It’s not very often that we get to hear from Ezekiel in our three-year cycle of readings, so it seems a bit opportune to spend some time with that passage this morning. A little historical context will be helpful: Along with 8-10,000 other Israelites, Ezekiel was part of the first wave of deportations by the Babylonians that came about after the first of a series of sieges that would eventually lead to the downfall of Jerusalem as a political entity. Five years later, while Ezekiel was living in Tel-abib near the Kebar river, he began his prophetic ministry, interpreting the political and military demise of his people and homeland to his fellow exiles. The house of Israel was, according of the word of God given to Ezekiel, suffering the consequences of their sin.
The opening lines of the Hebrew Scripture reading this morning recall Ezekiel’s commissioning, using the task of a sentinel as a metaphor for the prophet’s task. In Ezekiel’s day, a sentinel was a watchperson, stationed as a lookout during a time of war to sound the alarm at the first sight of an invasion. In a similar way, Ezekiel was charged with sounding the alarm of God’s coming judgment. Israel had forsaken their God – they had turned to idols, built systems of violence that protected the powerful, enacted policies that oppressed the most vulnerable. The prophet was sent to the people to convince them of their guilt, thereby persuading them to choose another path.
In our present circumstances, it seems many of us might sympathize with Ezekiel’s ministry – all we have to do is turn on the TV or tune into our favorite news outlet and we are bombarded by present day “sentinels” warning their viewers and listeners that “those people” are about to enact the very “thing” that will bring about the world’s – or, at least, our nation’s downfall. Ironically, it doesn’t matter which side of the debate you to listen to or agree with – they all have a similar message: “Those ones, over there, will be the source of whatever evil comes next; and we, over here, have the solution that will be our salvation.”
The problem with all of this is that we so often conflate the word of God given to us to proclaim with the partisan ideology to which we subscribe. And this often leads us to appoint ourselves as sentinels tasked with the duty to convince those who think differently that they are guilty. In the context of the Ezekiel passage, we identify with the prophet: we see ourselves as called and commissioned to expose the sins of our neighbors while we self-righteously spout the partly lines of whatever social or political organizations best represent our passion. And the more we do this, the easier it becomes to shift the ground of our hope from the One who has promised us salvation and invited us to a new and different way of life to the very structures and systems that yield only false promises of salvation.
I wonder, though, what might happen if we were to pause; if we were to step back and try to identify not with the prophet in this passage but with the House of Israel. Ezekiel’s words were difficult for his original listeners to hear, and they will be difficult for us to hear as well. Like the prophet’s original audience, we too have fallen into idolatry. Perhaps we do not cast golden or silver images of deities that we believe control the fate of the world – but we do pay homage to the things that we believe bring about blessing and prosperity. In our particular context, this translates to social, political, and economic structures and policies that insulate and protect our own power and privilege.
And yet, we are beginning to see cracks forming in these gods we have created. The voice and blood of modern-day prophets fill our streets and many of us are finally being awakened to the sins that have entrapped us in cycles of violence and oppression. Perhaps we can begin to sympathize with the House of Israel who declared, “Our transgression and our sin weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them…” Perhaps we can hear Ezekiel’s charge, spoken to us, to consider a different way, a way that leads to life rather than death because it recognizes and acknowledges that salvation is not to be found in any ideological iteration of worldly politics, but in the desire of God that no one should lose their life because of misplaced hope in false gods. This different way is the path of love, of mutuality, of seeking not the “common good” that protects the powerful and erases the weak, but of seeking the good that brings justice and peace to the marginalized and oppressed – this is the way that we are called to turn to, the way that leads to life and not death.
On a micro-level, this way is illuminated by Paul’s exhortation to the Romans. He outlines the relational integrity that forms the bedrock of our call to the way of life – in all that we do, in all of the ways we engage with those around us (including those with whom we are diametrically opposed), the underlying foundation is love that seeks restoration to wholeness and health. All the rules of the law were intended to keep our relationships with the world – with all of creation – in positive mutuality. The prohibitions against sexual immorality, murder, coveting, drunkenness, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy weren’t just rules about maintaining individual purity. They were guidelines that intended to keep us in healthy and good relationship with one another. This is why Paul can declare that love fulfills the law because loving another means always seeking the kind of abundant life that God offers all that God created.
Love as a governing paradigm does not guarantee peace, if we understand peace to be the absence of conflict. Matthew seems to understand this as well, offering us a three-step process for addressing strife within the church community caused by sin. And even here, accountability for mutuality, respect, and restoration is the underlying principle. And it is in this that we can begin to see the common thread woven into the fabric of our lectionary readings this morning: the hope and promise of restoration is contingent on the way that our relationship with God is manifest in our relationships with one another. This is the way of love that God calls us to, one in which we are invited and commanded to participate if we choose to follow the way of Christ. This means that in all relational aspects of our lives we seek to abide by the Rule of Love – from the personal relationships we have with family, friends, and the earth and place we inhabit to the relationships we have with institutions, social structures, and political entities.
Sin distorts these relationships, bending us in toward ourselves so that we seek only that which will gratify our own desires. Sin causes us to look in the wrong places for salvation, to place our hope in worldly powers and structures to bring about lasting and abiding change. Ezekiel’s message this morning is a call to wake up to this reality, to recognize the ways in which we have given the trust we owe to God over to the gods of our age. Along with the exiled Israelites, we are called to turn back and repent. Through Ezekiel, God is crying out to us this morning, telling us that God wishes for us to turn back and live. God beckons us to choose differently, to live counterculturally by loving others in ways that always seek the restoration of life through forgiveness and reconciliation. Now is the time, as Paul says. Now is the time to dismantle the idols we have created and put our trust in the only One who has the power and the ability to offer life. This is our invitation this morning. Will we follow the call of God? Will we accept God’s invitation to walk a different path, to follow the way of love and restoration?
May God grant us the grace and mercy to seek the path to life and the strength and perseverance to follow it’s way.