Sermon Notes Below.
This song, written 13 years before I was born, rightly recognized and proclaimed that the world, and the normal roads of cultural life, and the times were a-changing. This was the era of the civil rights movement, growing anger at the Vietnam War, a recognition that the old way of life, the worldview, and authority structures which were assumed, no longer held sway.
In the 60s, the times, they were a-changing, and the times still are a-changing.
The world we each dwelt in as a child no longer exists; old certainties are now a memory, and society, for good and for ill, has shifted to the point of no return. This change affects our personal and societal levels of happiness; it affects the items we consume, our marriages, our entertainment, our views on sexuality, our emotional health, views on abortion, our laws, our identities, and our values.
This song could also be the soundtrack for the church, for it is also going through immense change. Perhaps the greatest change for a thousand years or so.
Once the Church and Christianity, as a product of Christendom since the time of Emperor Constantine, was normalized within culture and often in a position of power in the public square, was recognizable in the workplace, and in evangelism, basic Christian tenets could simply be assumed.
Yet, the times are a-changing, as in recent decades we have seen a sharp decline in those who attend church or identify as Christians.
Census Data of 2012:
In the UK, the proportion of people calling themselves Christian fell from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011.
Those saying they have no religion rose from 15% to 25% in that period (including 177,000 claiming to be Jedi).
The number of churchgoing Anglicans fell by 12%, and in 2013 stood at 1 million.
Some 19 million baptized Anglicans do not attend church.
The "Christendom" world we inhabited as children no longer exists.
The world in which parents seek to raise their children as Christians is often hostile and apathetic to Christianity like no previous generation. There is no going back.
The times they are a-changing - Christians are moving from a majority position to that of a minority, from the center to the margins, and the Christian position is no longer privileged but takes its place alongside other faiths and ideologies in the post-modern marketplace of pluralism.
It is not surprising that some commentators note that the Church finds itself in a place of Exile.
Stuart Murray, the Baptist historian, writes, "We are a powerless minority of resident aliens," "in a culture that no longer accords Christianity special treatment."
And now, I want us to look again at the ancient text, remembering that although it is not written to us, it is written for us.
Last week, we looked at the prophet Ezekiel who spoke at a time when "the times were a-changing" for the ancient people of God. Once they were a mini-empire, living in the land, with the temple and the law, they could muster armies and wealth of their own, but now God's people of old found themselves in Exile. They were resident aliens living in Babylon.
The warning, which we looked at last week, of impending judgment, fell on deaf ears and hard hearts, and the destruction which Ezekiel warned of had taken place. YHWH had left the Temple; the temple and city had been destroyed, and much of the population had been deported and exiled into Babylonia.
In this place of Exile, the following words were sung:
1. By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2. There on the poplars, we hung our harps,
3. For there our captors requested a song, and our tormentors demanded songs of joy: "Sing us a song of Zion."
4. How can we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?
God's people hung up their harps and could no longer sing the songs of Zion. They were in geographical exile in Babylon, and they were in spiritual exile, wondering if God had abandoned them.
How could they sing a song in a foreign land? The world had changed, the old ways were gone, and the people of God had moved from a place of orientation (where all is well with the world) to a place of disorientation (disorder and unknowns).
In this place of Exile, they would have echoed the words of the Psalm that was read to us earlier, Psalm 123:
"To you, I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us."
In this place of Exile, it seemed there were two options before the people of God.
Firstly, they could despair. Despair is "the complete absence of loss of hope." In their exile, they felt abandoned. In this place of despair, questions were raised, which are picked up in many of the Lament Psalms.
"God, are you blind? Are you deaf? Have you forgotten the covenant you have made? Are you hiding?" The questions questioned the love and power of YHWH. There was no going back to the way things were, nor was there any future.
The second option was that of assimilation. There were a number of Jews in Babylon who found Jewishness too demanding and capitulated, simply joining dominant Babylonian values and identity. In assimilation, they forgot their history and experience, compromising with the culture around them so that their lives looked no different from their pagan counterparts. The easiest way to assimilate was to fail to retell the stories of faith and instead participate in the liturgies and symbols of the prevailing culture.
And yet, Ezekiel offers a third way to respond. He seeks to stir up the imaginations of his hearers so that in the situation of despair and with the temptation of assimilation, a seed of hope is planted. Without a vision, the people perish, but Ezekiel will provide a vision for the future in which the Exile will be over.
