“My Dwelling Place Shall be with Them”: Ezekiel and the Temple

“My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Ezekiel 37:27

In 587 the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and with it, the people of Israel are driven into exile in Babylon. The temple is gone and so is the center of worship life for the people of Israel. “worship life” is a bit misleading. The collapse of the temple signifies a loss of collective identity for the people–who they are and whose they are–their identity is under fire. Almost fifteen years later, Ezekiel (covered in chapters 36–48) has a vision in which the temple is rebuilt. The vision is highly detailed, the dimensions of the temple, it’s length and breadth, how everything is organized within the four walls. Twelve chapters. It is a vision of hope for a people who have been separated from their place of worship. This text and it’s part in the story, merits our attention, because it has quite a bit to say about God, what God wants for the people of Israel and for the world, and the prophetic task.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider this larger context of exile. In the Psalms, the people sing from Babylon: “How can we sing the Lord’s Song in a foreign land?” When the people are in exile, they wonder what it means to remain God’s people. At the time it was understood that being conquered by another people, signaled that one’s God was conquered too. The people of Israel had been overcome. The temple of God lay in ruins. So, the people must have doubted and wondered about the strength of their God. They must have wondered if they had it all wrong. Was YHWH really God over Israel and the whole world? “How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?” How can we be assured that God is God apart from where we have come from?

The chapters which cover the dimensions of the temple are no walk in the park, but neither are the first 30-something chapters of Ezekiel which include his prophetic oracles against Israel and predictions of destruction and exile. Go, Ezekiel claims, is still God, but the people have strayed and are under God’s judgement. See how this undermines the understanding above–God isn’t weaker than another God because the people of Israel are in exile. God judges Israel and has sent it into exile. The people who have hard hearts are being transformed through their experience of exile: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (ch. 36).

bergen_marienkirche_-_fresko_propheten_2a

By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

After all that Ezekiel rails against, he still ends with the hopeful proclamation that God will make all things well. Consider the text below excerpted from this more hopeful section on rebuilding the temple:

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.

Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, “Mortal, have you seen this?”

Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.

Ezekiel 47:1-12 (NRSV)

 

This vision of the temple takes on another layer of meaning for Christians later on. If one compares the description of the temple vision in Ezekiel to John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, the similarities are striking. Indeed, John pretty clearly borrows from Ezekiel’s vision. A key difference is that John’s vision includes all of Jerusalem, a city for all people. Ezekiel’s vision is of the temple for the people of Israel in exile.

Read the last paragraph of the text excerpt above. Ezekiel’s vision–a river flowing under the throne of God, a river of life teeming with life emerges out of the rubble of the temple in Jerusalem. A river of life which gives life to trees which bear fruit for the healing of the nations. In the midst of exile, the hope of a vision of the temple rebuilt must have inspired hope. What hope does this story and the story of the New Jerusalem give us now?

Hear the Word

There is a lot you might focus on in this story, but don’t get bogged down or stuck in the details of the temple rebuilding–the people were far from God, God wanted them to be transformed and remember what kind of people they were supposed to be. The exile is supposed to teach them that and while they are in exile, they start to dream about everything being right again.

You could share a little bit about the history of exile with your class (simple. Similar to what I have done above). You could talk about how the people went into exile because God needed to get their attention. Their hearts were hard! God needed to make them soft (“hearts of flesh”) to open them up and make them the kind of people God wanted them to be.

You might choose to focus on the dreams the people had of returning home and building the temple. They wanted a special place where they could acknowledge and worship God together again. Perhaps you are most interested in the way one of these themes connects with what our kids know about church and how we worship God. Finally, you may be interested in how we are still waiting in some sense for Christ to come again and with him to bring the New Jerusalem. What might our dreams look like now? How might be get ready for such an incredible mystery.

Respond to the Word

  1. Saint John’s Bible Illumination: Like last week’s lesson, there is an illumination in the Saint John’s Bible for this text. We have the lovely (and quite large) book that I put out on the white table in the commons, but the image is linked above. This illumination panel shows a bird’s eye view of the temple. Spend some time with the image. What does the picture tell us about the temple (students might note it’s size, beauty, or if they notice the gold themes, they may mention how special it is). Discuss the function of a temple–a place to gather in community, sacrifice, give gifts to God or share gifts with the community. Your class might like to move from this conversation to creating your own temple illuminations. Use squares of tissue paper and small touches of gold acrylic paint. Ask students to create something beautiful, something they could only dream of, and something that reminds them of how beautiful God is.
  2. Rebuilding the temple: Younger children can focus on what it means that the temple was built and then destroyed. Use the cardboard blocks (in the supply closet nearest the nursery) to build a simple temple. You may also want to borrow a basket of play silks from the nursery to make the temple curtain and the holy of holies.In groups or as a class, build a temple (you can show pictures, or students can build a small square room with an altar in the middle. We have enough blocks for something simple like that) before knocking it over.
  3. A place dedicated to God: Ezekiel spends a great deal of time describing what the temple looks like. All of the dimensions are downright tedious. This text can help remind us of how the space in which we worship God is important and special. We give utmost care to creating and maintaining the space.
    1. Take a class field trip to the Nave. Walk around the Nave together and see if students can take note of all of the details in our worship space.
      1. Older students might enjoy taking notebooks, journals, or sketchbooks to the Nave and writing or sketching all that they see. Wonder together about what our space says about God, about us, and about our worship of God.
      2. Younger children may like to go up to the Nave and measure different parts of it in number of steps. How many steps does it take to make it across the back of the Nave? Down the aisle? About how many steps across is the front of the chancel? Please remember to ask the children to respect the space, avoid running around, and to be peaceful and reverent.
    2. Use art supplies to create a space in which the worship of God might happen. After learning about the temple in Ezekiel and the Nave in which we worship God, can students carefully design their own space? How is the space shaped? Where does everyone face? Are there leaders? Where do they sit? Are people still in the space? Do they move around a great deal? Where do they go? See what themes emerge from the account of Ezekiel and the liturgy.
  4. This coloring page on Ezekiel would make a fine opening activity as your class gathers. You may also choose to send it home with the students.
  5. Heart of Stone: Your class might like to play with this image and paint hearts on rocks. Perhaps Ezekiel could be painted on the side opposite the heart. What is a heart of stone anyway? What other “hard hearts” are in the Bible? (Pilate and Pharaoh were two I thought of that the students might know well).
  6. River of Life: Does the river from the text above intrigue you at all? I love that this same refrain, “leaves for the healing of the nations” shows up again in revelation. I also love that this theme of life out of death and destruction emerges again, just like our lesson last week. A stagnant and shallow puddle becomes a clear flowing stream that produces and supports life–vegetation, fish, and healing of a nation.
  7. Memorization: Ezekiel 37:27 repeats an important refrain in the Old Testament–the people belong to God. God dwells with them: “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Use memorization strategies that are appropriate for your age group and invite your class to learn this text together. What does it mean to belong to God?

Share a Feast and Closing Prayer

 

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“Seek Him who made the Pleiades and Orion”: Amos 5

amos-prophet

For such a short book, Amos packs a pretty big punch. A pre-exilic prophet (that is, before the exile happens), Amos warns the people that their time living as they–prosperous and secure, is short. They have not been living as God intended for them to live together. They are not loving God fully. They are not loving their neighbor as they ought. The people and their rulers are taking advantage of the poor. In short, they worship God with their sacrifices and offerings, but their heart is far from God. God wants their heart.

At first reading of Amos 5, you may recognize the difficulty of our task. Reading Amos and many of the prophets is very difficult. Most of the prophetic works are poetry. They are not as story driven and they depend heavily on historical context and the use of metaphor, two things that can be very difficult for young students. On the flip side, these texts are rich with imagery and symbol that build on so much of what we have seen about God in our other stories. it seems a shame to miss such a great opportunity to talk about justice as Amos provides. As you read though Amos 5, select only a couple of verses on which your class might focus (I suggest verse 8 since it is in the BCP and verse 24 since it will be quite familiar).

