Wendy and I are in the home stretch. Moving day is this Saturday, February 28th, and the next three days are packed (pun absolutely intended) with scheduled details. There’s the wrapping up the finish work on the new house while trying to figure out how to get everything ready for the load out. Appliances we’re keeping have already been moved and we’re living out of boxes and suitcases for the next few days.
The process has been more challenging than we would have wished. Wendy has been suffering from a nasty virus/cold/flu that struck her a week and a half ago. I’ve never seen her so sick and she spent most of last week on her back. She’s still far from 100% but is back on her feet and gutting it out.
We’re excited, but the excitement is tempered by the sheer number of details that must come together while keeping one eye on the weather forecast (WHY, exactly, are we moving in February in Iowa?).
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of the Lord!'” Ezekiel 13:1-2 (NIV)
I do not believe that we who live in a post-enlightenment age can possibly fathom the religious climate of Ezekiel’s day. A person living in Jerusalem in that day would be familiar with various temples and religious centers catering to a giant web of Canaanite deities. A person living in the time of Ezekiel would be very familiar with mediums, prophets, fortune tellers, and soothsayers. It was a central part of daily life and the economy in the ancient world.
As I read of the prophetic performances God asked Ezekiel and his contemporaries to produce, it is easy to think that they stood out like sore thumbs. However, when I stop to consider the loud cacophony of prophets who catered to popular gods like Baal, Asherah, Dagon, Molech, Lotan, and Chemosh on the streets of Jerusalem, I wonder if Ezekiel’s prophetic performance art caused any more of a stir than a man dressed like Barney the dinosaur would cause in Times Square today.
In today’s chapter God tells Ezekiel to prophesy against false prophets and those sons and daughters of Israel who were profiting from telling people what they wanted to hear and who appear to have mixed themselves and their faith with the practice of other religions. The question I ask myself is whether Ezekiel’s voice could even be heard above the din of the idolatrous crowd.
Today, I find myself mulling over how our culture (even in out post-enlightenment age) both parallels and contrasts the religious atmosphere of Ezekiel’s day. The internet has raised, to unprecedented levels, the cacophony of voices saying anything and everything to anyone and everyone. I am very aware that the voice of my squeaky little posts are lost in the din of information, advertisement, entertainment, opinion, and conjecture. Did Ezekiel feel the same way?
This morning I’m reminded of Van Gogh’s many drawings and paintings of the sower. The sower does not always know where his seed may fall, nor how they might take root, grow, or bear fruit. The sowers job is to cast his seed into the field. The prophets job is to sow his message into the din of contemporary voices.
I received an inquiry yesterday from a community theatre who would like to do a group reading of a play I wrote, Ham Buns and Potato Salad. What excited me about the request is that it came from a town not far from where I live and in my reply I inquired about the possibility of sneaking into the reading anonymously to listen to the reading and to hear what the readers thought of it.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about watching a play I’ve written being produced is listening afterwards to what others saw and heard in it. I have been struck by the wide range of perceptions. Some people catch the jokes and enjoy the characters but clearly don’t get the things I was really trying to say about humanity, community, family and faith. Others really perceived the themes I wove into the fabric of the story and were touched deeply by them.
God, the Author of Life, was having frustrations with His people in today’s chapter: “They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.” God instructs Ezekiel to produce another performance art piece. This time, Zeke is to metaphorically act out being taken in exile. It is clear that God intended the play (that’s really what it was, Ezekiel was an actor playing out a scene) to communicate to people in ways that all the sermons delivered by the prophets had failed. The goal was to provoke thought and prompt questions as God asks his actor, “Son of man, did not the Israelites, that rebellious people, ask you, ‘What are you doing?’”
Today, I am reminded that a good story, well produced and performed, can be more powerfully moving and create more productive conversation than a Sunday sermon. Today’s chapter is evidence to me that our creator/artist God knows this to be true. It’s a tragedy that the institutional church, by and large, abandoned the arts centuries ago. I am excited that this Saturday night our local group of Jesus followers is having an “Original Works Night” which we do periodically for artists among us to have a venue to present their works. It’s a start. There is hope.
You fear the sword, and the sword is what I will bring against you, declares the Sovereign Lord. Ezekiel 11:8 (NIV)
Looking back across my life journey, one of the books I’ve realized has had a profound affect on me through the years is M. Scott Peck’s exploration of evil, The People of the Lie. We don’t talk much about evil anymore, or at best it is relegated to descriptive quips about people we don’t like (e.g. “She’s an evil woman!”) or discussions of the heinous extremes of history (e.g. Hitler, Serial Killers, Cult leaders, and etc.). Peck’s book raises a thought provoking conversation about the nature of evil as it exists in ordinary human beings who live ordinary lives in ordinary communities like ours.
