These words were delivered earlier this month during a service that, after a two-year building restoration project, marked Metropolitan AME Church’s return to hosting two Sunday services. We’re living in era when so many people are really struggling just to survive -- homelessness, hunger, loss of jobs, families in distress, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes. The mission of the church is to assure people that they can make it, that we will survive. We are pleased to now be available to a wider population, and to lend ourselves to the community with a choice of times as we seek to encourage and strengthen people who are thirsting for a word of encouragement. These two services will now provide an opportunity for people to come at various times and provide options to the community.
Some years ago, I read about the life of a preacher whose world had collapsed due to his own lust and sinful lifestyle. At one point in his ministry he had, in every sense of the word, reached the pinnacle with a mega church status. When his immoral and adulterous activities caught up with him and became public, it was not long before catastrophe set in and his whole world fell apart. He lost his family, his church, and the respect of his community. It was some years later that he wrote a book, Rebuilding Your Broken World.
Historians will probably write of the 21st century that the early years were marked with amazing advances in technology, health, science and communication. Further, they will write that the early years were an era of catastrophes— bloody terrorism; earthquakes in unfamiliar pockets of the world; destructive hurricanes; devastating floods and tsunamis; severe droughts and famine; raging fires; massive hunger, homelessness, sickness and disease; amazing governmental upheaval, and this list would go on and on.
Let me suggest that there are at least three common human responses to a catastrophe. There are those who live in denial and refuse to accept or even acknowledge what has happened. They respond to the event by pretending and living as if nothing has happened. Then there are those who live drained, drowned and paralyzed in despair. For them it is as if their world and life has come to an end. Nothing makes any sense, they no longer function productively or are even willing to make an effort to look or reach beyond that strike on their lives. Then finally, there is that rare breed which, with some hint of the other two responses, makes every effort to quickly rise above the catastrophe, turn life around, and go to work at rebuilding life and what was broken.
With these words we enter the ministry, prophesy and world of the prophet Ezekiel, (1:1) “When I was thirty years of age, I was living with the exiles on the Kebar River. On the fifth day of the fourth month, the sky opened up and I saw visions of God.” In the opening lines of our text (33:7), Ezekiel is called upon by God to warn a people whose rebellious lifestyles in opposition to God’s ways had brought them to a very broken state of being. Their adulterous, blasphemous, and immoral lives had caused them to loose everything. Both the people and the prophet are living in an era marked by a devastating catastrophe. Enslaved in Babylonia, hands figuratively tied, they stood idly as captors under a foreign rule. Most are living with a mixture of denial and despair. Some have closed their eyes, looking away and living questioningly, “How could this happen to us?” They were living in denial and despair, paralyzed by devastation and catastrophe -- servitude in exile-- brought upon them because they had turned their backs on the God who raised them up as a people and a nation. For many, the concluding and most threatening question was whether or not life had come to an end. Was there any reason, purpose or hope in starting all over again from the heap of nothingness? There seemed to be no refuge as the world as they knew it had completely fallen apart. Their homeland had been ravaged; their homes destroyed; the lives of family members had been lost in a brutal war. Humbled and bowed by their present state of affairs they sank under a yoke of deflated egos. They longed for a return to a life that has some meaning and purpose. Verse 10 best describes this sentiment, “We are wasting away…How can we go on living?”
It was in this climate and under this backdrop that the prophet Ezekiel is challenged by God to rise up (the third human response) with a warning and a message from the Lord. God warns the prophet that if he does not speak then their blood will be on his hands; however, if he speaks and they don’t heed the word of God, then their blood will be on their own hands. Ezekiel knew that just about everything had been lost—people, property, place and worst of all the temple of God. From the anguish, pain and depth of denial and despair of a people and nation who could see no tomorrow and no way out, certain that death would possibly be better, the prophet speaks. In essence he says, “Before you give up…”
Let me suggest that that word of yesteryear is a word for President Obama, a word for those of us who are experiencing all kinds of suffering and loss, a word for the despondent and those who are almost ready to give up…”Before you give up...”
Increasingly every day, as a country, communities, families and individuals, we face the prospect of living either in denial or deep despair. The question of survival is on most of our minds. It’s a frightful and fearful time in which we live. What’s next—recession or depression; total government upheaval; a natural catastrophe that will totally change our way of life; complete or total collapse of all things as we know them?
The prophet says to us, “Before you give up, I want to suggest a few things. (1) Abandon defeatism. Look at the defeatist posture of the people in verse 10, “Our rebellions and sins are weighing us down. We’re wasting away. How can we go on living?” Before you give up on your condition, before you give up on that family member, before you give up on that job (you ought to be shouting that you have one) , before you give up on the President or Congress, you must abandon the evil spirit, enemy, and monster of defeatism. Too quickly we can fall victim to this monster and enemy of life and come to the false resolution that there is nothing we can do about anything. The spirit of defeatism is possibly one of the worst obstacles that will bring a life to a screeching halt. If you want to go nowhere, want to achieve none of your goals or ambitions, just surrender to defeatism. Before you give up on anything or anyone, abandon defeatism and remember one of my mother’s favorite hymns, “Only believe, only believe, all things are possible if you only believe.” Jesus spends a lot of time talking about faith, teaching about believing in God—faith the size of a mustard seed, faith moving mountains, faith feeding a large crowd, faith healing the sick and raising the dead. Abandon defeatism, have faith and believe once again.
Here are the second and third things you might want to consider before you give up. First trust and believe that all God wants and intends for you is a life of love, abundance and good will. Death is not God’s plan. Life is God’s intent. Again, look at verse 11, “I am the living God, I take no pleasure for death…Change your ways and live.” Before you give up, know and trust that the God that we serve and worship is a God who is the chief advocate for life and the supreme enemy of death. God desires for all of creation a full, blessed, favored and meaningful life. God is the enemy of anything that would destroy life. Before you give up, trust Jesus when he says, “I’ve come that you might have life…” One of the interesting things about Jesus is how he was repulsed by death. Every time he encountered death, he spoke life—the mother’s dead son, Lazarus, the man in the cemetery, the woman with the issue of blood, the man at the pool of Bethesda. Before you give up, know that a renewed, full and perfect life is to be found (can only be found) in Jesus. And only sin can rob you of that life. Paul was absolutely correct, “The wages of sin is death…” And the resurrection of Jesus put its claim on our lives even in our physical death. Hear him when he says, “Whosoever believes in me shall not die but live...
Finally, before you give up, reclaim and or reaffirm your life in the Lord. Look at verse 11B, “Why die, Israel? Turn your life around! Reverse your evil ways.” In other words, come back to God, draw closer to God, reclaim God as the center of your existence, and reaffirm God as the Lord or your life. Part of the dilemma that Israel faced was that the temple, which represented to her the dwelling place of God, had been destroyed and she lived and felt cut off from God. Before you give up, know that nothing can cut you off from the spirit and power of God. God dwells in God’s holy place, God dwells in the holiness of his people and God dwells in you. And if you call Him up, He will come. Call Him up and if you doubt me just ask Moses standing in front of the Red Sea. Call Him up and if you doubt just ask Joshua walking around the walls of Jericho. Call Him up and if you doubt just ask Daniel sitting all night in a lion’s den. Call Him up and if you doubt ask Jesus nailed on a cross between 2 thieves. I suspect that there are some witnesses in here who can stand and testify that if you live in the Lord, before you give up, if you call Him up he will hear your cry and come to your aid.
The Rev. Dr. Ronald Braxton is the senior pastor at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.