The Church offers as our first scripture for today an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Ezekiel.
I have spoken about Ezekiel before, noting that he lived during a time of great crisis and cataclysm. The once mighty Kingdom of David was coming to a terrifying end, an end that would culminate in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the armies of the Babylonian Empire. What followed this was exile and the enslavement of most of the inhabitants of city. All this happened in the year 587 BC.
Ezekiel was a witness to all these events and writes his book of prophecies as a way of helping the Israelites understand what had happened. He interprets the events theologically- which means his principle concerns are the political, cultural or economic ramifications of the end of the Kingdom of David (though he writes about all these things) but what God is doing and why.
His sense is that the end of David’s Kingdom is a moment of purification that has the potential to renew Israel and bring them back to their God-given mission and identity, a mission and identity that they had refused and rejected by giving their lives over to false gods and the worship of wealth, pleasure, power and honors.
In today’s particular scripture from the Book of Ezekiel, the people protest against God, insisting that what has happened to them is unfair- how could they deserve such suffering? How dare God impose on them such terror and misery!
And Ezekiel’s answer is God didn’t impose this on you- you did. You defied the justice that God had knit into the fabric of the cosmos itself, gave yourself over to the worship of false gods, made idols of your desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honor, gratifying yourself in immediate needs without any care in the world for consequences- you did this and when it all came crashing down on your heads you blame God.
Ezekiel is having none of the protests and what he tells them that rather than wasting their time with protests, they should admit their wrongdoing, repent of their sins, and take the second chance that God is offering them.
The revelation of the Bible is about many things, but one of things that the Bible presents to us is that the world was created by God and returns us to God. God orders his creation in accord with his justice and does so to ultimately provide protections for the innocent from the wicked. When we defy God’s purposes for his creation, there are consequences, and when we are in the midst of these consequences we are faced with a decision- will I repent? Will I change? If we refuse, the consequences may consume and destroy us. There is no evading God’s justice. We might defer God’s justice for a time, but ultimately, in this world or the next, we have to come to terms with what we have done or failed to do- and repent- and accept God’s offer of another chance.
That’s what the revelation of the Bible is so insistent that we understand- and accept.
The prophets of the Bible insist that the worst injustice that we perpetrate is idolatry- making gods out of things, even good things, that aren’t the one, true God. This is what ends up subverting us and brings everything crashing down on our heads. All the violence and terror in the world is born out of our idolatry. Because idols often gratify our immediate needs, we think we are building things up, when we are actually tearing things down. Wealth, pleasure, power and honors- are the usual idols and these aren’t God, but so often we treat them as such- making them our ultimate concern, treating them like they are the end for which we have been created.
And when those false gods deliver us into the hands of our enemies, and we protest the consequences- remember the words of the prophet Ezekiel. Don’t waste time in protests. Repent and take God’s offer of another chance.
The second scripture we have been given is from the Apostle Paul’s great letter to the Philippians, and what we heard is really quite striking- perhaps the earliest Christian hymn about the Lord Jesus- acclaiming him to be God, worthy of our worship, in fact worthy of the worship of call creatures in heaven and on earth.
I know when most people hear the word hymn they think of a song for Church and most songs for Church these days sound like ballads or show tunes and if that is our point of reference we will miss why this hymn from Philippians is so remarkable.
This is not a sentimental pop ballad meant to evoke positive feelings, instead it is an anthem, a cheer, that is being announced to the powers of the world- the great men and women of politics, economics and culture- powers that think they are running the world and running everyone’s lives- and this anthem, this cheer is telling them that they aren’t really the boss, and they aren’t really in charge- but God in Christ is, and he has proved it by taking their most powerful weapon- the threat of death, and overcoming that weapon through his cross and resurrection.
And it is no accident that this anthem, this cheer is announced to the Philippians.
Philippi, the land of the Philippians, is located in a region of northern Greece, it is the land of Philip of Macedon, named for him, the great warrior king, who was the father of an even greater warrior king- Alexander the Great, who conquered the world. It was also at Philippi that the armies of Brutus and Cassius battled with Octavian and Antony. The latter triumphed over the former and that victory led to Octavian becoming the mighty emperor Augustus, whose empire conquered the empire of Alexander and it was an agent of Augustus’ successor who tortured and crucified God in Christ.
The Apostle Paul is shouting out this anthem about the power of God in Christ in that place where worldly power was celebrated and honored- the worldly power that had sought to kill Christ and persecute his Church. What the Apostle Paul is doing is declaring the end of the reign of those powers over the world.
It is not just a nice little song- it is a taunt, it’s an act of treason, it’s his way of getting in the face of the powers of the world and letting them know that God in Christ has come and he will cast the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly!
God in Christ has come and the power of Philip or Alexander or Caesar pales in comparison to the power he means to unleash on the world!
And that same subversive, treasonous, world changing power that St. Paul knew is still in the Church today- we are still meant to announce the anthem! We are here to let the worldly powers of our own time who the real king, the real boss, the real Lord, the real Savior, the real God really and truly is- Christ the Lord!
You probably don’t know this, but anthems very much like that anthem from Philippians are all over our worship in the Mass. The Gloria, the Creed, the Holy, Holy, the Agnus Dei- these aren’t meant to be charming faith- based ballads or perfunctory prayers. Those anthems bear into the world the same subversive, treasonous, world changing message that St. Paul shouted to the Philippians and to all the powers of the world- Jesus Christ, not wealth, pleasure power and honors… Jesus Christ, not Alexander or Caesar and all their successors- is LORD!
Maybe it’s the way those anthems are presented to us or maybe we just don’t want to accept them for what they are, or maybe too few know what they really are all about, but it doesn’t seem like we hear what our anthems of worship are telling us- and that’s really dangerous- because if WE can’t hear and understand- how are we going to announce that message into the world, or announce their message of liberation into a culture under the tyranny of false gods and fallen powers?
Finally, Christ’s Gospel…
The Lord Jesus presents to us a story about two sons- one who tells his father that he is going to do what his father asks, and then goes back on his word and doesn’t do it and another son who defies his father’s request, but then ends up doing precisely what his father wants.
What does this mean?
It is about disconnecting our profession of faith in Jesus Christ from the practice of our faith- of telling him yes, when what we really mean is no. It is about claiming to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus or belonging to the Church and not actually acting on that faith in the manner that the Lord Jesus expects.
The bottom line is this: Christian faith is not an ideology or self-help strategy. It is not an abstraction of the mind or a feeling in your heart. It is a way of life, a way of life that we can only understand and appreciate from within and that only makes sense in relation to Jesus Christ.
And if it is going to mean anything to you at all and impart the meaning and purpose to your life that the Lord promises to deliver to you- you can’t just talk about it- you have to do it.