Week of Aug. 26: Awareness of God's presence brings life change
Lesson for week of Aug. 26
Scripture: Ezekiel 34:23-31
By Kim Reindl
Opening question: When in your life have you felt alienated or alone? What were the circumstances?
When my husband and I were first married, we lived for 18 months as English teachers in Hiroshima, Japan. It was a new and exciting time in our lives and one of the best life experiences we have ever had. The Japanese people were gracious and we learned much from our friends and students who were both kind and generous to us, the foreigners in their midst. Yet, during this period we also experienced what it felt like to be separated from the western culture that we had always known. As expatriates, we were often confused by the way things were done in an eastern context. At times we found ourselves longing for the familiar. During those times, it was easy for us to feel alienated and alone.
Today’s scripture reading from the book of Ezekiel is grounded in the context of exile. Ezekiel, a prophet of priestly lineage, speaks and acts during a period of Israelite history that scholars believe spans from 593 to 571 BCE, which includes the deportation of many Israelites to Babylon, the fall of Judah to Nebuchadnezzar’s armies, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. As one of those in exile, Ezekiel is called not only to bring words of judgment (chapters 1-32), but also words of promise (chapters 33-48) to those who are alienated from their homeland. Ezekiel’s words are of utmost importance to the exiles, who until this point have understood God’s presence to be directly linked with the Jerusalem temple. Ezekiel reveals in chapter 10 that God’s glory is actually mobile, free from the physical locale of the temple (i.e., “the wheels” of Ezekiel’s vision), and that God’s presence may be experienced while in exile (Ezek. 10:20-22).
The promise of Ezekiel 34:23-31 is that God has not deserted God’s people, although the people have been unfaithful. Whereas the book of Ezekiel confirms that God will not turn a blind eye to Israel’s corruption, it also confirms that God will supply a path to redemption. This redemption includes the understanding that God remains present among the people. Reflective of his priestly perspective, Ezekiel’s words in 34:25-31 reemphasize the words of the Holiness Code found in Leviticus 26:4-13. In both cases, God’s promise is that “I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people” (Ezek. 34:30).
As United Methodists, we have at the heart of our understanding of God a firm belief in God’s unwavering presence. We believe that God is present in our lives, even before we know it. We do not have to seek God out because God is already with us, loving us and drawing us into relationship. We believe that God’s relationship with humanity is God’s idea and therefore is a result of God’s initiative (1 John 4:9-10). Hence, God’s grace comes before our initiative or our response. We call this presence that comes before our awareness prevenient grace.
Yet, we also understand that we suffer from a disease as a result of sin that blinds us to the presence of God. (Have you ever noticed how often people in the New Testament are cured of blindness?) The cure for that disease is the realization of God’s love as manifest in Jesus Christ. As we become open to God’s presence through Christ, our hearts are changed (repentance), our eyes are opened, and we are able to receive God’s loving presence. We call this life altering presence justifying grace.
Furthermore, God’s presence is a continuous presence that allows us to grow and change in a process over time. Although we may experience ups and downs in our relationship with God, God will never leave us. God is always there, instructing, correcting, encouraging, and loving. God’s desire is to grow us into the fullness of the people that God has created us to be. We call this continuous formative presence sanctifying grace.
One of the greatest comforts of the Christian life is our understanding of God’s presence. Even if we feel alone, we are never truly alone because God will never leave us or forsake us (Deut. 31:6,8; Joshua 1:5; Heb. 13:5). In our darkest hours of exile and confusion, God promises to be with us (Ezek. 34:30-31). The greatest revelation of this truth comes in the person of Jesus, who is “Emmanuel…God is with us” (Matt. 1:23). God’s presence is a grace that precedes us, changes us, and continuously forms us. Therefore, the Christian life bears witness to the words of Christ when he says, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Questions for further reflection:
• How does the promise of God’s presence equip you to respond to the realities of life? (i.e, Life will bring difficulties and sorrow. What difference does it make to know that God is with you?)
• How have you experienced or witnessed God’s prevenient, justifying, and/or sanctifying grace?
Kim Reindl is Chair of the Discipleship Ministry Team for the North Georgia Conference and is the founder of Pomegranate Christian Education & Formation. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.