By Chris Dodds
I loved Chris Stroup’s reflection yesterday and reading about his son’s question about why superheroes wear their underpants on the outside. Picking up from that theme as I reflect on today’s reading from Ezekiel, I ask myself, why is it that I am so often the one who wants to be wearing the superhero underpants? Why am I so quick to assume that superhero role? Perhaps it’s our culture of self-help, self-esteem and self-actualization - a cultural priority on making our own names great?
Prior to my walk with the Lord I was right into the self-help movement. I had a bunch of CDs, DVDs and books and knew well the call to “awaken the giant within”, and “perceive, believe and achieve”. Perhaps one DVD title summed up the overall message best: “If it is to be it is up to me!” That’s right. I was the superhero with ultimate responsibility for my life, and therefore the one who got to wear the underpants on the outside (figuratively anyway…). It was all about making my own name great. When strolling through life with such a mindset, the gospel proclamation comes like quite the slap across the face, for it calls us to forfeit our sense of self-righteousness or any claim to being self-made, and to fully accept that our deepest need is to actually have something done on our behalf.
We can see this clearly in our reading this morning. In just seven verses (23-30) YHWH lists 12 things that He will do to his people (and lest they mistakenly think it’s for their glory, he makes it very clear that it’s not – it’s about the honor and the holiness of his great name (v22, 23).
He will vindicate the holiness of His great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and He will take Israel from the nations and gather them from all the countries and bring them into their own land. He will sprinkle clean water on them, and clean them from their uncleannesses, He will cleanse them from their idols, He will give them a new heart, He will put within them a new spirit, and He will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. He will put his Spirit within them, and cause them to walk in his statutes and be careful to obey his rules. He will be their God and He will deliver them from all their uncleannesses. He will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon them, and He will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that they may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.
Self help tells us that we have to fix ourselves, improve ourselves, create our own righteousness – whether that be through wealth, appearances, career success, relational success, power or any other thing of perceived cultural value. We will be righteous if we just do better. For God’s people, righteousness was to love God with their whole heart, mind, soul and strength, to have eyes to see what God had done and to walk in faith in light of this, and to have ears to hear and obey. But as Moses declared to them in Deuteronomy 29:4, the Lord hadn’t given them a mind to understand, eyes to see or ears to hear. No amount of self-help was going to save them or us from our sins. As people “born in Adam” their issue, like ours, was their heart, which has had evil intentions from their youth (E.g. Gen 8:21). Although in times of trouble they would cry out for deliverance from their enemies, the thing they (and we) actually need deliverance from is our sin. But it’s beyond our own abilities to do this in our own strength as much as we may “perceive, believe and achieve”. The great news that the prophet Ezekiel proclaims is that God promises to do what they cannot. He will gather, and restore, and produce flourishing. He will cleanse us and deliver us from our uncleanness and our sins, and He will take away our disgrace. He, through Jesus, will perform this great high priestly role. He will not simply circumcise our hearts, but he will replace our sinful hearts and empower us to walk in obedience through the pouring out of his Spirit.
So what do his people get to do in response? According to the text, “remember their evil ways, and their deeds that were not good, and loathe themselves for their iniquities and their abominations” (v31) and “be ashamed and confounded for their ways” (v32). Hmmm. Self-loathing and shame - not two applications I usually expect from a time of morning devotion, so what’s with that? Well, the gospel ought to produce humility in us. It ought to produce a loathing of our old self, and our old ways, and it ought to produce shame at the way we defamed the name of God. But the good news also declares that in Christ, we are no longer our old selves, we are new creations. He even took our shame to the cross. He has cleansed us from our sins and has given us his Spirit so that we are enabled to walk in his statutes and obey him. Yes, there is still the paradox of human agency being involved in this, but the priority is on God’s grace and not me.
As I said earlier this is a real slap in the face if I’m intent on being the hero of my own story and on making my own name great, but if I can repent of that and acknowledge one greater than myself, then it’s great news. This morning then I’m reminded that much as I might delude myself, I’m really not the superhero in this story. And that's really rather freeing in this self-obsessed world. So no more playing Captain Underpants for me. In fact, in response to the gospel, let’s all keep our underpants on the inside today.