Now What Are We Going To Do?
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
9 March 2008
Almost a century ago, Europe and the Near East lay in ruins. The First World War had killed twenty million people. Somewhere between 50 and 100 million more were to die in the influenza pandemic that followed on the heels of fighting. Four major empires, some that had stood for almost a millennium, had collapsed. Revolutions, genocides, civil wars, and domestic unrest followed the great war. It was a period of dread.
But also one of hope. Opportunity abounded. With the collapse of an old world, a new one would be born. The vacuum was filled with dreams of a world governed by international law, where peace, justice, and prosperity would reign. It was a time of reconstruction. Freed from the past and given new life, what was the world going to do with it?
W. F. Lofthouse, a British Methodist and a Hebrew scholar was concerned that the reconstruction of the social order be done in the right way. With any new opportunity, there is the chance for both success and failure. Could the Bible provide clues for Europe in its time of need and possibility?
Lofthouse discovered his example in the reconstruction of the nation of Israel following its return from exile. Specifically, he found it in Ezekiel, whom he called "The Prophet of Reconstruction."
You see, after the Babylonian exile, ancient Israel and her neighbors lay in ruins. Ezekiel interpreted this ruin as God's judgment upon the people's sin. Debate the theology about the agent of destruction, but one thing is certain -- sin and unrighteousness ultimately bring violence and doom.
Thus Ezekiel's vision in chapter 37. The prophet looked over the land and the people and all that he saw was dry bones.
How, Ezekiel wondered, could this people live again? How, in the midst of this destruction, might they find new life? How if there were "no seeds of life or goodness from which the new obedience could spring up," to quote Lofthouse?
The consequence of sin was death – physical, emotional, spiritual – the metaphor is powerful. We are left to wonder, how can a corpse repent? Metaphorically, all that was left over after punishment, after the consequences of sin, were scattered bones that had laid there baking in the sun. Punishment does not bring new life. The consequences of our actions do not bring true repentance.
What, then, does bring about repentance? Go into your own experience and you know the answer.
When I was five I stole some books from my Sunday school class. We had read them that day, and I wanted them. When we got home from church, my parents discovered them. I had smuggled them out of church by hiding them under my sweater. My parents were so upset and angry at me. What did they do? They put me in the car and drove me over to Ruth's house.
Ruth Robinson was my Sunday school teacher. She was a little, old, white-haired lady and one of the nicest people I've ever known. Ruth was also our adopted grandmother. She had become part of our family. I've told you before that outside of my parents, no one person was more influential in who I became than Ruth Robinson.
Suddenly I was confronted by the prospect of confessing my sin to Ruth. And there was nothing that was going to hurt me more than disappointing this woman whom I loved. And confess my parents made me.
Ruth forgave me. Held me in her lap and hugged me.
You see, a spanking would not have saved me from my selfishness in that moment. Forgiveness and grace revealed the true depths of my depravity. And the result was I became a better person.
When we are confronted with goodness and love, we truly repent. Lofthouse writes,
In that renewing and purifying embrace, sin is at last repudiated and forgiveness can consummate its divine work. . . . It is the goodness of God that leads to repentance.
For Israel to have new life, her past sins must be wiped clean. If she is going to have any chance for reconstruction, she must be forgiven and set free. What Ezekiel envisions is nothing short of salvation. Salvation comes from God, and that salvation gives Israel a new beginning. Only God has the dual power of removing the burdens of our dark past and bringing us into the light of new life.
God would give them new life and it would come from the very essence of God, which is love. God's Spirit is breathed into the people, cleansing them of their past and setting them free for a new future.
Suddenly there was a noise, a rattlin', and the bones came together, bone to its bone. . . . and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
God has given the people new life, now what are they going to do with it?
That question presented itself to Ezekiel in the midst of the Babylonian Exile and it presented itself to W. F. Lofthouse at the conclusion of the First World War. Here's what Lofthouse hoped would happen in Europe in his time of reconstruction:
Next, men accept this new ideal and way of life, as we are also beginning in our days to recognise afresh the claims of justice, brotherhood, and the organization for peace in some august league among the nations. This is followed by a new era of prosperity, of good harvests and good trade, as we should call it; and lastly, as the clouds lift, a deep hatred of the old bad times when the savage law of the jungle, carried out on bourse, in factory, and throughout diplomacy, had brought the world to the verge of ruin.
Of course, we know that Lofthouse's dream for Europe's future was to meet its own ruin in the impending financial collapse, the rise of fascism, and the final solution for the extermination of the Jews. When given new life, we are responsible for what we do with it. Anna Carter Florence pointed out in her commentary on today's gospel that after Jesus resurrects Lazarus, Jesus instructs the people to unbind him. Only God can do the resurrection part; we are responsible for the unbinding.
So, these texts compel us to ask ourselves, when God gives us new life, forgives our past, and empowers us with possibility, what do we do with it?
This year we've been walking the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, gaining wisdom and insight into our spiritual lives as we seek to become healthier people and more faithful disciples of Jesus. We've talked about how we must rely upon God, examine our lives for the wrongs we have committed in our past, and seek to make amends for those wrongs. Following these steps is the way to new birth and spiritual awakening.
We come now to Step Ten, "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it." The tenth step is about making the other steps the habits of our life.
These other steps have allowed us to settle with our past, and in doing so, they have created new opportunities. As with all opportunities, there is the equal chance of success or failure. If we are committed to making these healthy spiritual practices habits, then we will succeed.
Hopefully over the course of this Lent you have grown. Look at the page of Lenten Resolves in our bulletin. At the beginning of this season I asked you to take at least one of these questions and explore it and use it to guide you in your time of preparation. Now as we near the end of the Lenten season, I invite you to explore what you will do with your new growth. Easter is the season of new life, new possibility.
God has given us a new chance, now what are we going do with it?