I thought about The People of the Lie this morning as I read about Ezekiel’s vision. Most of the Old Testament prophecies are directed at nations and peoples, but in today’s chapter God’s judgement is proclaimed on specific individuals: Jaazaniah son of Azzur and Pelatiah son of Benaiah. These leaders in Jerusalem appear to have been self-centric power brokers, the ancient Jerusalem version of mafia dons. They wielded power, influence, and financial gain through violence, and the text hints that they smugly thought that they had avoided the exile because they were favored by the gods. Their description aligns with some of the symptoms of evil Peck outlines.
Addressing them, God tells Ezekiel to proclaim to these men: “You fear the sword, and the sword is what I will bring against you.” One of the things Peck observed in his work on evil is that evil only responds to one thing: force. You can’t persuade evil people to reform or make deals with them as their nature will lead them to, again and again, deceive you for their own advantage. They fear only force, just as God describes Jaazaniah and Assur.
Today, I am reminded that evil does not confine itself to serial killers and megalomaniacal leaders. Evil is ever present in small towns among ordinary community members who look and talk and appear to be normal people just like me. In fact, if I am not careful, evil can and will affect and influence my own heart. Jesus warned:
For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.These are what defile a person;
Before His crucifixion, Jesus prayed for His followers:
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
I am thinking today about the thoughts that come out of my heart on a regular basis. I’m thinking about ways that I allow myself to be blind to and influenced by evil. I am echoing Jesus’ prayer for protection in this world from becoming or being influenced by a “person of the lie.”
Now the cherubim were standing on the south side of the temple when the man went in, and a cloud filled the inner court. Then the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the Lord.
Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. Ezekiel 10:3-4, 18 (NIV)
For those reading the prophetic visions of the ancient prophets for the first time, they must seem like nothing more than the recollection of an LSD induced hallucination at a Grateful Dead concert. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of these visions in the vacuum of the chapter itself. There is a broader context that has to be considered in order for things to start making sense. Think about it, if someone simply read the “prophecy” about Harry Potter and Voldemort revealed at the end of The Order of the Phoenix and didn’t know anything about the rest of the story, would it make any sense by itself?
For me, there were three pieces of information outside today’s chapter that brought Ezekiel’s vision out of the haze and into focus:
Moses experience on the mountain of God. Way back in the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, Moses goes up the mountain to receive the tablets with the commandments on them. He sees God “face to face” and when he returns from the mountain his face is “radiant,” so bright that he had to cover it (Exodus 34). It wasn’t sunburn, it was God’s “glory” or radiance. In fact, at the end of the Great Story when eternity is described, there is no Sun or Moon (or day and night) because God’s glory provides all the light needed. God’s glory throughout the entirety of God’s Message is a sign of God’s presence.
The dedication of Solomon’s temple. When the temple was built by King Solomon and the ark of the covenant (think Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) was brought into the temple, God’s presence filled the temple in the form of a cloud. The cloud, like the veil over Moses’ face, was a sign of God’s presence and a protective covering for the bright radiance of God’s glory (Did you notice when Indy opened the vault that contained the ark it glowed? That was Hollywood wizardry doing their version of the glory of God) . After the dedication of the temple, God warned Solomon: “But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them,20 then I will uproot Israel from my land,which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples.21 This temple will become a heap of rubble.” (2 Chronicles 5,7)
The context of the last few chapters. Today’s vision is part of a broader vision Ezekiel is recounting from chapters eight through 11. It began with God revealing to Ezekiel the idolatry (the same idolatry He warned Solomon about) in and around the Temple and it continued with God’s judgement on the idolators. Today, what Ezekiel is seeing from the spiritual realm is a further consequence of the idolatry and further fulfillment of God’s warning to Solomon. God’s glory and presence is being taken out of the temple in preparation for its destruction.
Today, I am mulling over the events Ezekiel describes in this broader context of the entirety of the Great Story being told throughout God’s Message. When God warned Solomon about idolatry, He knew very well what would eventually happen. It’s a grand word picture of my own personal experience. Despite my best intentions, I fall short of spiritual perfection. Look close enough (actually, you probably don’t even have to look that close) and you’ll find plenty of ammunition to accuse me of hypocrisy. Guilty as charged.
