Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I struggled this past week to comprehend how and in what fashion God is at work among us. From the death of Justice Ginsburg to the grand jury ruling in the case of Breonna Taylor, I yearned to know how God is working now even as I continue figure out how to be church safely at this time. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” seems to be the truer sentiment especially if one takes the opportunity to listen daily, almost constantly to the news. Even social critiques like Noam Chomsky warn of this time to be a time of unprecedented social and political turmoil; the rise of global authoritarianism, the decline of democracy, the potential for total war. I wonder if one is too optimistic by appealing to this two lines of poetry from Miller Williams, as a way of illuminating the meaning of this phrase, “For it is God who is at work in you:” Miller William writes, “We know what we have done and what we have said, and how we have grown, degree by slow degree, believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become- just and compassionate, equal, able, free.” As the chaos of this time enters into our hearts, the work of God among us carries on degree by slow degree, even if it seem as if the fear and trembling points to greater ills to come.
Faced with the doom of the Babylonian captivity, Ezekiel and his fellow elites attempted to comprehend how God was working among them. If God had sent the Babylonians to destroy city and exile the elites, put a puppet king on the throne, then it must have been because of our ancestors; ancestors like King Manassah who profaned God’s temple with idols. We know of God’s words to Moses that the iniquity of the ancestors would be paid upon the subsequent generations to come. “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are on edge,” meant that God is working to punish the descendants for their wickedness. And as such, they were exempt from the consequences of this fear and trembling. The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel to clarify what exactly is afoot with the house of Israel: “I will judge you, O House of Israel, all of you according to your ways.” In other words, you can not shift the blame of the times on anyone else but yourselves. The Babylonians have come and will come again to destroy the city and the temple because of what you have done. Ezekiel wants to make it clear to the house of Israel that each one needed to take responsibility for contributing to the situation they are in. By repentance and renewal, God would work within them to become the people they tried and failed to become; just, compassionate, equal and free.
For us listening to this discussion between God, Ezekiel and Ezekiel’s contemporaries, this oracle strikes us quite harsh; much fear and trembling, fire and brimstone abounding. And if we took these words at face value, without considering the context at hand, one might easily turn to moralistic evangelical preachers as guides in this quest to understand how God is working among us. In one of the opening scenes to the movie, “The Devil all the time,” we catch a glimpse of this type of Christian response to God’s work among us as two preacher begin to sing, “There’s power in the Blood.” There’s power in the blood to make sinners clean abruptly ends when the main preacher start to speak of the eternal torments and fears of hell. The scene ends when the same preacher decided to demonstrate how the power of God gave him the strength to combat his fear of spiders. So you can imagine what happened when he opened the lid of the jar and poured its contents over his head. This kind of brazen faith is not the type of God that Ezekiel is speaking about in this oracle. “Is it not your ways that are unfair?” does not equate to this moralistic evangelical perspective of fire and brimstone but of justice and compassion. The sins of the House of Israel were turning away from God, against the poor and oppressed, the accruing of unjust wages and the like. The work of God to give us a new heart and spirit is the work of God to bring about a new life within us in and within society.
When Jesus beckons the crowd at the temple precinct to weigh in on this matter of his authority, Jesus was drawing the attention of the people as to the work of God among them. A man had two sons and a vineyard, as the story will later show, a vineyard that apparently no one wanted to tend. The Man proceeds to ask his first son to tend to the vineyard and he refused; the Nintendo Switch or Pose on Netflix took precedence. But he changed his mind and went to work. The Man proceeds to ask his second son and he quite enthusiastically says, “I go, sir.” This smooth talking, sharply dressed son, decked out with all the finest in religious appeal, decides not to show up. He has done his work and paid good lip service to his Father. Like Ezekiel’s contemporaries, the religious leaders of Jesus’ time failed to come to grips with their own failure to comprehend God’s work among them; they were part of the problem. When Jesus says that tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you, he points out folks who have turned towards the God working in them for life and justice. The people least expected and undesired by society would be the ones who would carry in their bodies the life, compassion, justice and freedom of God. God turns us all together, all of us with our stories as varied as they come, filled with joy, honor, triumph, tragedy, shame and loss, towards God’s vineyard of life. We walk along a path towards life that quakes with the trembling of this present time knowing that God’s work among us now brings us closer, degree by slow degree, towards a future of God’s making.“For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Dear siblings, we face an unprecedented time in our life together during this pandemic
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.