At Vineville, several years ago, a little girl came down to take communion along with everyone else. When the little girl reached the pastor holding the cup, she looked up at the him and asked a simple sounding question. See, she’d been listening carefully to the Great Thanksgiving that the pastor had just spoken. She heard clearly when the pastor said, “make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,” as he prayed over the bread and wine. So, as she looked up at the pastor holding the cup, she asked,
“Is that real blood?”
The pastor chuckled and said, “no, dear.” The little girl didn’t miss a beat, quickly responding, “Then I don’t want any.” And walked off without dipping her bread.
That’s a child-like faith seeking understanding.
In the medieval era, during the same Great Thanksgiving that the little girl heard, members of churches would hear the priest saying the same phrase, in Latin, when lifting up the bread. As the priest said the phrase and lifted the bread on high, a deacon would ring a bell, signaling that the bread had become the body of Christ. The people believed that the bread became the actual body of Christ at this moment, so what they were witnessing seemed very magical indeed.
In this era, the priest faced east, with his back to the people, so what the people heard was muffled Latin, a language most didn’t know anyway. Thus, when the priest said “Hoc est corpus meum,” which in Latin means “This is my body,” the people in the crowd heard “hocus pocus.” They knew these words had magic power, and so the tradition began that, by saying hocus pocus, you could make magic things happen.
That’s a child-like faith seeking understanding.
And that’s what we examine this morning. Let’s hear a word from the prophet Ezekiel.
Sitting in Babylon, the exiles from Judah seek their own understanding. Because of the sins of their forebears, former Kings, priests, and leaders of Judean society, the people in Ezekiel’s text find themselves captive in a foreign city; and not just any foreign city, but the capital of their hated enemy, the one that had conquered Jerusalem: Babylon.
By the time of this writing, many of the initial exiles have passed on. That means their children, a people who did not commit the iniquity that got them in exile, think they should be allowed to return home. Afterall, it was their parents sin, not their own, that caused this trouble. Why should they be punished for the sins of their parents?
Yet, they’re still stuck in exile, still in Babylon, still waiting. And so, after years of questioning why they’re being punished for the sins of the previous generation, they’re left bitter. The people say to each other, “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” a common expression to convey their bitterness about life, like when we say, “life’s hard, and then you die.” They’re a bitter people, bitter because of their parents’ iniquity that they claim is keeping them in captivity, set on edge because of the harshness of their present reality.
Their bitterness forms into a central question directed as a prayer: God, why are you unfair?
That’s a question that comes from a child-like faith seeking understanding.
A child-like faith, as we typically understand it, is one that has no room for doubt, no room for questions; simply accepts God as God is. It comes to us from Matthew 18, where Jesus responds to the question “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” In characteristic fashion, Jesus stuns the disciples and the crowd with his answer. He calls a child to come to him and tells the gathered people, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (v.4) Children in Jesus’s time, as in the time of Ezekiel, were regarded as inferior, shunned, to be seen and not heard. Their society treated children much the opposite of our society.
In welcoming the child, saying to the disciples and the crowd that the greatest in the kingdom are those who humble themselves like children, Jesus is saying that the greatest in the kingdom are those whom society has labelled inferior and rejected or shunned.
Over the course of time, we’ve tended as a faith to emphasize the humble part of Jesus’s comments, growing the thought that a child-like faith is one that humbly accepts God for who God is, that without question accepts God’s ways as good, even if the moment is bad, a faith that can always run to God in the midst of trouble, no matter if we think God is responsible, a faith that eschews doubt and the questions that come with it.
A child-like faith, as we typically understand it, is one that has no room for doubt, no room for questions; simply accepts God as God is.
But that’s not the kind of faith we’ve seen in the examples so far this morning. And it’s not the kind of faith that characterizes the people in Ezekiel.
They allege to God that God is unfair. That’s not accepting God as God is.
They question God’s heart by questioning how long God will punish them for the sins of their forebears. That’s not a faith that accepts God without question.
They are bitter for their current condition. That’s not a faith that always runs to God in the midst of trouble.
As I read the text, I thought that they simply needed a child-like faith. Accept that God knows what God is doing. Trust that God is in control. Believe that God has your best intentions at heart. Such will erase bitterness and ease the burden of the moment, for who can really comprehend God’s timing?
This idea, that the people of Ezekiel simply needed to embrace a child-like faith, rang in my head until I remembered a moment from a few years ago. On a particular morning, heading to school, Dana and Jack took the convertible.
It was a beautiful morning that would develop into a beautiful fall day. I suggested to Dana that she and Jack take the convertible to school that morning instead of her minivan. She and Jack loved the idea and excitedly took the convertible on their regular commute to Cochran. Carter and I waived goodbye to them and then got ourselves ready to head to Lolly’s and work.
When I brought Carter, all of two or three, home from Lolly’s that day, he saw Dana’s van parked in the carport. As we walked in the house, he yelled “I home!” And got no response. He ran into the kitchen, saw it was empty, and then looked at me and said, “Van home, mom jack not home. Where mom jack?”
The van being home inspired belief that Dana and Jackson would be home as well. But they weren’t. So he started questioning things.
What child doesn’t do that? When I was a child, about Carter’s age, I apparently didn’t pick up on language quickly, but one phrase I knew very well: “what’s that?” I went around, pointing at everything, saying “what’s that?” I was curious, and I questioned everything I saw.
Life begins that way for most of us, and as we get older, we continue to question things. Why do I have to do homework? Why do I have to go to practice? Why do I have to go to church?
And as we enter adolescence, the questions get deeper. Why did I lose my friend? Why did my boyfriend break up with me? Why doesn’t she like me anymore? Why isn’t my family at peace? Why do they have more money? Why is life easier for them?
These questions come from a place of pain, a recognition of suffering in the world that we awaken to during our teenage years. Which raises the tough questions of adulthood: Why is there suffering in the world? Why am I here? Why is my life harder than my friend who has enough money, or who hasn’t lost a child, or who didn’t suffer through chemo, or who doesn’t have problem children?
And if we ask those questions enough, we start to wonder about God. Why would God let me suffer? Why does God have me here? Does God have any purpose for my life? Why has God made my life harder than my friends?
Why, God, are you unfair?
Is it any wonder the ancient Judeans were asking the same question? Why, God, are you unfair? These babylonians have it all. Luxurious lifestyle, safe from warfare. They eat like princes, they live in the most beautiful city in the world, they have this amazing hanging garden, and their king is super powerful. They have everything, and we’re stuck with nothing, living with them against our will, longing for our homeland. Haven’t we been punished enough for the sins of our parents and grandparents?
Why, God, are you unfair?
That question, that challenge to God, is a child-like faith seeking understanding.
What child doesn’t ask a million questions seeking deeper understanding? Like the little girl who asked her pastor, “is that real blood?” we want to know more about God, about the faith we have, and so we naturally ask questions. We seek understanding, like children running around saying hocus pocus hoping to have the magic power they suppose the priest to have.
And so they, like all children, ask questions, seeking to lend understanding to their faith.
Even the hard questions of life: why am I here, why am I suffering and others are not, why is God unfair? These come from a deep place within us, an emotionally and spiritually honest place, that genuinely wants to understand.
And that impulse, that child-like impulse to want to understand, to want to know, is what deepens our faith.
Not that child-like faith doesn’t include the aspects we listed before of humble acceptance of who God is, of running to God when things get tough; it does include those things. But just like all children, sometimes we find it difficult to run to our parents when things get tough, sometimes we find it challenging to accept our parents for who they are. And in those moments, when questions naturally arise, a child-like faith embraces the questions and dares to bring them before God.
Consider this: if that wasn’t true, if God didn’t want our questions, then God’s response to the people in Ezekiel would have been a rebuke of their questions, a rejection of their vulnerability, by telling them that God is God and no one should dare question that.
Instead, God patiently explains why he is fair. God is fair because punishment will only come to the person who did the sinning, not to the parents or some other generation. If that person repents, forgiveness comes swiftly based solely on that repentance. God will be judge; that much is clear from the end of the text. God will not give up what is firmly God’s job. But God will be a fair judge, not holding sin against the children or parents of an individual, nor holding the sins of a previous generation against the current one. The individual, or the current generation, simply needs to repent to discover not only forgiveness, but healing for their bitterness and healing of their relationship with God.
In taking such time to respond, in patiently addressing their questions, God demonstrates that questioning, and doubt, is a vital part of a child-like faith, because a child-like faith is one that seeks understanding.
I wonder, this morning, if you find yourself like the Judeans in Ezekiel: confused, bitter, questioning God, doubtful of God’s goodness? Or perhaps you just have questions, no matter how mundane, that you’d like God to answer.
If that’s not you this morning, I wonder if you can remember back to a time when that was you? If our faith is real and authentic, we have all had these moments. How did they resolve? Are those moments resolved, or did you just decide to stop asking questions?
As a people who all have those nagging questions, the call on our lives is to embrace a child-like faith that seeks understanding. St. Anselm, a great hero of the church who lived almost a thousand years ago, coined the phrase “faith seeking understanding,” to describe the life Christians should live. Doubt, those nagging questions, for Anselm and still for us today, is the fertile soil in which faith grows.
So bring your questions before God like the people in Ezekiel. Honestly ask God the questions on your heart, no matter how mundane or how much vulnerability is risked. For the people in Ezekiel, they dared to risk their vulnerability in asking God the hard questions, those that come from the deepest part of ourselves, from the depths of our souls. Questions like: why does God allow us to suffer? Why does God allow our children to stray? Why does God allow our parents to grow sick? Why does God allow our health to decline? Why does God allow our finances to falter? Why is God unfair?
When we open ourselves up, God is good to come into the midst of our questioning, offering his healing presence in our lives, helping us find not always an answer, but, always addressing our questions, patiently walking the questioning journey with us, and providing along the way direction, peace, and comfort.
But if we have unconfessed sin in our lives, if the questions we’re asking God relate to a sin we’re keeping hidden, that sin can inhibit our receptivity to hear God addressing our questions. We first need to ask God’s forgiveness for that sin, freely confessing its presence in our lives, to receive the direction, comfort, and peace, we find when we approach God with our questions. We must be willing and ready to confess our sins and repent.
That’s what the people of Ezekiel aren’t doing: they aren’t repenting for the sins in their lives. It’s not clear from the text what those sins are, but God, as righteous judge, tells the people that their own sins are the barrier that’s inhibiting their reception to God’s healing and forgiveness. They must choose to repent, a word that means to literally do a 180, changing direction from their sin to do the opposite, in order to hear God addressing their questions. Through the empowerment of God’s grace, we can make such choices and turn around from our sins, and discover God addressing our questions.
When we choose to bring our questions before God, and repent of our sins, we choose a child-like faith that seeks understanding. We choose to live the life of faith the way God designed it. We don’t always get an answer, but God is faithful to address our questions, providing direction, comfort, and peace in the process. Our child-like faith that seeks understanding takes us deeper into the heart of our Father.
A child-like faith that seeks understanding is the call on our lives. Question, doubt, and in the process, repent of your sins. That is the process of seeking after God, and when we seek, we open ourselves to receive God’s peace, comfort, healing, and direction, waiting for us. That’s the promise of the God who always addresses our questions. That’s the promise of the God who loves us.
Repent. Bring to God all your questions, even ones like “why are you unfair?” Choose this day a child-like faith that seeks understanding.
In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.