Message by Rev Jenny Carter
June 17, 2018
(Based on Ezekiel 17:22-24)
When it comes to life in general, and in our exploration of scripture in particular, context is everything. To understand a “thing” we have to know the circumstances surrounding the “thing.” In ministry, and in life, context is critical. Saying goodbye at the Greyhound bus station and saying goodbye to someone laying in a hospital bed are not the same, because the context is very different.
I was once supervising a student minister, and I remember well her lesson about the importance of context. (I have my own stories about how I got the context wrong, but let’s not go there this morning.) It was the Sunday after Easter and in some circles this is called “Holy Humour Sunday.” It’s a time where, after the deep faith journey of Lent and the high holy days of Easter, people relax and simply revel in the joy brought by their faith and their community. The student minister thought she would start out her sermon with a joke. Now jokes are dangerous things at the best of times, but they can be really dangerous when they come in the body of a sermon.
I don’t remember the joke itself, but I do remember how the joke started. The first line was, “So the pope dies and goes to heaven.” I remember the line so clearly because that was the moment I heard the whole congregation draw in a shocked breath simultaneously. The communal gasp was like all the air had been sucked out of that little country church in an instant, leaving an icy silence as thick as a wall. You see, that very day we had all driven in to church listening to the CBC and had learned that Pope John Paul the Second had died the previous night. Well, all of us had heard the news, all except the student minister.
Context is critical.
Our reading from Ezekiel presents us with a beautiful image. God will plant a sprig and new life for the people will come forth. Very nice. Lovely in fact. And if we didn’t put this passage into context it would remain a sweet and comfortable notion, much like cake is sweet and lovely after a fine meal, but perhaps less lovely, or at least less health sustaining, if cake were the only thing that made up the meal. If we ignore what was going on during the days, weeks and months before Ezekiel spoke these words on behalf of God, we will miss the full impact and importance of them.
If you read from the beginning of chapter 17 you will hear Ezekiel describe a vision he had of two eagles, each plucking a sprig and planting them, and each sprig seemingly growing and taking over the “garden” and each hoping that their sprigs would become a noble vine. Kind of confusing at first glance.
Yet, if you put this passage into historical context – it takes on a whole new depth. You see, Ezekiel’s vision is rooted in what was happening in his life, and in the life of the nation of Israel. The previous year had seen a lot of political turmoil. The kingdom of Judah was a vassal state of Babylon – which meant that as long as they kept paying tribute to Babylon, they would be allowed to continue living like they wanted to live. The only problem was that Egypt also wanted to control Israel and get some tribute money, and so through intrigue and a few well-placed assassinations, put a puppet king on the throne. The king’s first act was to stop paying tribute to Babylon. The Babylonians were not amused.
Their retribution was swift and devastating. The entire Babylonian army moved on Jerusalem, and the city fell easily. To punish the nation, and make an example of them for other vassal states, the Babylonians leveled every building, destroyed the roads and all of the other infrastructure, and in three successive deportations, took most of the people into exile as slaves. It was devastation. Utter and complete devastation.
This is the context of our passage from Ezekiel. Sitting among the ruins he knows the score – the Babylonians and the Egyptians – those mighty eagles in his vision – seem to have everything going their way. They are powerful and they can take and steal and plant and burn, and nothing seems to get in the way of how they choose to exercise their power. The lives of the regular people are nothing to them – it’s all about power and control and money.
And so there Ezekiel sits. He sits among a destroyed country. There is no Temple, there are no leaders, there are no buildings left standing. The artisans and merchants are gone. There is no political structure to govern. There are very few livestock left to tend, and the crops have been burned. Devastation.
The people left behind in Israel have been destroyed.
And in the midst of all that, Ezekiel has a vision. Through his vision he is shown that even though it seems all of the power is in the hands of the Babylonians and the Egyptians – their power will not remain forever. Tyrants come and go, and their eventual day of retribution will come – they will never be a noble vine and their kingdoms will not last forever. There will come a day, when life once again becomes possible in Israel. God will see to it. Just as it said in our passage this morning, God will plant and God will make right.
When you are surrounded by the rubble of your nation, it would be easy to despair. I am sure the people who were left behind were despairing. How could they not be? Yet the message of the vision is to hold on to hope – not foolish hope, not wishful thinking – but hope in its grandest sense. The hope that comes with faith and trust that God will do what God has promised to do.
Of all the things that can destroy life and love and joy, despair is perhaps the most lethal. Despair is a deep, dark place where there is no light, and where hope struggles to enter. Despair is different than sadness or fear or having a broken heart – despair is a self-imposed prison from which escape seems impossible. It was to a despairing people that Ezekiel passed along God’s message of hope. God’s reminder to choose hope instead of despair. That even though they were sitting among the ruins of their lives, and the work of rebuilding anything, let alone a nation, seemed like an impossibility, they would eventually be made whole again. But before one rock was replaced on top of another, the first step for the people was to hold on to hope. Hope and promise would form the foundations of what they would eventually rebuild.
Without hope, people perish. That was true in Ezekiel’s day, and it is true in our own. Without holding on to hope, we slip into despair, and despair brings no life to us, or to anything.
Yet hope is not some kind of magical thing. It is not something that comes simply because we read a story from the bible, or say a few incantations, or some well-remembered line from Sunday school. Hope is an action. Or rather, hope is embodied in action.
When Dave, Debbie, Gail, Lorraine, Bill and I were in Israel we went to the Jordan River. Our itinerary said we would have the option to renew our baptismal vows in the very river Jesus had his baptism. Seemed like a good thing to do.
Again, context is critical. You see, Israel is a complicated place. So to make our way to the Jordan River, we had to travel through different areas, some areas Palestinians cannot go, only Israelis – other areas only Palestinians may travel, not Israelis – and if you happen to be Israeli or Palestinian and get on the wrong road, you can either be arrested or shot. Yet we as tourists get a free pass to travel. Complicated context.
As you approach the site where you can access the river, you have to drive through a mile or so of active land mine fields. There is a twenty foot chain link fence, topped with razor wire on both sides of the road, with signs warning of the consequences of getting off your bus or deviating from your route.
Since the Jordan River is the border between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan, when you do finally arrive at the baptism site, you see a rope running down the centre of the river. On one side, you have Israeli soldiers with heavy weapons, and on the other side you have Jordanian soldiers with heavy weapons. All at the ready, I suppose, to shoot whoever dares to cross the river.
This is where we dipped our toes in the Jordan, where we renewed our baptism vows, where we gathered for a spirit inspired time of singing. It was perfect. Amid the devastations of a country always on the verge of war, with soldiers and guns and grenades and land mines, with state power that has chosen to oppress non-citizens, I discovered the power, the raw power, of hope.
I discovered that the power of hope comes through actions. Our actions that day were to renew our baptismal vows – and as the water was placed on my forehead in the name of God, Son, and Holy Spirit – I was reminded of what baptism means. It means that no matter the devastations of the world, no matter the land mines, or the guns, or the corrupt politicians, I have chosen a way of life that holds hope as sacred. I have chosen to live my life in such a way that I will choose hope over despair every time. I have chosen to follow the one who asks me to follow and live in the ways of peace and justice and love, so that I might bring hope to others, and ultimately, by working together, we might bring hope and peace and love to the world.
We all live in a complicated world: a world filled with borders and barbed wire that seek to divide us. Many of us have experienced our world crumble all around us, leaving us with nothing but the rubble of our lives at our feet. It would be easy to choose despair. Yet we have a better choice to make and to live – we have the choice to hope instead. And hope is a powerful and sacred and life giving thing.