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Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Ezekiel 36:22-28 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Date: Jun 25th, 2017
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Pastor Abby and I were at a gathering of CBOQ pastors recently that was quite good.  We were talking about story – our own stories, God’s story, our church’s respective stories.  We started off talking about God’s story and you may know that I often like to frame preaching and teaching in terms of what I like to call “God’s big story” – creation, fall, redemption, the church, the new heaven and new earth.  Somebody said that there are many different opinions on creation both from those who hold some sort of belief in God and those who don’t.  There are in fact many different opinions on how creation happened (especially in terms of timelines) within Christianity itself. 

When it comes to the fall though, I believe that you would find pretty much unanimous agreement that, however you view creation, something has gone wrong.  We look around our world.  We look at its systems.  We look at suffering.  We look at oppression and injustice.  We look inside ourselves.  We know innately that something has gone wrong.  If we take the time to examine ourselves, we sense that there is a need for change – a need to do better.  Someone has said “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  The people behind WE Day have used this statement and reduced it to “Be the Change”.  It’s good.  It’s solid.  It fits on a t-shirt.  I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly.

The question remains for me, however, how am I supposed to change?  You’ve heard me talk before about the supermarket magazine rack and their many instructions on how to change one’s looks, one’s financial situation, one’s décor.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but if I’m examining myself honestly I come to the conclusion that I need something from outside of myself.  There is a song from my youth called “Bittersweet Symphony” which begins “Well it’s a bittersweet symphony / That’s life/ Trying to make ends meet you’re a slave to money then you die (Which would have fit right in with The Teacher’s message in Ecclesiastes).  The chorus goes “No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change/ Cos I’m here in my mode”.  I can’t change.  It goes on “Well I never pray/ But tonight I’m on my knees.”  There is a recognition here that we require something beyond ourselves to be the change we want to see.

If you’re finding the required change within yourself, this message maybe won’t have much resonance.  I would ask that you remember it, that the Holy Spirit might call it to mind should the day ever come when your own resources fail you.  If you’ve come to point where you’ve looked or you’re looking for something beyond yourself to effect change within – welcome to God’s promises.

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

How wonderful is that promise?  “I will give you a heart of flesh,” says God.  I will give you life.  A heart of flesh means life.  For the ancient Israelites, land meant life.  The promise of land made by God meant life and security and peace and shalom.   They had been forcibly removed from the land by the Babylonians.  Exiled.  The priest Ezekiel was one of the ones who had been taken away.  The temple had been destroyed.  The locus of God’s presence.   By the rivers of Babylon they wept when they remembered Zion.  How could they sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  Now Ezekiel is talking about the Israelites coming back to the land.

I am about to act, says God.   It’s where we must always start when we talk about change, about restoration, about renewal.  It starts with God’s actions.  Why is God going to act?  It’s interesting here in Ezekiel that the reason given for God’s action is somewhat different than it is for the prophet Isaiah.  In Isaiah the prophet speaks of God’s love and care bringing the exiles back to the land. Isaiah 40:11 goes like this – “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” God acts because he loves Israel and has carried it like a shepherd carries a lamb.  That’s a beautiful image and it’s true of course.  Equally true is that God acts to make God’s name known. This is Ezekiel’s message.  What does it mean for God’s name to be made known?  It’s important.  It’s so important it’s the first request in the Lord’s Prayer.  Hallowed be Thy name.  For God to make God’s name known means for God’s nature to be known – God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s patience, God’s justice, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace.  It is by God’s grace that these things are made known in and through us.  This is what we have been created for.  This is life.  Have you ever heard anyone say “This is the life?”  Usually when we’re in some sort of idyllic vacation type situation and make no mistake those situations are good and we should rejoice in them and be thankful for them.  But this is actually the life – “I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and you bring you into your own land (which is life) – I will sprinkle clean water upon you…”  Being washed in water has always symbolised a renewal – a being made new. 

I will give you a heart of flesh.  This is God’s promise of something new.  A new covenant.  A new loving agreement.  It didn’t mean the old covenants were no long valid.  The one made with Noah.  The one made with Abraham.  But now the prophets were talking about God doing something new.  Jeremiah put it like this – “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31:33)

It’s not about changing our hearts as much as it’s about having our hearts changed.  It’s passive.  We have a role to play of course – to be open and receptive to it.  It’s why baptism is such a profound act.  It’s so incredibly meaningful.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot since Easter.  It’s an act of trust – literally trusting the person who’s baptizing you.  It’s a symbolic cleansing from sin.  A symbol of forgiveness.  It’s an outward sign of an internal renewal.  God making us new in the innermost part of our being.
Which the Israelites called the heart.  To live with a heart of flesh is how we were meant to live, how we were created to live.  We may think we need to live with hearts of stone because the world is tough and terrible things happen and a heart of stone is hard to break. 

