Evensong 20th May 2018
Transforming the Heart - Ezekiel 36
I was back at my old place of ministry, York Minster, this week. It has been said that the people most at home in such places are the aristocracy and the certifiably insane. Ezekiel, would I’m sure, have fitted in just perfectly. His behaviour was, frankly, actionable. He burned with religious fervour, saw to the heart of the shattered institution which was struggling to find its identity, was unafraid to square up to those with power and authority, and spoke a prophet’s truth to a people more concerned with the politician’s art of the possible. I don’t envy him the lengths to which his fervour took him, especially being paralysed and dumb for long stretches of time, but his passion, his clarity, and above all his hope in desperate times shine through.
It takes a courageous people to prize so much which is critical about their history, and so much which is disturbing about their future. Its context is the invasion of Jerusalem by the Persian empire. While Jerusalem still contains a vestige of Jewish rule, Ezekiel is consistently harsh to his hearers – they have abandoned the Lord, and must blame only themselves. But when Jerusalem finally falls, in 587 BC, the message turns to one of hope. The departure from Jerusalem is the death of the nation, but not its abandonment by God. Now new life can begin, and Ezekiel paints this in vivid terms.
The dying body of the new nation will gain a new heart. The brittle bones of the kingdom will gain sinews and flesh, and live again. The deflated useless bags of their lungs will be filled with ruach, the breath, the Spirit of God. And again and again comes the promise that God will send that same Spirit, not just to resuscitate the nation but to make it different again. With a new spirit, and a new heart, all the nations, all the nations, will know that the Lord God is the Lord of all. Out of disaster will come renewal so great as to transform the whole world.
Half a millennium later the known Jewish world has assembled in Jerusalem, for Pentecost – the handily named festival 50 days after Passover. After the disaster of the crucifixion, and the baffling events of resurrection and ascension, the followers of Jesus are waiting for … they know not exactly what. What they later interpret to be the ruach, the very breath and Spirit of God takes hold of them, catapulting them onto the street, and all the nations there hear that God is the Lord, in their own native tongue. Less than two months after devastation there is new life – and Peter sees immediately that what has happened is what has been promised, by Joel, and by Ezekiel. This is beyond an ecstatic experience. This is transforming power – and they, and we , will never be the same again. It is so remarkable that the onlookers write them off as inebriated. Peter knows that they have been inspired.
The evidence for this in the text is that once frightened Peter preaches the sermon recounted in our New Testament reading, calling on those who called for Jesus’s death to repent and find new life. Later in Acts we hear that 3000 respond, and meet together, having all things in common, worshipping together and living a life or radical discipleship. The evidence from beyond the text is the rapid spread of the Christian church, such that the church which met in houses begins worshipping publicly and with approval, and continues to this day.
Lasting experience though it may be, it could be argued that it has not counted for very much. The church has survived, and thrived in places, it is true, but has remained all too earthbound, not the remarkable community of worship and submission to God envisaged by Ezekiel, and largely ignored by the nations, except when it suits them. It is true that within the church, over the last century, a new emphasis has emerged on the word and works of the Holy Spirit, and Pentecostals, and later on the charismatic movement, have been anxious to show that God works in such ways today. But the church remains a gas cooker rather than a flamethrower.
The point of Pentecost is that it gave humanity a new heart and a new Spirit, seen in Peter’s call to repentance, the promised forgiveness of sins, and the establishment of a community based on the rule of God and radical commitment one to another. For the church to concentrate on the Spirit is to miss the point – we are called here to harness the Spirit to build something which will change the world.‘Come Holy Spirit’ is a dangerous prayer, not because some people react quite strangely, and can be overwhelmed, but because the Spirit, the God who comes, will recreate us from the inside, transforming us into the likeness of Christ, and shaping us into a community which will change the way people live and think and work and love.
Ezekiel the disturbing prophet would have us remember that this is not for our sake, but for the sake of God’s holy name. May we then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be God’s people, and may the Lord God be our God, now and forever. Amen.
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