Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Looking Back or Looking Forward?

I am almost certain that I will preach on the Mark reading this Sunday. I love the parable of the one who scatters seed on the ground and knows not how it rises. But today, I’m writing about the lesson from the OT—Ezekiel17:22-24. It’s the underdog of the lessons this week, and I find that appealing.

Yesterday in a bible study, we talked about eschatology. That sounds more dangerous than it was. We’re reading N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus, and we came to the part of the book in which he describes how Jesus’ arrival in first-Century Palestine represented a “perfect storm” of conflict between Rome, Jewish culture, and himself. In that book, Wright points out that Rome considered itself to be in the midst of its golden age—its heyday. The Caesars had established themselves as semi-gods who had been given the divine right to rule over the known world. Wright calls their approach “retrospective eschatology” because, after looking back on the last few years, they think they’ve made it to the pinnacle of their existence. Contrast that with the Jewish mindset, which focuses on “prospective eschatology” For Jews, tomorrow always promises to be better than today. The Cursillo-used phrase, “The best is yet to come!” takes on new meaning in that context. Wright sets up the conflict between Jerusalem and Rome in clear and convincing language that focuses on these contrasting views of eschatology.

Ezekiel, it seems, shares that perspective: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.” Imagine the image of the neighbor being pruned ever so slightly in order to plant a new tree for Israel. As the reading continues, we see that God’s tree is to provide a shady home for “winged creatures of every kind.” This is God’s tree with room in it for everyone.

At the time Ezekiel delivered that message, it would have been hard for God’s people to believe. They had been plundered by foreign armies and carted off in captivity to faraway lands. Yet in the midst of their trouble, God said, “I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.” There’s a new day acomin’, God declares, and he’s going to take care of everything. That’s why the image isn’t of a mighty army coming to triumph over its enemies. That never makes for a good bible story or a good movie. No one except the fan cares if the favorite wins the contest. Our inherited eschatology is of the littlest being made great, while the powerful are brought low.

I think we underestimate the importance of the “tomorrow-will-be-better-than-today” mindset. Someone in our class pointed out that America shares the same “retrospective eschatology” that the Roman Empire adopted. As a nation, we have always thought that God has brought us to this moment because we were destined for it and for greatness. In our national mentality, today is always the destination—a point to stop and look back over our history and celebrate where we are. It’s hard, therefore, for us to stay focused on tomorrow, yet tomorrow is where God’s promises remain.

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