July 21, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Ezekiel 2:1-3 3:22-24a
Ezekiel was a teenager when his world fell apart. An invading army entered his city. It was pointless for anyone to resist. That would have just made things worse. The Babylonians were the most powerful nation on earth. Israel’s glory days were far in the distant past. And so Jerusalem was overrun by these foreigners. 587 BC.
They destroyed every building they could destroy. Including Ezekiel’s boyhood home. Including Solomon’s gleaming Temple. The entire city was in flames. Most of the Israelites were left behind to fend for themselves in the smoldering ruins. But the more upstanding citizens of Jerusalem – the ones Babylon considered valuable for their purposes – were removed from Jerusalem, bound in chains, and marched 900 miles to Babylon. 900 miles! That’s the distance from here to Phoenix. And it would have been just about as desolate and just about as hot. It would have taken at least two, more likely three months. So if you left today you would get there in October.
One of those making the journey was Ezekiel. He might have been 15. We don’t know for sure. We don’t know a lot about him. We can only imagine how hard it must have been. To see your city destroyed. To be forced on this death march. And then when, against all odds, you survive, to grow up in the strange splendor of Babylon, knowing that you don’t belong there. You are a slave. You are in exile from all that made your life worth living.
And yet Ezekiel, who experienced all this as a youth, grew
up to become the man who helped build a new Judaism. He was
part of the return from this exile. He was part of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. He was part of a new chapter in God’s ongoing love story with humankind. How did it happen? Here is what we know directly from Ezekiel. He said this twice: “The Spirit entered into me and set me upon my feet” (Ezekiel 2:2, 3:24).
Sometimes things happen to us, and sometimes we make things happen. We’d rather go through life making things happen. Often we can. We see what needs to be done. We figure out a way to do it. We give everything we have to the task at hand. It’s hard but we know it’s going to be worth it. And then at the end, we celebrate our success. What we did. How we did it. How great we are.
That’s the way we’d like it to be all the time, but life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes instead of making things happen, things happen to us. Things we wish would not happen. But they happen anyway. Like what happened to young Ezekiel. Unexpected trouble. Tragedy. Disaster. Despair. Grief. It happens to everyone. And the big question is this: When it happens, can we stand up and take it?
Life is partly what we can do. And partly what we can stand. And those who can stand up and take it are the ones we look back upon as the greatest of the great. Like Ezekiel. Or like George Frideric Handel.
We enjoy his “Messiah” each Christmas and Easter. But have you heard the story of what was going on in the life of its composer? This is from his biographer:
His health and his fortunes had reached the lowest ebb. His right side had become paralyzed, and his money was all gone. His creditors seized him and threatened him with imprisonment. For a brief time he was tempted to give up the fight – but then he rebounded again to compose the greatest of his inspirations, the epic “Messiah” (Living Under Tension, Harry Emerson Fosdick, page 93).
So next time you hear the Hallelujah Chorus, think of how easily it might never have been written. It was written only because what happened to Ezekiel happened to Handel. The Spirit entered into him and set him on his feet. What he was able to do depended on what he was able to stand.
That true for us. What we are able to do depends on what we are able to stand. And for us to stand tall, three things are necessary. The first is grit. That’s a good old-fashioned word. It is defined as “courage and perseverance under pressure.” It’s an inner toughness that keeps us going when others are giving up.
The classic story about grit is “The Little Engine that Could.” Remember that one? The big train that is loaded with toys has broken down. The children who live on the other side of the mountain are going to be terribly disappointed. Then along comes a bright blue engine. It has never been over this mountain but it decides to give it a try. As the climb gets harder and harder it keeps saying, “I think I can. I think I can.” Then down the other side, “I thought I could. I thought I could.”
If you think you can, if you will yourself to keep going, if the harder it gets the tougher you get, it is amazing what you can do!
I told the story in a recent Monday Musings of Hugh Herr. His first love was climbing. Like my brother. In 1982 he climbed an ice wall on a frigid day in January. He got caught in a blizzard. He
got lost. He went north, when he should have gone south. He was completely disoriented. The rescuers had a terrible time finding him. One of them died in the search. After three nights out at negative
20 F, Hugh Herr was found, barely alive. But the frostbite in his lower legs was severe. He lost both legs.
Most people would have given up. But not Hugh Herr. He got prosthetic limbs and started climbing again. My brother climbed with him before and after. He tells me he was a better climber after. And Hugh also had found a new passion in life. Not just climbing, but helping people like him, who had suffered amputations. He is now a professor at MIT. His specialty is developing robotic systems that simulate the function of human limbs. He has one of the most amazing TED talks you will ever hear.
Do you have grit like that? You might be amazed. Human beings are capable of standing up and taking a lot more than we think. It’s true that sometimes people go to pieces when the pressure gets too great. I’m sure that was true in Jerusalem. While Ezekiel was standing up, many were falling down. Many had given up. Many, but not most.
A doctor who had practiced for many years was asked about the grit he observed in his patients. How do they deal with great adversity? What are they like when they face suffering and death? Here’s what this doctor said: “Most of them act like heroes.”
Which brings us to the second thing we need if we are to stand up and stand tall. We need to know the sailor’s secret. I’m not a sailor, but I know a few, so I get this on good authority. Think about it. If you are in a boat controlled by a sail, when the wind is blowing the direction you want to go, no problem. But that’s not going to happen on a consistent basis. So how do sailors get where they want to go when the wind is against them? They know this secret: Adverse winds can be turned into advantage winds.
