The human desire to commune with God is very powerful, and when sacrifice according to God’s law was not available, it was very painful. Many allowed themselves to be squeezed into worshiping God on their own terms, rather than according to God’s law. But other Judeans were faithful and accepted the promise of God’s continuing presence through this time of suffering, a presence revealed in ways that they hadn’t seen before, and trusted that he would eventually bring this time to an end. For these Old Covenant saints who were truly seeking YHWH God, this disruption was a time of “creative destruction” that stripped away many beliefs and practices, and allowed them to see just how big and powerful YHWH truly is.April 26, 2020, in lockdown
Note: This is part of a series of pieces providing a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.
As part of my project, “Pandemic, Church, Society, and the Gospel: A Pastoral Response,” I’ll be reposting sermons that I preached dealing with the pandemic, sometimes with comments or updated reflections. (Check out my Sermons page for audio/video.)
Today I’m reposting a sermon preached online on April 26, 2020 for First Presbyterian Church of Mount Holly, NJ, our supporting church and our ECO home-base. The sermon is titled, “I Have Been a Sanctuary,” and the main text is Ezekiel 11:14–25.
A few weeks into the initial lockdown, I contacted the then-pastor of First Pres to ask whether they would like me and Corrie to present a sermon or some music, since everything was online anyway. We recorded from our living room the week before the service, separate segments of music, scripture readings, sermon, and prayer. Then one of the church staff put the pieces together with transition slides, etc. Reflecting back on this sermon over a year later, I’m pleased that I spoke about disruption and its potential benefits for the church.
It was an interesting time for all of us, but in particular for those of us who live and work cross-culturally in LT. Most of us find church involvement here to be a struggle because of the language, and many long-term workers have simply given up on church altogether. Most of us came from vibrant church communities back in our home countries (mainly USA and Canada), and mourn that church isn’t like what we are used to. Then suddenly, most of the great English-speaking churches back “home” started putting their services online, and thus was triggered what I call “looking back to Egypt” syndrome for many of us: the reminder of just how easy and great “church” used to be for all of us, compared to how hard it is now.
I don’t know that any of us expected that disruption would last this long. And I’ve been disappointed, honestly, with how many churches and individuals tolerated this disruption in our communities for this long, and have perhaps learned some of the wrong lessons. I suppose that’s why I felt so compelled to put together the “Pandemic, Church, Society, and the Gospel” series.
Anyway, I hope you find this edifying!
Well, it’s a great honor and a privilege to be able to share God’s Word with you today. Like many other universities, LCC has moved online for the remainder of this semester; and as I’ve continued to teach and write from home, I’ve had plenty of time to mull over what messages from Scripture God might have for us, that would relevant during this time of global disruption. It’s certainly unlike anything we’ve experienced before, as a church—and maybe as…humanity!
As a professor, I like to open up the historical and literary contexts of biblical texts, and help us appreciate the full significance of what God is saying through the text to its original audience, then how it points us to Christ, and finally what it means for us now.
The Old Testament has a lot to say about suffering—and not just personal suffering. The Old Testament as a whole might be thought of (in its final form) as a product of significant national suffering and disruption. I’m speaking of the Babylonian exile, a three-stage process of war, siege, disaster, destruction, subjugation, and deportation, that occurred between the years 598 and 582 BC. During this time, all of the institutions and patterns of life were upended or obliterated. Many Judeans were killed, many were forcibly taken to Babylon where they would die as slaves, some fled to other neighboring lands, and others lived as serfs under new pagan overlords.
The passage we’ll look at today highlights one of the most significant losses during the exile: the Jerusalem temple, the place where Israel’s God, YHWH, dwelt in a glory-cloud, the place where heaven touches earth, was destroyed by the Babylonians. Yet what our passage tells us is that, despite what the circumstances led the people to believe, YHWH God was actually still with his people, traveling with them into exile, in the midst of their suffering, and leading them into new ways of seeing his glorious presence with them.
The third Scripture reading is from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 11. We’ll be reading verses 14 to 25. To give a little bit of background: Ezekiel is a prophet and a priest, who was taken to Babylon in 598 with the first wave of deportations. He sees many visions of the spiritual realm, YHWH God communicating the realities of his own holiness and the people’s sinfulness. The Jerusalem temple has not yet been destroyed (not until chapter 33, in the year 587 BC), but Ezekiel sees in his visions that YHWH God will abandon his temple-throne and soon allow it to be destroyed.
14 The word of YHWH came to me: 15 “Son of man, the people of Jerusalem have said of your fellow exiles and all the other Israelites, ‘They are far away from YHWH; this land was given to us as our possession.’Ezekiel 11:14–25
16 “Therefore say: ‘This is what Lord YHWH says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’
17 “Therefore say: ‘This is what Lord YHWH says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.’
