Ezekiel 36

“He’s got the whole world in his hands”

It’s the start of the sugar. Reading the prophets, there’s so much death and destruction, you hang out for the sweet stuff.

The land has been emptied, but this is about hope for the mountains. Hope starts with the land itself.

Disappointed pilgrims observed over the years that the mountains of Israel are no great shakes. It’s quite a harsh, stony, dusty land.

But god’s blessing will make it bloom, will return the people and have them flourish.

Rain will cleanse the land of spiritual betrayal, the idols. Rain, beautiful rain. We don’t get that any more here.

The people’s hard hearts will be replaced with hearts of flesh. Beating, living hearts.

In every sense metaphorical and literal, God’s wonderful unique creative power of life will abound.

Oh dear God, our land is not beyond your blessing, our hearts are not beyond caring.

As it dries, bakes and burns more than we’ve ever known, and we argue and blame, and build more coal mines.

Give us hearts of flesh, send sweet rain to wash us of our idols.

I wrote a song that used this passage for the chorus and Ephesians 4 for the verse.  Goodness me, I’m a try hard! Almost 15 years ago now. Not one of my best,  but the beating heart and the anticipation of the rain are there.

 

Ezekiel 33

Watchman, prophet, troubadour.

Ezekiel must faithfully pass on the warnings God is sending through him.

Wicked people will ask for mercy and live.

Good people will trust in their own righteousness before God and come up short, their pride in their own goodness misplaced.

To them, Ezekiel is like a troubadour, a singer of love songs that are sweet to hear but not impactful.

In the end, all that Ezekiel speaks of will come true and the people will know that a prophet has been among them.

During the chapter an escapee from Jerusalem arrives and confirms ezekiel’s God-given reports of its fall.

Now feels like a time for truth.

I will remember this summer for a long time, the searing heat, the spooky absence of rain, the fires everywhere. People being cut off in all directions. The pall of smoke, the red sun. Homes, lives lost. The calculations that the exhausted fire service have to make, because they are hopelessly unequal to the size and number of the fires.

It’s doesn’t feel like a time for coal-lobby-inspired talking points minimising climate change.

Or building a new coal mine in virgin habitats that will divert over a billion litres of water from farmers, but that is what is happening.

It’s a sadness that lays over everything, and is an instance and metaphor of our staggering ability to reject truth, which brings a quiet sort of despair to interpersonal relationships as well.

You don’t want to deny it, but there’s no point surrendering to a suffocating sense of doom either. Yet here we are, with literally toxic air.

Ezekiel 31

We’ve had a tired Christmas, not much energy as a family. Our only decoration a sheet printed with a picture of a tree. One church service, to which my children came. I was grateful. Forget turkey: yum cha for lunch. Very low key, but some warmth, happiness and respect. I’m just so tired. Afternoon sleeps and pointless TV.

Today a simple but poignant message to Egypt, not burning with rage at its wickedness and corruption, but steeped in regret at beauty to be lost, achievement wasted. In comparing a culture to a tree, God takes delight in human magnificence, diversity and splendour. He loves his creation’s creativity.

But we are locked into time, it symbolises God’s judgement on the rebellion in our hearts. Our shining moment must pass, and we can’t cling to it or protract it. Hopefully we use that realisation to contemplate eternity, and throw ourselves onto God for mercy and love.

My lack of energy prepares me to receive this message. I increasingly won’t have the wherewithall to push back chaos and carve out my own imprint on the world. I’m just one tree in the forest which will continue on after I’m gone. Lose the pride, enjoy the sun and rain while it’s there.

…but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Matthew 6

I’ve had a bit of a break, working on musical things in the mornings. Reading Matthew 6, what balm for the soul though.

Chapter five emphasised how antithetical God’s beautiful kingdom is to the ones we live in.

It threw us on God’s grace, requiring one sacrifice on our part, pride. Possible loss of a hand or an eye as collateral damage.

Bringing down the wall of pride facing God lets his goodness flow.

It flows from God to us and through us. We don’t prove our goodness to him. Jesus’ first point was that we can’t.

The examples in this chapter show how reversing flow of goodness changes everything. The way we live every day that flows from being humble recipients of God’s grace.

We give in situations of need because of the need, not to show we are good.

We pray to acknowledge and understand God, not show God or anyone else how devoted we are.

We forgive others not out of big heartenedness to them, but because of God’s to us.

Did you ever hear the joke “the first rule of vegan club is tell everyone about vegan club”. Self control and self discipline are part of the Christian life, but they are not a show for others, they are between God and us.

Then the things that light up our soul. Jesus describes our eyes as lamps for the body, which seems very apt in the modern era of illuminated screens for everything… Those gleaming images from Amazon, eBay, Instagram shining into our minds. All the things we could have, creating desire.

Contrast treasure in heaven. It’s fleshing out the “as above, so below” guidance from the Lord’s prayer directly above the passage. Doing God’s will on earth makes an eternal difference. Buying more stuff does not, of itself.

Then the wonderful message about not worrying. God feeds the birds of the air and dresses the flowers more beautifully than the most elite fashion house.

