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Faithful in Exile (2): Sour Grapes

. 8 min read

Faithful
in Exile (2): Sour Grapes
2014/07/13
Christ Church
Prayer,
Psalm 32
Children,
John 9 (Who sinned?)
Message,
Ezekiel 18.1-32
This
passage is all about judgment. “The soul that sins is the soul that shall die”
(Ezk 18.4). And, we love judgment, don’t we? The passage exposes all kinds of
questions, misconceptions, and anxieties we have with judgment in general, and
God’s judgment in particular. Did God have a personality change between the OT
and the NT – or perhaps a good psychiatrist? Didn’t Jesus tell us, “Judge not,
lest you be judged” (Mt 7.2)? To what degree could sin and judgment be an
inherited trait? To what degree are we responsible for the sins of our children
and grandchildren? Can we “bank” our good deeds enough to wipe out whatever
wrong we have done? Or can one wrong deed wipe out a lifetime of otherwise good
behavior?
Last
week, as we were introduced to Ezekiel, we learned that, among other things,
Ezekiel was a great visionary. This is not one of his visions. The other
messages in this series are from his visions, but this is not one of them. This
is a sustained argument with the exiles of Judah, now living near the Chebar
Canal in Babylonia, and the argument is about the justice, the judgment, of
God.
      Remember that the exiles have lived
through horror – the rape, murder, and torture of friends and neighbors – and now
find themselves in a foreign land, without the comforts of home, temple, or
king. Nevertheless, they – on one hand – hold on to the promise of God to
Israel, to the house and line of David, to Jerusalem and the Temple, and they
believe, fancifully, that God will bring them back. Ezekiel has been
proclaiming that God’s judgment has just begun, that exile will be long, that
Judah, the temple, the palace, the city of Jerusalem, will be totally
destroyed. On one hand, the exiles are holding on to a naïve hope.
      On the other hand … there is cynical
despair. If they are being judged, it is for the sins of their ancestors over
many generations. They are, in the words of Katheryn Darr, “bound by chains
they did not forge”. And, if I am not responsible for the fix I am in, then
there is nothing I can do to get out of it. It’s all someone else’s fault –
cynical despair. And, isn’t it a whole lot easier to blame someone else –
whether the baggage from our parents, the injustice of God, or the randomness
of the universe – than to take responsibility for our own sin, our own
injustice, our own random disregard for our neighbors, for the earth, for our
God? (See Darr.)
      Ezekiel argues with the exiles, first with
reason, then with passion, attempting to break through the naïveté and the cynicism.
“What do you mean by repeating this proverb?” (18.2) “Yet you say, ‘Why shouldn’t
the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?'” (18.19). “Yet you say, ‘The
way of the LORD is unfair!’” (18.25). Ezekiel argues, and it’s all about
judgment, what judgment means, whether judgment is just. And, here’s the crazy
thing: In the judgment of God Ezekiel finds the grounds for hope.