18 “They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. 19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares Lord YHWH.”
22 Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. 23 The glory of YHWH went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. 24 The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.
Then the vision I had seen went up from me, 25 and I told the exiles everything YHWH had shown me.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I want to comment on a couple of important aspects of this passage, and then we will look at some ways that God’s people responded in history and in Scripture to this catastrophic event.
The people who hear or read Ezekiel’s prophecy might not see much hope in it, initially. They will soon see Solomon’s temple destroyed by the Babylonians—the great temple where the presence of YHWH God lived among them in the form of a cloud. The exile and the destruction of the temple will make them ask: Has YHWH God abandoned us? Where is YHWH now? Is he stuck in Judea? Is he even a real God at all, or is Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, the real true god? After all, how could YHWH have allowed his sanctuary to be overrun and destroyed?
In response to the question, “Where has God gone?” the answer is that YHWH God continues to be present with the exiles in Babylon. He doesn’t need a sanctuary, a holy place—a temple made with human hands, or a cloth tabernacle that needs to be disassembled, carried somewhere else, and reassembled. His presence has gone with them into exile, and he himself serves as a holy place for them. This is symbolized in the vision by the movement of the glory-cloud. Back in chapter 10, the glory-cloud had moved from the throne above the ark of the covenant, to the doorway of the temple; and then from the doorway of the temple, eastward to the gate of the city; and now finally, out of the city toward the east, in the direction of the exiles. YHWH God is abandoning his earthly temple to be destroyed, but following his people into exile.
The notion of God’s glory being “portable” may not seem like such a radical thought for us, who have been taught that the Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of those who are in Christ. But this notion that God would be present with them, and that he didn’t need a sanctuary to protect his glory and perfection from their human frailty and sinfulness—this feels new for them. (It’s actually not that new an idea in Israel’s story, but this truth takes on a new significance for them now.)
This means that YHWH is still God, despite their suffering and their desperate earthly circumstances. The exile is not a sign that Marduk has defeated YHWH, but rather that YHWH is powerful enough to use pagan armies to accomplish his will—in this case, his discipline for their sin. Moreover, YHWH is not a god who simply abandons his people to exile, and lets them rot there. He travels with them in their suffering, and suffers alongside them, because he loves his people. Later in Israel’s story, this idea of God sharing in human sorrows and suffering takes on a new dimension. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, came to know our frailty, our suffering, our humanness. Whatever reasons God has for allowing human suffering, we cannot say that he does not know what it feels like to suffer. Because he has suffered, we can trust that he will be a sanctuary, a safe, understanding place for us in our struggles. This is crucial for us to remember now, as we observe and experience suffering.
The second point that I want to highlight from these verses is the promise that YHWH’s people will again return to their land. There are so many aspects of this that are marvelous: God’s saving power, new life in the land itself, ancient promises fulfilled, transformed hearts for service to God. We will come back to some of these, but what I will point out specifically for us is this: God’s people will be reunited. Wherever they are—Egypt, Edom, Judea, Babylon, Assyria, Persia—YHWH says, in the words of Deuteronomy 30, that he will gather them from “under the furthest of skies.”
So, we have a prediction of great catastrophe, suffering, displacement, and sorrow—but also a promise that YHWH God will go along with his people into the place of suffering, and will once again gather them to their place of peace, rest, security, unity, holiness, and flourishing.
But in the meantime, the Judeans had to wrestle not only with their own doubts about whether in fact YHWH was still God and would keep his promises, but also with how to live faithfully in the aftermath of catastrophe. How did people respond?
First, let’s look at some of the things that they tried which turned out to be a failure, or which led them even further into the sins that caused the catastrophe.
From the time of Israel’s ancient origins, sacrifice was one of the most important ways that human beings enjoyed fellowship with God. When people brought animals, grain and wine to offer to YHWH, the worshipers (usually with the aid of a priest) shared a meal with YHWH: a portion is burned as a “pleasing aroma” for God, a portion is eaten by the priest, and a portion is eaten by the family of worshipers (and portions are given to the poor also). We continue the legacy of this sacrificial meal when we bring our offerings to church, and we come together over the Lord’s Supper, where our Lord says to us, “Take and eat and drink, this is my body and my blood—come, share fellowship in my New Covenant! Enjoy this meal with me and with your brothers and sisters, and celebrate that the sin that separated us all from each other is forgiven!” We all instinctively know that sharing a meal with friends and neighbors means that things are all right between us. (We are certainly missing that fellowship right now, and its absence from our lives takes its toll.)
