Week 41: A Fight for Truth and Liberty

Readings for the week: Psalm 119, Ezekiel 1-13Galatians 1-6Psalm 120-121, Listen to these passages

Opening Prayer:

Dear Lord, thank you for the hope that is found in you.  It’s easy to get caught up in all the arguments and distractions, to get angry at what’s going wrong or pulled down by what’s going crazy.  There’s a lot of people in this world telling me what to do, what to think, who to support, what to say. Everyone is demanding something from others even as they don’t have any peace themselves.  My hope isn’t in the chaos, my hope is in you. My hope isn’t in people putting things straight. My hope is in your Spirit, who leads me besides still waters and fills me with what I need to thrive.  Help me to tune out the noise this week, all the stuff that wants to take over my soul.  Help me to tune into you, to listen to your Word to dance with your Spirit, to bathe in the clean water of your truth.  Be with me as I deal with a lot of concerns, you know them as well as I do. I don’t know what to do, and so I need your guidance. Be with those I know who are dealing with problems, some even harder than mine. I pray for peace, I pray for renewal, and I pray for answers, relief to the problems.  You’re a God who acts.  And I need your activity.  I’m committed to your work, so help to have courage when things are hard and patience when things go slower or stop entirely.  Thank you for your promise, that I can trust you in all things. Amen.

1. Psalm 119

2. Reading through Ezekiel 1-13

Ezekiel dives right into a big change in style. It’s a similar prophetic message we’ve been encountering for a while now, again emphasizing how Israel was called to serve God, chose to serve other gods and other goals, and God let them experience the fury of the world.  Sin abounds, and people fight each other, take, destroy, seeking power and control.  There’s no end of wars and no end of strife. Saved from Egypt, the people of Israel were put on a different path, one that walked through war but into peace, where safety and hope was theirs.  Ambitions abounded and distractions detoured, leading the people away from God and then farther away as they sought answers to the problems they started.

God invited them to return, to find hope in God’s presence, but they didn’t listen. The Promise took shape in the negative way, the discipline and judgment, reminding them that God is God one way or another. If they don’t trust God in their abundance they will learn to retune in their frustrations and loss.  God isn’t being mean, his goal is the restoration of humanity, the call to walk in the ways people were called: love, peace, hope, community.

But impatience drives the destructive nature of people, and out of control passions wreaks havoc.

Ezekiel is calling the people yet again, speaking the words of God so as to mark these moments as being divinely shaped. Different than the previous prophets, however, Ezekiel goes beyond lyrics and beyond exhortations. He is a prophet in word and action, speaking and illustrating the message God is wanting the people to hear. Of course, the Bible doesn’t have pictures in it, so we’re giving a description of his visions and a description of what is basically performance art.

Because of the uniqueness of the signs, symbols, gestures, it’s easy to get distracted from the core message Ezekiel is sending:  Prophecy is being fulfilled. God is very angry and the people’s actions have brought on this anger. God is not giving up, but this is going to be a rough season, and the only hope is to hold on even as things get bad and worse.  God isn’t going to let the people be entirely destroyed, but by the time the season changes, they’ll know full well who is in charge. God isn’t just an earthly king and he’s not a simple image of an animal or other idol.  God is beyond all things, knowing all and always in motion, yet engaged with all and providing stability to creation.

Think of the visions as Ezekiel’s version of art, more like modern art than a portrait. It’s intended to evoke emotions and go beyond words to provoke an internal response. Rather than assigning every little element a specific meaning, take in the whole. What emotions does it raise? What mood? How would you characterize God? What is the impact of the prophetic gestures that Ezekiel is called to enact?  Try to think in terms of ‘mood’ in this as much as content. God has, after all, already said a huge amount through the Law and the Prophets, now he’s deepening the reach into human expression, reaching behind arguments and rational conversation to lead the listeners to get more than words can express.

What are you left with after reading these chapters? What is your vision of God and what do you think God is calling for humanity to be?

3. Reading Through Galatians

What do you need to do, or who do you need to be, in order to be included as part of the people of God. These days, it’s almost a silly question, as the barriers are almost nonexistent.  We’re so wary about judging others, we play it safe by letting people decide for themselves however they want. Or, some groups require a lot of steps, rules, events, and then only maybe you’re in.  For those who followed Jesus this was a very pressing question. The Bible was pretty clear, after all, that if you wanted to be part of the people of God you  had to follow Sabbath and food laws, and had to be circumcised if you were a guy.  Indeed the Bible couldn’t be more clear about it.

But something happened in the years after Jesus returned to heaven. The Spirit arrived in power and in plenty, spreading out among the people, and even among people who the People wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. What do we do with those who have been filled with the Spirit, who confess Jesus as Lord, but who aren’t Jewish?  This was one of the biggest debates of those first decades. We see the resolution in Acts 15, where the leaders of the Jerusalem church made some pragmatic policy decisions, and found a way of bringing Jewish and Gentile Christians into a cohesive community.

Before that happened, however, there was a lot of debate, a lot of arguing, and a lot of taking very strong stands as tempers rose.  And that is the season that Galatians was written.

Paul, who could claim as strong a Jewish heritage as anyone, knew his calling as given by Christ himself. He was a messenger to the Gentiles, sharing the Good News of Jesus to his Jewish brethren, sure, but willing and eager to reach out to all who would hear. And increasingly it was the Gentiles who responded.  In the work of the Spirit, he saw God expanding the mission to all peoples, where everyone could participate and in participating bear witness to the fullness of Christ’s work. There wasn’t any limiting labels that put people in boxes. In the work of Christ, there wasn’t Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, go on down that list as far as you want.  There were those who were being made into the likeness of Christ, who were living out a new life in the midst of this world with a hope that transcended anything this world could offer.  The markers of this new life weren’t new. They were to be people of peace, of love, of hope, of holiness, resonating the work of the Spirit as individuals and as a community.

The markers of this new life didn’t have to include physical circumcision or the other typical physical signs of Judaism.

So what does the new life include?

This all is Paul’s theme in his letter to the church in Galatia, which is likely one of the, if not the, earliest letter we have from him.  What does it mean to be saved by God? What does this life look like? How do we know someone is a part of the people of God? What does it mean to be part of the Way (as the earliest Christians were known)? If the usual signs aren’t in play anymore, what are the cues?

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?

These are big questions and while we’re mostly not dealing with the issue of circumcision these days, we do have our own cultural markers about who we think is a “good” Christian. What are the signs we use? What would Paul say about those?

At issue here, though sometimes lost in the discussions, is the work of the Spirit.  Salvation is through faith in Christ alone, and that faith is expressed and that faith is itself an orientation about how we respond. It’s not work to earn, it’s a living expression that we are in tune with God’s continuing work? How do we know? What can we look for? That striking passage in Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit gives us indication.

There’s the contrast that Paul is emphasizing. It’s not about being in a category or having the right team jersey, it’s about our whole being, who we are and how we encounter this world. Not our own energy or will, the Spirit’s presence is the deciding factor.

It is the Spirit who decides. So how do we discern the Spirit?

That’s what Galatians is getting at with a very specific issue of that time that has very broad implications and applications even still.

4. Psalm 120-121


5. Respond

If you’ve fallen behind in the readings or haven’t started yet, don’t worry.  Reading the Bible isn’t a limited time offer. Jump in this week, and catch up with what you’ve missed in future years.

I highly encourage you to share your thoughts with others in your family, or immediate community. Talk about this stuff! 

Since I sometimes feel lonely, share your thoughts in the comment section.

Talking about your thoughts and questions is a very important part of the reading goal. Writing out our thoughts can help us remember what we read and keep our minds on the passage.

It helps to share as we learn from each other.

Our questions or confusion can bring us together, as we highlight what others may have missed or address what a lot of us are also wondering.   Don’t feel like you have to say or write a lot, or feel pressure to be profound. Respond with honesty and openness.

Just jump right in where you’re at, knowing that Christ invites you to respond without pressure or anxiety. It’s a journey not a performance.