Where is God When Needed?
By the Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 7, 2019
Reading: Ezekiel 3:2-21
It was not what I expected. Two people were supposed to show up for an informal discussion about homelessness in Toronto: What can the church do? How can we help? But the conversation took a very different turn, and I was both shaken and inspired by what I heard. The person who actually showed up was a woman who back in 2010 had worked for the United Nations as part of what they called the Stabilisation Force in Haiti. Many of you will recall the devastating earthquake that took place in Haiti that year. It registered 7.0 on the Richter scale and according to most statistics, 160,000 or more people died as a result of it. But it was the aftershocks, 52 of them 4.5 or greater on the Richter scale that really devastated the place.
Throughout it all, my companion, worked in the midst of it. She did so by helping bring take food from the UN to the most devastated places, and she herself was in Petit-Goave, the epicentre of the devastation. She said it was one of the most appalling, inspiring and troubling things she’d ever seen in her life. After she’d helped carry food, water, and supplies to people whose homes and businesses had been destroyed, and who were left with children in the street, trying to get water from the odd pool that had formed, she sat exhausted on a pile of rubble.
“Under that rubble” she said, “I did not know whether there were bodies. We had no idea where many of the victims lay, but I couldn’t move another muscle, I have never been so exhausted and overwhelmed physically and emotionally in my life. I just sat on that mound of rubble with all these people around me and devastation as far as the eye could see. I just raised my voice to God and said, ‘God, I have done everything that I can, it is now up to You. I leave it, Lord, up to You, I have nothing more to give, I am spent.’”
You could see in her eyes this profound sense of disappointment, but also the recognition of the need around her, and how important it was in that moment of need for her to be strengthened by God.
In today’s passage – one of the most important moments in the whole of the Old Testament – Ezekiel is sitting desolate on a mound in a moment of devastation. He has had it. Why is he so upset? Why is he feeling, as the Scripture tells us, bitterness? Why this moment of devastation? Well, let’s look at Ezekiel for a moment.
I like to call him the extreme prophet, and I mean extreme by today’s standards. I think that if Ezekiel was here today he’d probably have ripped jeans, tattoos, and long hair, he’d probably go running on a Saturday (like the Reverend Lori). I think he’d really push the envelope: do extreme sports, and listen to hard rock music.
He was an extreme prophet, unlike so many of the others. What made him extreme, I don’t know, but he grew up in Jerusalem as part of a priestly family and the rabbinical tradition, watching people practice the law and religion in Jerusalem. He knew the faith, knew what the law said, and was in fact, a scholar. Ezekiel also witnessed the most terrible devastation. He had seen his very own people thrown out of their land by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. He had seen the city that he loved being invaded, Zion crumbling. And he noticed that even the intelligentsia, the children, the future, the people who were in positions of leadership, were taken out of the country and forced to live in Babylon. Whereas left behind were the poor, the uneducated, who were forced into penury, and became the servants of their new masters and mistresses who invaded Israel.
The Babylonians came, divided, and conquered, destroyed his land. Ezekiel was upset, angry, hurt, and full of bitterness. Compound his anger is the realization that a lot of the things that happened to his people were of their own making. They were the authors of their own demise. They’d followed other gods, had corrupt leaders, turned a blind eye to corruption, and become expedient. They had become sexually immoral, treated the poor unjustly, and did not take care of the homeless. They were not practicing the law, and they were not fulfilling God’s covenant with them.
Ezekiel looks at their plight and is angry, upset, and frustrated because his people had let God down and were now in exile. They are the authors of their own demise and he is heartbroken. But in that moment God calls Ezekiel to do something about it. What he does – and the language is graphic, isn't it – is stuffs a scroll in his mouth, which really means that he has his mind full of the law, the scroll, the Torah of God. He’s empowered by the word of God.
