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Saturday, fifth week of Lent

April 8, 2006

Blessed Saturday!

Ezekiel 37:21-28 (God will unite His people in holiness)
Jeremiah 31:10-13 (The Lord will guard us, like a shepherd guarding his flock)
+John 11:45-57 (it is better for one man to die for the people)

Rebellion divides us. It separates us, not only from God, but also from each other, and from the peace and happiness we so desperately seek. But God’s grace, His plan and His power are stronger than our rebellion. He will let us experience the consequences of our sin, mostly because He can use that suffering to bring us (and others) back to Himself, to bring us back to the obedience that leads to communion.

Solomon’s rebellion against God (I Kings 11), and the subsequent sin of his son, Rehoboam, split Israel (I Kings 12: 1-25). Ten of the twelve tribes rebelled against Rehoboam’s tyranny, adding their own sin to his, especially when they set up idols to keep people from worshiping God in Jerusalem (I Kings 12:26-32). These ten tribes became the northern Kingdom of Israel, which later became the Kingdom of Samaria when foreign armies conquered Israel & left behind their own pagan citizens to intermarry with the few Israelites who hadn’t been deported. The other two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, centered around Jerusalem and the temple, remained loyal to the crown and to God. The Levites, who didn’t have land of their own, came to Judah, as did those individual families who firmly desired to seek the Lord (2 Chronicles 11:13-17).

This is the division God promises to heal in our reading from Ezekiel. No longer will sin lead to sin, rebellion to rebellion, division to division. There will be one shepherd, the Messiah, son of David, leading them all in holiness and peace, in the Truth that unites. God’s sacred order will be restored once and for all.

It won’t happen automatically, though. Sin still has consequences. There’s still a price to be paid. God Himself will bear the brunt of it, but we each have our own choices to make as well.

The religious leaders in Jerusalem are in the midst of their own choices. As if Jesus hadn’t stirred them up enough already, now He’s restored life to a man who’d been dead and buried for four days–and just outside Jerusalem! More and more people are believing in Him, following Him, hanging on His every word. One misstep and the whole lot of them will erupt in a wild revolt against the Romans. It’d happened within recent memory (see Mark 15:7, Acts 5:36-37), and the religious leaders worried that if things got too far out of hand, Rome would go to extreme measures to crush the uprising, wiping out the entire nation…at least, that’s what they told themselves (John 11:47). Jesus had already demonstrated that His Kingdom was not a political one. He had fled when the crowd, full of miraculous bread, tried to make Him king (John 6:15), and at His trial He would tell Pilate directly, “My Kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36).

That wasn’t enough to make the Pharisees give up this convenient excuse. It was easier to defend national interests (and of course, that meant defending the worship of God, since the two went together) than to admit that they were jealous. Besides, there was a ready answer to solve both problems, and the high priest was kind enough to propose it. Kill Jesus. “Can you not see that it is better for you to have one man die [for the people] than to have the whole nation destroyed?” (John 11:50).

They said they meant it for good; to save the nation. At least on some level, they meant it for evil; to get rid of Jesus, their rival. Yet it led to the very evil the religious leaders said they were trying to avoid, namely, the destruction of Israel. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, He cried, “If only you had known the path to peace this day; but you have completely lost it from view! Days will come upon you when your enemies…will wipe you out…because you failed to recognize the day of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44). This prophesy was fulfilled in 70 A.D., when the Roman armies leveled Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, leaving not one stone on another.

God, however, ultimately did mean Jesus’ death for good, even as He had ultimately meant Joseph’s slavery in Egypt for good (see Genesis 50:19-20). Even though Caiaphas, the high priest, was not worthy of his office, God still turned his words to prophesy. “(He did not say this on his own. It was rather as high priest for that year that he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation–and not for this nation only, but to gather into one all the dispersed children of God).” (John 11:51-52).

“To gather into one all the dispersed children of God…” That’s what God promised to do through Ezekiel, except this is expanded in scope. The Israelites aren’t the only children of God. Jesus has already pointed out that when it comes to the spiritual life, we choose our parentage. The Pharisees who rejected Jesus had made themselves children of the devil by that very choice (John 8:44). We become children of God when we receive His Holy Spirit in Baptism (see Acts 2:38 & Galatians 4:6-7). God will gather us into one as we daily cooperate with the grace of our Baptism, as we live up to our status as His adopted children under His authority. He won’t force us. In fact, others will try to force us to leave Him. In Matthew 10:17, Jesus assures us, “They will hale you into court, they will flog you in their synagogues.” And in verse 34: “My mission is not to spread peace, but division. I have come to set a man at odds with his father, a daughter with her mother…in short, to make a man’s enemies those of his own household.”

There will be peace and unity among the children of God, but there will be division between those who live as God’s children, who obey His voice, and those who don’t. Only in Heaven will that division be finalized, the separation eternal, and the peace complete. In the meantime, God allows His children to suffer from this division for the salvation of their own souls and for the souls of those who oppose them, that at least some might be saved (see Romans 9:2-3, II Corinthians 11:23-30, II Peter 3:9, etc.). We tread the royal road to Heaven, in the footsteps of our Master, under the weight of the cross.

May the joy that has been set before us spur us on to the unity of holiness.

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