It works that way on an airplane. Flying into the wind creates lift. The wing is designed so the wind on top has to travel further than the wind underneath. This creates a pressure differential that lifts the plane. Sails work that way too. A sailor learns to use whatever wind there is to his advantage. Even a wind that wants to push you back, can be used to push you forward using a technique called “tacking”. You zigzag back and forth and eventually you get to where you want to go.
The worst thing that can happen to a sailor is not wind blowing in the wrong direction, but no wind at all. The dreaded doldrums.
So how do we explain what that doctor was talking about? Most people face death like heroes. People who fuss and gripe and act like children over little things. Then when big things come their way, they amaze us all by how they rise to the occasion. They stand up and take it. It’s the proverbial, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Why? Here’s why: The arch-enemy of grit is ease. The sailor’s worst nightmare is the doldrums. We are at our best when we are tested. Not when life is easy, but when life is hard.
We see this in sports. The Michigan Wolverines lose to Appalachian State. Mike Tyson loses to Buster Douglas. The Virginia Cavaliers lose to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It works both ways. You play your best when you are tested by a superior opponent. Or you play your worst when you think your opponent is a pushover.
And so in the case of Ezekiel. We might say he is one of the great heroes of the Bible in spite of the exile. But it would be truer to say that he is one of the great heroes of the Bible because of the exile. As we read the Bible, we can come up with a list.
If his brothers had never sold him into slavery, Joseph would never have been Joseph. If liberating his people had been easy – if there had never been the forty years in the wilderness – Moses never would have been Moses. If Haman had not plotted to exterminate her people, Esther never would have been Esther. If there had been no thorn in the flesh, Paul never would have been Paul. If there had never been a cross – if Jesus had died instead of old age – Jesus would never have been Jesus and we would still be lost in our sins.
No ones asks to suffer. Not even Jesus. He said, “Let this cup pass from me.” But when suffering comes – and it will – we use the sailor’s secret to turn adverse winds into advantage winds. Paul said it like this:
We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
And that leads right into the last and most the important thing we learn from Ezekiel. Paul says, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Ezekiel says, “The Spirit entered me and set me on my feet.” No one truly stands tall without the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Grit is a great thing. So is using adversity to our advantage. But if that’s all you have, all you have so far is a motivational speech. There are plenty of motivational speakers and plenty of self-help books that will tell you all this in a much more inspirational way than I just did.
The real question is: Can we help ourselves? There’s a lot we can do. Grit and determination and faith in ourselves work wonders. But the Bible is very clear that it takes more than that. On our own, we can go so far and no farther. Only with God do we truly stand tall. As the saying goes, We never stand taller than when we are on our knees.
A lot of people go through life without God. A lot of very good people. A lot of very productive people. Life can be understood materialistically. We just happened to be born. We are nothing more than the material elements that make up our bodies. From the moment of birth we are running down and wearing out. We came from dust. To dust we will return. And that is all there is to it. Nothing lasts. So when it comes right down to it, nothing matters.
You can live by that philosophy. It’s best if you don’t think much about the philosophy you are living by. It would be too depressing. Those who live by that philosophy are perfectly capable of standing up and taking it. Many of them live inspirational, heroic lives.
But I’m reminded of something my high school cross country coach said. He was giving his annual speech about how important it was for us to get enough sleep, to eat well, to drink plenty of water, and to stay away from the weekend parties out in the hills that the teachers weren’t supposed to know about. In other words, what he was saying was that cleaning living equals superior performance. One of our best runners, raised his hand and challenged him on that. His life style was not exactly exemplary and still no one could beat him. Coach said, “Just think how much better you could be than you are.”
That’s what I would say to those who seem to be getting along fine without God. Think how much better you could be. Think how much more you would be able to stand up and take it. And don’t just think of yourself. Think of how much more your life would be a blessing to others.
Jesus had that conversation with a woman at the well. She was drawing water from that well because we all need water to stay alive physically. And then Jesus talks to her about the living water that keeps us alive spiritually.
Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst; the water that I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:13-14).
Ezekiel knew about that water long before Jesus talked about it. On his 900 mile march through the desert, he drank a lot of water to stay alive physically. But we can see from his life story that he was also drinking deeply from the living water that kept him alive spiritually.
It was that water that made it possible for him to stand up and stand tall. He didn’t set himself on his feet. He was set on his feet. That’s exactly what he says: “The Spirit entered into me and set me upon my feet.”
We all want to make things happen. We also all have things happen to us. Life is a combination of both. May the Spirit enter you as the Spirit entered into Ezekiel – when you’re making great things happen and especially when not so great things are happening to you. May you stand up and stand tall.
Holy Spirit, you who came to young Ezekiel at a time when he thought his life was over. Come to us. Dwell in us. Revive us. Empower us. I pray especially for that one person here today who feels down and discouraged and ready to give up. That must have been exactly how Ezekiel felt. So I pray for that person, and I pray for all of us, your gift of grit, your secret of turning adverse winds into advantage winds, and most of all, your self. Holy Spirit, how we need you this day and every day. Thank you that our deepest need is your greatest promise. Amen.