Psalm 117; Ezekiel 14:12–15:8; Hebrews 12:14–24

Originally published 10/8/2015 (Psalm 10/8/2016). Revised and updated 10/8/2019.

Psalm 117: This is the shortest Psalm and the shortest chapter in the bible. But in its brevity lies profundity. Rather than focusing on the poet or even the entire nation of Israel, it is universal. God is the God of all humankind and the worship of all humankind is our response:
Praise the Lord, all nations;
extol Him, all peoples.

The two qualities of God that the psalmist brings out are his kindness and his truth. God’s kindness is more than adequate; it is overflowing:
For His kindness overwhelms us, (2a)

Reflect for a moment on the implications of this phrase. What would it feel like to be overwhelmed with kindness? Especially God’s kindness. What a sense of connection and peace that would be.

God’s truth is the pillar that stands alongside his kindness:
…and the Lord’s steadfast truth is forever. (2b)

God’s truth is not just comparative. It does not merely stand among other “truths;” it trumps every idea of ‘truth,’ especially in this age of individualism where one person’s ‘truth’ is whatever he or she deems it to be.

Moreover, God’s truth transcends time; it is forever; never changes and it never wavers. It is the one reference point to which we can find all other truth. Alas, having abandoned God’s truth, we have become a culture that is adrift and sinking fast.

Jesus makes this universality of God’s kindness and truth crystal clear, especially in the gospel of John. We can trace this verse directly to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” With the psalmist, we can only conclude with that single, joyful response: “Hallelujah.”

Ezekiel 14:12–15:8: In this unusual (even for Ezekiel!) passage, God names three men from history: “even if Noah, Daniel, and Job, these three, were in it, they would save only their own lives by their righteousness, says the Lord God.” (14:14)  And then again: “…even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, says the Lord God, they would save neither son nor daughter; they would save only their own lives by their righteousness. (14:20). [There’s probably some dispute as to whether this Daniel is the Daniel described the book of Daniel, but let’s just go with tradition here.]

So, why these three? Why Noah, who is pre-Abrahamic? Or Job, who had nothing whatsoever to do with Israel—and if he’s an actual historical figure, he certainly predates Israel? And then Daniel, who may in fact be a contemporary of Ezekiel? Why not David or Moses or Elijah or some of the usual founding fathers of Israel? The thing these three seem to have in common is that there were righteous without fault. Noah obeyed God even in the face of derision. Job followed God even to the point of despair and total loss of his wealth, his family, and his health. Daniel obeyed God’s precepts even to the point of mortal danger in the lion’s den. They are shining examples of unblemished righteousness.

Speaking to Ezekiel, God is saying that the righteousness of these men does not rub off on the population of Israel. They cannot atone for the grotesque sins of the people of Jerusalem.  Only Jesus will be able to do that, and he’s several centuries off in the future.

So, what does this story mean to us in the here and now? First, I think it’s a simple statement that each of us is individually responsible for our actions before God. Second, even though there may be a few righteous people–and some prophets– in a corrupt society, that alone will not save the larger society. And, frankly, I think that is a warning for us right here in America. That our leaders can say “God bless America” all we want, but it is a hollow phrase without righteousness in the land.

Instead of righteousness we have the striking metaphor of a dead and useless grapevine:
    Is wood taken from it to make anything?
        Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?
    It is put in the fire for fuel;
         when the fire has consumed both ends of it
    and the middle of it is charred,
          is it useful for anything? (15:3,4)

One cannot read this poem without instantly thinking of Jesus’ vine metaphor in the Upper Room Discourse. The contrast is stark. Either we can be part of the growing, living vine or we can be useless dead wood fit only for the fire–and even then not very useful. The choice is ours. For Ezekiel, the warning is stark: “And I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, says the Lord God.” (15:8) All empires eventually fall. How will ours fall? Into a rubble of dead grape wood? Or will we turn around and repent? I am not optimistic.

Hebrews 12:14–24: One of the great contrasts of my own religious upbringing is the concept of grace. In the Evangelical Free Church, it was a matter of “accepting Jesus into my heart.” It was all about my “decision for Christ” and once you understand and comprehend what Jesus did for you, you are qualified for baptism.  The wonderful gift of the Lutheran Church for me has been the idea that grace arrives from Jesus without our bidding–and we are baptized long before we know what is going on.

But at some point we have to make a decision as conscious beings whether we accept that already present grace or not. That’s what our author is getting at here: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.” (12:15) He uses the example of Esau, “an immoral and godless person” (16) who, having sold his birthright, could not obtain the blessing. I think what our writer is saying, is that having once accepted grace, we had best not subsequently reject it. But does that mean all who have rejected the church have therefore rejected grace? I’d like to think not, and that there is always the possibility of redemption.

The other point is that God’s grace has its dangerous qualities–something CS Lewis captures in loving but dangerous Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Our writer here says, “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” (18, 19) In other words, our belief is not something to be fooled around with or casually tossed off. But unlike Moses, who said “I tremble with fear,” (21) we have a new way to approach the Throne of God, “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (24). So, in the end, God’s grace really is all about Jesus. Why would we ever reject so great a gift?

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