Have you seen this?
| Ezekiel 47:1-12
||Sun, June 9, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|<This is a version of a sermon first preached at 'Breakthrough' - a United Church gathering in Waterloo, Ontario - on June 6, 2002>
“In the twenty-fifth year of our exile ...”. The first word of this text is the beginning of Ezekiel’s last word. This will be his final vision, the end of his truth-telling poetry. It comes, he says, in the twenty-fifth year of Israel’s exile. The twenty-fifth year after the end of their way of life. Twenty-five years of deconstructing the old patterns, the old ways, the old buildings. Sound familiar? We almost want to tell Ezekiel that the hard times have just begun ... that his exilic season of deconstruction is not even half way through its fifty-nine year journey. Then again, maybe twenty-five years is the mid-point, the low ebb, the farthest point from home. The ancient Jubilee year - the year of restoration when debts are forgiven, prisoners are freed and land is returned to its family of origin - comes once every fifty years. Twenty-five years marks the point farthest away from the time of forgiveness, liberation and homecoming. Ezekiel’s last word is spoken in the depth of the exile. It is a vision glimpsed on Holy Saturday in the long season of absence between Friday’s disastrous ending and Sunday’s impossible new beginning. It is, in other words, a vision glimpsed in our Saturday season of waiting.
To be fair, Ezekiel’s dream is lengthy, longer than today’s reading admits (nine chapters long in all!). It begins oddly. Three chapters of architect’s drawings. Ezekiel goes on at length describing the glories of a reconstructed temple in Jerusalem. In his vision he is taken from the depths of imprisoned exile to a future in which a glorious temple has been rebuilt in Jerusalem: “Then he measured the wall of the temple, six cubits thick ... The passageway of the side chambers widened from story to story ... The nave of the temple and the inner room and the outer vestibule were panelled” (Ezekiel 41:5,7,15). At first reading it is hard not to be gratified that these verses are among those not included for reading in the Sunday lectionary! But then an amazing event occurs. Ezekiel witnesses an extraordinary occurrence: “Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east: the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory.” (Ezek. 43:2). The glory of God - the “chabod” of Yahweh - returns the temple with the sound of rushing water. This is the deep, resilient hope of a people exiled in the absence of Saturday. They live - we live - in structures that are no longer the vessels of God’s glory, God’s energy, God’s presence. But, then, Ezekiel has a dream of the day when that presence returns with the energy and force of mighty waters pouring in.
But the most amazing scene in Ezekiel’s dream is the one that follows. He sees water leaking out of the temple: “there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east” (Ezek. 47:1). This is an astonishing vision. We are not surprised to imagine that Israel might long for the glory and presence of Yahweh to return to its house of worship. We expect the glory of God might show up once more in the house of the LORD, to reside in the Ark of the Covenant, in the Holy of Holies ... the sacred mystery protected from profanity by the priests. We don’t expect what happens next ... that the “chabod” of Yahweh - the glory of the LORD - begins to seep out of its appointed holy place and to make its way beyond the sacred precincts into the profane places of the world. But there is no mistake. Ezekiel journeys a thousand cubits downstream and the water is ankle deep. Another thousand cubits along and the water is knee-deep. Yet another thousand and it is waist-deep (do you feel a spiritual coming on ... “the water is ankle-deep ... now the water is knee-deep”!). One more measurement and the river is over Ezekiel’s head ... it is a deep and wide river, a powerful river flowing south ... south through dry, barren land down, down to the sea ... to the sea of “stagnant waters”, the poisoned Dead Sea where nothing lives.
“Have you seen this” asks Ezekiel’s guide. And Ezekiel reports with amazement that he sees life returning. A vision of worship restored has become an amazing ecological dream of life returning ... swarming creatures of every kind, fish returning to the sea, trees laden with fruit and with leaves that heal. Somehow the return of Yahweh’s presence into the worship of the people becomes the occasion for the return of God’s glory to the world. It is as if Ezekiel sees that the depth of the exile is also the mid-point of the great story that begins by the river of life in the garden called Eden and will finally end at the river that flows through the City of God. Ezekiel’s people live far away from the live-giving river and its fruitful, healing trees. They can hardly imagine the glory of God flowing into stagnant neighbourhoods, poisoned nations and families that - like the Dead Sea - seem incapable of sustaining life. This is all a dream. It is a vision for those who live between Eden and the City of God, between the fall of Friday and the rising of Sunday.
