Proper 21A2 Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32, Matthew 21: 23-32
Good morning and again all good wishes as we this morning gather on the first Sunday of the Fall season—fall having begun at 5:05 this past Friday morning. Certainly the weather is becoming more and more autumnal, the Steelers are playing, there’s pre-season hockey, and the Pens are off to a great start--and this afternoon Susy and I will head over to the North Shore for the last home game for our Pirates in the 2011 season. Another year, and no October baseball in Pittsburgh.
But in the midst of our lives in every season, there is a word for us: I love this really rich passage appointed for this Sunday from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. He is carrying out his prophetic ministry and speaking on behalf of God at this absolutely critical historical moment in the life of the Jewish people. It’s a moment of transition, but really we might say a moment of birth, or re-birth.
Ezekiel is speaking to the people in exile. A generation, two generations before, the armies of the Babylonian east swept across the desert and laid siege to the Royal City. And it was a situation of the horror of the worst of war, a whole generation of Judean youth wasted in battle, so that the city seemed ringed by a vast field of bones. Behind the walls of Jerusalem there was hunger, terror, desperation, and the king and the priestly leaders seemed so wrapped up in their own petty worlds of intrigue and self-interest that they were unable to rally the people with any vision, any sense of purpose. There was almost this loss of identity, and except for a few there seemed to be no real connection with the heritage of God’s Covenant, no real sense of discipline or obedience to God’s Word and Law. And then collapse and ruin and destruction, palace and temple plundered, the whole city leveled and put the torch.
The elites marched off in chains to Babylon, and everyone else scattered to the four corners of the world—Egypt and Syria and Persia, or just heading for the hills. The survivors living as refugees, resident aliens. Making their lives as best they can, but haunted by what had happened, anxious about what the future might hold. And in that era we might say the ancient faith of Israel experienced a kind of death and rebirth—some calling this the era when Israelite religion began to become what we have known since that time as Judaism. The foundation of the institution of the synagogue, and with the centrality of the monarchy and Temple sacrifice replaced with a sacrifice of the heart in the prayerful study of God’s Law, and a new spirit of personal discipline and pious obedience.
And now there is scarcely living memory of the ruin of Jerusalem, decades pass, 70 years, and shifts in the geopolitical universe have moved the center of power from Iraq to Iran—from Babylon to Persia. And the Shah of Iran, Cyrus the Great, has announced a new policy about refugees—that they are now free to return to their ancestral homelands.
And in this moment of transition, birth, rebirth, the remnant of God’s people begin to contemplate their homeward journey, and what that will mean. And, we might say, “how this time they won’t get things so terribly wrong, as their ancestors did.” And Ezekiel, and the call we read this morning for a new start, a new beginning, built on the foundation of a new and renewed Covenant relationship with the God of their fathers.
At the beginning of this passage, the rhetorical set up. The parents ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. They lived the high life, all those years ago, and then they sent their American Express bills to their grandchildren. Are we doomed forever to suffer the consequences of their unfaithfulness? Is there any hope for us now? “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves anew heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” Life and hope and new beginning.
The story that Jesus tells, the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21, has I think something of the same message. To say that no matter where we begin, no matter what we have said, what we have done, there is now before us the opportunity to choose a new way. God doesn’t condemn us for the sins of our fathers. But neither does he allow us to take on any of their credits. “Turn, then, and live,” as Ezekiel said. It’s up to us. The brothers answer their father’s first call in opposite ways. One says, yes, the other no.
But that’s not the end of their stories. Because even though the first brother had the right words, he fails, falls short, chooses not to put those words into action. While the second brother begins in defiance, rebellion, and rejects his father’s invitation, in the end he turns around, and makes it right.
The application in the moment, in Matthew 21, has to do with Jesus speaking to all these Doctors of Theology and Philosophy, noted church leaders, the heirs of generations of religious practice and devotion, who could not, who would not, who refused to see and recognize and respond when God was speaking a new word through John the Baptist.
And then to think of all the people of the street, the rif-raf and dregs of society, the notorious, the least and the last, the ones who had made all the wrong life decisions, the scandalous and the sinners—but who when they heard John opened their hearts to him, and heard him, and responded to his call to a radical conversion of life, turning away from sin and to a new life in relationship to god.
It’s not about the diplomas on your wall or who you were yesterday, Jesus says to the priests and elders, not about your ceremonial words and formal pieties. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
And so Ezekiel: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”
I love the hymns this morning, the words of the anthems, our collects and creed and prayers. The opening of the Word in the reading of scripture. And as we share the bread and the cup together. The tragedy of the ancient story of Israel was that the people had in their very midst the source of all light and life, strength and health and goodness, and they took it for granted, and forgot about it, and so finally drifted on to their own destruction. The political leaders and religious officials didn’t just miss John the Baptist. They crushed him, swept him out of the way. Thinking that if they killed the messenger, the message would go away.
And we would be reminded this morning and always as Christian people, and we would want to be reminded, shaken up, called to attention—with the word that these aren’t just old stories about people long ago and far away. But for us this morning, every morning. It’s not just ancient Israelites who can live in denial. Not just priests and elders of Jerusalem who will practice selective devotion, obedience-when-convenient, and refuse to take personally the one personal word that God speaks to them. We hear the word, we sing the hymns, receive the bread and wine. And we would know that he is all the while whispering in our ear, this morning and every morning: Why will you die? Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Turn, and live . . . .
Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.