Though the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, people continued to desire assurance of relationship with God through sacrifice. But they weren’t always willing to accept the stipulations on the meal that God himself had made, in his Law. We read in other scriptural texts and in historical sources that the Judeans tried to connect with YHWH God through certain kinds of ritual activity. In the immediate aftermath of the temple’s destruction, we read in Jeremiah 41:5 that some Judeans were apparently bringing offerings to the ruins of the temple, to worship and probably also to lament. (This well-meaning bunch happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it doesn’t end well for them!) Fast-forward several decades from the temple’s destruction: Ezra 8:17 makes reference to a location called “Casiphia the Place,” where it seems that many priests and Levites were engaging in some sort of worship during the Persian period. It doesn’t say that they were offering sacrifices, but this reflects a clear desire to gather together to worship in…something like the ways that they had done so in times past. [For me it sort of feels a bit like what we are doing right now: meeting in a virtual space to go through some of the “motions of church”—but necessarily something far short of the way God has commanded us to worship corporately.]
There were also attempts to encounter the divine that were more…deviant. In Jeremiah 44 we learn about a group of Judean survivors who flee to Egypt, and there they settle and continue to worship YHWH alongside a goddess that they call “the Queen of Heaven.” Fast-forward a hundred years or so, and we have Persian records of an imperially-sanctioned Jewish settlement in the south of Egypt, on the Nile River, called Elephantine. In this city’s temple, sacrifices were offered to YHWH, to a consort goddess, and other gods as well. We also have accounts in the Bible of Judean men intermarrying with women of the surrounding peoples, and raising their children to worship and sacrifice to other gods, despite the best efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah to counter this.
The human desire to commune with God is very powerful, and when sacrifice according to God’s law was not available, it was very painful. Many allowed themselves to be squeezed into worshiping God on their own terms, rather than according to God’s law. But other Judeans were faithful and accepted the promise of God’s continuing presence through this time of suffering, a presence revealed in ways that they hadn’t seen before, and trusted that he would eventually bring this time to an end. For these Old Covenant saints who were truly seeking YHWH God, this disruption was a time of “creative destruction” that stripped away many beliefs and practices, and allowed them to see just how big and powerful YHWH truly is.
For example, during this time is when we start to see modeled in the Bible regular, personal prayer directly to YHWH God, without a priest, a sacrifice, or music. Daniel in Babylon is the most notable example: his practice was to pray three times each day toward Jerusalem. Another example is the development of regular scripture reading, in weekly gathering places called synagogues. Of course, people prayed before this, and those few who could afford copies of biblical texts would sometimes read them. But once the temple is destroyed and Jews remain in communities around the Persian empire (and later the Greek and Roman empires), hundreds of miles away from the priests in Jerusalem, these personal and local practices of prayer and reading of scripture become central to Jewish life. Even once the Second Temple is built, faithful Jews typically only visited for sacrifices three times each year. But it was the exile and destruction of the First Temple that brought personal prayer and local scripture reading to the forefront, and led to the establishment of synagogues.
[This is similar to the New Testament reading from the book of Acts, chapter 8. The stoning of Stephen and the persecution of the young church in Jerusalem scattered the believers, pushing them out into the world, leading to the spread of the gospel into Samaria and Ethiopia, and then to all the Gentiles.]
And in God’s providence, synagogues established in the Jewish diaspora would later pave the way for the spread of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. Just read through the book of Acts, and see how many times Paul and his companions go into a new Roman city, and are able to go straight to the synagogue and find Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who are a ready audience for the message, “We have found the one of whom the Prophets spoke!”
So, what can we learn from the exile, and this promise from God through Ezekiel, that we can take into our present situation? Our forefathers and -mothers in faith experienced disruption, suffering, trauma—and yet emerged on the other side with lessons for us—what are some of those lessons? What can we be doing now to glorify God, while also preparing our hearts and minds for whatever might be coming next?
First, we are called to weep and mourn with those who mourn. Many of the Psalms were written in response to the catastrophe of exile, suffering, destruction—not to mention the book of Lamentations and many passages in the Prophets. Right now, there are thousands of people in the US, and Europe, and all over the world—including those close to us—who are suffering. Some are suffering severely from the virus, and by our human estimation it seems unlikely that they will recover. Many of us are anxious for loved ones who are sick or at risk, or we ourselves are at risk. Many are reeling from the deaths of friends and family—unbelievable pain that is compounded by inability to properly commemorate or bury our dead with dignity and respect. One step down from death and illness: millions have lost livelihoods, life-savings, businesses, or other important opportunities to live out vocation and provide for their families. Even as some things may eventually reopen, our lives will never be the same and the economic disruption will have dire consequences for years to come.
