Hope for all Creation: Ezekiel 47

As part of our chapel series on Hope for all creation, I gave the following short reflection on Ezekiel 47:1-12.

While I have grown to love the book of Ezekiel, I often find it strange. And this passage, despite the beautiful image of life-giving water that it presents, is no exception. It is filled with odd repetitions and details. Why does it matter to us, the readers, which directions the water is coming from? Why are we given measurements?

Going back a few chapters in Ezekiel, there are more measurements. Measurements of doors and walls and rooms and instructions for priests. These chapters look like building instructions for a temple, and many people over the centuries have interpreted it that way. If we build the temple, then Christ will return – and the vision presented here of the water that gives life – will finally come true. It’s one interpretation of Ezekiel 43, which says that these words are written so that people might be ashamed and turn to God, and then they must follow these instructions. And God will dwell among them. And who of us doesn’t want God to dwell among us?

I find something deeply appealing in the idea that maybe – if we just follow this formula or these instructions – then everything will be the way it should be. The water of life, as depicted in this passage, will overflow: “the fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

Except experience and history have taught us that God cannot be contained or controlled. I – we – cannot do enough to make and ensure God will come to dwell among us. Any effort we might make to build the temple pictured here actually can’t work: the text doesn’t give building materials, the dimensions are too large to fit on the temple mound, and probably most noticeable, it’s lacking a roof. The temple isn’t meant to be built. It isn’t meant to be one more thing to do; instead it’s a vision of what already is. It’s a vision that is calling us to turn to God, to turn away from our own efforts to control God – or even try to control and run the world around us. The temple is a vision of God’s presence and another reiteration of God’s repeated refrain throughout Ezekiel – I will be your God and you will be my people. I will dwell among you.

God will dwell among us because that’s what God does. God dwells among us. Genesis 1 tells the story of creation but many scholars recognize that the language is more than just a description of the world coming into being. It is a description of a world that has been formed as a temple: God’s temple where God dwells. Since creation, God has dwelt among us, inviting us to see God through the beauty and power and wonder that creation instills in us.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s presence was shown to the Israelites through the temple in their midst, but God’s presence was hardly contained to the temple. And this vision of a new temple here in Ezekiel makes that even more clear: no roof, after all, could hold God’s presence when God’s presence is throughout all of creation.

Because God’s presence is not always obvious, despite the beauty of creation, God came among us in the form of Jesus, and today God is present with us in the Holy Spirit. And we can take great comfort that it is not on the basis of our own efforts that God dwells among us, but simply because that is who God is. It is part of how God formed creation. And since then we have been given many gracious reminders of God’s presence: a vision of life to its fullness, full of the water of life.

Worse than the nations around you

Ezekiel 5:6-7 says that Israel has been worse than the surrounding nations. Such an accusation seems strange, as it doesn’t seem merely to say that Israel was worse in not obeying the special laws that God gave them, but instead that Israel was objectively worse than those around them. How is this possible?

First, Ezekiel 16 and 23 provide a rather distressing picture of God’s accusations of what happened: Israel had rejected God and run after other gods. In no nation would it be appropriate to reject your own god.

Secondly, there is something about religious systems that allow for a certain type of abuse. The beginning of 1 Samuel speaks of how Eli’s sons, priests, were taking advantage of their religious positions to take the best meat and sleep with the women serving at the temple. In light of what we know about power (cf #metoo and #churchtoo movements) the sexual favors were most likely not consensual. All of the abuse scandals within the church show us how easy it is to turn a blind eye when we believe that good people wouldn’t do that sort of thing. So the words ‘you have been worse than those around you’ are distressingly applicable not only to the Israelites in Ezekiel’s time but also to the church today.

On top of this, many people who are not Christians have a distressing image of Christians as being judgmental and unloving, especially to LGBTQ+ folks. In other words, we are perceived as being worse than those around us.

The book of Ezekiel is trying to get the attention of the people of Israel so that they realize how bad they really are. What will it take for Christians today to recognize our own shortcomings? Furthermore, what actions can we as Christians do to help believe that we are not worse than those around us? Those are the questions that our study of Ezekiel left us with, questions that are not easy to answer.

Applying Ezekiel to today

We’ve started a study on Ezekiel. The stories in Ezekiel are fascinating and peculiar, and so it is a joy for me to talk about what is going on in the text.

However, the strange-ness of the text makes it difficult to see how the text might apply to our lives. Going out and being like Ezekiel is not exactly an option: in the first five chapters, Ezekiel eats a scroll, is told to lie on his side for more than a year, create a mini-enactment of a siege, and run around the city hacking at a chunk of hair with a sword. Doing any of these things today would more likely result in somebody wondering what is wrong with you than having people assume such actions are God’s way of speaking today.

And yet, there is something to the startling nature of Ezekiel’s actions. They make people wonder (cf. Ezek 24:19). When we think about applying Ezekiel to today, the question we’ve been asking is what sorts of actions (or even words) we can do that would make people wonder about who God is and what it might look like to follow God.

Perhaps, as in the book of Ezekiel, it will appear as if those around us do not hear us. Yet, “whoever would serve as the messenger of God must recognize that the calling is not to success but to faithfulness.” (Daniel Block, Ezekiel 1-24, 131). In light of this, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we are not radically changing the world or bringing more people to Jesus. At the same time, we can trust the Spirit is working in the world around us (including the university) and that people will indeed ask us who God is and what faith and spirituality look like.