The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 147, Ezekiel 39:21-29, Galatians 4:21-31, St. John 6:1-14
Only by His Grace
Our lessons for today bring to mind the story of the Shabbos elevators. In New York City, some apartment buildings that house and some hospitals that serve observant Jews make these special elevators available. These Jews refuse to press an elevator button on their Sabbath – from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.
They say a provision of their law prohibits creating sparks and fires. As far as I can tell, an electrical engineer would be forced to concede, however grudgingly, that they have a point. It’s true that pressing the elevator button sets off a spark that delivers a signal through the wiring that tells the elevator’s brain to haul its tail to a certain floor.
Listen, I’m not clever enough to make this stuff up.
An observant Jew could take the stairs, of course, and some do. But for the very old, the very young, the disabled and those who live in Gotham buildings so tall even Superman could not leap over them in a single bound, the stairs are not an option. What to do?
In some buildings, the solution – if you want to call it that – has been to program one or more elevators to stop at every floor. But slowing elevator traffic to a crawl has not proved a popular way to address the problem. Many other tenants, including secular Jews, find the entire proposition just plain weird.
Cooling their heels in the lobby for an extra 20 or 30 minutes waiting for a lift chafes on them. Remember, this is New York. I hate to engage in civic profiling but New Yorkers are not famous for their patience.
Some buildings have gone to express elevators, which stop at pre-selected or pre-requested floors. But Heshey Jacob, general manager of a building that does not have express service, told a reporter that refitting elevators is not a casual undertaking.
“People like to make recommendations,” he said, “but when you tell them it costs a million dollars, there’s nobody home.” Oy vay.
Some residents hop an elevator like hopping a freight, riding it to a destination someone else has chosen, hopping off and then hoofing it on the stairs the rest of the way to their floor. But not everyone can do that.
And one further complication is that some rabbis have ruled that Shabbos elevators are not kosher, so to speak. They’re completely off-limits.
How’s Granny going to take Oodles the poodle out for his morning constitutional and get back up to her 17th-floor flat? This is not a trivial matter.
The reporter who wrote the story that educated me on this fascinating subject did an excellent job. But she failed to ask one question for which I’d like an answer: Do you honestly believe God cares?
That’s essentially the question St. Paul is putting to the non-observant Christians who were considering whether to revert to observant Judaism in Galatia in our epistle lesson. You were once slaves to the law. You know the travail of tip-toeing through a thicket of rules each and every day. And even if you could negotiate it successfully you would not have saved yourself.
But before we confront the new let us consider the old. Ezekiel, prophet of Yahweh, speaks to us.
God’s people Israel languish in exile in the land of Babylon, forever cut off, it appears, from their homeland, that good land their God had given them.
But now comes Ezekiel with an oracle of hope. In his oracle, Israel has returned from her foreign captivity and is dwelling in peace in her land of milk and honey. Unbeknownst to Israel, Gog, the mysterious potentate of Magog, is organizing an invasion from the north.
Yet while Gog schemes in secret, Yahweh, God of Israel, is keeping His own counsel as well. His people may be unarmed but their Sovereign Lord is not without resources.
Gog’s mighty force attacks, intent on plundering the defenseless nation. But Yahweh had visited plagues on Egypt to rescue His people of an earlier day from one catastrophe and He has more in store for Gog and his minions.
And not plagues alone but earthquakes, hail, fire and brimstone, to name only some of the arrows in the divine quiver. Mountains tremble and crumble. Gog’s grand army does not depart with the spoils of war. These once-mighty men, in fact, do not depart at all.
You know by now, of course, that the prophets are not for the squeamish. Ezekiel is not one to pull rhetorical punches. It’s best to read him without much on your stomach. Following the bloodbath, it takes Israel seven months to bury all of the enemy’s dead, even with the help of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.
In the usual course of things, men sacrifice animals and feast on their flesh. Not today. God has sacrificed the men to the beasts. And for a final flourish, the prophet reports that Israel will take seven years using up all of its captured weapons for firewood. God’s people, who seemed so vulnerable, with God’s help have annihilated God’s enemies.
