” The Lord will judge and purge his people, but he will not give them up. He is their God, and they are his people.

It is a dramatic scene, the Prophet and the elders, bitter denunciation followed by the promise of salvation. Contrast it with another scene, another religious leader meeting with a group of elders, Paul at Miletus with the elders from Ephesus. It is now about 58AD, and Paul has been travelling around for some fifteen years since he and Barnabas were first commissioned at Antioch. This included over two years at Ephesus. At an important meeting in Jerusalem several years earlier, when his policy of converting Gentiles was under review, he had undertaken to organise financial support from the Gentile Christians for the Church in Judaea. At the time of our second reading, he was on his way back to Jerusalem with the money, after which he planned further journeys westward, to Rome and eventually Spain. The logistics of the journey did not allow a stopover at Ephesus, so he asked the leaders of the Ephesian Church (whom he knew well) to come to him at Miletus, further down the coast.

The speech recorded in Acts is probably not a verbatim report, put represents the gist of what Paul had to say, coloured by Luke’s own hindsight as to what was to follow. It is likely that Paul did receive warnings that in going back to Jerusalem he was heading for danger, but we know from his own letters that he himself fully expected to carry on with his missionary work. Luke wants to summarise Paul’s understanding that his policy of converting Gentiles had made him unpopular- not so much with Jews who had not accepted Jesus as Messiah, but with many who had, and who still thought in terms of converts accepting the full Jewish Law.

Paul’s farewell speech, as reported by Luke, expresses his confidence in the rightness of his approach. Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah, but a Messiah for all the world. Israel’s providential role had been to be, as it were, his cradle: but now that the Messiah had been crucified and raised to life again, a completely new era had begun. God was bringing salvation to all the nations, not just one. This is what is meant by the phrase, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” In fact, the Epistle to the Ephesians (which is not easy to date) contains the same point, referring to “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body,” the same body, that is, as Jewish believers.

The contrast with Ezekiel’s words to “his” elders is stark. The prophet is harsh, chiding his audience for their perversity; the Apostle is warm and tender, offering encouragement for trials to come. This is not just a difference between Old Testament and New Testament. There is a temptation to think of the Old Testament (especially passages like that from Ezekiel) as addressed to “them”, to the Jews, to a bygone era. We have a Gospel of love and grace, of Faith rather than Law. I don’t think that is altogether a safe way to think. Ezekiel was addressing the leaders of what was, in his day, the “Establishment”, an Establishment whose policies had brought disaster on the whole people of Israel, and who were still thinking in terms of compromise and politics. Paul’s elders, on the other hand, were in no way an “Establishment”. They were new converts, from groups that had traditionally thought (within Israel) to be “outsiders”, to be avoided. In simplicity of heart they had accepted Paul’s message that the Jewish Messiah was a Saviour for them as well, and that he already lived and reigned in heaven over all the nations. As Paul moved on, they were left with the responsibility to care for the new and fragile communities of believers that the Apostle had gathered.

Nineteen and a half centuries further on, we cannot say the same of the Christian Church today. As in the time of Ezekiel, it has become an “Establishment”, with leaders (some very good, some rather bad, most pretty middling) who have a career structure, rules and procedures, rights and privileges. Few of us, clergy or lay, are in this country “new believers”. We should therefore ponder not just Paul’s encouragement and guidance to the elders of Ephesus, but also take to heart the strictures of Ezekiel on the elders of Israel. Both have something to say to us. The God whom Ezekiel saw enthroned is now enthroned in the person of Jesus, God and man together. The vision of God’s people gathered in from all the nations, with which Ezekiel reassured his hearers of the faithfulness of God, was seen by Paul as extending not only to Jews but to all mankind. And if the prophet rebuked his people for their failings, he also, like the Apostle, assured them that God would never give them up.


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