Your People Ezekiel 37:15-28; John 17:17-21
The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “Reconcile
your People.” It takes its cue from the prophecy of Ezekiel and
the choice of theme and Bible readings has come from the Churches in Korea.
Each year the theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is developed
by one country which produces outline material that is adapted for use
in other parts of the world. Korea is the selected country for 2009 and
they have chosen Ezekiel 37.15-28 and have prepared material to be adapted
for local use. The Churches in Korea have found that this passage in Ezekiel
resonates with their own sense of sadness over the division of their own
country since the Korean War and have brought some of the insights they
have gained to the worship for this Week. The theme of a divided people
who feel the pain of their separation and long for the day when they will
once again be united is a powerful one for Koreans.
Ezekiel’s preaching has been gathered into the book that bears his
name. The book is one of the four major prophets that goes along with
the minor prophets and forms the later part of what we call the OT. We
love to hear some of Isaiah’s prophecy in the run up to Christmas
and he was one of the other of the four major prophets. We may be less
familiar with Ezekiel, but you may be familiar with the vision of the
valley of dry bones, a passage immediately before today’s passage
about two sticks being put together as a parable of being reunited.
a priest who was taken into exile by the Babylonians when Jerusalem fell
to the super-power in 597BCE. Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to a
‘rebellious people’. He was married but his wife died at the
time of the Babylonian invasion (possibly at their hands) and his grief
for her was expressed in his writing. Immediately prior to the fall of
Jerusalem, Judah found itself a divided kingdom and lodged between the
two ‘super powers’ of the day Egypt and Babylon. Long before
that the northern Kingdom of Israel had split from Judah and they had
been invaded by the Syrian empire which lay to the north. So now both
kingdoms had been destroyed and the Judeans carried off to Babylon.
was a time of great soul-searching for the Jewish people of the day. But
out of that pain grew new ways of understanding their relationship with
God and how they were to be faithful to him. To be removed from the land
which they believed God had promised them made them question everything.
Their faith was bound up with living in a particular land and Jerusalem
was the focus of their religion. What were they to think now? Had the
God they believed in abandoned them? Did he really exist? What had gone
so very wrong? Were they still to think of themselves as the People of
God (which is what the name Israel means.)
The visions that Ezekiel had obviously meant a great deal to those with
whom he shared them because they have been preserved and become holy writings.
What would Ezekiel’s strange stories have meant to the people he
first preached to? The context of the passage is a Kingdom divided under
different rulers. This was the Kingdom that once had been united under
the Kingship of great rulers like David and Solomon. Their homeland was
tied up with the Covenant given to Abraham and renewed through Moses.
They thought of it as the Promised Land.
But the land
of promise had become the land of division. They had fallen apart, and
the tough lesson they were having to learn was that their falling apart
came from their falling away from God. As the people of Judah tried to
make sense of what had happened to them Ezekiel’s prophecy came
to reassure them that God wanted his people to be reunited. Ezekiel used
a visual aid. Two pieces of wood are held by the prophet as if they were
one single piece. God would bring his people back from their scattered
exile, bringing back into one the two former Kingdoms of Israel and Judah,
binding them together in the one covenant:
“Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (vs.23).
The people of Judah were eventually allowed back to their land, but the
northern kingdom of Israel never did return in the same way. By the time
of Jesus new powers had taken over the lands that lie to the east of the
Mediterranean Sea. God’s people strove to find new ways of trying
to remain faithful to him and not make the mistakes of the past. They
were never to go back to exactly the same situation that they had before,
but there was the hope of something new.
Jesus came into this situation and began to call people to a new way of
belonging to God. He gathered a group of disciples around him and proclaimed
the kingdom not of David, Judah or Israel, but something he called the
Kingdom of God or Heaven. As the followers of Jesus grew and became what
we now call the Church, it was possible to start talking of them as the
“New Israel”. In Christ there is a new Covenant with the New
Israel which gathers together humanity – Jew and Gentile –
into a new relationship with God. At a time, perhaps 60 years after Jesus’
earthly life, St John was concerned for the unity of Jesus’ followers.
So he wrote down a prayer that the community remembered Jesus’ praying
shortly before his death. This prayer was that his followers should remain
united. It is a prayer that has become a rallying point and a reminder
whenever we think of the importance of Christian unity.
For the churches
in Korea it is not difficult to see the resonances of the Ezekiel and
the John passages they have chosen for our focus this year. Their nation,
with a proud, ancient history stands divided – one part prosperous,
the other less so. Their church also is divided in many respects because
of those same political realities both internal and external. As the Christian
Church in Korea wrestles with the problem of division, we may also feel
affected by the same struggles. As St Paul put it: “When one part
of the body suffers, all of the body suffers.” (1 Cor 12:26)
We may live in a united kingdom, and be part of a Europe that has achieved
a greater degree of unity than ever before, but we still live with a reality
of a church divided for a variety of reasons – both in what we believe
and because of what has happened in the past. The New Israel, like the
Israel of Ezekiel’s day, finds itself divided and in many places
looking for a new spirit of life and renewal. It is important to stress
at this point that a Christian interpretation of this passage is not a
denial of God’s continuing Covenant with the Jewish people, nevertheless
there is an important place for interpreting Ezekiel’s prophecy
in a way that challenges us.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity calls us to pray for the full visible
unity of the Church just as did Jesus. Here in Milton Keynes we may take
a certain amount of pride in our special ways of bringing about Christian
unity. Our own parish and this congregation is an expression of four previously
divided denominations coming together. We have found ways to overcome
our previous divisions. The danger which we can fall into is not too different
from that of ancient Israel. We can become complacent, thinking that we
have arrived. We need to heed warnings that taking our place of blessing
may lead to our falling away from the source of our life. If we fall away
then we will fall apart. If we pray for unity, and especially that the
rest of the church in our land and in the world will grow together more,
then we are to continue seeking an ever greater unity. There are still
many Christians with whom we are not united. We cannot go back to the
past, but we can be encouraged by Ezekiel’s visual aid of the two
sticks being held together in God’s hand. Our prayer can be that
we want God to continue holding us together!
© Rev Paul Smith