Why must we weary God also?

Feast of the Annunciation 2020
Lectionary 545

A Weary God & an Angry Prophet

The exchange between the prophet Isaiah and King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:10-17 is intriguing; it is almost baffling. How could a simple refusal to demand a sign return such a strong rebuke from the prophet? The scriptures, ordinarily, proclaim that God is not to be put to the test. The LORD’s ways are higher than human ways and we are to accept that. It would seem Ahaz was acting piously and in conformance with the Law. Yet, Isaiah responds as if speaking to a petulant child. We must first understand the historical situation to get an idea of what is going on.

Judea Under Seige

Judea is under siege. Syria’s and Samaria’s forces are at the gates and it is clear that Judea will fall and become an unwitting pawn in a war against the Assyrian empire.[1] The Assyrians have been, up to this point, an unstoppable force. The surrounding nations are afraid. So Syria and Samaria unite and try to take Judea in by force, in hopes of pushing back the Assyrian expansion. Tiny Judea does not stand a chance in this battle among great powers from a mundane perspective. However, the Jews were not supposed to have a mundane perspective. The LORD was their king and no earthly king was his match. The Jews were supposed to place their faith in him. But time and again, Ahaz and the royal court ignored the prophetic words of Isaiah and continued their human scheming. Now God, through the mouthpiece of Isaiah, reaches out to Ahaz again. The LORD does not want Judea to perish and completely lose it’s access to the Temple rites, as occurred in Israel. He desires to bring the people back to himself thus give them salvation. So God drops all the “king of kings” and “most high God” transcendent distancing and, like a loving father, offers Ahaz anything. The king can choose any sign he wants and God will provide it. The LORD voluntarily allows himself to be put to the test for the sake of his people. Ahaz refuses. This is where we see the “wearying.”

Wearying Humanity & God

The actions of Ahaz, and the whole royal court, wearied the people. Their incompetent rule and refusal to see the dire situation as it truly was made things worse. Their situation should have been predictable and they should have had a plan, but they did not. Israel, their sisters and brothers, had already fallen. Judea was the next logical choice. If they had followed the example of their ancestors — at least in the mind of the Deuteronomist — the Jews would have turned to the prophets for advice and perhaps even put on sackcloth and ashes. The correct response to the crisis for the Jews was faith, not fear. Thus God reached out to them. In allowing Ahaz to choose any sign, the LORD is allowing the king to pick whatever will increase his faith and the faith of the people. He rejects the offer out of a false show of piety. To see the sign would demand ascent of his will. He would no longer have freedom of choice but would be compelled to follow the LORD. In this sense, Ahaz is wearying both humanity and God.[2]

God’s Will Fulfilled

Despite being wearied, God does not concede to Ahaz’s will. Rather, God’s will is done. He offers a mysterious sign, which only achieves the fullness of its expression in the annunciation of the conception of Jesus. God refuses Ahaz’s show of false piety precisely because it is false, i.e. it is not rooted in truth. Ahaz has a false conception of freedom. He believes freedom to be having many options and holding a near indifference to them. Ahaz is not concerned with what is best for himself or his people. This is not freedom; it is slavery. Freedom is empowerment to choose what is best, what is good. The LORD’s offer of a sign was an offer of empowerment. He was giving to the king and people the chance to be free, both psychologically and physically. If they had accepted authentic freedom they could have depended upon God’s intervention in history. They even would have been freed from their fears knowing that God was in control. But they chose their own wills as a greater good and eventually paid the price. But the story did not end there. God came into the world and took to himself the flesh of the Virgin so that he might offer freedom to all peoples. Our choices, even when contrary to the will of God, form no barrier to him. Let us be thankful for this!

Let us pray

O God, in your great mercy you never abandon us. As often as we turn away from you, you bring us back. Let us not be slaves to our own wills, but always know the freedom which you alone can offer. Per dominum…

[1] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1–39: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 19, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 229.
[2] J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah: A Commentary, ed. Peter Machinist, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 118.

Jesus: Heavenly Temple of Ezekiel

Prophet Ezekiel by Michelangelo

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent 2020
Lectionary: 245

Ezekiel the strange

The book of Ezekiel is a most unusual work. It begins in exile by a foreign river. Then the eponymous prophet is taken up into heaven and granted a vision of a new Temple. While we could see this as a kind of plan for the Second Temple, it is the original Temple. It is the divine prototype for the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness and Solomon’s Temple. The earlier physical temples and even the later Second Temple were mere shadows of divine reality. Thus Ezekiel’s vision is pointing not forward to a destructive Day of the Lord but is an actual apocalypse, an unveiling of the divine. The Temple of Ezekiel is the only authentic Temple. Its rites and structures present the heavenly and eternal liturgy. This fact is marvelously fortunate for Ezekiel since he is a priest, and Solomon’s Temple has been sacked.