And now, who can deny it? Yahweh, Lord of Israel, is Lord of all.
That’s the background. I’m finally through clearing my throat. We arrive at last at our Old Testament lesson for this morning, these few verses that draw conclusions from the bitter lesson of Gog of Magog.
First, Israel gets lucky – or should I say “blessed”? She learns a lesson, too, and survives to put her new knowledge to good use – if only she will. If, in the long years of her foreign captivity, any doubts as to her Lord’s ability to deliver her have grown, fungus-like, within her, Yahweh smashes them and grinds them into the dust along with Gog and his soldiers.
Do not trifle with the God of Israel, or His covenant people. He will defend those He loves.
At the same time, the surrounding nations learn the truth about this God of Israel when they grasp that He has judged His own people as well as them. Unlike their pint-sized localized gods who are, inevitably, less than their human creators, Yahweh metes out justice for all. He does not stint when it comes to His chosen people.
In fact, He holds His own to a higher standard, chastising them with deportation and exile when they defy and deny Him. The creation confronts a new paradigm of thought, a God of perfect justice precisely apportioned. And this justice for all proclaims His sovereignty over all.
The redeemed of the Lord of our day, beloved, have something here to ponder. We must not gloat in His victories over our enemies for we, too, live in constant need of His mercies, without which we, too, would be consumed.
Ezekiel is singing a new song. For chapter after chapter he has raged, declaring that Yahweh will withhold His mercies from this stiff-necked people Israel. Don’t ponder for very long how much they’re like us; it will give you the chills. But now the prophet relays a sweet refrain from on high: “I will . . . have mercy on the whole house of Israel . . .”
In her new peace under God’s protection Israel will be a light that shows the world that His grace proclaims His glory as eloquently as His justice has. In all ways and in all places and in all times, His name is holy.
No more hiding His face from His people. Now, “I will not hide My face from them anymore . . .” When He hid His face they could not offer acceptable worship, their only approach to their Lord. Now the door to the divine presence has been flung open to them.
No more does He say, “I will pour out my wrath on Israel.” Now He says, “I shall have poured out my Spirit on the house of Israel.” Like cool, clear water, His Spirit will wash over His bedraggled people, refreshing them.
What an odd, almost jarring, choice of lessons during Lent. For a Christian, hope springs eternal, of course, but during Lent are not more somber matters supposed to occupy our thoughts? Perhaps not today.
Dating back to what were days of yore even in Dr. Cranmer’s time, this fourth Sunday in Lent, the midpoint of the season, has been known as “Refreshment Sunday.” It offers us a brief respite from the days of fasting and abstinence. We get a little wink from God, encouraging us to persevere as we trail our Lord along the Via Dolorosa.
Our collect drips grace. “Grant . . . that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved . . .”
Like Israel in her Babylonian captivity, we have done nothing to merit God’s favor. But like her as well, we may hope and even expect to be mercifully relieved of our punishment through His grace.
I can think of only one thing wrong with grace: Some folks refuse to accept it. And so while God’s grace drenches our lesson from Galatians as well, we find the Apostle Paul begging members of the church in Galatia not to scurry back to bondage under the law but to receive the gift of grace and the freedom it confers.
He implores them: Choose the free woman Sarah over the slave woman Hagar; the son born through promise Isaac over the child born according to the flesh Ishmael; freedom over slavery; the heavenly Jerusalem over the present Jerusalem which teems with Jews who have not turned to Jesus.
Isn’t grace a better deal than law? Isn’t it preferable for us who deserve punishment for our sins that we “by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved”?
Trouble is, some find more comfort in a list of rules. I’ve known prison inmates who found comfort in incarceration. Yes, I’m serious. They were hellions on the outside and choir boys on the inside. When rules hung over their heads like daggers, they obeyed them almost cheerfully.
Secretly, I suspect, they had yearned for a structure they had never known and could not locate or create for themselves on the outside.
The Galatians are hardly alone. Boys and girls of all ages and places have found law more user-friendly than grace. Last Sunday we considered the superiority of a thorough knowledge of God’s will as He has given it to us in His word over a private hotline that reaches into the heavens.
God rarely deals in details. He prefers that His people immerse themselves in the Scriptures and grow mature in discerning the path He would have them tread.
Just as some find it more agreeable to imagine themselves wired into the divine mind, many find grace ill-suited to their needs. Perhaps its most annoying feature is that it demands abject humility. Because we cannot earn it we may take no credit for acquiring it. Grace demands that we surrender ourselves to God’s mercy and accept His verdict.
It’s a tough sell in the “me generation.” A billboard I saw on a Texas highway offered a bold, if inadvertent, indictment of our culture. It showed a tipsy fellow blowing into a breathalyzer, the contraption the police use to measure intoxication. The message read: “You just blew $10,000.”
The advertising mind behind the sign knows his audience well. He appealed not to civic duty, a responsibility to exercise reasonable caution to avoid harming our fellow citizens. Rather, live by the law and avoid reprisal. Do what’s best for you.
In this climate, this grace that decrees that none should boast looks a moldy thing best left stuffed in the attic.
It has other defects as well. It’s not hard to violate God’s grace but it’s darned near impossible to make a public display of doing so. How do you hit a moving target, breach a norm when opinions differ on what the norm is?
The “me generation” adores the extravagant, defiant gesture. So it is that our cult of celebrity parades before them an endless procession of superstar singers, actors and jocks who leverage fame and wealth into a life outside the rules. I can’t turn on my laptop without learning of the latest arrest, probation revocation hearing or rehab visit.
Their antics testify that they want to be spanked. Because no one will tan their famous little fannies they carry on and on in this mournful rebellion, serving their fans the vicarious thrills of the life of the rebel without a cause. With no rules to break, would life be worth living?
In Galatia, Paul’s converts are straddling the fence. Grace looked good in the store window but buyer’s remorse has set in. Maybe the price was too high. Of course, they’re not thinking about who paid it. The apostle has endured shipwreck, lashings, cold, hunger, thirst and more for the sake of the gospel of grace. He knows how precious it is.
For he knows something more. He knows his Lord Jesus paid a far higher price.
Once the law has shown us our need for grace, we can take the summary of it our Lord left us – love God, love your neighbor – and be done with the particulars. We now have the formula for growth in grace.
Beloved, we must have it and we must live it because we will never make ourselves living sacrifices if we follow a list of rules and withhold those parts of ourselves the rules do not address directly. This is the way of the Pharisee. He justifies himself by offering a tithe of mint and anise and cummin and ignores justice and mercy and faith.
He refuses God the heartfelt devotion that will never be reduced to a code. Man’s heart is a laboratory of legalism. Legalism allows us to segment ourselves and parcel out the pieces we allot to God and retain the rest.
Trouble is, God lays claim to every cubic inch of our hearts, minds and souls. He clings to the quaint notion that everything He created and redeemed is His. An obstinate sort of Chap, this God. He seems never to budge. Praise His glorious name because He does not. Only by His loving, unyielding grace may we be holy as He is holy.
Only a week ago I read a columnist making sport of President Carter for the zillionth time for his infamous “I have known lust in my heart” remark. Now, I’m not a member of the Jimmy Carter fan club but it grieves me to see him mocked for that statement.
He was saying that he knows he could follow the rules scrupulously, keeping his body undefiled, and still grieve his Lord. If our heart is a swamp of sin it matters not at all to God that we’re clean on the outside, whitewashed tombs. That we don’t push an elevator button on the Sabbath. Oy vay.
It’s our heart God wants. That was true in Ezekiel’s day. Yahweh had no use for the myriad animal carcasses offered on the altar in his house if the worshiper did not regard his sacrifice as the payment of his life in just recompense for his sins. It was true when Paul wrote to the Galatians and it remains true today.
And now as we prepare our hearts for Holy Communion on this Refreshment Sunday, let us take our refreshment from the knowledge that we are not in bondage to the law but have found freedom in Christ, that most magnificent expression of God’s free grace. Amen.