Our opportunities for engagement with these kinds of texts are (at least) four-fold, then. First, we can learn about the prophet and their life outside of the Biblical text we have for a particular week (so, this week you will see and activity that focuses on learning about the life of Amos). Second, we can see how the story about the prophet or the text helps us better understand the role of the prophet. Third, we can start to work with images that may be meaningful for the students. Finally, we can use the text to reflect on practices in the Christian tradition (this text, for example, offers the opportunity to discuss the practice of lament as well as thinking about a line of Scripture that is oft read in evening prayer). So many opportunities! Okay, before we move on to the responses, one more thing to discuss.

This is a pretty dark text and the judgement is thick. Two questions I learned to ask in preaching classes are “what is the good news in this text?” and “what does this text say about God?”. So, what is the good news? This text tells us that God loves and cares for the poor and vulnerable. That God loves and desires justice. We may be powerful, but the children in our care are not–God loves, cares for, and wants justice for them. The second bit of good news: when we walk away from God, God goes to great lengths to bring us back. God desires that the people of God are transformed into greater love of God and one another. Now this is something we can focus on in Church School!

Hear the Word

Please share the story of Amos with your class. We know very few details about Amoses life and  Amos is not in any of our children’s Bibles. Instead of reading all of Amos chapter 5, perhaps focus on one verse: 5:8 or 5:24 are good possibilities.

Respond to the Word

  1. Biography of Amos: Explore some of the information about Amoses life. He is a sheep-herder, a fig farmer, and a poet. He is from the Northern Kingdom. He is one of the first prophets who has an account of his call (rather than his being in the family business). Amos is neither a prophet or son of a prophet. From these biographical points, students in your class might enjoy working on an activity on sheep herding, fig trees, or maps of Israel and Judah. You may also want to look of images and icons of Amos, like the one above or here. Create your own image of Amos and write words from the story around him (justice, etc.).
  2. The Prophets: Did your class create a poster of what a prophet is from our Nathan lesson? What do you notice about Amos as a prophet? How is he similar to some of the other prophets we have covered? How is he different? What does he emphasize? Some possibilities for Amos: he wrote a book instead of their being stories about him within a larger book (like Nathan and Elijah), he speaks to God’s people through poetry, he is speaking to all of the people of Israel and not only those who are in power, he focuses a lot on the poor and marginalized.
  3. Pleiades and Orion in the BCP: At evening prayer (115), the officiant begins with a sentence of Scripture. One of the sentences from which the officiant might choose is from our text today (found in Amos 5:8). This sentence orients those who pray it within the larger universe of God’s creation, a creation which cries out to and celebrates the God who made it.  Why would be begin a gathering of prayer with this declaration? What does this passage emphasize about God? Find this sentence of Scripture in the BCP. Children of writing age may enjoy copying and illustrating it to take home.

The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name […]

4. Little ones: He’s Got the World World in his hands is a great song for exploring the way God creates, cares for, and loves the whole universe. With your class, create a list of things from the passage quoted above on the board–light and the dark, planets in the sky, Pleiades and Orion, waters of the sea, etc.– that you can insert into the song. Then, list things that are made by God that worship God that may also be good in the song.

5. Justice in Amos: Perhaps you would like to focus on the overall theme of justice with your class. You could start with this coloring page of the Book of Amos. Then, as a class, come up with a list of words that mean justice. You might begin with the following prompts: How does God want us to live together? What does an image of God’s justice look like here and now?

Amos had his own image of justice: “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

6. Prophet timeline: Sometimes when we are working our way through the Bible it seems like everything is in chronological order. While this is usually the case with some of the early books of the Old Testament, it’s no true with most others. The Psalms, for example, were compiled over a very long period of time. The prophets also come at various times (some of their books seem to have been written mostly all at once, others, like Isaiah were clearly written over a long period of time by at least a couple of authors. Work through a timeline of the Biblical prophets, watch a video here (it’s short). Here are several (1, 2, 3). Create a visual timeline for your class, like this.

7. Baptism and Justice: In the liturgy of Baptism, we are asked: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” In Amoses time, the people of Israel were not answering this question affirmatively with their lives. Discuss what this question means. Where do we see injustice and a lack of fairness in our world? Where do we experience it? How does God want us to live just lives and what does our baptism have to do with it? If your class is able to identify a particular injustice in the world–a lack of care for the poor, a group of people who are denied medical care, or something else they care about, invite them to come up with a plan together. Can they do a project to comfort a group of people? Can they give to a particular outreach group at Holy Family with a small offering? Can they write letters together to their elected officials identifying the injustice they see?

