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Proper 21A 1st Reading

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Nathan Willowby

“Ezekiel proclaims a God of a million chances.” Perhaps that was the headline in Babylon by a skeptical reporter in the Oppressive Times newspaper. As you read through the options for texts to preach on October 1, 2017, you may not immediately catch that Ezekiel offers the chance to preach God’s infinite opportunities for grace. We can easily get caught up on the difficult words in these verses: words about death and reminders that iniquity brings death, wickedness will be judged as wickedness. Often times, even we preachers are uncomfortable with the passages in Scripture that speak of God’s judgment. Its much more comfortable to preach a happy, uplifting message that ignores the realities of sin, pain, death, and judgment. We love to open the lectionary and find one of Pollyanna’s “Happy Texts,” but this Ezekiel passage isn’t quite that.

And yet, this passage is a powerful opportunity to preach God’s grace. If the preacher can draw her congregation into the exilic moment, if he can enable people to acknowledge their anxieties and fears, the true thrust and point of this passage lends itself to a few powerful messages. It is never too late to turn. Your past won’t be held against you. The way that you live in the here and now is vital to your life of discipleship. The Lord is not unfair, and will offer you time and again, the opportunity to choose Christ’s kingdom ways. God actually uses us and our faithfulness to demonstrate holiness to the world.

This reading from Ezekiel might not speak like a smooth-voiced pastor of today, but it certainly has a pastoral tone. A reminder about Ezekiel’s context is helpful for the preacher and perhaps also to remind the congregation. Here is a passage describing the exilic context from Ronald E. Clements:

These were people, for the most part drawn from the better educated and wealthier classes of Jerusalem society, who had been taken as hostages to Babylon. Their hope and longing were that one day they would return to their former homes in Judah. [1]

They are feeling like their opportunity to return has been squandered by Zedekiah’s disloyalty to Babylon and are crying that life is not fair. They felt like their future was being ruined and determined by those who had been left behind, but Ezekiel confronts that narrative with all the powers of argument about God’s justice that he has honed.[2] The force of Ezekiel’s argument in this chapter is that “God provides a genuinely open future for each individual based on what that person really has become. We are neither prisoners of the past nor yet captive to the sins of others.” [3]

The option for each of us to choose our own destiny, to determine our own future, is an easy message to trumpet to the faithful gathered in our congregations. And at this point, we also encounter one of the homiletic challenges in proclaiming this passage well in North America of the 21st century. A real challenge in preaching this passage, is how nicely it fits with the individualist commitments of our own age. The preacher will need to be careful not to perpetuate a simplistic narrative of individuals “getting right with God” in exclusion of communal, social, and political life and practices. The lectionary doesn’t help us here by excising so many verses from the chapter. For example, if verses 5-9 were included, we would be naming out loud that this perpetual opportunity to turn to God and live entails personal and social ways of life, sexual purity, personal piety, and economic activity.

One way to avoid a sermon that stresses overly individualistic responsibility, is to highlight the shift that also is present here. Prophecy and fulfillment in the OT most often entail a long gap of time to wait and see if the prophet’s words come true. Consider for example the promises made to Abraham and Sarah by the three visitors that induced Sarah’s laughter when they said she would bear a son and the time it took for Isaac to enter their lives. But here, accountability/judgment are happening in real time. The bad can change and be judged as good and the good can turn from God and be held liable for their unrighteousness. Ezekiel is shifting the timing and immediacy of prophetic accountability just as much as he is moving towards individual accountability.[4]

In a way, pointing to immediacy and a broadly social and economic measure of “turning to God” can be an act of homiletic correction. Preachers have the opportunity to use this passage to once again correct a tendency to interpret texts in support of the status quo. “See, the Bible says it’s really about individuals and not systems.” “See, God used Ezekiel to tell us that we really just need to get individuals to take responsibility.”

As the lectionary-omitted verse 18:8 emphasizes, even as Ezekiel describes a personal accountability, that personal accountability is inherently enmeshed in society since the person is responsible for social and economic actions to bring about “true justice between contending parties” (other versions say “true justice between man and man”). This passage refuses to let us off the hook. We cannot watch a tragedy on TV and decided the doom around us is fated to continue. We cannot read the newspaper and conclude that things are so bad that we are better off escaping to an enclave.

In the Wesleyan context, this text invites the preacher to expound on the ways that holiness (properly understood) avoids social action and personal piety. As previously mentioned, the skipped verses from chapter 18 cover a broad list of personal and social issues of righteousness. The helpful Abingdon volume, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, reminds us, “the urging of [Ezekiel 18] reflects the uncompromising conviction of [the priestly] tradition that survival for Judah in the future depends upon responsible action in worship, economics, and sexual matters (18:5-9).”[5] We are invited to participate in making God’s holiness present and known. We are tasked with choosing life and God’s way in the world—righteousness and holiness.

I hope it is evident by now that I find this prophetic passage ripe for preaching. Every generation, every person, has the opportunity to choose to “turn and live” so that she/he/they are right with God, but also for the purpose of being people who participate in the establishment of God’s holiness for the world to see.

There are simply no historic cosmic score boards. God is about now and next. The past will certainly ripple—the Israelites all know they are in exile after all, but that doesn’t mean that it determines the future completely and especially not the most important aspect of Israel’s and one’s own standing with God. Our congregations know that their pasts have influenced their present, but they also need to be reminded that they are not determined by their pasts. It is a markedly different posture to view the future aware of limitations or effects from our past actions and feeling doomed that we cannot ever be viewed as anything but the sum of our past mistakes. We as preachers might take this Sunday as an opportunity to remind ourselves and our congregations that God is forgiving, but also desiring of faithfulness. One way of putting it is that God is more concerned with our present trajectory of life and faith than the balance sheet of our actions.

Katheryn Pfisterer Darr points to two responses by Jesus to demonstrate the way this passage’s message regarding trajectory is not just an isolated prophecy. She contrasts Jesus’ forgiveness to the woman who has many sins, but washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 with his reaction to the rich young ruler who had kept the commandments, but could not envision a future without his possessions in Luke 18:18-25.[6] Pastorally, I found reminding people of Jesus’s now and next approach in the John 6 passage of the woman caught in adultery to be very helpful in reminding people that God really is more concerned with our todays and tomorrows than holding our past against us.

As you embark on sermon preparation, I hope that you will also grant yourself the grace that is on display here—we too are invited by this passage to remember that every day (and every sermon) is another chance to choose God and faithful, holy, righteous lives with Christ.

[1] Ezekiel, Westminster Bible Companion (Westminster John Knox, Louisville: 1996), 79-80.

[2] Ibid., 80.

[3] Ibid., 81.

[4] For more on the timing of prophecy angle of interpretation, see: J. David Pleins, The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Know, 2001), 325-336.

[5] Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggeman, Terence Fretheim, and David L. Petersen, Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, Second Edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 351.

[6] “Ezekiel,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 1265-1266.

About the Contributor

PhD, Marquette Graduate, Pastor Crossroads Church of God

Nathan Willowby