Sunday, 1 January 2012

Ezekiel - People of Influence

As the New Year begins what does our world need?

People of Power.


People of Influence

It’s good to receive occasionally the transcript of a particularly good Thought for the Day from organists Frank or Richard – often ones with some scientific bent.

I pricked my ears up when I heard Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs do his thought for the day this week.  That’s something for Sunday evening, I thought.  And I’ll email the transcript to Frank and Richard.  You can imagine my disappointment when I found the BBC website has been on holiday and won’t be back in operation until next week.  So … no transcript.

Jonathan Sachs was asking who are more important, and indeed who are more needed in the kind of time of crisis that we are facing in today’s world?

Is it People of Power … or People of Influence?

He reflected on the way the Hebrew Scriptures are actually more to do with People of Influence than with People of Power.

A large part of the Hebrew Scriptures are made up with the Prophets – the former prophets whose writings are contained in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and the latter prophets whose writings are contained in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve.

The Kings were the People of Power and with the exception of David and Solomon and one or two others their names have been forgotten.  The Prophets were the People of Influence – it was their spoken word and their writings that challenged the People of Power and indeed shaped the way they should exercise their power.

Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu were not People of Power.  They were People of Influence.

What is needed in our world of crisis now are people of influence who can use a Prophetic Voice to challenge the People of Power and then shape the way they exercise their power.

It is fascinating that the three great books of Prophetic writing, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel all focus on THE major crisis Israel faced – the destruction of Jerusalem.

 Whereas Jeremiah stayed put in Jerusalem when the Babylonian power destroyed that city and its temple, Ezekiel was among those who were carted off to far away Babylon.

There is almost a madness in Ezekiel’s writing as he sees fantastical visions many of which are profoundly disturbing.  But through it all he speaks out in that challenging way as he looks back on what has gone wrong and brought Israel to this sorry state of affairs, and he seeks to shape the way people in the future will use their power.

As people subsequently returned from exile they could tell that Ezekiel was one of those great People of Influence whose words were worth taking note of.  Indeed the way he sought to shape those who held power became very much the inspiration for Jesus and all he stood for.  I want to identify a number of passages and thoughts that Ezekiel shared that we can see filled out in Jesus and we can see them setting us the agenda we should seek to follow as this New Year unfolds.

First, we must come to terms with individual responsibility.  This is one of the great insights Ezekiel has to share.   Much of the thinking that had gone on before, it is reflected in Exodus 20 in the ten commandments sees that people can be caught up in bad behaviour from one generation to the next.  That is an insight that we must always remember when responding to the needs of other people.  People can be trapped from one generation to the next – often those youngsters with massive behavioural problems that CCP sees in its Education Centre come from family backgrounds that are immensely difficult with intractable problems that seem to go down from one generation to the next.  That may be a helpful observation but there is also a need for individual responsibility – and to recognise that you are responsible for your actions.

The word of the Lord came to me: 2What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.   18

Each person to take responsibility for their own actions.  And each person has the potential to change and be changed.  Ezekiel has a lovely way of putting that at the end of chapter 18

31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! 

Just as Jeremiah held out the hope of a new covenant, so that thought is echoed by Ezekiel – the people may have experienced calamity as the consequence of all that had gone wrong over many, many years.  But there is a hope they can look to, a covenant relationship with God that will be renewed and restored …

19I 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, 20so 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.  11

This has to be one of the most thrilling of all Ezekiel’s visions.  Far away in exile he has that desolate and devastating vision of the valley of dry bones.   37 – Ezekiel prophesies to the bones and they come together.  Then he prophesies to the breath … and the breath of God is breathed into the dry bones and there is new life.  A wonderful vision of restoration.

That will involved the coming together of the fractured, divided kingdoms of Israel – as he takes two sticks and joins them together in front of the people’s very eyes.  So too the people will  be one people.  37:15ff.

This speaks into our world and into our situation at the beginning of the New Year.  The need to recognise responsibility.  The potential for a new start as a new heart, a new spirit, a new breath comes deep within us.  That can be for us.  It can encourage us to work with all people – the capacity for change.  And it gives us grounds for hope collectively as well.

One of the most powerful of Ezekiel’s insights as a Person of Influence is the indictment he makes of the People of Power of many generation.  For him the People of Power were the Kings of the northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom too.

Chapter 34 is a key part of what Ezekiel has to share.

It is interesting that Ezekiel addresses himself as Son of Man.  Which in the NRSV becomes Mortal.  Ben Adam – throughout the whole book of Ezekiel when Ezekiel is addressed.  In 2011 to mark the 400th anniversary of the AV the New International Version was completely revised.  They keep this phrase.

It is not without significance that when Jesus speaks of himself he calls himself Son of Man.  There is an echo there of Ezekiel.

Son of Man

 1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; 

Ezekiel, prophesy, speak truth to power, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel.  That has nothing to do with the shepherds who were watching their sheep.  The kings were thought of as shepherds of the people.  It is against the kings that Ezekiel speaks out.  The Person of Influence, speaking out against the People of Power.

prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd,

What has happened in exile is the CONSEQUENCE of all the failings that have mounted up as one King has succeed to another.

This is powerful stuff.  It is an indictment against the shepherds who have ruled.

Then comes the promise.  But the terms of the promise are very significant.
11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.  14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 
15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.  34
Accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners, criticised for eating at the home of Zacchaeus, Jesus was adamant,

The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.  Luke 19:10

The twelve had a message they were to take ‘to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’.  It was a proclamation of Good News – the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  And their task was nothing less than to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

Jesus tells a story of a Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep.  And then in John 10 there can be no doubting it.

14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.   John 10

Just as you find in the great 8th century prophets.  Just as you find in the Isaiah vision of Isaiah 65, so here is an agenda.  This is what it takes to be worthy of power, to exercise power properly …

16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. 

This is Mary’s song – bringing down the rich.  Raising up the poor.

This is what Jesus fulfilled.

And it is the task we are called to fulfil.

The priority must be to those who are weak, vulnerable in what we do.

But it is the challenge we give to those in power – to give a priority to those who are weak, vulnerable, lost and strayed.

That’s what’s needed  in our world as we stand on the threshold of a new year.

Shot through Ezekiel is a sense of the presence of God that is real with the people as they seek to put things back together again.  The final chapters are a remarkable vision of a new temple.

A river of living water flows out from the temple to bring new life to the world.  That vision is taken up by Jesus when he speaks of himself as the living water.  When he speaks of the Spirit as rivers of living water flowing out from the heart of the believer (John 7:37ff) there are all sorts of echoes of this remarkable imagery of Ezekiel.  As we take bread and share in a cup that presence of Christ is with us and flows through us into a world of need.

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