Clean, Renewed & Empowered

Cars and vans, buses and taxis, trains and planes. They all come in for much criticism. They are noisy and polluting. They gobble up the earth’s resources and nobody wants them in their own back yard, yet we would be lost without them. We rely on them for the delivery of the parcel we ordered on line, to get to the shops, to visit friends, to go on holiday or to make it into work. They are an inescapable part of modern life which for the most part we take for granted.
What do we expect of them? What do we hope of the taxi we ordered, the bus approaching the stop or the train waiting at the station? Let me suggest three things:
That you would want it to be clean, not full of the last passenger’s rubbish or with windows so thick with grim that you can’t see out.
That you would want it to be maintained and in a safe condition to work with a driver who is qualified for the job.
That you want it to have enough fuel in it to complete the journey.
Our human bodies have much the same requirements. We generally want to be clean…or least we want other people to be clean! We need to keep healthy and receive treatment from medical services when necessary and we need to eat and drink, to be well fuelled. The same three things matter for our Christian lives too. On Thursday of last week, we remembered the ascension of Jesus, that final and significant appearance to his followers after the resurrection when he left them to get on with his mission. They are told to wait in Jerusalem until they are given power from on high. Jesus never asks anything of his people without ensuring that they have what they need to complete the journey, to do the job.
The old testament passage from Ezekiel (36.25-28) is well matched to these thoughts this morning. The prophet is speaking to his people who have been exiled from their land, who have experienced much pain, separation and devastation. Through his prophet, God is promising a return to the land, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the re-establishment of their normal way of life. But Ezekiel also hears God saying to the people that some things will be changing. The repeated sins of the past had led to the exile in the first place. Now, as God is calling them back from the countries to which they have been scattered, he is wanting to do a new thing among them; to ensure that they are fit for purpose and up for the job. We see this happening in three ways: they will be outwardly cleansed, inwardly renewed and divinely empowered. Let’s look at each in turn:
Outwardly cleansed. God declares through Ezekiel: ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean.’ (Ezekiel 36.25) Water is what we use in baptism and our usual mode of baptism is to sprinkle the water. Increasingly, we use holy water as a symbol of God’s cleansing and you may have been at service where it is liberally sprinkled over the congregation. When you enter some churches, particularly Roman Catholic ones, you will find a water ‘stoop’, small bowl of water placed near the door into which you may dip your fingers and make the sign of the cross. The medieval church made much of holy wells as places of cleansing and miracle. The most notable in this part of the world is at Holywell in Flintshire. Such use of water has nothing to do with the hygiene of the body but everything to do with the hygiene of the soul. When the bible talks of sin, it often thinks of it a dirt, as pollution, as a stain on the hearts and consciences of human beings. David prays after his indiscretions with Bathsheba in Psalm 51: ‘wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.’ (verse 2) and again ‘Purge me with hyssop (an antiseptic herb) and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ (verse 7) Clearly, this cleansing is not achieved by the act of sprinkling the water alone. When we use holy water in church outwardly and visibly, it is a sign that God is at work inwardly, doing what he promised in Ezekiel’s prophecy. For us as Christians, it is the work of Jesus, for it is his blood, spilt on the cross which atones for, which cleanses us from all sin.
But we spoke of outward cleansing and yet we have moved to talk of inward cleansing. It is our relationship with Jesus that provides for that inner cleansing which no amount of holy water will achieve, but it is also important to remember that it should be seen outwardly. It is no good having Jesus clean up our hearts while our lives remain encrusted with all the trappings of sin. The second part of Ezekiel’s verse has: ‘I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from your idols’ (verse 25) Idols were the statues and other associated rituals worshipped by other peoples which were always so tempting for God’s people because there was no statue, no visible representation of God. Idols present themselves to us in other ways for us; things which draw us away from a whole-hearted pureness in our commitment to God. Is there anything in your life which is in danger of making you less than clean.
Inwardly renewed. It was Jesus who spoke of an unclean spirit being driven out of a person wandering about until it decides to return finding the person like a house swept and in order. The unclean spirit returns and brings other demons with it. (Luke 11.24-26) The moral of Jesus’ teaching appears to be that nature abhors a vacuum. We can be cleansed from all the sin, the bad stuff in our lives, all washed, clean and swept, but if nothing good comes in to replace it, we will end up just as bad or worse. Sadly, that is the story of many peoples lives who start a relationship with Jesus but don’t allow it to develop. God says through Ezekiel: ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (verse 26) When all the sin has been cleansed out of hearts though faith in Jesus’ death on the cross, we must look for them to be remade again. For them to no longer be stony, hard and callous. Rather that they are fleshly soft hearts, soft tissue. There are places in the bible where the word ‘flesh’ is used to describe bad things. (ie Galatians 5.19) We talk of ‘sins of the flesh’. That is not the case here. The word stone and flesh are to be contrasted, the one harsh and uncaring, the other gentle and loving. Again, these words reflect David’s in Psalm 51 where he prays for a clean heart. (verse 10) He goes on to pray: ‘…and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.’ (verse 11) Jesus urged his disciples to ‘wait in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ (Luke 24.49) The promise to us is that God will renew us inwardly, blessing us with his Spirit.
Divinely empowered. Some of us are stronger than others. Our physical strength varies. Strength of mind will also fluctuate. Some will have more brain power than others. But whoever we are, we are all inclined to be weak when it comes to living out God’s life and keeping God’s standards in the world. That’s why we need the gift of God’s Spirit. Again, he says through Ezekiel: ‘And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’ (verse 27) For God’s people in the old testament living in a world where there were many worshipping idols and not living by the standards of the ten commandments, it was easy to be tempted to let God down, to cheat on others and to be lax morally. But God’s Spirit would give them the power to keep on standing up for him even when it would be unpopular. The same is true for us. Through the Holy Spirit, we can be fruitful in joy peace and love. From him, like the apostles at Pentecost, we receive gifts to enable us to do God’s work in the world.
Like our transport, we need to be clean, looking good for Jesus both inside and out. We need to be well maintained reengined with the new heart and spirit he offers. We need to be fuelled up for the journey with the power of the Spirit. May we seek these things so that God will outwardly cleanse us, inwardly renew us and divinely empower us. Easter 7 13.05.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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