Yes, the exile is dark, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Yes, God seems absent, but one day He will be closer than our skin.
Yes, it's Friday, but Sunday's coming. For many, Exile seemed like the end of the road, but for Ezekiel, he offers a future in which the exiles will return in a glorious homecoming parade. The times are a-changing, and hope is on the horizon.
Ezekiel 36:22–37 (TNIV):
"22 Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.
23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you
have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.
24 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 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. 26 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. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. 30 I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. 32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, house of Israel!
33 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. 34 The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35 They will say, 'This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.' 36 Then the nations around you that remain will know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do it.'
37 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Once again I will yield to the plea of the house of Israel and do this for them: I will make their people as numerous as sheep.'"
Ezekiel is a realist. He knows the resources for this future are not to be found in the people of God but rather in the action of YHWH. Dry Bones—> Living Army
v24 Return from Exile "24 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.
(1) v25, v33 Forgiveness of Sins 'I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities.'... On the day I cleanse you from all your sins,
(2) v26 A New Heart: I will give you a new heart... I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh
(3) v27 Spirit Within: and I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
(3) v 35 Return to Eden: "This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden."
The ancient people of God do not need to assimilate (take up the values and identity of the world). Nor do they need to despair. Rather, they can lift up their heads and await the coming Kingdom, inspired by hope, to live in the present as outposts of what will be.
Let me offer three reflections to you as we close this talk.
(First REFLECTION) Despair/Assimilate/Hope?
UK Church in Exile:
In the exile of the contemporary Western church, we should neither despair nor assimilate.
Rather, we are to act as prophetic encouragers, dreamers, and poets who, despite what we may see on our streets and on our news, dare to hope and imagine a glorious future. We are those able to look beyond Brexit, Trump, and Terrorism and glimpse and enact a world in which the world is set to rights. We are to be those, living as resident aliens, who live and pray, "Let thy kingdom come, Let thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
At St. George's, we refuse to let the narrative of the national decline of Christianity cause us to be crippled with anxiety and despair. Rather, we look to Jesus to stir our imaginations, our vision so that, by the grace of God, we will plant more churches, like Ireland Wood and Lighthouse, which will grow and embody the hope He has called us to.
(Second Reflection) Spiritual Exile:
When I look at texts of Exile, we can make some parallels with our own situations in which we can often feel abandoned, exiled, or forgotten. At times life deals us certain cards, or we actively follow a wrong path, so that we feel a homesickness within. In this situation, the questions of lament can come easily. Where are you? Do you care? Have you forgotten? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Lament has its place within Christian worship as a form of prayer which is honest with God. Although 1/3 of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament, only one of these Psalms, 88, does not have hope embedded within it.
In reflecting on the message of Ezekiel, how he responds to exile, I want to encourage those in the place of despair and disorientation of the hope that is set before us. In the hope of YHWH, which is ultimately revealed in his Son Jesus our Lord, we gain a vision for a brighter future. Although we may have moved from a place of orientation to disorientation, we, with hope, can move to a place of reorientation as we come to know that although it is dark, the dawn is coming; although God seems absent, he will one day draw close and wipe all tears from our eyes; although it's Friday, Sunday's coming.
(Third Reflection) Last week I said if you take off in the Old Testament, make sure you land on Jesus. In Jesus, the times are a-changing, and we move from exile to the return from exile.
In Jesus, the 'exile' is over. Have you ever wondered why Jesus chose 12 disciples? In Jesus, there is forgiveness of sins. In his life, death, and resurrection, he brings forgiveness to his disciples. In Jesus, broken sinners like me are welcomed as friends; in Jesus, the exiled prodigal sons are welcomed home. A New Heart: In Jesus
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." - 2 Cor 5:17
Because of Jesus, we have the Spirit.
John 7:38–39 (TNIV):
"38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them." 39 By this, he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time, the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had
not yet been glorified.
(5) Return to Eden: In Jesus, the Return from Exile, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated. And through him, because of him, we have a sure and certain hope that one day the curse will be no more. In the opening pages of Genesis, we have a creation myth in which an angel guards humanity's way back to the Eden. In Jesus, a pathway is opened, in his resurrection he shows a new age has dawned which will result in a glorious new creation.
Brothers and Sisters, the times are a-changing, but whatever tomorrow brings, let us be the Jesus-shaped return-from-Exile people who neither despair nor assimilate but rather with hope-filled imaginations, we await the coming King.