Words on the Word for Sunday 27th September
Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25: 1-9
What is the thought behind the proverb:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”?
It is a proverb about consequences. It surprises us.
If you have ever eaten sour grapes then you know full well that you will be dancing about with your mouth all tightened up like you’ve just eaten, well, sour grapes!
You certainly wouldn’t expect your CHILDREN to feel the effects of your action.
Ezekiel is challenging the people about their belief that this proverb applies to sin. The people of Israel were assuming that any punishments coming their way were the result of the sins of their ancestors.
This comes dangerously close to a current incorrect belief in “original sin” – which perpetuates the lie that we are all born sinners because of the sins of previous generations, back to Adam and Eve. Are we, really?
God speaks to us all through Ezekiel: “It is only the person who sins that shall die” – in other words your sins are your own, and belong to no-one else.
That is then where the Gospel of Jesus comes in – it is for OUR sins that Jesus died, and those sins are only those for which we are directly responsible.
We can look at passages like this and ask, “Does God really promise death to those who sin?”
A helpful way to explore this question might be to unpack what we mean by “death” – those who sin are indeed dead, for they do not have the true fulness of life that comes from knowing Christ.
If we sin (“commit iniquity”) then we condemn ourselves to a living death, a going-through-the-motions existence which could never in all honesty be described as life in all its fulness.
When the righteous turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it.
When the wicked turn away from their wickedness and do what is right they shall save their life.
Is this unfair?
Listen, says God, Repent and turn from your transgressions, and get yourself a new heart and a new spirit!
I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live!
That word “turn” is what we mean when we say “repent” of course.
This is a call to confession and repentance, to turning from sin / wickedness/ iniquity.
This is a call to righteousness.
This is a call to life.
There is a stumbling sort of rhythm through this Psalm, with a rather disjointed structure of thought from verse to verse.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find that this Psalm is another Acrostic Poem, where each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (or strictly, the Aleph-Bet!)
Nevertheless, despite the restrictions that such literary devices impose, there is a coherence within this Psalm which makes its study worthwhile.
We begin with the entreaty of the Psalmist’s prayer, arms raised and head bowed as he prays aloud.
The Psalmist asks God for help against the treachery of his enemies, and this is a request borne out of deep trust in God.
Next we have a section in which the Psalmist tells God his heart’s desires – there are three at least:
1) Show me your ways
2) Teach me your paths
3) Lead me in your truth
All of which tell of the Psalmist’s love of God’s Law, a theme which we have seen many times.
The next section is fascinating, as the Psalmist begs God to remember one thing but not another!
Remember your compassionate and loving character, O God, but do not remember my sins and my transgressions! Remember me simply because you are loving and good!
The Psalm rounds off in this excerpt with a meditation on the character of God.
Which of these four sections would fit most naturally into your own prayers?
One camping holiday I attended an evening prayer meeting on the site (it was a Christian-run campsite), trying to keep a low profile.
In the course of the conversations, the inevitable “What do you do for a living?” came out and I had to admit to being a Methodist Minister!
Immediately I was invited to lead the following morning’s Bible Study, so with no time for preparation, this was the passage I chose.
What Bible passage would you have chosen in similar circumstances?
I had strong memories of course of having studied this letter in great depth at College, and had been in the Advanced Greek class where we studied this passage in the original language too.
Yet perhaps the memory which served me longest was my love, since childhood, of the hymn “At the name of Jesus”, whose tune “CAMBERWELL” by John Michael Brierley quickly became a favourite of mine to play on the piano.
It was a passage I selected for my Local Preachers Admission Service, and a passage I had also previously studied with a Wesley Guild meeting. I was not coming at this passage completely cold, at least.
It is possible to go very deep in one’s study of these few verses – indeed I have seen in the Bible Commentaries section of St John’s Durham Theological Library, where there is a whole shelf dedicated just to commentaries on Philippians, a book which has been written just on Phil 2:6-11, so not even on all the verses in this reading!
For those who love a good bit of theological jargon, we talk about “Kenosis” in this passage – a word that means “emptying” – the emptying by Christ of all his glory and status until he becomes as empty as emptiness itself: a dead servant hanging on a cross.
Verses 6 to 11 in Chapter 2 were not written by Paul. They come from an ancient Christian hymn we call The Song Of Christ. Paul is simply saying, in his usual rather elaborate way, “Be like Christ”.
Let the same mind be in in you that was in Christ Jesus. “Think like Christ”
It is God who is at work in you. “Live like Christ”.
The question about Jesus’ authority features in all the Synoptic Gospels. Each Gospel writer explores the sense in which Jesus had an authority which was completely new.
It was not an authority that had been conferred upon him by human action. It was not an authority that had been earned through years of education or training. It was an authority which just ‘was’. It was as unfathomable as it was unquestionable.
Not that people didn’t challenge Jesus’ authority. The Chief Priests and Elders find themselves trapped by their own question as Jesus bounces it back in reference to John the Baptist.
What is most extraordinary is that Jesus’ authority comes from his attitude of Servant-leader, the likes of course were unknown before, but which set the pattern for all Christ’s disciples to come.
Jesus does not ask us to claim any authority in earthly terms, but only ‘to do the will of my Father who sent me’. That too is our calling.
The parable of the two sons, which follows, is an interesting read. To use Matthew Henry’s phrasing, we have one son who “proves better than he promises” and the second son who “promises better than he proves”.
We can hear the Chief Priests and Elders of the Law, still smarting from their earlier rebuttal about the question of Jesus’ authority, being forced to admit, through gritted teeth, “the first” – effectively killing themselves with their own words since they realise they have been like the second brother.
Which is better for God – the oafish loudmouth who repents and then does Kingdom work, or the pious pew-filler who is all talk and potential, but never gets round to practicalities?
By his final remark, Jesus then skilfully connects the parable with the original question about the work of John the Baptist.
Grace and peace,