Last week at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary we hosted the Symposium on Worship as co-sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Center for Excellence in Preaching. Each year Symposium features five big worship services and for many years now, we have chosen a single biblical book from which to draw the preaching text for each service. This year it was the Book of Ezekiel.
All five of this year’s wonderful preachers—Mark Labberton, Anne Zaki, Brianna Parker, Rodrigo Cano, and Jared Alcantara—preached lovely sermons. But most of them also took a moment in their sermons to “thank” me (tongues firmly embedded in cheeks!) for giving them such . . . let’s just say, such “interesting” texts to work with! A number of other people at the conference also asked me, “How in the world did you choose Ezekiel!?” It’s an odd, challenging book for sure. (The answer to that question was that the scholar Daniel Block has written a stellar 2-volume commentary on Ezekiel, and when we can at the Worship Symposium we like to bring skilled Bible teachers/scholars to the conference to teach and lecture on the same book from which the sermons are drawn. And Dan Block was able to be with us last week.)
In any event, Ezekiel is a curious book full of disorienting symbolism, bizarre acted-out prophecies, and extended passages of searing judgment against the people of God. When the book is not disorienting, it can be depressing.
Except here is the thing: all five sermons found their way to also the amazing hope that weaves all through Ezekiel. All five noted that all of Ezekiel’s visions took place while Israel was in exile, wondering if it was even possible that God was in any way still with them in Babylon; wondering if the future was ever and only to be bleak or if they could spy any future rays of hope for restoration. And many of the sermons noted that this period of dislocation and confusion mirrors in many ways how a lot of churches are feeling today. Following the pandemic and in what promises to be the most brutal partisan political year in the U.S.’s history, Christians wonder if there is hope for the church. In many ways churches seem to be rattling apart.
Mark Labberton noted from the first two chapters that in a place where the people thought God was wholly absent, God showed up after all. In splendor and in radiant power. Anne Zaki noted that although Ezekiel saw the glory of God departing the Temple in Jerusalem, there was more than a little hope that God would return and at the end of the day, that is exactly what happened in the true Temple that is Jesus Christ our Lord. Brianna Parker brought us to the valley of the dry bones and in a soaring celebratory conclusion to her sermon assured us that Christ will never abandon his Church, will always breathe new life into our sometimes lifeless condition.
Rodrigo Cano said that even in the midst of judgment there was the simultaneous message that God judges ever and only en route to God’s forgiving us. And from Ezekiel 47 Jared Alcantara noted that from a small trickle of water emerging from the Temple in Ezekiel’s final vision there eventually emerged an ever-growing body of water that was ankle deep and then waist deep and then neck deep until finally it formed an entire sea whose waters make glad the people of God. And, he noted, we still experience this in our world today. Hope may begin small but it grows and swells and eventually catches us all up in baptismal flood waters of renewal.
A colleague of mine noted that in a time when a lot of us feel great anxiety for the church, these sermons kindled hope and renewal. They celebrated the faithfulness of Christ to his Bride, the Church despite our frequent lack of faithfulness, our stumbles and fumbles, our too-frequent inability to be transparent to the true humility and grace of Jesus.
So yeah and OK: I assigned some challenging texts from an oft-odd biblical book. Yet from it emerged so much grace and hope. Those who initially thought, “Ezekiel? Really?” in the end were able to say, “Yes. Ezekiel. Really!”