Good Grief! And a Lack Thereof.

Expressing emotion during a time of grief is a very natural thing to do. To not grieve, and to suppress emotion, is a very unnatural thing to do. If we understand that, then we are well on our way to understanding why God told Ezekiel to show no grief over the death of his wife:

Ezekiel 24:15-18 (NRSV) The word of the Lord came to me: 16 Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. 17 Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. 18 So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.

So why is Ezekiel told not to grieve? Ezekiel’s lack of grief becomes a lesson in grief for God’s people during the exile. They have been demonstrating a lack of grief over something very important. We find the clue as to what in these following verses:

Thus says the Lord God: I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and your heart’s desire . . . . And you, mortal, on the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and glory, the delight of their eyes and their heart’s affection, . . . Ezekiel 24:21-25 (NRSV)

Do you notice something about the loss God’s people are experiencing? Where is the mention of the presence and glory of God? Remembering that the temple was to be known as the place of God’s presence, and remembering the need for humility in approaching God’s glory and presence, it is strange that the temple should be called “the pride of your power”. The temple has become “the delight of your eyes, and your heart’s desire,” and their “joy and glory.” The temple has taken the place of God in the lives of His people. The temple itself has become for God’s people nothing more than another idol. Yet there has been no grief over the fact that God has already “left the building.”

When God’s people lose the temple they are told they ought not to grieve, for all along they have not shown any grief over losing what should have been most important to them, the presence and glory of God. In fact God’s people have been actively doing the very things that take them away from the presence and glory of God: “you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall rot away in your iniquities and groan to one another” (Ezekiel 24:23 ESV). In other words, this is the status quo. God’s people have not been grieving over the sin that has led them away from the presence and glory of God.

What are we to learn from this for our day?

There are two things:

First, we learn about what ought to elicit deep emotions in us. When you have an understanding of the reality of the presence and glory of God, then anything that would take you in the opposite direction should make you feel sick. What are those things? We learn them from God’s Word, but let Jesus summarize for us:

Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV) 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When we know the Lord, when we have a mature understanding of His greatness and glory, we will naturally grieve when we see a lack of love, both for God and for neighbour. When we see God mocked, and when we see people suffer injustice, we ought to grieve.

Second, is it possible that our grief as God’s people is misplaced in very much the same way it was misplaced in Ezekiel’s day? We grieve over the loss of churches and church buildings. A recent local newspaper article lamented the closure of churches in the rural areas. To quote one church member: “When I was a kid, there would be square dances and community meals here” (Northumberland News, Thursday, June 22nd 2017). What about the prayer there, the digging into the Word of God there, the care of the soul there, the presence of God among God’s people there, the worship of God there? To quote a clergy person from the same article: “When I was a child everyone went to church – why do people go to church? For the community. It was the only game in town for some communities.” Again, does no one go to church for prayer, for the Word of God, for the presence of God, for the worship of God, for the glory of God?

The sentimentality around losing churches and church buildings is completely natural and understandable. But are we grieving more over the apathy towards Christ, and active pushing away from God in our day? Are we getting emotional over God’s presence and glory? To do otherwise is unnatural and we may be lacking in good grief.

When Someone Messes You Up and You Think God is to Blame

Another student acted up, you got the detention, the teacher got the blame. This is how things sometimes played out back when I was in school. When everyone was punished for the sins of one student you couldn’t help but think the teacher was being unfair. Life can be like that. People make bad decisions and we bear the consequences of those bad decisions. We conclude that God is being unfair.

In Ezekiel chapter 18 we encounter God’s people having a similar experience. God made a covenant with a particular people who would enjoy God’s protection if they kept their side of the covenant, but who could expect trouble if they did not. They mostly did not, so things did not go well for them. They ended up losing their land to the Babylonian empire and many of the people, including the prophet Ezekiel, were exiled to Babylon. Before long a proverb became popular as a summary of the situation: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2). This proverb speaks of the parents eating the food, and yet the children experience the result. Applied to God’s people, the former generations were the ones who sinned against God and broke the covenant, yet the current generation is the one that suffers. That is not fair. Former generations acted up, the current generation got the detention, and God gets the blame. The proverb expressed a growing chorus of resentment toward God for being unfair. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling when your life is made miserable thanks to the sins of others.

As Ezekiel 18 unfolds, the record is set straight:

The word of the Lord came to me: 2 What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. Ezekiel 18:1-4

At this point I encourage you to read chapter 18 in its entirety. Here are some things to think about:

First, we can look to the future with hope because God relates to each of us as individuals and not according to the sins of others. 

Verse 4 points to the judgement of God as being a future thing that concerns each individual: “it is only the person who sins that shall die”. Based on past and present experiences we can fall into a very fatalistic approach to life. However, the future can be radically different. In Christ, it will be. In the midst of the hard battles of life, know that God’s love for you has the power to shape your future. God is not being unfair when you face trouble, He does not owe you a perfect present. The suffering you experience today as a result of someone else’s sin is not God’s punishment of that person heaped on you. It is a result of living in a fallen world were things can and do go wrong. God’s judgement on you as an individual is yet to come.

Second, take responsibility.

Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? Ezekiel 18:25

God’s people were in exile, not because they were experiencing the consequence a previous generation deserved, but because they were experiencing the consequence every generation deserved, including their own. There is no one who deserves an ongoing relationship with God on their own merit. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). There is a coming judgement. No one on that day will say “God, you are being unfair in your judgement,” for each person who stands condemned will recognize that they are receiving just what they deserved. When we face the consequences of the sins of others, we can take a look and see the consequences others are facing because of ours.

Third, look to Jesus.

Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live. Ezekiel 18:31-32

Those final verses of the chapter strike a very hopeful note for God’s people in exile. Here is an opportunity to be the generation that gets it right, that shakes off the sin and rebellion that plagued every preceding generation. It is a hopeful note, that is, until they try it. I can imagine their thinking; “Turn from sin, get a new heart and a new spirit? Great, something else for us to fail at!” It would be like someone saying to me “cast away your love for chocolate, and get an appetite for only fruits and vegetables.” Easier said than done.

However, there is good news. Ezekiel 18 points beyond itself to Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The commandment of Ezekiel 18:31, is a promise in 36:26

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

This promise is ultimately fulfilled through Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. When our lives are made miserable by the sins of others and we blame God, remember that Jesus offers to bear your sins. Repentance should not be seen as a stressful exercise in trying to get everything just right, but an amazing opportunity to leave behind the sin that messes life up and and enter into a relationship with the One who fixes everything up.

When it feels like someone else messes up, we bear the consequence, and so God should get the blame, remember that we messed up, Jesus bore the consequence, God gets the glory.

(All Scripture references are from the NRSV)

Investigating Jesus. A Lie?

Today we conclude our series “Investigating Jesus” following the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace and his book “Cold-Case Christianity”. On this journey of we have considered

There is one more thing to look at which we have not addressed in depth yet. Though we can demonstrate that what was passed on by the early Christians was legitimately from the eyewitnesses of Jesus, what if they themselves were lying in the first place? What if the disciples stole the body, which would account for the empty tomb, and then made up the story about Jesus being raised from the dead? How do we know the disciples were not lying about Jesus’ resurrection?

J. Warner Wallace has experience with conspiracies which will help us answer this qestion. As usual, we are only scratching the surface here and I encourage you to read chapter 7 of “Cold-Case Christianity”. Wallace lists several characterizations of conspiracies:

  1. A conspiracy requires a small number of conspirators. The fewer conspirators there are, the easier it is to pull off a lie.
  2. A conspiracy requires great communication between the conspirators so that it is not broken up. This is why the police like to isolate people quickly.
  3. A conspiracy requires a short time span. To quote from Cold-Case Christianity: “The ideal conspiracy would involve only two conspirators, and one of the conspirators would kill the other right after the crime.”
  4. A conspiracy requires close friendships or “significant relational connections” so that one does not give the rest up.
  5. A conspiracy requires low pressure, because people will always tend to throw others under the bus to save their own bacon.

Do the disciples make good conspirators?

  1. There were too many of them. The eleven closest disciples are already too many. However, there were far more and according to Acts 1:15 there were 120 eyewitnesses all gathered together in one place following the resurrection. Additionally, Paul speaks in 1st Corinthians 15:6 of 500 eyewitnesses, “most of whom are still living”, (1 Corinthians 15:6 NIV).
  2. There was not the opportunity for great communication. The disciples eventually became scattered due to persecution and a drive to evangelize. Remember, this was the days of snail mail and “sail” mail. 
  3. The disciples kept to the story for the long haul, living out their lives dedicated to telling the “good news”.
  4. Some of the eleven close disciples did not know each other before Jesus called them to follow him. The 120 and the 500 mentioned earlier would undoubtedly have included many strangers.
  5. The disciples were persecuted and most of the “big names” were known to be martyred. You might point out here that people are willing to blow themselves up for the sake of religion, and so the martyrdom of the disciples does not necessarily point to the truth of what they were claiming. However, that is a very different thing. Modern day martyrs are not trying to knowingly keep a lie, but die for what they think is true. If the disciples were lying about the resurrection, then they would be dying for a lie. To quote Wallace: “While it’s reasonable to believe that you and I might die for what we mistakingly thought was true, it’s unreasonable to believe that these men died for what they definitely knew to be untrue.” Further, “None of these eyewitnesses ever recanted, none was ever trotted out by the enemies of Christianity in an effort to expose the Christian ‘lie’.”

We can also add that a conspiracy requires a desire to deceive. Why would the disciples want to be anything other than good Jews? They were waiting for the Messiah. If Jesus turned out to not be the Messiah, which would be the logical conclusion if the Romans killed him off, they would not turn him into one, they would go back to waiting for the real Messiah to show up. Something happened that convinced them that Jesus was and still is the real Messiah. They were so convinced they were willing to die for their conviction. What was that something?

Let us remember the “minimal facts” that are broadly agreed upon:

  • Jesus died on a cross and was buried.
  • Jesus’ tomb was found empty and no one ever produced His body.
  • Jesus’ disciples said they saw and interacted with Jesus resurrected from the dead.
  • Jesus’ disciples were so committed to their testimony that they were willing to die for it and they never changed their story.

What is the best explanation of that evidence? Keep in mind the things we have learned from Wallace; Jesus really died on the cross, the disciples did not hallucinate or imagine the resurrection,  the story of the resurrection went back to the disciples and was not a fabrication by later Christians, the disciples were not conspiring together and lying about the resurrection. So what accounts for all the evidence? The best explanation of the evidence is also the key reason the disciples knew that Jesus was the Messiah even though he was killed; He rose from the dead.

One More thing we learn from Wallace as we conclude this series. It is important to go “from belief that to belief in.” Christianity is not just a belief that Jesus rose from the dead, it is a belief in the fact that Jesus is Lord and Saviour as demonstrated in his rising from the dead. It goes beyond a changed opinion on one thing, Jesus’ resurection, to a changed perspective on everything. It goes beyond an intellectual assessment of the facts, to an emotional engagement with the One who is the Truth. It goes beyond a belief that God exists, to a knowledge that God loves and loves you. It goes beyond knowing in your head that Jesus is alive, to knowing in your heart that you need God’s grace. J. Warner Wallace as an atheist followed the evidence as one who knows how to follow the evidence. It changed his life. Will it change yours?