In addition to mourning death, sickness and loss—we should use this time to mourn over our sin. Now, I’m not saying that we can point to specific individual or national sins that God is judging us for—in fact, it seems that the whole world is experiencing this together, in various degrees. Rather, we confess and lament, because sickness and death and a disjointed relationship with creation is the legacy of Adam—which we all live with. It’s almost like we are experiencing the season of Lent all over again, though in Easter season: face-to-face with our mortality and the sins that continue to gnaw at us, this side of resurrection and new creation.
We should also accept and maintain in our minds and hearts the conviction that this is not “normal” right now. God has designed us for worship, for relationship, and for service. Isolation, not worshipping together, no celebration of the Lord’s Supper, not able to directly fellowship or serve our community in tangible ways—it’s right for us to feel that this isn’t right, and to long for something different.
That said, though—we need to be preparing our hearts for “a new kind of normal” when this is over. It’s probably the case that many things that have ceased because of the catastrophe will never start up again, and other things will replace them. This applies for our families and our churches, as well. Perhaps now is the time to adopt healthier personal and family practices for spiritual, physical, and emotional health, that can continue once a new sort of “normal” emerges. And while the worship and ministry of the church must resume, maybe older forms of ministry will no longer be the most valuable use of resources, and new forms or programs will need to be consciously developed. For example, I can very well envision that caution will induce many elder members of the church and the community to have less direct contact with younger people. Cutting off the wisdom and experience of mature believers from the younger generations would be a serious loss for everyone. What sorts of community groups and lines of communication can we be establishing now to keep generations connected in meaningful ways? How can we use the time now to plan for the future? Snapping back into our previous patterns when this is over may leave many people disconnected, unless we take intentional steps to reincorporate them into community life.
We saw that in the case of the Judean exile, when the people were physically separated from one another, and unable to fellowship with God through the senses of touch, taste and smell, in the temple—verbal expressions and assurances of God’s presence became even more important than they already were. Despite our physical separation, we live in an unprecedented time of possibility for connection to others and to God through words. So we need to be using this time to reach out verbally, with words, to those in our spheres. Now, it’s easy for me to say this, because I’m a teacher and a musician, and my gifts and vocation are with words! Some of us speak different “love languages,” and have different spiritual gifts, like service and hospitality. But even if you don’t feel that your gifts or inclinations are best suited for this time: you can do something to reach out to others and to God with words! Each of us should be reading the Bible and books for spiritual edification (or listening to the Bible online, if you need a break from reading), praying, singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs. Why not share some of that with others, via phone, videochat, or email?
Here’s something you can do: check in on others, call them, listen to them, hurt with them. Start with folks who you know are all alone where they are isolating, no family with them. People who might not usually be interested in talking, are talking now! (We’ve all seen Facebook memes about folks staying on the line with telemarketers for 45 minutes, just chatting.) Here’s an idea: if you don’t usually feel comfortable praying aloud with other people, it’s OK to prepare a short prayer for someone before you call them, and then when the conversation is winding down, ask if you can pray for them. You can make up your own prayer, or use the Book of Common Prayer or some other resource. And, even if you feel awkward praying with someone from your job or your neighborhood, I can reassure you with this: even before I was a pastor and a Bible professor, I have never had anyone decline to be prayed for when I’ve offered—no matter how secular they claim to be. There’s no better time than now to give it a try!
Change is never easy, especially when it’s the result of tragedy. But we can draw strength and assurance from this passage from Ezekiel 11, and others that are born out of Israel’s exile. YHWH God had reasons for drawing the Israelites through the horrible experience of exile: he promised to regather them, to give them a new spirit and an undivided heart to love him—and, most importantly, he says, “they will be my people, and I will be their God.”
Maybe you are watching this from your home, and you’re not part of the First Pres Mount Holly church body—maybe you’re not part of any church body, or aren’t even sure what you believe about God. Let me plead with you to cry out to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the Triune God of the Bible. And let me encourage you with this: this God wants to meet you and to have fellowship with you. This God did not ask his people to go through this alone; he himself was a sanctuary for them in their exile. Jesus, God made flesh, went to the cross for us, enduring tremendous suffering, exile and isolation from his Father—all so that we could be forgiven, and reconciled to him and to one another. And as Romans 8 says, the Holy Spirit that dwells within us groans on our behalf, interceding with the Father for us and for our world.
Our calling for now is to be faithful, and attuned to the leading of the Spirit in this time of wilderness, exile, suffering—fully confident in the hope of resurrection that God has promised to all who are in Christ.
Amen, and Amen.
For more in this series, click here.
Audio and text: ©2020 by Benjamin D. Giffone. Reproduction and distribution are permitted, providing that the author is properly credited and that no fee is charged.