Monday 7 September 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (23/50) – The Restoration That Follows Exile: All Change

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-third of the fifty emails.

I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
Ezekiel 36:24-28

Even while the exile takes its toll, warnings of judgment give way to promises of restoration. Under God’s direction, the prophets who addressed the people with words of condemnation now bring words of comfort. They do so to provide hope where there was no hope, and reassurance where there was remorse. And they do so in terms the people would understand.

Thus it is that Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah between them envision a return to the land, a return which would be a replay of the exodus, as God’s people come back home. They would benefit from the wise reign of a king from the line of David, who would be a good shepherd to them. The temple would be restored, everything in its place, with God himself once again dwelling with his people.

But something more fundamental than land, kingship and temple was required. At the heart of God’s promises is the restoration of the people themselves – inward renewal – which God himself will bring about, as he pledges to cleanse his people and give them a new heart and a new Spirit. That this is nothing less than a resurrection is confirmed to Ezekiel in a powerful vision, showing how God can bring piles of dry bones together, put flesh on them, and breathe his Spirit into them, just as he did with Adam at creation.

The words ‘You will be my people, and I will be your God’ express in a neat formula the covenant between God and his people, and Jeremiah likewise sees the goal of restoration to be a re-establishment of the covenant relationship, with a new covenant written on the heart (31:31-34) – an internal rather than an external reality, and available to all.

Of course, with restoration will come recommitment and responsibility – to be the servant community, a light for the nations. No wonder the latter chapters of Isaiah envisage not just the rebuilding of Jerusalem, but a city filled with the glory of God that finds itself at the centre of a new heavens and a new earth – reminding us once again that the prophets hold out a vision of hope not just for the people of God, but for the nations as well; and not just for the nations, but for the whole of creation.

How good is the God we adore!

For further reflection and action:

1. Given the very specific context in which this promise of restoration is given, how far is it legitimate to use the words of Ezekiel to convey hope today? What sorts of contemporary situations would count?

2. From the period of exile flows predictions of judgment, cries of lament, pleas for forgiveness, instructions to build, warnings of persecution, promises of restoration, etc. Think about when it might be appropriate to take up this language in prayer, and draw on the different types this week as you read magazines or watch the news on TV or engage with colleagues, or as you reflect on your local church situation or where you’re at in your own walk with the Lord.

3. Alongside all these windows into understanding the renewal of the people of God are various ways of conceiving a figure who would bring or mediate salvation. In addition to a ‘shepherd king’ from the line of David, several passages in Isaiah speak of a ‘servant of the Lord’, who seems to represent Israel, and yet who also acts out the fate of Israel and suffers a sin-bearing death on behalf of others. Daniel 7 records a vision of the people of God being oppressed by different world powers in turn, until one ‘like a Son of Man’, who represents God’s people, brings God’s sovereign rule over the whole world. Think about how these resonances carry through to the New Testament where they inform Jesus’ understanding of himself and his mission.

No comments: