Psalm 116:14–19; Ezekiel 13:1–14:11; Hebrews 12:1–13

Originally published 10/7/2015. Revised and updated 10/7/2019.

Psalm 116:14–19: These concluding verses are the verbal and physical expression of the psalmist’s gratitude for God’s rescue:
My vows to the Lord I shall pay
in the sight of all his people. (14).

Thanksgiving to God is a formal public act. It consists of more than a quick prayer to God for saving us and then getting on with our lives. Both God and the community will witness a specific act of gratitude. Here, of course, the form of thanksgiving is a sacrifice in the Temple at Jerusalem, which is noted specifically at verse 17:
To You I shall offer a thanksgiving sacrifice
and in the name of the Lord I shall pay.

The question is, how often do I give thanksgiving in public? Or do I consider it just a private “between me and God” thing?

As he stands before the altar, our psalmist recalls his human connections and reminds himself that he is God’s creature:
I beseech you, Lord,
for I am Your servant.
I am Your servant, Your handmaiden’s son. (16a)

His mother, the “handmaiden” was faithful, so he will be as well, recognizing himself as God’s servant. We see his humility as he recognizes that he does not exist in isolation, but is a son. And there are others who came before him whom he will honor as well.

This is quite a contrast with our incessant demand in America—more than any other culture, I think—that our highest calling is to ourselves. We think our priority is that we be fulfilled as individuals; that “I” comes that before other people—and before God. We forget that we are God’s creatures and that we are connected to the generations that have come before us. We are not autonomous beings free to do anything we please and ignore those who came before us or those who surround us today. The psalmist thanks God because not only because he is grateful, but that he remembers both his position before God in Creation  and his human connectedness. Without that awareness, I think true humility would be impossible.

Ezekiel 13:1–14:11: In Ezekiel’s day Jerusalem must have been crowded with professional prophets. (Perhaps today’s political pundits on cable news shows are a their direct descendants.) These false prophets rely only on their own imaginations: “Thus says the Lord God, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!” (13:2) It’s one thing to follow one’s imagination, believing one is connected to God. But it’s quite another to mislead others: “Your prophets have been like jackals among ruins, O Israel.” (13:4).  Moreover, these supposed prophets talk a big game but do not act for the greater good of the community: “You have not gone up into the breaches, or repaired a wall for the house of Israel, so that it might stand in battle on the day of the Lord.” (13:5)

False prophets are despised by God because not only have they “have uttered falsehood and envisioned lies,” (13:8) but worse, “they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it.” (13:10) We are currently surrounded by ostensible prophets who say peace when there is no peace. Both the false prophets and those who listen to them want to believe that everything will be just hunky-dory. Which is why we have ended up with politicians and leaders who tell us only what they think we want to hear. This happened in Jerusalem, too: “the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace.” (13:16)

The greatest sin, I think, is whitewashing the wall, which I take as a metaphor for saying things are or will be better than they actually are. And when the crisis comes, as it surely will, when “the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?”” (13:12) True prophets are those who tell the people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.  True prophets do not engage in the curse of our political age: magical thinking, which is not only saying things that are not true but it is making promises that cannot possibly be fulfilled. God recognizes their falsehoods that have been used to bad ends. In order to spare the people from their lies, he strips them of their prophetic powers: “you have encouraged the wicked not to turn from their wicked way and save their lives; therefore you shall no longer see false visions or practice divination; I will save my people from your hand. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” (13:22b, 23) 

On the other hand, Ezekiel must have had some street cred in Jerusalem because, “Certain elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me.” (14:1) God gives Ezekiel insight and he knows “these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and placed their iniquity as a stumbling block before them.” (14:3) God’s admonition, which he speaks through Ezekiel, never varies: “Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” (14:6). But we know from its history that Israel did not repent; it did not turn away from idols, and it suffered the consequences. Which is also why I am not terribly optimistic about our present situation. It seems we are turning ever more enthusiastically to our idols: the cult of ourselves. Will we keep listening to and believe our own false prophets? Will things eventually get so bad that we will repent and turn back toward God?

Hebrews 12:1–13: Having listed his extensive “catalog of faith” in the previous chapter, our writer summarizes in the most famous verses of his epistle: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” (1) This is the same sense of connectedness that our psalmist above feels when he thanks his mother and implicitly, all who came before him. Our writer is reminding us that we are linked to those great heroes of the faith when we repent and persevere “the race set before us.” But we have something far greater than the even the psalmist had. We are “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (2a)

And now our author comes to the greatest example of faith of all he has named: Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (2b) The writer asks us to “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” (3) Even though we may be suffering, we will not suffer as greatly as Jesus did: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (4)

There can be only one conclusion as we reflect on the faithful cloud of witnesses: Jesus is our touchstone and the one whom we are to imitate in our daily lives. Which is exactly what our author says, “Endure trials for the sake of discipline.” (7a) After all, our parents disciplined us, he goes on to say, and short term pain “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (11) A life that attempts to avoid pain is a failed life. Discipline, as we look toward Jesus, is what gives us strength. Our author provides one final exhortation to stop cowering and get out into the battle that is the true Christian life: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,  and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (12, 13).

The question is: will I do that? Will I willingly face adversity? Or will I prefer the prophets who whitewash reality?

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