It’s an overwhelming argument, it’s irresistible. Let God love you. Be a channel of his love.

But it’s also a battle to establish habits we’ll fight for the rest of our lives.

It’s been quite a spiritual time. Some setbacks at church, lots of deep theology at work, a funeral this week for a much loved and kindly father, the approach of the end of another year.

This chapter is about being alive to the spiritual significance of things. So many of the themes of the scriptures land here, it’s like getting to the chorus hook of a song that has had many verses.

Do not worry about tomorrow, every day has enough trouble of is own. Is that comforting or not? Jesus’ deceptively simple, endlessly reverberant sayings.

Matthew 2

The familiar events directly after Jesus’ birth. Wise men, slaughter of innocents, flight to Egypt, settling in Nazareth. Each event methodically linked to a prophesy it fulfills. Piling up an overwhelming case that Jesus is Messiah.

The interplay of agency and prophesy reminded me of exodus, where Pharaoh’s refusal to let the people go virtually alternates between “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and”Pharaoh hardened his heart”.

The very strange visit of wise men happened in order to fulfill the prophesy, but Herod’s unspeakably cruel slaughter of the innocents was simply prophesied. Herod owns it.

The plot mechanics are very visible, but in this story Deus ex machina is literal. For me the Egypt loop has always been a tipping point. I mentioned yesterday the absence of an exodus pillar in the genealogy. How could I forget! There’s just so much in here. Like a checklist.

But Jesus’ birth is a messy disaster too. On the run, born into oppression and the worst political persecution, refugees, having to live in the boondocks. And kings of the Orient, with expensive gifts.

Like yesterday, where the royal bloodlines were blurred by grace, the promises of the conquering Messiah are undercut with humility and marginalisation.

I’m exhausted, yet stable, as I read this. We’ve had a recovering child on crutches and a big party to stage. I’ve been forgetting to enjoy life, succumbing to stress and unconfidence. Some great things have been happening this year.

God works with mess, just be trusting and obedient. Commit. Wholehearted.

Ezekiel 13

These chapters are each a “word of the Lord” and end with “then you you know that I am Lord”, a phrase I associate with an almighty thud, like an anvil falling in a Warner brothers cartoon.

Today’s will be the exposure of false prophets, the ones who are selling comfort and peace.

Those are good things, unless they are works of the imagination that mislead people, give them false hope, are motivated by being invested in the power and wealth structures of the status quo, and lead people to act against their own best interests.

Climate change deniers come to mind, in the modern world.

In the church I suppose wishy washy theology comes to mind, people who know more than they let on about the love of Jesus, because of the gospel’s tendency to divide opinion. There are some prices too high for a positive vibe.

And I don’t say that easily, as someone who values it more than many.

A lot of the chapter is taken up with a wall metaphor. Very apt, considering they lived in a walled city under threat of siege.

God talks about the folly of whitewashing over weaknesses to gain false comfort, rather than acknowledging risk and danger, and actually making a strong wall.

As someone who has always lived in old houses in a termite prone area, I know all about walls that are held together just by paint. It’s amazing how plausible they can look, and how easily they crumble.

I got cathartic with my boss at work yesterday at our regular meeting, and it felt like such a good thing. I’m a conflict avoider, and he’s worse! He wasn’t going to raise it. But I jumped in at the end. We’ve been struggling, and the whitewash of smiley patter just hasn’t been cutting it.

I think we strengthened the wall, I hope so.

Ezekiel 12

This is about fearing God I suppose.

Ezekiel acts out the defeat and exile that the rest of Jerusalem will suffer, for the benefit of those already dragged away by Babylon.

They still don’t believe it’s possible. They have a saying that visions never come to pass, which he repudiates.

This vision of the destruction of Jerusalem will happen.

So fear the Lord.

We’ve already been given a spoiler of the people’s response. They don’t accept Ezekiel’s message from God. (sorry later chapters if they do).

It’s still true now that so many people appear to live their lives thinking that the gody stuff doesn’t matter.

I’m so deep in it, my temptation is get blase about what I already accept.

People sometimes persist in ignoring God even as things start to fall apart, like the exiles here… You’d think they might suspect god might keep his judgement promise.

Yes, this is serious, we only get one go at it.

Psalm 4

This is a kingdom psalm. It’s by David.

I don’t know whether it’s translation issues or a deliberate technique of his but David often plays with voice.

When he does, the psalms become messianic… You aren’t sure if he or God is speaking, and whether the servant of God is him or an aspect of God.

There is a bit of that ambiguity here, you have a triangle, God, David, and others… It could be Israelites/believers/mankind.

He’s talking about the comfort and security he gets from his intense intimate relationship with God. That’s why I called it a kingdom psalm. There is no real hierarchy in the kingdom of God, its building blocks are innumerable individual relationships with God. We can all be anointed as children of God.

David wishes others to have what he has. They will all experience prosperity, but his heart will be filled with unique joy, because he won’t be asking where it comes from, he’ll know it is a blessing of God.

In a way it’s self aggrandising. I’d say it’s from the time he’s been anointed king, but still hunted by king Saul. He calls their failure to recognise his kingship a delusion that brings God’s glory to shame.

