Ah Ezekiel! My favorite Old Testament heretic!
Heretic, you say? A chosen speaker of God’s word? A part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible? How can this be? Am I the heretic here?
Maybe, maybe not. Let’s explore this a bit.
What do we know of Adonai, of YHWH, the God of the Hebrew Bible?
Well, if we agree on nothing else, we know that this is a God of following the rules. The Deuteronomist spills much ink on rules, rules, and more rules.
And rules are, indeed, a needful thing: how else to keep a fractious and frightened people together in the midst of continual cultural and political assaults, across the desert, in captivity, in battle? There must be rules to keep the community distinct from those who are not the Chosen People, and to keep them from behaving as badly as they seem inclined to do.
And in this passage from the book of Ezekiel, set in the midst of the Babylonian captivity, we see how when God’s people do not follow the rules, there are consequences. There is conquest, diaspora, separation from the spiritual heart of Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem.
Okay, so far we are following the normative role of covenantal relationship with the Lord – you mess up, you end up in a bad place.
But then something happens in the midst of the misery of people who cannot even sing their own songs anymore because they are so depressed. Ezekiel dreams and prophesies: redemption is coming. Actually, redemption has come, perhaps not in a way that was always recognizable to them, but it has been there: God has been with them. If the people could not go to the Temple, the Temple came to them. God was abiding with them. It may have seemed just a pale shadow of the glory of the Temple, but no matter. God was with them. Even if the people failed in abiding by the covenant, God – and God’s covenant - abided with them.
But wait! There’s more! These sad souls will be back in Jerusalem soon…but the rules may have shifted a bit.
God proclaims that the people who have been scattered abroad will be gathered together.
A sidebar here: Ezekiel reminds us that the folks who DIDN’t get dispersed, who remained in Jerusalem, have something of the attitude of those modern people who say “I’ve got the good stuff because I’ve been faithful and God loves me for it, and if you don’t have the good stuff, it’s clear you offended God.” Those who got to stay in Jerusalem thought the Temple belonged to them – possession is 9/10s of the law, right? – and the others, well, tough luck for them. They deserved their fate.
And here’s where the strange and wonderful and slightly heretical glance of Ezekiel comes into play: God says “never mind.”
God says, “yes, we will clean up the messes you folks left, but it isn’t about the Temple. I’m going to set up shop near it, but no longer in it – take that, you pompous self-righteous prigs in Jerusalem – and we’re going to repair not the Temple, but our hearts.”
For what seems like the first time in a long time, this Creator God starts with the heart rather than the rules.
“I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. When they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
The work of the Heart precedes the work of the rules. Both are needed, but the sequence matters.
If the sole focus of our common lives together is following rules, we become diminished, parsing out every jot and tittle. If the sole focus of our common lives together is warm and fuzzy feelings, we become undisciplined and unclear. We need both, but the sequence matters.
When relationships are broken, the various sides in the story are judging each other and themselves. It’s the human condition, isn’t it, trying to prove we are in the right and others are not? Trying to prove we have God’s favor while others are lower in the pecking order?
When we work at the hard and beautiful work of reimagining relationships, one of the first things we have to do is to put aside the rules that divide us and fall in love with our brothers and sisters again. How we live into that love requires that we figure out some operating principles, some rules of the road, but unless we enter into a rule of life starting with a rule of love, because God loves us first and fiercely, the rules will continue to divide us.
This is why a slightly heretical apocalyptic prophet is the perfect voice for what we are trying to do here, years after the signing of “Called to Common Mission” document. It has to do with the very nature of apocalyptic literature: odd and strange words from a fever dream, challenging and prodding and awakening people to some new understanding of what God is doing. What is god doing here?
Ezekiel, speaking for God, strips down the legalities to what is most important…
Three things: God is with you. God will return you to a place of conjoined spiritual nourishment. There will be a new relationship between God and God’s people.
And how does this happen? God removes hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh, drawing them into a sweet embrace. Beating sometimes in unison, sometimes in complementary rhythms.
A relationship. The disparate parts of God’s people drawn back together. Later, then, some guidance as to how the relationship will work – rules to be together as righteous children of God – but that guidance doesn’t come until the relationship is rebuilt.
Love. Relationship before rules.
If we do nothing else in our time together, we must – MUST – fall in love with each other through the shared love of our sovereign and loving Creator. The other stuff? Rules and such? I won’t call them “adiafora” – that’s above my pay grade – but it seems to this occasionally heretical preacher that unless the rules serve the love and the relationship rather than the other way around, we’ll be stuck in Babylon, and that’s nowhere for God’s people to be. No more hearts of stone. No more rules that divide. Love. God’s love. Our love. Nothing more. Nothing less.