Ezekiel the priest

Ezekiel’s priesthood may even be the driving force of the vision. Exiled from the temple, he is also banished from the rituals. No sacrifice can be offered, and thus access to God is cutoff. Yet, surely God would not abandon his people. He must have some way of reaching out to them. Rachel Elior, in her work The Three Temples, explores in depth this idea. Jewish mysticism, i.e., direct contact with God, is driven by exiles. Priests, excluded from the sacred rites, turn to heaven to participate in the heavenly liturgy. Removed from the holy places, which were mere shadows, the priests were given access to the realities. This access is a surprising inversion which reminds us of the Gospels. It also means works like Ezekiel’s must take on enormous importance. If we want to know the divine reality, we cannot focus merely upon earthly rites; we must look up — or descend as the later Merkava mystics described it — to the real. The truth of God’s plan will not be discerned by careful and pedantic parsing of the laws of Leviticus. It will be found only in revelation.

Jesus the Temple in exile

This is where Jesus steps in. Judaism, in his time, was remarkably similar to Judaism in exile. A foreign power controls the land, and the rites of the Temple are not accessible. While it is correct that rituals took place in the Second Temple, they were all invalid. After the Maccabean revolts, an illegitimate priesthood was established and took control of the temple. This may be the origin of the Qumran community, but I digress. Because the ministry was unlawful, the rituals were as well. Thus, there was, in effect, no temple. For the people to worship correctly and fulfill the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures was impossible unless they were able to have the same experience as Ezekiel. Jesus is the Temple of Ezekiel. Because his people had been wholly exiled from himself, God mystically entered into them. He gave flesh to the divine reality and walked among his people. Removed from his presence, God reached out to them. If they could not visit a legitimate Temple and ritual, then he would bring the realities to them.

Jesus the reality

This helps to explain the Gospel of John’s portrayal of Jesus. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, repeatedly breaks the Sabbath laws and many other laws as if he were a law to himself. Which is precisely who he is. Jesus is the true Torah, the Logos, the Temple. He is all that the Jews hoped for but could never attain. Jesus’ repeated encounters with the Pharisees is not a mere legal or hermeneutic debate. It is an encounter between shadow and reality — or darkness and light as the author of the gospel prefers. The gospel author is calling us not to believe in Jesus but to experience him as Ezekiel experienced the Temple. The encounter with Jesus lifts us above earthly life to a new kind of life. He frees us from shadow and gives us eternal light.

Let us pray

O holy prophet Ezekiel, whether you once realized it or not, you were a most privileged figure. You were given to see Jesus and the divine plan long before they would be explicitly manifest in the world. Through your intercession, may we, who live long after the revelation, also have this vision. May we see our eternal High Priest and Temple and so know the fullness of life.

Recommended Reading – March 23, 2020

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Icon of Holy Wisdom from the Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow

Lectionary: 244

If only the proclamations of the prophet Isaiah were already fulfilled! A new earth freed from pains and sufferings sounds lovely, but we do not experience it.  If the author of the scroll of Isaiah intended merely to inspire us and give us hope that one day all will be well, then it has little value. Empty promises stream forth from history. Every age, perhaps every day, gives rise to prophets announcing the advent of paradise if only we would follow them. Yet, paradise never arrives. Life as we know it, as it has always been, continues unabated. We don’t need new prophets or visions. We need the promised realities. Vague and hazy ideas cannot be a foundation for hope. Hope requires a solid foundation, a certainty. Certainty is what Jesus offers.

“The man believed what Jesus said to him,” and then realized it was true.  The royal official recognized in Jesus a solid foundation. The words of Jesus brim with truth. What he speaks does not come to be; it already is. It is as if the words of Jesus disclose reality. Jesus is the Logos of God, the Word of God, through whom all things were made and in whom all things exist. For the author of John’s Gospel, Jesus is a pervasive reality. Perfectly united in his person, Jesus discloses the truth of both God and the world. To see Jesus, the Son, is to see the Father. It is also to see ourselves remade. Jesus is the new heaven and new earth prophesied by Isaiah. Now we must believe it!

Seeing Jesus, the Logos of God, is experiencing authentic reality. The promise of Isaiah is not a general or vague idea; it is a concrete actuality. To live in the new heaven and new earth, we need only to look. That is, we must open our eyes and embrace the revelation of Jesus Christ. As soon as we do, the new world becomes apparent because experiencing the Logos transforms us. We find the union of God and nature has occurred in us as well. The Logos of God, the Wisdom of God, pervades all things, including us.

Logos of God, open our eyes that we may see the wondrous new world which you have made.