Daughters of the King Spring Assembly, Saturday in Lent 5, St. Paul’s Church, Franklin

“I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations… (Ez. 37:22-23).

Lent is a time for fundamentals. We keep coming back, again and again in this season, to first principles: to what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the basic teaching about Christ” (Heb. 6:1).  Study groups, prayer groups, inquirers’ classes: Lent is the time for us to go deeper and further in the practice of the faith, never losing sight of the fundamentals; a time for us to renew and refresh ourselves in the basic teaching.

Curiously enough, going back to the basics of belief in Christ takes us all the way back to ancient Israel, to the Old Testament Scriptures. Our Anglican way of believing, in the Episcopal Church, never allows us to posit a “God of the Old Testament” and a “God of the New Testament.” Instead, we posit coherence between the two: in the words of the 16th century Articles of Religion, in both Testaments “everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ.” In other words, the same promise is given in both, a promise of salvation.

So let’s look here first, aided by our reading today, from the prophet Ezekiel. Consider again God’s promise to the People of Israel. God’s promise to Abraham was to make of his family a great nation, and to bless them so that they might be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. God also promised to give the People a land, a place where they might dwell in peace. He made a covenant with them, and they promised to keep it.

Our reading from Ezekiel, however, reminds us that God’s promise to make them a great nation had failed, even before foreign invasion sent the People into exile. Ezekiel is writing to a People who are already in exile, prophesying a return to the land that was promised. When Ezekiel reiterates God’s promise to make them “one nation in the land” (Ez. 37:22), he’s pointing toward the schism that had divided the People into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, long before the Assyrian or Babylonian armies had come calling.

Our reading is part of an “enacted prophecy,” where God not only gives Ezekiel the word that he will reunite the People and bring them back under the rule of one king, but actually calls upon Ezekiel to act it out: to take two sticks, one for Israel and another for Judah, and to put them together again. Enacted prophecy has the virtue of joining action to word, of getting things moving, and so it is with Ezekiel’s prophecy of the sticks. Separately, they’re just two sticks, but together these sticks may amount to something, a single staff in the hand of God (Ezek. 37:19), as the prophet says.

“My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd” (Ezek. 37:24): again, Ezekiel’s prophecy that a descendant of David will rule over the People, as a true shepherd who can wield the staff. The nation will never again be divided, and the People of God will dwell in peace in the land. The covenant that God made with Abraham will be renewed. “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore (Ezek. 37:26). God’s purpose is to heal the schism. Ezekiel enacts all this with the prophecy of the sticks that become a single staff in the hand of the shepherd.

We must recall now that there are two Testaments that speak together of everlasting life in Christ, and turn to our Gospel for today. There we hear how Jesus is “performing many signs” (Jo. 11:47): miracles of healing and even of raising the dead, enacted prophecies mightier than any offered by Ezekiel. What are these signs about? Even Jesus’ enemies attest to them, unwittingly, as Caiaphas says, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jo. 11:50). His enemies are plotting his destruction, but God has something better in mind. “He prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (Jo. 11: 51-52).

The signs that Jesus performs point toward his own resurrection and the salvation of the human race. If Ezekiel’s prophecy concerns the healing of the schism between Israel and Judah, then Jesus’ death and resurrection is meant to gather all the scattered children of God together into unity. It is meant to heal the fundamental schism within the human race, the division of one from another on account of human sin.            

In our own day we are divided every which way: nation against nation, party against party, church against church. We’re dispersed, on the run from each other, hiding in the hopes that God won’t find us. The human race may be divided by centuries of conflict, the results of our own disastrous human choices, but we were meant for something else. Lent is a time for recalling fundamentals. Jesus calls us into unity, to be with each other, to find and to be found by God. He laid down his life, after all, to gather the sheep. Now, this Holy Week, is the time for us to gather.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee