Untitled Sermon (7)
In 1964 the poet and musician Bob Dylan sang these words.
“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’”
This song, written 13 years before I was born, rightly recognised and proclaimed that the world, and the normal roads of cultural life and the times were a-changing. This was the era of the civil rights movement, growing anger at the vietnam war, ‘ a recognition that the old way of life’ , the worldview and authority structures which were assumed, no longer held sway.
In the 60’s the times, they were are a changing, and the times still are a changing.
The world we each dwelt in as a child no longer exists, old certainties are now a memory and society, for good and for ill, has shifted to the point of no return. This change effects our personal and society levels of happiness, it effects the items we consume, our marriages, our entertainment, our views on sexuality, our emotional health, views on abortion, our laws, our identiies and our values.
This song could also be the soundtrack for the church, for it is also going through immense change. Perhaps the greatest change for a thousand years or so.
Once the Church and Christianity, as a product of Christendom since the time of emperor Constanine, was normalised within Culture and often in a position of power in the public square, was recogniseable in the workplace and in evangelism basic christian tenants could simply be assumed.
Yet, the times are a-changing as in recent decades we have seen a sharp decline in those who attend church or identify as Christians.
Census Data of 2012
In the UK the proportion of people calling themselves Christian fell from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011.
Those saying they have no religion rose from 15% to 25% in that period (including 177,000 claiming to be Jedi).
The number of churchgoing Anglicans fell by 12%, and in 2013 stood at 1m.
Some 19m baptised Anglicans do not attend church.
The “christendom’ world we inhabited as Children no longer exists.
The world in which parents seeks to raise their childrens as Christians is often hostile and apathetic to Christianity like no previous generation. There is no going back.
The times they are a-changing- Christians are
moving from a majority position, to that of a minority,
from the centre to the margins,
and the Christian position in no longer privileged but takes its place alongside other faiths and ideologies in the post-modern marketplace of pluralism.
It is not surprising that some commentators note that the Church finds itself in a place of Exile.
Stuart Murray the baptist historian writes. We are “a powerless minority of resident aliens,”“in a culture that no longer accords Christianity special treatment.”
And now I want us to look again at the ancient text, remembering although it is not written to us it is written for us.
Last week we looked at the prophet Ezekiel who spoke at a time when the ‘the times were a changing for the ancient people of God’. Once they were a mini-empire, living in the land, with the temple and the law, they could muster armies and wealth of their own, but now the God’s people of old found themselves in Exile. They were resident aliens living in Babylon.
The warning which we looked at last week of impending judgment fell on deaf ears and hard hearts, and the the destruction which Ezekiel warned of had taken place. YHWH had left the Temple, the temple and city and been detroyed and much of the population has been deported and exiled into the Babylonia.
In in this place of Exile the following words were sung.
1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3for there our captors requested a song,
and our tormentors demanded songs of joy:
“Sing us a song of Zion.”
4How can we sing a song of the LORD
in a foreign land?
God’s people hang up there harps and can no longer sing the songs of ZIon.
They are in geographical exile….. in Babylon!
The are in Spiritual Exile: Has God abandoned them.
How can they sing a song in a foreign land? The world has changed, the old ways are gone,. The people of God have moved from a place or orientation (where all is well with the world)- to a place disorientation (or disorder, and unknowns)
In in this place they would have echoed the words of the Psalm that was read to us earlier.
To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
2 Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.
In this place of Exile there seem to be two options before the people of God.
Firstly, they could despair. Despair is, “ the complete absence of loss of hope.’ In their exile they feel abanonend. In this place of the despair questions are raised which are picked up in many of the Lament Psalms.
God ‘Are you blind? Are you deaf? Have you forgotten the covenant you have made, Are you hiding’ . The question the ’love of YHWH’, the power of YHWH’. There is no going back to the way things are, nor is there any future.
The second option is that of Assimilation. There were a number of Jews in Babylon who found Jewishness too demanding, and who capitulated and simply joined dominant Babylonian values and identity.
In assimilation they forget their history and experience, and compromise with the culture round them so that their lives look no different to their pagan counterparts.
The easiest way to assimilate is to fail to retell the stories of faith and and instead to participate in the the liturgies and symbols of the prevailing culture.
And yet Ezekiel offers a third way to respond. he seeks to stir up the imaginations of his hearers, so that in the situation of despair, and with the temptation of assimilation, a seed of hope is planted. Without a vision the people perish, but Ezekiel will provide a vision for the future in which the Exile will be over.
Yes, the exile is dark but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Yes, God seems absent but one day he will be closer than our skin.
Yes, its friday but Sundays Coming.
For many Exile seemed like the end of the Road….…. but for Ezekiel he offers a future in which the exiles will return in a glorious homecoming parade.
The times are a-changing and hope is on the horizon.
22“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.
23I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.
24“ ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.
26I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. 30I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. 31Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. 32I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, house of Israel!
33“ ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. 34The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” 36Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’
37“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Once again I will yield to the plea of the house of Israel and do this for them: I will make their people as numerous as sheep,
Ezekiel, is a realist. He knows the resources for this future are not to be found in the people of God but rather in the action of YHWH. Dry Bones—> Living Army
v24 Return from Exile “24“ ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.
(1)v25, v33 Forgiveness of Sins ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities’…. On the day I cleanse you from all your sins,
(2) v26 A New Heart: I will give you a new heart ….I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh
(3) v27 Spirit Within: and I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
(3) v 35 Return to Eden : “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden’
The ancient people fo God do not need to assimilate (take up the values and identity of the world. Nor do they need to despair. Rather, they can lift up there heads and await the coming Kingdom, inspired by hope, to live in the present as outposts of what what will be.
Let me offer three reflections to you as we close this talk.
(First REFLECTION) Despair/Assimilate/Hope?
UK Church in Exile:
In the exile of te contemporary western church we should neither despair or assimilate.
Rather , we are to act as prophetic encouargers, dreamers and poets who despite what we may see on our streets and on our news, dare to hope and imagine a glorious future. We are those able to look beyond Brexit, Trump, and Terrorism and glimpse and enact a world in which the world is set to rights. We are to be those, living a resident aliends, who live and pray ‘Let thy kingdom come, Let thy will be done on earth as it is heaven’.
At St George’s we refuse to let the narrative of the national decline of Christianity cause us to be crippled with anxiety and despair, rather, we look to Jesus to stir our imaginations, our vision so that by the grace of God we will plant more churches, like Ireland Wood and Lighthouse, which will grow and embody the hope we he has called us too.
(Second Reflection) Spiritual Exile:
When I look at texts of Exile we can make some parallels with our own situations in which we can often feel abandoned, exiled or forgotten. At times life deals us certain cards, or we actively follow a wrong path, so that we feel a homesickness within. In this situation the questions of lament can come easy. Where are you? Do you you care? Have your forgotten? MyGod, My God why have you forsake me?
Lament has its place within Christian worship as a form of prayer which is honest with God. Although 1/3 of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament only one of these Psalms, 88, does not not have hope embedded within it.
In reflecting on the message of Ezekiel, how he responds to exile, I want to encourage those in the place of despair and disorientation of the hope that is set before us. In the hope fo YHWH, which is ultimately revealed in his Son Jesus our Lord we gain a vision for a brighter future,
Although we may have moved from a place orientation to disorientation, we with hope can moved to a place reorientation as we come to know
that although it is dark, the dawn is coming,
although God seems absent he will one day draw close and wipe all tears from our eyes,
although its friday Sundays coming.
(Third Reflection) Last week I said if you take off in the Old Testament make sure you land on Jesus. In Jesus, the times are a-changing and we move from exile to the return from exile.
In Jesus the ‘exile’ is over. Have you ever wondered why Jesus chose 12 desciples? In Jesus there is forgiveness of sins. In his life, death and resurrection he brings forgiveness to his desiples. In Jesus, broken sinners like me, are welcomed as friends, in Jesus the exiled prodigal sons are welcomed home.A New Heart: In Jesus
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.-
Because of Jesus we have the Spirit.
38Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
(5) Return to Eden: In Jesus the the Return from Exile, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated. And through him, because of him, we have a sure and certain hope that one day the curse will be no more. In the opening pages of Genesis we have a creation myth in which an angel guards humanities way back to the eden. In Jesus a pathway is openend, in his resurrection he shows a new age has dawned which will result in a glorious new creation.
Brothers and Sisters, the times-are a changing, but whatever tommorow brings let us be the Jesus shaped return-from-Exile people who neither despair or assimalate but rather with hope filled imaginations we await the coming King.