I’d
like to take time to explore some of our attitudes towards judgment and, as we
do so, dip repeatedly into the text of Ezekiel’s argument with the exiles.
First, this perception that God’s
personality
, God’s disposition toward human beings, is radically different
between the OT and NT texts. Some folks even say, “Old Testament God” and “New
Testament God”, as if they are two gods. Not that they believe there are two
gods, but that they see such a huge difference between these two major episodes
of the biblical story. Now, we confess faith in “one God”. We follow Jesus, who
understood himself and his ministry in terms of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old
Testament.
      To be fair, there is plenty of harsh judgment
language in the Old Testament. Have you read the story of Jesus’ on the cross?
One of the ways the NT describes this story, and its purpose in our salvation,
is as an expression of the judgment of God on our sin. Sometimes, we embrace
the biblical promise of forgiveness and reconciliation, but we completely
overlook the price that Jesus paid to make it possible. We are not forgiven
without judgment – and, fortunately for us, Jesus took that judgment for us. In
the judgment of God, there is hope.
      And, though there is plenty of harsh
judgment language in the OT, there is also an abundance of promise, hope,
forgiveness, deliverance. We can’t afford to listen only to one side of the
conversation, to read only select portions of the story. Here in our passage, and
this is one example of many OT texts that we could cite, the LORD declares, “Have
I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? … I have no pleasure in the death of
anyone. Turn, then, and live” (18.23, 32).
      The idea that the “OT God” is simply
waiting around to zap us for our sin – for that $20 we failed to report to the
IRS, for that library book we did not return on time, for that internet porn we
downloaded, for that litter we dropped on the trail – that image of God is
simply inconsistent with the testimony of the OT itself.
Second, our practice of judgment in a
culture that has embraced relativism
, that your truth is your truth and my
truth is my truth, that absolute truths do not exist or at least are not
transferable equally to others. Generally speaking in our culture, we commend
those who do not judge. It is one of the most appealing aspects of Jesus’
message to the world at large, even to those who do not follow Jesus: “Judge
not”. It is also one of the huge reasons that our neighbors who do not follow
Jesus fail to recognize Jesus in the church: The church, in general, has a huge
reputation for being judgmental. And, so does the culture, when you expose the
right flaw. Donald Sterling, the billionaire ex-owner of the LA Clippers, has
recently been exposed for his bigotry, racism, and hatred. Apparently, this was
not particularly news for those in the know, but when those secret recordings
were leaked to a gossip site, the league and the nation responded with outrage
and, some, with hatred of their own. (See Swoboda.)
      This exposes, for the culture as well as
the church, that we actually need values, truth, beauty – judgment. Judgment –
God’s judgment – is based not on personal animosity or emotional reaction. God’s
judgment is based on values, truth, and beauty. If values, truth, and beauty
exist, then so does judgment. One of the values of our culture – that the
culture associates with relativism but which the church locates in the love of
God and the cross of Christ and the calling of a slave nation to be the people
of God – is “inclusion” (our culture’s word) or, better, “welcome”, “hospitality”,
“acceptance”. “Accept one another just as Christ Jesus accepted you” (Rom
15.7). In the church, we are called to hold the door open to everyone, including
the enemy, whether Babylonian or Donald Sterling, inviting them to “turn and
live”.
      There is, in the language of Ezekiel, both
“wickedness” and “righteousness”, “abomination” and “what is lawful”. Deep in
our core as human beings, we know these things exist. Because they do, judgment
exists – and hope exists.
Third, judgment across generations (see
Darr). For the exiles of Judah, it was perfectly normal to say, particularly
when faced with Ezekiel’s preaching, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and
the children’s teeth are set on edge” (18.2) and “Why shouldn’t the son suffer
for the iniquity of the father?” (18.19). That’s exactly what they were
experiencing, wasn’t it? Yes, in the grand scheme of history, and for their own
sin. Even now, however, they have the choice between life and death. They
have the choice. We have a choice.
      Now, we know that there is an inherited
dimension of sin. In some great cosmic sense, biblical history places all human
beings as present with Adam and Eve in the original sin. At the same time,
biblical history places all who believe in the righteousness of Jesus. Beyond
that cosmic level, however, there is tons of data for sin being passed along in
family lines – domestic violence, addiction, bigotry. Ezekiel does not argue
that fact; instead, he argues that we do not have to be defined by or judged
for our heritage of sin. And, throughout Scripture, the implication is that the
legacy of righteousness is more powerful than the legacy of sin. The legacy of
sin may last to the third and fourth generation, but the legacy of
righteousness lasts for a thousand (Exodus 20.5-6). Judgment and
Hope.
      There is a second dimension of judgment
across generations that is addressed by Ezekiel. It’s not on the mind of the
exiles, but he addresses it nonetheless. And that is fortunate, because it is
often on our minds today: Will we be judged by the sin of our children? We heap
lots of responsibility on ourselves for how our kids turn out, and parenting is
a huge responsibility – and gift. However, at some point our kids grow up to
make decisions on their own and to face the consequences as adults, and we can
no longer protect them, and no longer be responsible for what they do. Even
God, the best parent of all … even God’s kids Adam and Eve didn’t turn out
quite the way God intended.
      Ezekiel declares, “A child shall not
suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a
child” (18.20).
Fourth, judgment as earned, deserved, or “banked’
(see Darr). One of the old ways this was talked about in theology was a system
of “merits” or demerits. If you watched or read any of the Harry Potter
stories, you heard one professor or another announce points given to or
deducted from one house or another. “Fifty points for Gryffindor!” Does God
keep an accounting of our merits and demerits in this way? Can we “bank” on our
goodness when it comes to the final judgment? Again, Ezekiel ventures beyond
the primary focus of his audience to address a matter with which we struggle routinely:
Do we have enough merits stored up to offset our failures, our sins? We live in
doubt of our standing before God, uncertain of being forgiven.
      Ezekiel’s words on this subject are
unequivocal and audacious. No, we cannot bank either our merits or demerits. If
a wicked person repents, “None of the transgressions that they have committed
shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done
they shall live” (18.22). If a righteous person backslides, “None of the
righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered” (18.24).
      Ezekiel is not saying that our salvation
depends on our works, or that our salvation depends on our most recent works.
He is saying that our salvation, which is determined by God alone, is tied to
the direction of our lives. “Repent and turn” (18.30). “Turn, then, and live”
(18.32). “Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (18.31). We are offered
by God, not what we deserve, but what God desires to give us as we turn, as we
allow God to make us new, as we repent. The reason sin is so deadly is not that
God is waiting to zap us for any and every infraction. It is so deadly because
we are walking away from the greatest gift of all – a new heart, a new spirit,
life itself. And the further we walk away from life, the dead-er we become. As
Ezekiel writes, “Iniquity will be your ruin” (18.30). But our God has destroyed
the power of sin and death! Judgment and Hope!
Scott
Cairns has an interesting poem on metanoia,
the Greek word for repentance, which concludes:
The
heart’s metanoia,/on the other hand,
turns
without
regret, turns not/so much away, as toward,
as
if the slow pilgrim/has been surprised to find
that
sin is not so bad/as it is a waste of time.
Repent
and turn. Turn and live.
Resources:
·        
Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, 2001, Ezekiel, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol VI,
Abingdon Press: Nashville.
·        
A.J. Swoboda, 2014 June 23, “Spilled Blood and
Gracious Judgment”, Parse (Ministry/Culture from Leadership Journal). http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2014/june/spilled-blood-and-graceful-judgment.html?paging=off

·        
Scott Cairns, “Adventures in New Testament Greek”,
Philokalia, cited by Joel Shuman,
private email.