Close in Prayer and with a Feast

Tales of Elijah

1668, Artist unspecified

Elijah is a pretty significant prophet, sent to bring the people of Israel back to God during a time when their hearts and practices were turning to other gods. Appearing alongside Moses at the event of the transfiguration, Elijah is significant in Jewish and Christian traditions. This week, we will work with several stories from the Elijah narratives which are found in 1 Kings 17-19.

During your preparation, read through the stories, keeping in mind your classes discussion about prophets from last week. What characteristics of the office of prophet do you notice as you read?

Hear the Story: The stories of Elijah cover three chapters and are quite long. You may select one of the stories for your class to focus on, though younger children might like to work with a montage of the stories covering most of Elijah’s ministry.

  • Elijah stories are very popular in our children’s Bibles. Find the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal under the heading “God’s Mighty Prophets: Elijah’s Showdown on the Mountain” in Jesus Calling Storybook Bible (p.110).
  • The Child’s Story Bible has the stories of Elijah from 1 Kings 17-19 under the heading “Elijah, the Stern Prophet” (beginning on page 207).
  • The Children’s Illustrated Bible find many stories of Elijah including the piece on the Prophets of Baal under the title “The Israelites turn Against God” (p. 142).
  • Covering all of the stories of Elijah are Elijah Messenger of God illustrated by Leon Baxter and Elijah: Prophet of Fire by Anne de Graaf.

Respond to the story

  1. Act it out: The Elijah stories are ripe for dramatization and children may have fun hearing about each of the stories and retelling them with costume. If you have many students in your class, divide into groups of three or four and give each group one of the stories to act out, coming back to the larger group to present the story. If you have a smaller class this week, let students select one of the stories and act it out together. Help facilitate the discussion (if needed) by asking them what they think the most important parts of the story are. Use costumes if you choose and go outside if the weather is nice!
  2. Sharing a snack/feast: Every week when we gather together, we share a simple snack–cat cookies, cheddar bunnies, or cinnamon alphabet cookies. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of time for this particular part of Church School. It’s just a bite of food as we rush out the door barely in time to make the liturgy. This week, you have a great opportunity to focus on it alongside one of our stories. In Church School, we sometimes say about the snack that it is a feast: a feast isn’t about how much you eat; rather, it is about who provides the food, who you share it with, and how you feel about it. In the wilderness, God provided the food Elijah needed in a time of famine and drought. Ravens fed him the widow shared the last of her flour and oil with Elijah. Work on the practice of sharing the feast during your class. Instead of our regular paper cups, have one of the students pass out napkins to each person at the table. After the napkin distribution, another student can put some crackers on each of the napkins. Everyone should wait to eat until all others are served. During the feast, wonder together about these stories of Elijah and food.
  3. Praying for Plenty: Elijah’s ministry is during a time of famine. Together or in small groups write prayers for those who are hungry.
  4. Raven Game: For this game, one child plays Elijah while all of the other children are ravens. Elijah sits in the middle of the circle of children and closes his/her eyes. Then the teacher selects a raven who must quietly walk to Elijah and feed him/her a cracker. Elijah then has to guess which of the ravens provided the cracker. Elijah gets three guesses. The child who gave Elijah the food is the next Elijah. Continue playing until all of the children play ravens and Elijah.
  5. Encountering God in the Silence: Read the story of God speaking to Elijah in the still small whisper and respond in one of the following ways:
    1. With younger children play the silence game. Discuss how we can listen for God in silent, still moments.
    2. With older children, set a timer for 10-15 minutes and ask them to go to go to a place (within sight) in which they might be “alone.” Ask them to listen to what they can hear in the space and listen to God. If needed, light a candle in the middle of the table on which students can focus or give each student a blank sheet of paper and one colored pencil or crayon. After the timer goes off, invite each person to share their experience. Is it possible to hear God? What might that be like? Did anyone in your class hear God? Did you?

Close in Prayer