We see him with this vision of having wings with wheels, like a chariot, a great chariot that carries him by the power of the Spirit to go to the people on behalf of God. And he goes with a sense of anger and bitterness that God has given him the word, the Spirit. But here is the great irony of it all. Rather than being a prophet to go to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians to give a word of judgement to those who had oppressed the people of Israel, he is being called to go to his own people. And it is clearly more difficult than going to the Babylonians. He is also bringing them a word of judgement, a word of warning and a word that might save their lives. The last thing Ezekiel wanted to do was to go to his own people, because as Jesus himself said, “A prophet hath no honour in their own home.” But he had to go. God had empowered him, given him the word, the spirit.
What do we see happening here? We see this tremendous change take place and he identifies with his people in the moment of their sorrow. We are told that he crossed the Chebar River. He moved, in other words, from Israel into Babylon. And we hear that he sat down at Tel Abib, where the people had gathered. But what we don’t realise is, Tel Abib is a dump site built over burial sites of former generations. Under the silt that had developed were bodies from former generations over thousands of years. That’s where Nebuchadnezzar put the people of Israel.
This is where the intelligentsia, the brightest and the best, the children, the future of Israel, gathered, in Tel Abib across the Chebar River. What does Ezekiel do? He sits down with them for seven days, we’re told. And seven days, as we know, in Jewish law is seven days of mourning, seven days of sorrow. He sits down for seven days with the people. Then there are those famous words of Ezekiel, “I sat” he said, “where they sat.” In other words, he identified with them. And as Calvin in his commentary writes, “He experienced what in Hebrew is shimem, which is, desolation.” He was devastated, just like that young woman in Haiti who sat on the rubble, likely on top of dying bodies. He sat, exhausted, with the people.
In many ways Ezekiel is like the proto-Christian, the forerunner of everything that the New Testament was about, because when you look at the life of Jesus, he was identifying and sitting with people at the point of their sorrow and need. Ezekiel did it because he was sent by God. Jesus did it because He was God’s actual servant here. And while Ezekiel is referred to in our text as mortal, another translation might be “Son of Man” Jesus did exactly the same.
I love what Eugene Petersen said when he talked about the life of Jesus. How Jesus seemed to spend so much time of his ministry with people who seemed like they were lost, devastated, and in distress. In his wonderful work, Reversed Thunder, which I recommend to you, he said: “The Son of Man has dinner with a prostitute, stops off for lunch with a tax collector, wastes time blessing children when there were Roman legions to be chased from the land, heals unimportant losers, ignores the high-achieving Pharisees and the influential Sadducees, and spends all his time trying to get people to change.” In other words, the ministry of Jesus was going into the midst of the suffering of the world.
It not a coincidence, or maybe a more powerful reality, that when Jesus himself was crucified he was crucified on a mound, on Golgotha, to identify with the sin and the brokenness of the world. This was the power of Christ’s ministry. And Ezekiel is the forerunner, the sign that this is what God does when he identifies with humanity at the time of their need.
Many times I hear, “Where was God when I needed him? Where is God when things are going wrong in my life? Where is God when things are going wrong in society? Where is this God in the midst of all of this?” I think for the woman in Haiti who sat on the mound at Petit-Goave, she felt that very same anxiety in her soul. I think Ezekiel was feeling it. Where is God in the midst of all this?
Well, he’s right there. He’s right there. He sends Ezekiel like a chariot of fire across the Chebar River to sit down with the people, not to ignore them, to identify with them, to be with them. Where was Christ in the midst of the world when people felt that they needed him? He was right there in their midst.
It was others who stood at a distance, others who didn’t care for the plight of the people on Tel Abib by the Chebar River, others who ignored God. It was others who looked at those who were sinful, those who were in need and ignored them. But it was Jesus who came into their midst and identified with them, who sat down with them. That is the symbol, the sign of God’s self-identification with the brokenness of the world.
Does that mean that God wants everything to remain the same? No. When Ezekiel went over the Chebar River to Tel Abib, it was to transform the people. He came with a tough message that they needed to change, and not in some superficial way. They needed to be changed, and to change their ways if they were to be healed. They needed to repent if they were to start again. The great fear he had was that all the problems would only be compounded if these people became seduced by the Babylonians, if they turned away from the law and the worship of God. He knew that they had to repent of their sin, but he also knew that he had to deliver a message, not to condemn them, but to save them.
