Mama understood better than I did. There were things I’d ask to do growing up, like smoking or staying up all night, and she’d say, “Go ahead. Do it. I’m guessing you won’t like it, but it’s up to you.”
Welcoming mistakes as a strategy for parenting is counterintuitive. But it shouldn’t be. The best learning I’ve ever done is from messing up and having to struggle through it.
But I didn’t embrace this technique in my own parenting. I spent more years than I want to admit, trying to keep my kids from making mistakes or sinning, as if failing was the worst thing they could do.
But it wasn’t.
What’s worse is not having the freedom to get to the end of yourself, where you turn around and ask for help.
Mama knew there were some lessons kids had to learn for themselves, and forbidding them only made them irresistible.
Surprisingly, this is God’s strategy, too.
Israel’s leaders come to Ezekiel to ask God questions, but God says he’s not answering. He knows what they’re really wanting, which is calling his goodness into question in order to prove theirs. They’ve come to Ezekiel to justify themselves, not repent for anything, Ez 20:1-5, 31; 14:1-5.
It’s sometime after the fall of Jerusalem. Ezekiel lives in Babylon with the other Jewish exiles, who were rounded up and shipped out when Jerusalem was burned. Jeremiah has been left behind in Jerusalem, the prophet who’s told them for more than 40 years that disaster is coming if they don’t repent.
Even after the horrors in Jerusalem and now living in captivity, these men are still plotting and scheming, not repenting. There are rumblings (since God’s flat-out said it) that it’s partly the fault of the leadership that they’ve been deported. Maybe they’re gaslighting, wanting to change how this event back home is remembered, Ez 22:8-16, 23-25.
Whatever the real reason, an official delegation comes to Ezekiel, and God says he’s over it before they’ve begun: Ezekiel can talk to them, but God won’t be answering any questions, Ez 20:2-3, 30-31.
What God does do is review the record of their ancestors, how they refused to give up their idols from Egypt, both before and after the exodus, and how they’ve been rebellious as a nation ever since. God wanted to wipe them out multiple times on their journey back then, but he didn’t for the sake of his reputation among the other nations who were watching and paying attention, Ez 20:3-29.
God wants all people–both believing and pagan–to know who he is, that he’s the only true God. He repeats this desire 8 times in chapter 20 alone, v 5, 7, 12, 20, 26, 38, 42, 44. In fact, “You will know that I am the Lord” is the constant theme of the entire book of Ezekiel, mentioned more than 60 times, (http://enduringword.com/ezekiel.6).
Is God an egomaniac, demanding recognition by both insiders and outsiders to bolster a fragile self-image? Kind of sounds like it.
But then I think about who God is. He doesn’t need anything. What can we give God that he doesn’t already have? It wasn’t need that inspired him to create a universe and put people in it and come up with a salvation plan when they messed it up. It was love that inspired him and a desire to share it with us in a paradise on earth, not insecurity.
Besides, knowing God is good for us. It changes our perspective and pulls us out of ourselves. Knowing God is God—and not our bank accounts or jobs or spouses or kids or friends or pleasures—relieves anxiety. It invites us into worship him and no other. Knowing God-as-the-Only keeps us from looking elsewhere for life and wandering off the edge.
Knowing who God is, is the most basic thing about being in relationship with him. For all the years between Egypt and Babylon, God’s people just can’t really believe it. They can’t get to square two with God because they can’t do square one—know who is God and who is not.
They keep turning to the idols of the nations around them and to the idols their forebears brought with them. They turn to a kind of self-righteousness, sacrificing their children to gods, who can’t eat them, which was the stated purpose. They turn to the pleasures of illicit sex-as-worship instead of to the God who created sex-for-marriage as the only way to enjoy it, Ez 20:30-32.
I’m guessing this is why God won’t answer questions, because they’re not believing the most basic thing he’s already said to them: “I am God and there is no other.” It was the first commandment of the ten he gave them from Mt Sinai; it’s the same thing he’s still trying to teach them 850 years later, Ex 20:3, (http://Israel-a-hisory-of.com).
The word on the street in Ezekiel’s day is that “The parents ate green apples; the children got the stomachache.” In other words, they’re suffering for what their ancestors did. What happened back in Jerusalem, and the reason they’re now stuck in Babylon, is their parents’ fault. They’re not responsible, and God’s not fair, Ez 18:1-4, 25-26.
But God says they’re spinning. The ancestors are gone: they are the ones who currently worship idols. It’s their disobedience that’s the problem. Nothing’s changed in all the years since the exodus except the names. The idolatry and unbelief continue, Ez 20:30-32, 14:6-8; Je 32:28-30, 36:1-8.
God tells them he’ll eventually gather them from where they’re scattered and be their King again. (Why he bothers, I’ll never understand.) Some of the worst of them, he’ll kick out of their nation. And then he says something surprising to the rest, “Go ahead, serve your no-god idols, every one of you!” Ez 20:33-39.
Did God really just say go and be idolatrous?
God doesn’t try to keep his people from sinning. He says in effect, “Go wallow in it. Fill your nose with the stench and your belly with the gutter. Get so full you retch and finally wake up and come home,” Ez 20:39, paraphrase. This was mama’s strategy.
God knows the endgame, and this is where hope comes in: when they finally wise up and come home, he’ll meet them with open arms, not, “I told you so,” Ez 20:39-43. It’s the theme of the prodigal son, who finally comes home after wearing himself out with wild living, and finds a father ready to party for the joy he feels, Lk 15.
For all the leaders’ posturing as sincere seekers with questions, they really want to accuse God for being the unjust villain who punished them for the sins of history. But God doesn’t take the bait and erupt in anger over it. He erupts in love. Rather than giving them back the disrespect they’re dumping, he pours out a promise of restoration, (see Ez 18).
Why does God give grace like this?
So they’ll know who he is. So they’ll loathe themselves for how they’ve lived and what they’ve done. So they’ll see God, not the killjoy they thought he was, but the One who welcomes them back and loves them, no matter what, Ez 20:43-44.
This is how God saves us.
And there’s more saving next…
Theology-speak sometimes shuts me down. Hebrews says that Jesus’ death inaugurated the new covenant between God and us. He was the mediator we needed, whose blood covers us. The goal of his once-for-all death was to give us salvation.
Are your eyes glazing over yet?
Whether because of general overuse or my own lack of imagination, I’m struggling to connect with the word “salvation” in this chapter. Like “gospel” or “righteousness,” it’s a word that tempts me to tune out.
I need to walk around in it a minute.
Salvation is code for whatever brings life, joy, rest, hope, peace. It’s the condition of everything wrong-made-right, of longings met, of healing and wholeness and breaking bread with enemies. It’s what’s promised in heaven coming to earth–no more crying, no more sorrow, no more sin or death or critique.
There’s salvation in the future that Jesus’ return will usher in, but there’s also the salvation we experience when we first believe, when the cell door opens and we’re out of jail–free–and we exchange our prison clothes for white robes. There’s more saving as we walk with Jesus and lose our convict’s swagger. Our felon skin softens.
Daily experiences are mini-savings—getting excused from jury duty (as I was this week), finding marble for the price of ordinary tile for a redo, getting a needed word from my counselor. There are other, even smaller savings, too—the argument I side-stepped this morning, the bike pump that showed up in my trunk when my tire went flat, the un-burned cookies I pulled out, the sale price on the Magnolia I’ve been eyeing.
Mini-savings are mighty because they point me all day to the God who’s always saving, working his peace into my chaos, his love into my days.
I can’t count all the ways.
But the psalmist counts these…
Is it coincidence that Psalm 107 brings four salvation stories, of all things? The writer tells how God saves people who need him. Here’s the skinny:
**Those wandering in the desert, without a home, starving and thirsty, exhausted, v 4-9.
**Those languishing in prison for defying what God says, v 10-16.
**Those suffering sickness from poor lifestyle choices, v 17-22.
**Those putting trust in business and having the bottom fall out, v 23-32.
These are stories about loss—the loss of home, of freedom, of health, and of wealth–four of our greatest needs, humanly speaking. They are stories about how God as Hero steps in and saves, because this is who he is, and this is what he does, v 33-43.
The criterion for being saved was need. There’s nobody who cried out whose life wasn’t saved. And it wasn’t by being good enough or deserving it. All four stories are about sinners and screw-ups, not goody-goodies.
Every person’s story with God is basically the same: We fall down. We cry out. And God saves. Whether we’re old or young, rich or poor, it’s in coming to the end of ourselves and landing on the bottom that we find him waiting there, open armed and ready to save.
“Oh, thank God—he’s so good!
His love never runs out.
All of you set free by God,
tell the world!”
Ezekiel 20, Hebrews 9:11-28 and Psalm 107 are selected for today in The One Year Bible.