Sunday, June 30, 2024

Sermon: “As It Was in the Beginning…", Ezekiel 7:1-12 (& Genesis 2:4-14/Revelation 22:1-5) (June 30, 2024)

Although we don’t usually use them in our liturgy here at Boone, these words that we just sang, first in the Jam Session and then again just now, are one of the oldest prayers in the Christian Church, dating back to at least the 4th century CE. It’s usually called the Gloria Patri (which is Latin for “Glory to the Father”). How many of you have heard it before today? When I was growing up, we sang these words every week in worship, over and over again until they became permanently imprinted on my subconscious. But for some reason, I don’t recall singing it at all in the years since. In fact, I kind of think I forgot all about it. The only reason it resurfaced in my memory at all is because of this passage from Ezekiel.

On its own, this reading doesn’t seem to have much in common with the Gloria Patri. As with most scripture, it’s impossible to separate this text from the context out of which it emerged, meaning that Ezekiel’s vision is very much bound to its own time. Ezekiel was a prophet during the Babylonian exile, and the later chapters of his prophesies (including this one) are concerned with God’s specific promise of restoration for the Kingdom of Israel in the 6th century BCE. In the same way we can’t take the book of Revelation and anachronize it into being a prediction about modern times, we likewise can’t take Ezekiel’s prophecies by themselves and pretend that his words were intended for anyone other than his fellow exiles.

And yet…the Bible IS still speaking to us today – not through secret messages or as-of-yet unfulfilled prophesies, but through thematic patterns. People of faith look for connections within Scripture to identify recurring themes, larger divine Truths that are timeless, in order to inform our own context without appropriating the texts’ original meaning. And it just so happens that this passage provides the perfect opportunity for us to do just that.

Think about the image of restoration depicted in today’s reading as I read these words from Genesis’ second creation story:

“On the day the Lord God made earth and sky – before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew (because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land)…a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land….The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east…In the fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit…A river flows from Eden to water the garden…”[1]

Now, I want you to keep the imagery in your mind from both Genesis (as it was in the beginning) and Ezekiel (representing “now” for the exiles) as I read to you from Revelation 22, the very END of scripture:

“Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.”[2]

Now get ready, because this is not a rhetorical question: what images or ideas do you hear repeated in these three passages of scripture from across the history of God’s people? A river… flowing from God in one way or another… life springing up… trees… fruit… leaves for healing… anything else? These are some pretty specific images, aren’t they? It’s difficult to make a credible argument that these passages have nothing to do with one another. This is what we mean when we say that Scripture is divinely inspired. Even though they were each written hundreds of years apart by different authors, even though they were each written for different groups of people for a different purpose, there’s a clear connection that ties each of these passages together.

Now, remember, we’re talking about THEMES here, not predictions. These writers and prophets aren’t any more capable of comprehending divinity than we are, so this is all still metaphor – rivers don’t usually spring up out of nowhere, and as far as we know, none of Jerusalem’s temples have ever sprung a leak. But what deeper Truths can these metaphors still communicate to us? How would you describe the thread that connects them? When you picture these scenes, what are some of the adjectives that come to mind for you, some of the feelings that it evokes (again, not a rhetorical question)? Lush… verdant… fertile… welcoming… safe… beautiful… calm… others?

As the figure in Ezekiel’s prophecy puts it, “Human one, do you see?” THIS is the deeper Truth about what the world was like at creation. THIS IS what God has promised to God’s people throughout history. And THIS is what God’s Kindom will be like when Christ returns in final victory. Do you see now why the words of the Gloria Patri unexpectedly re-emerged from my subconscious all these years later? God doesn’t promise that life will always be easy, but God DOES promise that restoration is always at hand – that no sin, no death, no worldly powers will ever have the final word. Resurrection isn’t an exception; it’s the rule in God’s kindom; it always has been and always will be, forever and ever, amen.

Do you see that God brings life where we thought there was only death? Do you see how much God has ALWAYS loved this world? Do you see the nourishment and healing continuously offered by God? God’s authority doesn’t wax and wane; the river that Ezekiel sees only ever grows stronger and more powerful. Life and love always win. This is why the Gloria Patri has persisted throughout the centuries; this is why these words of endurance and constancy are sung with joy and thanksgiving: because God’s promises (and their inevitable fulfillment) pursue us even through the darkest seasons of our lives – “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”

But unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Although rivers are indeed sources of abundant life, they can also be dangerous. As anyone from the Oregon Trail generation can tell you, a river that you can’t easily cross on foot is a river you’re better off avoiding. And of course, according to Ezekiel, the water in his vision quickly becomes exactly that kind of river.

Any water source with the power to bring life to the DEAD Sea is never going to be a “safe” one, and yet, God still calls us towards it – and not JUST towards it, but INTO it. Ezekiel explains that, while the river he saw in his vision couldn’t be crossed, it WAS “deep enough for swimming.” If we want to benefit from the life that God intends for us, the life that this holy water is capable of bringing, then we have to let go of the idea that we can keep ourselves safe. We need to let go and jump in, trusting the path that God has ordained over the path that we choose for ourselves. If we’re able to give up the idea that our feet must stay on solid ground, then instead of having to find life for ourselves, this uncontrollable river will carry us directly to the place that life ALREADY IS.

We may imagine Eden as a place from the ancient past and God’s kindom as a place in the distant future, but God’s is a world without end. Even now, Eden is just around the corner; even now, Christ sits enthroned in the New Jerusalem. And yet, instead of letting God guide us to these places that already exist here and now, we keep trying to get to the “other side”, to more dry land, by our own devices. This isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not content to float along the river that God had created them for, Adam and Eve tried to take control of their situation, and they found themselves on the “other side” of what God had planned. The ancient kingdom of Israel wanted to be ruled by men instead of by God, and they, too, found themselves on the “other side” instead of in the midst of God’s kindom. Christians today prioritize rules and tradition over the life and love that Jesus preaches…and guess where we’ve wound up?

Is it any surprise then, that although humanity is the collective heir to God’s kindom, we still haven’t been able to fully claim our inheritance? That even though God is eternal, and God’s promise is sure, humanity is still consumed by war and hatred and sin? I gotta tell you; it doesn’t really surprise me. Because no matter how vociferously we may proclaim that we’re a “Christian nation”, no matter how many posters of the Ten Commandments we hang in classrooms, no matter how often we insist that our laws are meant to “protect life”, we’re still keeping one foot on land. We still want to be in control. We’re not willing to take the risk that God’s waters of justice and mercy for all might overtake us and change our life as we know it. And so, we miss the opportunity to join in the resurrection life that is, always has been, and always will be, right in front of us.

The trouble is that this isn’t the sort of thing we can do individually. Those of us who might be ready to go for a swim right here and now can’t just jump in and wait for everyone else to join the party. So, as always, we have a lot of work to do if we want to enjoy the cool, clear waters of God’s kindom. We have to stop letting those with one foot planted firmly on land speak for all of us and start speaking up for ourselves. We have to stop allowing grandiosity and domination to be placed on a pedestal above virtue and integrity in the name of “fairness” and “balance”. We have to stop PRETENDING that Christ is our Lord, and actually start ACTING like it.

How do we do that? We can't just wait around; we have to figure it out. If we don’t, those with one foot still on land will never be able to understand why being carried away by the river is the far better option. After all, says Paul, the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed.[3] It’s up to us to help them understand how submitting to God’s overwhelming waters of justice, mercy, and love is actually the greatest wisdom there is.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, because our God offers us resurrection at every turn, even when we can’t see it. And let us continue pursuing the kindom as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, because while it’s not EASY, it’s also not FAR. Our world today may be different from the one that Adam and Eve were created in, the one Ezekiel prophesied to, and the one John of Patmos envisioned, but the truth is that we’re all equally close to the river of life that that each of them saw. The world that God intends for us IS without end, no matter how long it takes for us all to get there – and for that, God truly deserves all thanks and praise. Amen.


[1] Genesis 2:4b-6, 8a, 9a, 10a (CEB).
[2] Revelation 22:1-3 (CEB).
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:18 (CEB).

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