“Thus says the Lord GOD: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land that I gave to my servant Jacob.” (Ezekiel 28:25 ESV)
I grew up in traditional Pentecostalism. I understand that there are many variations of Pentecostalism, but at the heart of the culture was the concept of “holiness.” This word holiness – and it’s prolific use in our churches – reminds me of a line from one of my favorite movie characters, Inigo Montoya, in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” For us, holiness consisted mostly of our power to resist the world’s temptations, not merely of sex or booze, but dark evils like bowling alleys, playing cards, Christian rock, and let’s not forget to mention every harlot’s secret weapon: lipstick! I didn’t dare step into a movie theater until I was 25 years old. After all, Jesus could come back at any moment, and did I really think he would visit those dark theaters that were a breeding ground for sin? No, we had to “come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and (so?) I will receive you.”
This life experience makes an obscure verse in Ezekiel precious to me. God’s intention to restore for himself a people and give them a new covenant also included people from all nations. The end of Israel as a national empire was not the end of God’s people. The ending of his covenant with Israel (divorce! See Jeremiah 3.8) did not spell the end of God having a covenant with man, it just opened up an opportunity for a new and better covenant! Since the time of Abraham, the “people of God” were defined by a shared genetic code – they were Hebrews. No Abramic DNA? No admission to this must exclusive of communities! Oh, the occasional “sojourner” might find his way into the Jewish community, but there would always be a sense of disconnection that came from not being born under the right conditions. The sojourner was on the outside simply by virtue of his birth, and he was powerless to do anything to himself that might qualify him for acceptance.
Doesn’t this sound like us today? Regardless of our DNA, we’ve been born under a curse, into a creation that has been subjected to futility (Romans 8.20-21). We’re born disqualified (thanks Adam!). And like the sojourner of old, there’s nothing we can do to change ourselves so that we can qualify. BUT the God of heaven is a “gathering” God, a “search and rescue” God. With the death of his Son, that old covenant was finally put to rest and a new one has been established in its stead! He now goes to all the nations of the world and gathers “Israel,” those who will be “God-ruled.” Those of us who have responded to that initiating grace of God know what it’s like to be “gathered.” Those of us who have been so blessed to see that we’re not very good at being God – who have suffered under our own rule – are very happy to be “gathered”! Those who have been drifting though this life, surrounded by people but still very much alone, have their hands uplifted in thanks to a heavenly Father who “gathers.”
But it goes beyond the gathering: the Ezekiel text says that God, the Creator and Eternal One, manifests HIS holiness IN his people in the sight of the nations! What a relief to know that holiness was never meant to be something we did, but something God manifested through us! Holiness was never meant to be a measure of one’s will power, but a manifestation of God’s mercy and faithfulness. Holiness was co-opted by people who wanted to display their morality, when all the while our Father simply wanted to reveal his essence “in the sight of the other nations.” Isn’t it a shame that when Religious Man tries to do “holiness” all the world sees is self-importance and condescension? Aside from the fact that the vast majority of the rules our sub-culture produced were based on either horrific exegesis or fear, these rules left believers with a mess of their own. As Elyse Fitzpatrick says in Because He Loves Me, “Self-improvement always results in self-loathing or pride.” (p. 55)
Jesus is not building a church that is founded on self-loathing or pride. The world around us is resistant to any presentation of the Gospel because what’s been done before them in the name of holiness has tragically had very little resemblance of God. Let us first of all be a people who are very happy in our rescue and very secure in our standing as the people of God. And out of this joy and this settled-ness, may the “otherness” of a merciful and faithful God be manifest to the world.