Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ezekiel 33:23–33

This is a bleak text that has nothing in particular to do with Christmas Eve, aside from perhaps its bleak setting. Ezekiel, in the twelfth year of Judah's exile in Babylon, has just had news of the fall of Jerusalem. On July 10, 586 BC, the wall was breached; on August 14, the temple was burned; on January 8, 585 BC, a refugee arrived with the news (33:21–22). Soon thereafter, the word of the LORD speaks to Ezekiel regarding the survivors, "the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel" who "keep saying, 'Abraham was one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given to us to possess" (v. 24). Their reasoning is classic collectivism. The individual as such is inferior and subordinate to the group and the needs thereof; therefore, if an individual associated with, or in this case, at the genealogical head of, the group receives some good, the group must therefore be entitled to at least the same, if not a better good. Such thinking is purely quantitative and numerical; its logic is that of the ruling majority or even the mob.

But the word of the LORD to them through Ezekiel introduces the essential qualitative distinction, i.e., holiness, that is entirely missing from their thinking, and the prophecy declared to them is not only that they shall not possess the land (vv. 25–26), but that their numbers shall be drastically reduced by the sword, wild animals, and pestilence, until the land and its mountains are "desolate" and "its proud might shall come to an end" (vv. 27–28).

This devastation has a purpose: "then they shall know that I am the LORD." And the sign that shall make this knowledge clear is the LORD's laying waste the land, owing to "all their abominations that they have committed" (v. 29). What abominations? Each one is an unholy violation of the covenant, of the people themselves, and of the land: eating (raw) meat with its blood; the exaltation and adoration of idols; bloodshed; violent self-rule; adultery; and other unspecified abominations (vv. 25–26).

It requires no great leap of the imagination to recognize that all of these, even in the popular cult of vampirism, are still with us today, some 2700 years later, each one a qualitative departure, from the holy faithfulness that we associate with the single individual Abraham, into the vileness of popular abandon. But the LORD will show the abominable mob what he thinks of their collective claim of their entitlement to the land he promised to Abraham.

But lest you think I have cast this in terms that are too political for one side of the aisle to bear, there is another word from the LORD for those—may we consider them a certain class of biblicists?—who profess to admire and even adore the words of the prophet—esthetically!— especially as his oracles impress with their form and poetic beauty. These are those who are near to the prophet, and even preoccupied with what he has to say; moreover, they even listen to him with the expectation that they shall hear a word "from the LORD" (v. 30). Churchy people, indeed. Yet their attention to his words is restricted to an appreciation of their artistry: "To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it" (v. 32). For them, hearing never turns to heeding; listening never leads to action. "For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain" (v. 31).

It is not entirely clear how they expect to gain from mere listening, but somehow they regard acting on the word as too costly to themselves. There is an innate selfishness about them, an ungenerous and stingy spirit of pretension and hypocrisy. They are connoisseurs and consumers of the word, rather than doers thereof (Romans 2:13; James 1:22–25).

In contrast to both the collectivist and the consumerist crowds, there remains the solitary figure of faithful Abraham to whom the promise of the land, and the promise of a son and heir,  a "seed," was given (Genesis 17:4–8; Galatians 3:15–18). While many attributes of Abraham and Jesus Christ his "seed" may present themselves for consideration at this point, the contrast, in light of this text, is best drawn in terms of the holy faith and the obedience of this unique individual.

To summarize, the aim of any sermon on this text should not be to preach individualism or the individual per se, but to narrow in on the holy obedience of the true heir of Abraham. Neither should it be an austere attack on beauty, form, or the art appreciation that always seems to emerge at Christmas, but a call to the active imitation of Christ the Word, which poetic "doing" is the very substance of discipleship. And that, after all is said and done, is certainly a fitting word for Christmas. 

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