|Henry Lamb, "Lamentation," 1911.|
This sermon was given by Greg Johnston, our Kellogg Fellow, at our Eucharist on Sunday, September 28.
The year is 592 BC. The priest and prophet Ezekiel is experiencing the second of a series of visions, which his followers will eventually write down in what we now know as the Book of Ezekiel. This is a traumatic time in the history of the people of Israel. It’s been five years since the failed rebellion that ended with the Babylonian army looting the city of Jerusalem and the Temple and dragging off the king, Ezekiel, and many of the nation’s other leaders into captivity in Babylon. In another five years, another rebellion will end with the fall of Jerusalem, the total destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the entire people of Judah. The author of Lamentations will write:
“How lonely sits the cityIn such a time of distress, the people naturally turn to their religious leaders, like Ezekiel. How could God’s chosen people have fallen on such hard times? How could God’s habitation on earth, the Temple, be violated? How could the people whom God had brought out of bondage in Egypt be returned into bondage in Babylon?
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks…” (Lamentations 1:1–2)
In the ancient Near East gods were national gods; the defeat of the people of Israel by the people of Babylon was a defeat of the God of Israel by the gods of Babylon.
Unless—and this is the answer that the people came to—unless God was in control all along, and the people had somehow brought such destruction on themselves.
But of course, nobody wants to take responsibility for causing the Babylonian punishment that follows the rebellion. So they blame what they see as God’s punishment on somebody else. “The parents have eaten sour grapes,” they protest, “and the children’s teeth are set on edge”” (Ezekiel 18:2). We’ve done nothing wrong, in other words. We’re being punished for the sins of our parents!
Ezekiel rejects this theory. We rebelled, he says, and we are being punished. It’s quite straightforward: “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it” (18:26). And there’s a hopeful corollary: “when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life” (18:27).
Righteousness and wickedness, life and death. There are at least two ways to think about these things. We can think about them historically, on one level: If the people of Israel turn away from their warlike ways, they will continue to live as a single nation. If they do not, they will die. The Temple will be destroyed, as it was after the next rebellion. If we do not stop rebelling, trying to save ourselves through violence, we will die. Or we can think about this, as later Jewish and Christian interpreters would, as a sort of eternal or spiritual life and death. This mysterious sense of spiritual life and death being distinct from physical life and death would shape later ideas of heaven and hell, sin and salvation. Either way, God seems to be offering a choice.
Our collect for today begins with the words, “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” Not in deciding the outcome of wars, but in mercy and pity. Here is an example of how God’s mercy operates, one that is central to the work of John the Baptist and to Jesus’ ministry: those who turn away from sin into righteousness will be brought out of death into life.
And yet this notion of divine mercy, I have to admit, troubles me. Unlike other virtues—kindness, love, humility, faith, hope—mercy has a dark side. To be merciful to you means that I had every right to punish you, but chose not to. The president is merciful when he pardons someone on death row; it would have been right according to the law to execute that person, but someone with authority chooses not to.
My faith in God is a faith in a God of unconditional love. But the mercy we’re told about here is a conditional mercy; if the wicked turn from their wickedness, then their lives will be saved. But if God is really in control—and that’s what this whole theory of divine punishment is about in the first place—God can save the lives of the wicked, whether they repent or not! God’s so-called mercy isn’t an act of benevolently loosening the application of the rules, it’s simply a system of its own rules.
Or is it?
To really follow the thread of this story we have to zoom back out to the historical view. About a half-century later, you see, the people of Israel are saved. They are offered the chance to return to their homeland, to rebuild their Temple, and to reunite their nation. This isn’t due to their own righteousness—they haven’t embraced the prophets and created a utopian society of peace, love, and justice—no! It’s at the hands of yet another conquering king: Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who overthrows the Babylonians and allows the exiles to return home and rebuild the Temple. If this is an act of God’s mercy, it’s one that truly goes beyond the rules, beyond the need for repentance, into unconditional love for an unrepentant people.
And yet the narrative is never so simple. The end of the exile is not the end of conquest, but only the beginning; the Jewish people are ruled by a variety of foreign kings with only brief spells of independence until the time, centuries later, a few decades after the death of Jesus, when, at the end of yet another great rebellion, Roman armies destroy the Second Temple and the Jewish people are scattered across the world.
You can see why the spiritual reading became more popular. In this interpretation, we’re not necessarily punished for our sins or rewarded for our goodness in this life; this fits better with our personal and historical experience. We know that goodness doesn’t guarantee good fortune, and vice versa. As Christians, of course, we read these lines about life and death through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in which God somehow takes on death itself. Having sent prophet after prophet, God finally comes in person to call us back into right relationship. This, like the liberation from exile, is not a result of our goodness; if anything, it’s the opposite, the result of our brokenness.
So the rules of repentance are broken. God calls us to turn away from evil and lovingly disregards our failure to do so. What are we supposed to do, in light of this pattern of divine mercy, this pattern of God breaking the rules of repentance and calling us again and again to return to our relationship with God?
Paul gives one answer to the Church in Philippi: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), he writes, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [other translations of the word are “grasped,” “grabbed,” “claimed”], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).
Paul’s quoting a hymn here, one that would have been known to his audience. And he’s not quoting it to tell them about the life of Jesus. They know about the life of Jesus. They know about his death on the cross. No, Paul is exhorting his audience to have the same mind in them that was in Christ, to practice the same mercy we see in Christ.
Jesus, after all, had every right to do nothing—he was in the form of God, he was equal to God, he was the second person of the Trinity of God. But he chose not to exploit, to grasp onto that equality to save himself but to dive in to the world of human brokenness and pain, emptying himself—the Greek term for this is kenosis, emptying—humbly emptying himself of his own ego, of his own sense of justice and injustice done to himself and allowing love to take its place. And we, Paul says, are to have the same mind in us.
Now, with the possible exception of some of the lawyers in the room, few of us will ever be able to practice mercy in the execution of criminal justice. But I don’t think that’s what this is really about. At its core, it’s about relationship: God’s relationship with us, our relationships with one another. All of us have been wronged: by friends, parents, roommates, strangers—hopefully not by professors, so early in the semester. I think most importantly and most universally, all of us have wronged ourselves.
And all of us are entitled to experience anger, frustration, and indignation. In fact, not only are we entitled to feel these things: we simply will. We have no control over our emotions, any more than Christ had control over his divinity, his “being in the form of God,” his equality to the Father and the Holy Sprit.
We don’t have the choice not to feel angry. But we do have a choice: not to grasp onto our anger. I can’t speak for you, but I know that I have often been tempted to hold onto a feeling of righteous anger, to keep using it as an excuse not to rebuild my relationship with another person. Rather than feeling angry because I’ve been wronged, I feel smug because I’m in the right!
To be merciful, I think, means to be humble about our own senses of justice and injustice. It means the judge is humble about how perfect the system of law and its prescribed punishments really are. It means that God humbly recognizes that God’s love for us transcends any rules God can set. It means that Jesus recognizes that his love for us goes far beyond his own entitlement to a safe detachment from the world. It means that as Ezekiel suggests, perhaps for a moment, we stop blaming our parents for everything we’ve done wrong. It means that we have to work to recognize that our love for one another must go beyond our feelings of hurt and of righteous anger.
I can’t pretend that this sounds easy to me. In fact, I think it’s terrifying, the notion of striving to forgive others with the same self-emptying, the same kenosis with which God forgives.
But I think that when we strive to let the same mind be in us that is in Christ Jesus, we are doing our best—to paraphrase the collect— to “declare God’s mighty power chiefly in showing our mercy.”
“For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Amen.