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Reconcile Your People Ezekiel 37:15-28; John 17:17-21

The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “Reconcile your People.” It takes its cue from the prophecy of Ezekiel and the choice of theme and Bible readings has come from the Churches in Korea. Each year the theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is developed by one country which produces outline material that is adapted for use in other parts of the world. Korea is the selected country for 2009 and they have chosen Ezekiel 37.15-28 and have prepared material to be adapted for local use. The Churches in Korea have found that this passage in Ezekiel resonates with their own sense of sadness over the division of their own country since the Korean War and have brought some of the insights they have gained to the worship for this Week. The theme of a divided people who feel the pain of their separation and long for the day when they will once again be united is a powerful one for Koreans.

Background to Ezekiel
Ezekiel’s preaching has been gathered into the book that bears his name. The book is one of the four major prophets that goes along with the minor prophets and forms the later part of what we call the OT. We love to hear some of Isaiah’s prophecy in the run up to Christmas and he was one of the other of the four major prophets. We may be less familiar with Ezekiel, but you may be familiar with the vision of the valley of dry bones, a passage immediately before today’s passage about two sticks being put together as a parable of being reunited.

Ezekiel was a priest who was taken into exile by the Babylonians when Jerusalem fell to the super-power in 597BCE. Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to a ‘rebellious people’. He was married but his wife died at the time of the Babylonian invasion (possibly at their hands) and his grief for her was expressed in his writing. Immediately prior to the fall of Jerusalem, Judah found itself a divided kingdom and lodged between the two ‘super powers’ of the day Egypt and Babylon. Long before that the northern Kingdom of Israel had split from Judah and they had been invaded by the Syrian empire which lay to the north. So now both kingdoms had been destroyed and the Judeans carried off to Babylon.

The exile was a time of great soul-searching for the Jewish people of the day. But out of that pain grew new ways of understanding their relationship with God and how they were to be faithful to him. To be removed from the land which they believed God had promised them made them question everything. Their faith was bound up with living in a particular land and Jerusalem was the focus of their religion. What were they to think now? Had the God they believed in abandoned them? Did he really exist? What had gone so very wrong? Were they still to think of themselves as the People of God (which is what the name Israel means.)

Ezekiel’s Prophecy
The visions that Ezekiel had obviously meant a great deal to those with whom he shared them because they have been preserved and become holy writings. What would Ezekiel’s strange stories have meant to the people he first preached to? The context of the passage is a Kingdom divided under different rulers. This was the Kingdom that once had been united under the Kingship of great rulers like David and Solomon. Their homeland was tied up with the Covenant given to Abraham and renewed through Moses. They thought of it as the Promised Land.

But the land of promise had become the land of division. They had fallen apart, and the tough lesson they were having to learn was that their falling apart came from their falling away from God. As the people of Judah tried to make sense of what had happened to them Ezekiel’s prophecy came to reassure them that God wanted his people to be reunited. Ezekiel used a visual aid. Two pieces of wood are held by the prophet as if they were one single piece. God would bring his people back from their scattered exile, bringing back into one the two former Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, binding them together in the one covenant:
“Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (vs.23).
The people of Judah were eventually allowed back to their land, but the northern kingdom of Israel never did return in the same way. By the time of Jesus new powers had taken over the lands that lie to the east of the Mediterranean Sea. God’s people strove to find new ways of trying to remain faithful to him and not make the mistakes of the past. They were never to go back to exactly the same situation that they had before, but there was the hope of something new.

Jesus’ Prayer
Jesus came into this situation and began to call people to a new way of belonging to God. He gathered a group of disciples around him and proclaimed the kingdom not of David, Judah or Israel, but something he called the Kingdom of God or Heaven. As the followers of Jesus grew and became what we now call the Church, it was possible to start talking of them as the “New Israel”. In Christ there is a new Covenant with the New Israel which gathers together humanity – Jew and Gentile – into a new relationship with God. At a time, perhaps 60 years after Jesus’ earthly life, St John was concerned for the unity of Jesus’ followers. So he wrote down a prayer that the community remembered Jesus’ praying shortly before his death. This prayer was that his followers should remain united. It is a prayer that has become a rallying point and a reminder whenever we think of the importance of Christian unity.

For the churches in Korea it is not difficult to see the resonances of the Ezekiel and the John passages they have chosen for our focus this year. Their nation, with a proud, ancient history stands divided – one part prosperous, the other less so. Their church also is divided in many respects because of those same political realities both internal and external. As the Christian Church in Korea wrestles with the problem of division, we may also feel affected by the same struggles. As St Paul put it: “When one part of the body suffers, all of the body suffers.” (1 Cor 12:26)

Our Prayer
We may live in a united kingdom, and be part of a Europe that has achieved a greater degree of unity than ever before, but we still live with a reality of a church divided for a variety of reasons – both in what we believe and because of what has happened in the past. The New Israel, like the Israel of Ezekiel’s day, finds itself divided and in many places looking for a new spirit of life and renewal. It is important to stress at this point that a Christian interpretation of this passage is not a denial of God’s continuing Covenant with the Jewish people, nevertheless there is an important place for interpreting Ezekiel’s prophecy in a way that challenges us.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity calls us to pray for the full visible unity of the Church just as did Jesus. Here in Milton Keynes we may take a certain amount of pride in our special ways of bringing about Christian unity. Our own parish and this congregation is an expression of four previously divided denominations coming together. We have found ways to overcome our previous divisions. The danger which we can fall into is not too different from that of ancient Israel. We can become complacent, thinking that we have arrived. We need to heed warnings that taking our place of blessing may lead to our falling away from the source of our life. If we fall away then we will fall apart. If we pray for unity, and especially that the rest of the church in our land and in the world will grow together more, then we are to continue seeking an ever greater unity. There are still many Christians with whom we are not united. We cannot go back to the past, but we can be encouraged by Ezekiel’s visual aid of the two sticks being held together in God’s hand. Our prayer can be that we want God to continue holding us together!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




God of all mercy,
your Son proclaimed good news to the poor,
release to the captives,
and freedom to the oppressed:
anoint us with your Holy Spirit
and set all your people free
to praise you in Christ our Lord.