Psalm 119:113–120; Ezekiel 36:8–36; 1 Peter 4

Originally published 10/31/2017. Revised and updated 10/30/2019.

Psalm 119:113–120: Our psalmist’s world view is binary. There are the followers of God’s law like him and there are the evildoers, whom he despises:
The perverted I hated
and your teaching I loved. (113)

Evildoers are to be avoided at all costs because in addition to their malign deeds, they create a hinderance to one’s ability to follow God’s laws:
Turn away from me, evildoers,
that I may keep the commands of my God. (115)

It’s worth noting that this entire psalm is about loving God’s law, but not necessarily God himself. In fact, God comes across as a pretty unpleasant, saber-rattling character who shows little grace and (in the psalmists’s eyes, anyway) mainly exists to punish miscreants who fail to follow the law:
You spurned all who stray from Your statutes,
for their deception is but a lie.
Like dross You destroy the earth’s wicked.
therefore I love Your precepts. (118, 119)

The final verse of the stanza gives us an insight into the psalmist’s true feelings about God, which are quite a contrast to his feelings about God’s law:
My flesh shudders from the fear of You,
and of Your laws I am in awe. (120)

Of course when we think about God’s true nature, there’s no question that shuddering flesh (great phrase!) is an important aspect of our response. Just think about the theophany scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s why I’m grateful for Jesus interceding with God on our behalf. But again, how much better (perhaps even easier?) to have faith in Jesus Christ rather than in God’s law.

Ezekiel 36:8–36: Still speaking as the voice of God to the mountains and other geography of Israel, Ezekiel describes how Israel will one day be restored: “I will multiply your population, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the towns shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt; and I will multiply human beings and animals upon you. They shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before.” (10, 11)

Which must have sounded pretty good to those Jews stuck in exile in Babylon.

The chapter goes on, becoming increasingly explicit, about how Israel will one day be restored. But before there is restoration Ezekiel reminds his listeners of Israel’s vile deeds that led to their present situation: “when the house of Israel lived on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their conduct in my sight was like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual period.” (17) We’ve encountered a lot of metaphors and similes in our readings, but the comparison of israel’s sins to a woman’s menstrual period certainly stands out!

Because of their manifold sins, God “scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries; in accordance with their conduct and their deeds I judged them.” (19)

And now there will be restoration, but it’s certainly not because of anything that Israel has done to deserve it. It’s not even clear if there’s any repentance on their part. Rather it’s because God, being God, will just do for them because he wants to—aka grace: “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.” (22)

For me, the centerpiece of this chapter is God’s magnificent promise not only to restore the land but to restore the people—and that includes us—through baptism: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 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.” (25, 26) Think about it: a new heart. Life rightly restored.

Moreover, God will send what I take to be the Holy Spirit to these restored people—and to us: “I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” (27)

This is one of those points in the OT where it becomes completely clear that there is great continuity between what the prophets foretold and what became reality through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ saving power indeed transforms our stone-cold hearts to flesh, which is feeling, emotion, and caring for others—and for ourselves.

This passage is also the great antecedent for the sacrament of baptism, and gave John the Baptist sound theological ground for his message and baptism in the wilderness. And as Jesus promises in the Upper Room Discourse, God has planned all along to provide the Holy Spirit to us.

As Ezekiel’s voice of God states over and over, God is not doing this because of anything Israel—or we—have done. It is strictly God’s own initiative: “It is not for your sake that I will act, says the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and dismayed for your ways, O house of Israel.” (32)

God acts from pure grace—grace that our psalmist above does not seem to know or understand. And neither do we. At the core of Lutheran theology is the fact that it is Jesus who comes to us, not of any good works we have done to make God happy.

Unlike our evangelical brethren who talk about “making a decision for Christ,” Ezekiel makes it clear that God has made a decision for us—even though we don’t deserve it.

1 Peter 4: Because of what Christ has done for us, we “live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.” (2) In other words, we must abandon our former habits. Our former friends may be surprised and even angered at our change in behavior: “They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme.” (4)

This is certainly something to center our own lives around as we live in an increasingly post-Christian world. The Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake to celebrate a gay wedding has certainly felt the impact of Peter’s assertion. The question for me is, would I be courageous enough to stand up to friends who encourage ungodly behavior?

Peter’s remarks are a terrific checklist for how to live an honest Christian life: “therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (7-10)

In fact, Peter continues, when we are confronted and reviled by others, “if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.” (16)

As always the challenge: do I meet these standards? When measured against these standards I’m afraid the answer is generally ‘no.’

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