But how neatly does that situation match our world of dual kingdoms, where Jesus has been anointed king, the battle won, his victory announced, yet the other kingdoms persist.

David believes quietness will fix it. If only people would tremble before God when they are alone in bed, be quiet, and search their hearts.

This belief that God is easily findable in every heart is a great boon to evangelism. It reminds me of my plan to summarise proverbs with the phrase “think for one second”. A reflective life, will often lead to God…

You can’t force God’s kingdom. You don’t own it, not your plan. But you can live it, passionately, and it’s richness will be evident.

Psalm 149

This psalm of praise has a sharp end, calling for the praise to be a double edged sword in their hands, carrying out vengence on other nations, binding their Kings and shackling their nobles, carrying out a sentence that has been pronounced on them.

There’s bits missing here (which nations? what sentence?). These can be filled in by the exile and the prophets.

Probably Babylon is the nation they are most likely thinking of, who sacked Jerusalem and exiled Israel, and the sentence is probably some version of the prophesy that the exile would end after 70 years, as it did, when the Persian Empire defeated Babylon and freed the people.

What’s more, singing the song in its original context: praising while captive, it probably wasn’t a good survival strategy to be more specific. It’s probably deliberately vague.

It’s a salvation psalm. You have the people rejoicing in God, God delighting in them, and them anticipating his salvation.

And I do long for the Kings of the nations to be fettered. To give Kings and princes their due, I suppose someone’s got to do it. But it is more common than not that the power makes them compromised and disappointing figures, even the ones who don’t kill the kids and drive you from your homeland.

I just watched the trailer for Tom Hanks’ movie about Mr Rogers. He was a Presbyterian minister, and his kids show about being a neighbour was squarely based a biblical inspiration for his life mission.

Hollywood aren’t fools, they know how this portrait of a deeply civil and gentle man will play against a national – maybe international – discourse that is descending into crude name calling, simplistic populism and dark forces like racism.

I knew I was being co-opted, but the trailer made me cry, anyway.

May our praise be a double edged sword.

Psalm 137

Oh it’s that psalm. Not merely a hit for Boney M, as if that weren’t distracting enough (…by the rivers of Babylon…) but also the one that ends with the happy thought of violently killing the infants of your enemy.

Is it the lost 3rd verse of the song? In the Boney M recording session the producer said “is it just me or is that bit about smashing baby heads not working?”

Kelly, my wife, quotes this verse to Islamophobes, you know, who say Islam is an inherently violent and bloodthirsty religion. It’s not hard to characterise Christianity that way too if you want to, by digging out verses like this. She studies with a number of Muslim believers and she says in practice their culture of empathy and hospitality puts many a Christian to shame.

The commentators ultimately conclude that this verse is an old testament thing. We’re taught better in the new testament.

But even Jeremiah taught them not to be like this. In chapter 29, his letter to the exiles told them to become functioning citizens of Babylon, to prosper, have children, and wait out the prophesied 70 years praying blessing for the nation they were sent to.

However the memory of what they have lost is still too raw for them here. The images of the Israelite’s own children being dashed on the rocks would have been seared into the memory of the exiles, it was standard procedure for conquering armies, including the Babylonians.

The Israelites weren’t even particularly planning to personally execute this cosmic revenge. They were recalling the prophesy of Isaiah that the Babylonians would suffer that on their day of judgement at the hands of yet another Empire.

So watching their children killed, among other horrors, then dragged off to a foreign land and told to sing a joyous song …they instead allow themselves the joy of imagining the same fate eventually being visited on their captors. It’s still not exactly “love your enemies”, I agree, but I can see the temptation.

The psalm is poignant. The people subjugated and in a foreign country, remembering Zion, weeping, and having their culture laughed at. Reminiscent of Jesus being given a crown of thorns and called king of the jews. Promising not to forget God and Zion, but seeing no tangible hope, bitterly remembering their “frenemies” neighbouring Edom goading Babylon on, enjoying their destruction. Ending with the memory of their children being mercilessly slaughtered.

I suppose it’s the sadness of judgement. The Israelites have suffered it, the Babylonians will suffer it. Death, violent or gentle, sooner or later will come to us all.

And those who are left will struggle with the spirituality of raw emotion as Israel does here.

Wild thoughts will either turn you to God or harden your heart, maybe making a God of revenge.

The Israelites are presently channeling their intense homesickness into promises to never forget Jerusalem, their spiritual home. But I think, over time they will learn to sing their songs to their children in the strange land.

In fact, that’s a strong speculation of how the book of Psalms came to be. That it’s a portable temple of words. Prayers, not stones, so they can love God with hearts not rituals.

The Israelites here appear have the wisdom to allow God to judge the cruelty of Babylon, but not yet the grace to forgive it, not to indulge in judgement as shadenfreud.

There’s a lot to learn about sadness, guilt and rage here. Sanctifying our emotions is complex work. God doesn’t want emotionless robots. Jesus was not a picture of that. The firehose of emotion is to be channeled by wisdom towards deepening our capacity for love, and sharpening our priorities.