And, that’s really the main point I find in these Old Testament stories. Try as we may, we can’t achieve an acceptable spiritual level on our own that meets God’s standard. We keep slipping back into our own personal forms of idolatry by choosing our own way. The results, as Ezekiel is seeing in his vision, are disastrous. It seems like God was trying to let humanity fail so we’d learn the lesson the same way a wise parent sometimes let’s a child fail for the same reason. “You can’t do this on your own,” God seems to be saying. “If you are to escape the deathly consequences of your own choices, you need a savior to save you from yourselves.”
“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” Ezekiel 9:4 (NIV)
Ezekiel’s vision takes a decidedly brutal turn in today’s chapter. Yesterday, God asked Ezekiel to see all of the detestable and idolatrous practices that were being carried out in and around God’s temple. In today’s chapter, God renders judgement.
Chapters like today’s are hard to read and to think about. It’s not exactly like one of those sappy inspirational quotes that litter Facebook and Pinterest. We don’t like thinking about judgement. It doesn’t feel good. We want justice for others who we deem evil, but we want compassion for ourselves and those we know and care about. We want God to punish those who hurt us, but want him to forgive us for hurting others (if we even acknowledge that we do).
I have found that human beings are often given to black and white thinking when talking about God and judgement. I hear people dismiss God’s judgment in the Old Testament as wholesale callousness, but even in today’s chapter there is mercy shown to those who detested the idolatry that was happening. Likewise, I sometimes hear people say that they admire Jesus’ teachings about love, but the truth is that for all of His teaching on compassion and forgiveness, Jesus also spoke plainly and often about eternal judgement and punishment.
I was reminded this morning of Thomas Jefferson who created his own version of the New Testament by eliminating all the parts he didn’t like (mostly the miracles, supernatural, and such). As much as I would like to chide him for it, the truth is that I find that even we who claim to be the most ardent of Jesus followers do more than a little mental editing of our own. Truth, I’ve discovered along life’s journey, isn’t easy and it’s often uncomfortable.
Today, I’m not feeling particularly inspired by the text. Sobered is a more apt description. I want both justice and mercy in this world, but if I’m honest I’ll admit that I only want it doled out in ways that fit comfortably inside my finite box of reason and understanding (and benefit me). In my gut, I sense that I can’t have it both ways and that’s a sobering thought. I’ve also found, however, that a little sober thinking now and then leads to wise decisions and positive changes.
Wendy and I were driving in the car the other night. As usual, we were having a great conversation about…something…I can’t remember exactly what. Wendy made the observation that one of the reasons she really never dated anyone seriously (until I came along when she was 33) is that no one else she met would have the kinds of conversations we seem to have on a regular basis.
There does seem to be a curious, exploratory conversational nature that the two of us enjoy together. We read the paper each morning and talk about what we’re seeing in the current events of our day. We watch television and talk about what we’re seeing in the stories and themes being presented. We got to church and talk about what we heard in the message, but also what we saw happening in the room around us and how it fits in the context of what we’ve seen happening over time. We go to a movie and talk about what we saw in the writing, the cinematography, the direction, the action, the acting and the characters. We watch sports and talk about what we’re seeing happening with the players, the teamwork, and the momentum shifts of the game.
I know. It sounds draining to most people. For us, it’s life.
With today’s chapter we are entering into one long vision experience that the prophet Ezekiel had which will flow into the following three chapters. The vision has five distinct divisions and today’s chapter is the first section of the vision. God takes Ezekiel on a magical mystery tour of sorts as Ezekiel is lifted into the spiritual realm and taken to Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. The common theme in this first section of the vision is for Ezekiel to see the extent of the idolatry that’s happening at and in God’s temple:
“look toward the north.” (vs 5)
“Do you see what they are doing” (vs 6)
“You will see things even more detestable” (vs 6)
“Go in and see….” (vs. 9)
“Have you seen…?” (vs. 12)
“Do you see this…?” (vs. 15)
“Have you seen…?” (vs. 17)
Which brings me back to Wendy and me and the fact that even our friends laugh at us always tearing things apart and dissecting them in conversation. “Can’t you just sit and enjoy the movie?” But the enjoyment for me comes, in part, by truly seeing the movie. As with people, there’s always a lot more going on than you see on the surface and I never want to be caught blind (although I’m pretty sure we can’t help but have our own blind spots, but that’s a another conversation).
I am reminded this morning of Jesus quoting the prophet Isaiah:
“In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.'”
Today, I’m continuing my quest to hear, to see, and to perceive.