Thursday, November 1, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Ezekiel 19-20 and John 15-16

Sorry for the two days without posts. I am on Long Island and we have been without power because of Hurricane Sandy. We are fortunate to have power back now; many are still without.

Ezekiel 19 – There follows here a poetic “dirge” lamenting the fall of Israel – King Jehoahaz is depicted as a young lion who learned to be a “man-eater” (19:3). “The nations combines against him; he was caught in their pit; they dragged him off with hooks to the land of Egypt” (19:4). This refers to the taking of King Jehoahaz into captivity in Egypt by Pharaoh Neco.

The lioness then took “another of her whelps and made a young lion of him” (19:5). This is said to refer to King Jehoiachin who was the king taken captive to Babylon in 597 BC. In between was King Jehoiachim, who died a natural death according to the Jerusalem Bible note.

The lioness, the mother of these kings, is the nation of Judah. She was “like a vine, planted beside the water, fruitful and leafy, because the water lowed so full. It put out strong branches that turned to royal scepters; they reached up, reached so high they touched the clouds; men admired them for their height and their thick foliage. But it was rooted up and thrown on the ground . . . Now it has been transplanted into the desert, the waterless country of drought; fire has come out f its stem, consumed its branches and fruit” (19:12-13).

Ezekiel 20 - It is in the summer of 591 BC. Ezekiel is told to speak to the Elders of Israel who have come to consult Yahweh.  Yahweh tells the prophet He will not permit them to consult with Him. They must be judged and confronted “with the filthy practices of their fathers” (20:4).

And then the whole story of Yahweh’s relations with this people is recounted. When they rebelled against him in Egypt, He stood by them, not so much because He wanted to but in order to show the nations that He stood by his covenant with them. The people rebelled again in the desert. “[T]hey refused to keep my laws, they scorned my observances, which must be practiced by all who wish to live, and they profaned my Sabbaths” (20:13).

A really mysterious passage then follows. It says, in the desert, “I even gave them laws that were not good and observances by which they could never live; and I polluted them with their own offerings, making them sacrifice all their first-born; which was to punish them, so that they would learn that I am Yahweh” (20:25-26). So the “pagan” practices we have been taught to associate with the Canaanite people in the area where Yahweh planted His “chosen” were not just a temptation they needed to turn away from; they were “given to them” by Yahweh. How are we supposed to deal with this?

The Jerusalem Bible note here indicates that what Ezekiel is referring to here is a passage in Exodus (22:28-29) where it says, “You must give me the first-born of your sons; you must do the same with your flocks and herds. The first-born must remain with its mother for seven days; on the eighth day you must give it to me.” What was probably meant here was simply the consecration of first-born and first-fruits to God, but some apparently interpreted this as approval for child sacrifice. But it is clear that here Yahweh takes responsibility for the mistake while at the same time holding the people responsible as well.

There is definitely a tension in the Old Testament between two compelling ideas: 1) that the Lord and Creator of all things is the source of ALL that happens – the good and the bad; and 2) that God’s ultimate creation – man – has reasoning powers and freedom of will such that he can and should be held responsible for what happens on the moral plane of his life. Is he ALONE responsible or is the responsibility held by the community of which he is a part?

We see this tension throughout the narrative, but here in Ezekiel we see the tension in both ideas. In Ezekiel, the Lord seems to take responsibility for this misinterpretation of His Law on to Himself. Most of Ezekiel’s prophecy, however, is based on the idea that people are responsible for the unfaithfulness that has happened. And there is a tension in Ezekiel about whether that responsibility should be borne by the individual or the group. I don’t think any of these things can be easily resolved.

The words of the prophet are beautiful here. The Lord refuses to let his people become “like the nations . . . worshipping wood and stone. As I live I swear it—it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks—I am the one who will reign over you, with a strong hand and outstretched arm, through the discharge of my anger . . . I will bring you out form the peoples and gather you together from foreign countries among which you have been scattered. . . .As I judged your fathers in the desert of the land of Egypt, so will I judge you . . . I mean to make you pass under my crook and I will bring a few of you back; I will sort out the rebels” (20:33-38). He will NOT ALLOW his people to be unfaithful; neither will he allow them to be unfaithful. It isn’t going to be pretty but HE ISN”T LETTING GO.

Eventually they will “stop profaning my Holy Name with your offerings and your idols. For on my holy mountain, on the high mountain of Israel . . . is where the whole House of Israel, resettled in the country, will worship me” (20:39-40). 

John 15 – I am the true vine,” Jesus says, and his father is the vine-grower (15:1). He prunes the vine so that the vine will give fruit. He compares the pruning to the cleansing Jesus brings them “by the word that I have spoken to you. “As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty” (15:4-5).

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love”(15:9). “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you”(15:12-14). Go and bear fruit that will last, he tells them. The world will hate them as it has hated him. You have to be “of the world” to be loved by the world. He reminds them of what he said to them when he washed their feet, that the servant is not greater than the master. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. The fact that he has come and been seen by the world increased its sin with respect to God (15:22). But the Advocate he will send will “testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (15:26-27).

This is the “Quaker chapter” if there is one in scripture. It is from this passage – “You are my friends if you do what I command . . .I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (15:14-15). So Friends took this to means that if they did what Jesus commanded – namely “love one another” – they would bear the fruit that would last. I believe they did this big time in the 17th century, 18th century 19th century. Whether they are doing it as well in the 20th can 21st centuries I think is more arguable. I think Friends need to consider this chapter more seriously in what it says in verses 4 and 5. After the quote above it goes on to say, “[C]ut off from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is like a branch that has been thrown away—he withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire, and they are burnt” (15:5-6).

Another aspect of this chapter that I find interesting is the end, which says, “When the Advocate comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father, he will be my witness. And you too will be witnesses, because you have been with me from the outset” (15:26-27). I see here mention of the two sources of revelation we have open to us—the Holy Spirit (the Advocate) AND the apostolic line/historic link.  These are the two able to testify on Jesus’ behalf.

John 16  - He says he tells them these things to keep them from stumbling. They will be put out of the synagogue [this happens around 80 AD]. He foretells a time of martyrdom, when those who kill them will think they are offering worship to God. He foretells these things so they will know that he knew of them in advance later on. He tells them again he will be leaving them, but that it is good that he is leaving, “for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). When he comes, it says in NRSV “he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8) and then he goes on to say how in a way that is very confusing. “[A]bout sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; bout judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (16:9-11).

He says he still has much to teach them but they can’t stand it now. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth . . .he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14).

“A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” (16) His disciples cannot understand and he goes over it, but it remains obscure. Some day he will not speak to them (us) in figures of speech (16:25) but “plainly.” His disciples claim to understand him, but he treats the claim with loving irony: “Do you now believe?” (16:31)

“The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me” (16:32). He says this “so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33)

Friends took the sense of Jesus’ teaching here to be about the centrality of repentance in the convincement process. “The first way of meeting with the Spirit of God, is as a convincer of sin [see John 16:8]. Here is the true entrance; this is the key that opens into life eternal; he that can receive it, let him.  It is not by soaring aloft into his imaginations and forms of worship; but by coming down to this low thing.  This is the first and most proper work of the Spirit of God toward fallen man, whereby he makes way toward the writing of God’s law in the heart; namely, to convince of sin” (Penington).

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