At least that is what I thought. I thought that this sermon was a message of hope, a call to those in despair, encouragement when courage to face the future seems in short supply. But the voice said to me: “Mortal, have you seen this?” And I was not satisfied. A restored temple? A rebuilt church? Is this what we’re hoping for? We tell ourselves that we don’t long to return to a reconstructed church office at 85 St. Clair Ave. East ... that we don’t pine for the days when the structures worked and there were staff aplenty ... that we aren’t simply measuring our faithfulness by our ability to make worship attractive, to fill pews and to have overflowing Sunday Schools once more. Yet it is hard for exiles to keep from dreaming of “the good old days” and of imagining that the future will be a return to the past.
Then the voice said to me: “Mortal, have you seen this?”. And it showed me the scene on Good Friday and it said: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mk. 15:37-38). The moment of Jesus’ death is the opening of the holy of holies, the moment when the “chabod” of Yahweh - the glory of the LORD - is revealed and poured out into the world. “Have you seen this?” asked the voice. Then the voice recited familiar words: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’ ... he was speaking of the temple of his body” (Jn. 2:18,21). And the voice read from the end of the great Book: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22). Now I saw something amazing and surprising - the restored temple is the Lamb, is the risen Christ, is Jesus crucified and risen ... which makes this not a sermon about life on Saturday anymore. This is no longer a dream about the future. It has become a surprising vision of the present. The “chabod” of Yahweh has already returned in power and is present now. It is not a matter of waiting for the rivers of life to begin to seep into creation once more, bringing life to the dead and dying places. For those with eyes to see the water has already begun to flow and to rise.
The voice said “Mortal, have you seen this?”. And it showed me a baptismal font. The lid was lifted off and there was a minuscule amount of water in the font ... just enough to wet the forehead of an infant without getting the christening gown wet. Then it measured a thousand months and the water was deeper, up to my wrist ... then it measured a thousand months and the water was pouring out of the font, covering the floor ... and then another thousand and the water was pouring out into the streets. The vocie said“Mortal, have you seen this?” And it read from Peter: “Come to him, a living stone ... and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house ... The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner” (I Peter 2:4-7). Then the voice read from Paul: “Do y’all not know that y’all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in y’all?” (I Cor. 3:16). Suddenly it was so plain. How could I have not seen it before. “So then you are ... built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God” (Ephesians 2:20-21). The risen Christ is the temple of the LORD, the one from whom the life-giving presence of God flows into the world. But where is this presence to be touched, tasted, known? Where is this river to be found?
And the voice said, “When you come to the font you come to the river. When you are marked at the font, you enter the river and you become a part of the river.” I saw that the river of life is first a river of death ... for here we enter the deep and powerful currents of God’s holiness. Here we drown to all that is killing us ... to the powerful tidal currents that we seem otherwise unable to resist ... the massive river of consumption and acquisition that carries us all along even as it destroys the earth ... the strong undertow of our need for control and security ... the devastating rapids of violence and fear. Arriving at the font, we suppose that we can simply sit by the banks of the river, dipping our toes in for refreshment. We come to worship hoping for some new ideas to help us live well, for some titbits of hope to tide us through. But the church is that people who, to their amazement, see that God has begun a new thing in the world. Here, at the font and the table, we witness that the glory of God is poured out for the life of the world in the Body of Christ. This saving good news begins in a trickle that is hardly noticeable ... but then it grows in depth and in breadth and in force. As we draw near to this mystery we hear Jesus calling, saying “follow me”, join me, become a part of me, be my body in the world ... enter the river of life, entrust your future to the Easter current of a world saved not by human wisdom but by the power of God ... for this life in Christ is a life of tidal joy and deep hope and peace like a river. “Mortals, have you seen this?”