The thing is a heart of stone is also a heavy weight to carry. 

It keeps us from being the kind of people God created us to be – people who reflect his image and see others the way he sees them and people whose hearts are broken for the things that break God’s heart.  People of kindness, of compassion.  Is this not what our world needs?  Is this not what your street needs?  Your complex floor?  Your workplace?  Your school?  “I will do this in you, says, God, to sanctify my name” – to make my name known.  Where might God be calling you to make his name known?  Michael followed a call from God to make God’s name known in a place unknown to him – Toronto.  Where is God calling you to allow him to make his name known?

What might God give us eyes to see?  How might we come to regard things?  Paul described it this way in the passage we read from 2 Corinthians 5:16 – “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”  What is the driver of this change?  Again the initiative is of God.  When we see “therefore” we must always check the verses before to see what it is there for – and so we see this – “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live for him might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”  Again we have this image that we see played out in baptism of dying with Christ – dying to self in order that we might become selfless.  Finding out that in dying this way we find life with Christ who rose and ascended where he sits in power and living life inhabited by the life giving Spirit – the breath, the fire, the wind – of God.  Living life by the Spirit rather than from a human point of view, or by the flesh which is a more literal translation of verse 16.  Paul continually uses this dichotomy – Spirit and Flesh – not to set up some kind of soul/body dualism or to say that things of the flesh are in and of themselves bad (like our bodies, our senses) but to contrast life before Christ and life after Christ.  Left to our own devices we see people with our own prejudices, our own biases.  One writer puts it like this – “In our verses it (according to the flesh) indicates, then, not just an inadequate or limited way  of looking at others, as though if we knew them better we would understand them better.  Human judgements are not merely inadequate.  They are also tinged with prejudice and bias.   We make them with our own interests in mind.  Since Paul’s conversion and in the light of his conviction that Christ died for him, he thinks in a different kind of way…”

Not that Paul was perfect.  Not that any of us are perfect.  Don’t look around and think that anyone here or in any church has it all together or that anyone has reached the end of the journey.  “Seeing people as God does – yeah yeah I’ve got that down!”  No.  It’s been said that church is a hospital for sinners.  Have you been to a hospital lately?  It’s full of sick people!  People in wheelchairs, people standing outside connected to IV poles having a smoke.  People who can’t walk.  That’s just the lobby.  That’s church.  Don’t ever think that any of us have arrived.  God is changing us though if we’re open to it.

You might be saying “This sounds good.  I want some of that.  How do I leave myself open to it?”  Pray.  Pray for this.  Pray that God’s Spirit would work in your heart.  Claim this promise.  This is what we’re talking about all series.  This is how Pastor Abby started out two weeks ago.  Talking about prayer.  Spend some serious time talking to God about this, examining the areas in your life in which you need help.  Asking God to break your heart for what breaks his.  To break our stony hearts.  To remove the stones.  Spending time growing up in Bruce County I remember every spring the farmers picking rocks from their fields.  The ice would force them to the surface each winter.  Ask God to remove our stones, the things that keep fruit from growing in our hearts.  Do you pray for yourself?  Start.  Pray this prayer.  Change my heart.  We’re reminded of this at the oddest times.  I saw this on a mural at Bathurst just north of Davenport.  A prayer right there in the mural.  Change my heart.  Remove my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh.  Renovate my heart.  We need to keep asking like that neighbour who came to the house at night asking for bread.  It’s a lifelong process.  It’s not always onwards and upwards.  We fail.  We fall back sometimes.  We meet obstacles.  It’s like a house renovation.  You meet unexpected obstacles.  Delays.  You find out in the middle you need a new furnace.  It’s disruptive. Oh but when it’s finished…. 

May God go room by room through our hearts friends.  May we claim this promise.  Why is this so important?  It’s not just for ourselves you know.  Of course it is for ourselves.  There is an individual aspect to all of these promises, but there’s a wider aspect.  Look at Ezekiel 36:35-36.  Look at 2 Corinthians 5:19-20.

Be reconciled to God.  Be the change that comes from the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.  May this be our prayer and our truth this summer as God calls us to be ambassadors for Him in this city and beyond.