It was the same with Jesus. When Jesus met with the outcast, when he was with the drunks and the prostitutes, and the tax collectors, did he say to them, “I identify with you at the point of your need?” No, Jesus went to them to transform them and to make them into the people that God wanted them to be. That is what Ezekiel needed to do, and it must have been hard for him to give that message. It must have been painful for him to say to people who were already suffering and in difficulty, “You need to change to be saved.” But that’s what he did, and in that powerful moment, he identified with them, and he changed them.
There is a remarkable story from the 20th Century and some of you might have heard this before, or read about it, but it is so worth repeating. Marion Preminger was born in Hungary in 1913 to an affluent and powerful Hungarian family. She was part of the nobility of what had been the Austral-Hungarian Empire. She had all the benefits of having servants and nannies who ensured that her own sheets were brought wherever she went. (And by the way, that’s an important point to tuck away.)
She enjoyed a life of joy. Eventually she met a very prominent doctor, and at the age of eighteen she married this very prominent doctor, moved to Vienna, and became part of the cultural elite of Vienna. Marion lived a life of joy, but also of profligacy, a life where she was easily seduced by the culture, and where she was used by that culture. She left her husband and lived a life of profligacy and sexuality that was outside the boundaries of marriage. She had a licentious life. Eventually her husband couldn’t take it anymore, and she couldn’t take her husband anymore, so they divorced. Eventually she remarried high-flying German, Otto Preminger the great movie director.
Oh, and here, not only in Vienna, did she have everything she ever needed. She moved and brought the excesses she had lived with before to Hollywood with all its affluence. She lived in the most glorious places, and Otto Preminger provided her with everything she could possibly want, yet she continued to live the life that she had before, and Otto had enough, and they divorced.
At this point she was so broken, she didn’t know what to do, so she thought she would return to Paris, because Paris now was the centre of the avant garde. In Paris no one would care how she lived. So she went to Paris and lived a licentious life on the money of Otto Preminger. One day she heard that there was going to be an incredible organ concert of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and decided to attend. She’d heard that there was an organist there she should meet named Albert Schweitzer. She goes to the concert, and is overwhelmed by the music of Bach. Afterwards she asks for a meeting with the great organist, the great doctor, the great man. She felt she, of all people, should meet the great Albert Schweitzer.
They sat down and had a conversation. We’ll never know exactly what was said. However on that day, and for subsequent days to come, she came face-to-face with something she’d never encountered before, because Albert Schweitzer told her about what Bach and he had in common: their faith in Jesus of Nazareth.
When Marion Preminger came to the realisation that hearing about Christ, that having Albert Schweitzer represent Christ to her, which cannot have been easy. She decided that she was going to spend the rest of her days working with Schweitzer, not in Paris, Vienna, or Hollywood, but in Lambarene in Africa, in a hospital. For thirty years Marion Preminger changed diapers and cleaned the sheets of those who were ill. No longer was someone attending to her sheets, she was now cleaning the sheets of the sick and dying.
She wrote an inspiring autobiography, which I read years ago, All I Want Is Everything. Schweitzer reminded her that if you want everything, you should be willing first to give everything. Schweitzer must have been like Ezekiel on the mound at Tel Abib, saying that in your moment of need, maybe you've done some things wrong, and your life needs to change, but here is Christ, and Christ, in fact, can change you. Ezekiel, of course, was before Christ, but nevertheless knew that the word of God and the power of the Spirit could change his people.
Eventually God did send to those people who lived in exile a rescuer who set them free, and when they returned home, they were able to rebuild the temple and to worship their God.
Where is God when we need him? Well, God is at the point of our need, and God sends someone to sit down with us, or in Christ, to sit where we even ourselves cannot sit, in order to change us. This is the power of our faith, this is why I love Ezekiel, but more than that, why I love the Good News of Jesus Christ. Amen.