December 17, 2008

Hero Then, Heroes Now

2008 1535 page23 cape was God’s hero then, and was instructed to do some of the strangest things. His writings came to be considered difficult and suitable for mature Jewish minds only. His calling made him God’s show-and-tell piece to people in exile.

When we first meet Ezekiel, it’s approximately July of 593 B.C., and he’s walking along the banks of the Chebar River in Babylon. He’s been an exile for about four years.
God gives him a vision of living beings, four-faced creatures with four wings—darting all over the place. Each has a wheel underneath. There are wheels within wheels, and the rims are covered with eyes. Above them is a throne. Above the throne is a glowing figure like a man. There’s a halo like a rainbow about him.
One academic has tried to imagine Ezekiel’s wife’s reaction: “He came home late, walking unsteadily, and looking pale and shaken. . . . He could not say a word for some time, and when he did, nothing he stuttered forth made any sense. He babbled of rainbows and four-headed beasts, of a big chariot and a throne in the sky, and of eyes being all around (Ezekiel 1–3).”1
Unbelievable, but it’s real. Ezekiel falls facedown in the dust.*
2008 1535 page23God tells him he’s to be a messenger to His people in exile. He’s warned that they’re a rebellious people. A hard-hearted people. They will not listen.
“But don’t fear them for I have made you as a rock,” God says. He needed to be, for God had called him to act in odd, eccentric ways to get His message across.
Ezekiel is told to take a large, clay tablet—a large brick—and draw a map of Jerusalem on it. He’s to create toy siege ramps and enemy camps and battering rams around the “city.”
“Now,” God tells him, “take an iron griddle and place it between you and the city. Take the sins of the people on you. Then lie on your left side a day for each year the people of Israel have sinned against Me. That’s 390 days. Then lie on your right side, a day for each year the people of Judah sinned against me. That’s another 40 days.
“Lie there prophesying Jerusalem’s destruction, for it’s going to be destroyed. Oh, and did I mention you’ll be tied up so you can’t turn from side to side?”
How strange is this?
But it gets stranger. In a land of plenty Ezekiel is told to eat as if there’s a famine and drink as if there’s a drought.
Then he’s told to cut his hair off with a sword and divide it into three parts. One part to be burned goes on the center of the clay tablet map of Jerusalem; another is spread around the “city,” where he slashes it with his sword. The third is thrown to the wind.
At another time he’s told to pack his bags as if he’s on the run. He’s to do this outside and in daylight, so people can see him. Then, at night, as if fleeing, he runs to the city wall and digs through it with his bare hands.
While it’s true that Ezekiel had some standing among the exiles—the elders gather in his home at one point—many must have thought of him as eccentric or strange. His visions and his behavior seem outlandish. In fact, if he were a relative, we’d probably encourage or seek psychiatric help.
God’s Heroes Now
Shelley Gare fears airheads are taking over the world. The first chapter in her book The Triumph of the Airheads is titled “Why i comes before u.” Her point is that we live in a self-first world—I before you.
“This is what airheads understand: This is the age of the free market, and the pursuit and acquisition of money at all costs is now considered more important than knowledge, values and commonsense.”
“This is also the post-postmodern age, which means there are no such things as objective knowledge or values or truths or commonsense. . . . How lucky is that? It really comes down to you and how you see the world, so you can’t lose. . . . Whatever you can get away with goes, really.”2
I before you. God’s looking for heroes to buck this trend. And He’s given the vision of what His heroes should do.
First: “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matt. 5:44, NLT).
This makes no sense in an I-before-you world. You can talk about biblical love being a principle, as if defining it in this way makes it easier. It doesn’t. You can talk about it not being an emotional response and divorce it from emotions, but that’s hard when you’ve been hurt.
What’s difficult is when someone has hurt you and Jesus says, “They may be your enemies, but love them anyway.” Perhaps it’s someone you’ve been in business with and it has gone bust, and they’ve walked away leaving you the debt. Love them!
Or someone you’ve been in a relationship with and they’ve cheated on you. Love them!
Or someone who has gone about the community maligning your name, your reputation—and they won’t stop. Love them!
This is huge in an I-before-you world. Only a hero would attempt it. But God’s heroes accept it as their challenge.
Second: “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35, NLT).
Try this. Think of the person in your church you least like. Love him. Love her. That’s the test of your discipleship.
Sometimes it’s hard to love people you’re close to because you know their strengths and their weaknesses. The people you know can be the most frustrating. Building a relationship can be difficult. Relationships are hard work—ask anyone in a difficult one.
C. S. Lewis once admitted he had difficulty going to church. He said he would rather be at home reading theology than be at church to suffer hymn-singing with its fifth-rate poetry and sixth-rate music. Then he noted the fervency and intent of an old guy in the pew across the way, who happened to be wearing elastic-sided boots.
2008 1535 page23He came to the realization that he was not worthy to polish those boots. An I-before-you approach would have kept complaining about the music.
First Corinthians 13 is a popular passage for weddings because of its emphasis on love, but it’s worth rereading and noting that its message is about the church and the love that should be found there. The church is about people and how they relate.
God’s heroes now are relationship focused. Love for God and love for others are a priority. A church that’s a true center of Christian love has much more appeal than anything the I-before-you culture can offer. Love overcomes differences in worship style. And love is more life-influencing than doctrine.
What Ezekiel did was eccentric—embarrassing. It’s something people might want to lock you up for. But it was easier than Jesus’ teachings.
It’s easier to lie in front of a brick for 390 days on the left side, then 40 days on the right than to love your enemies. Easier to cut your hair with a sword, divide it into three, and scatter it about than to love that former business partner. Easier to pack your bags and dig through the city wall with your bare hands than to love the unattractive people at your church.
This isn’t to deny that doing an Ezekiel would be difficult. But each task was just that—a task. Difficult, yes. But with determination and perhaps 
a deep breath achieved—and finished.
To love is not a task, however, but a lifelong calling. Indeed, an eccentric calling in an I-before-you world. And it isn’t for one or some, but for all followers of Jesus. For God’s heroes now, this is possible only for those in a relationship with the One who is love.
What Love Looks Like
In October 2006 Charles Roberts IV walked into an Amish one-room school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and shot 10 girls, killing five. He then killed himself. A terrible event!
A terrible event that became inspiring in the reaction of the Amish families and friends. On the evening of the killings an Amish neighbor visited the Roberts family and offered forgiveness. And it was meant. When financial support came in from across the U.S.A., the Amish promptly passed a percentage on to the killer’s family in recognition of their loss.
“Your love for our family has helped provide the healing we so desperately need,” wrote Marie Roberts, wife of the gunman. “Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. . . . Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”3
The Amish response is what real love looks like. It’s radical. It’s extreme. It’s unnatural in an I-before-you world. And it’s our challenge.
God demonstrated the ultimate in love—in Jesus. Jesus continually gave of Himself. It’s in a sacrificial way. He’s other-focused. He’s people-focused.
Our calling is to follow Jesus’ example. God’s heroes are called to love. “Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it—because it does” (1 Cor. 14:1, Message).‡ 
*References to Ezekiel in what follows are based on chapters 3, 4, 5, and 12 of the book.
Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ” 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
‡Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright ” 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
1Johanna Stiebert, The Exile and the Prophet’s Wife (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005), p. 29.
2Shelley Gare, The Triumph of the Airheads (Sidney, Australia: Park Street Press, 2006), 
p. 19.

Bruce Manners is pastor of the Avondale College Church in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.