"How Then Shall We Live?"
Dr. Todd A. Collier,
Pastor, Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church,
Dallas, Texas
(With thanks to Lesslie C. Allen for his commentary on Ezekiel - Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 29, 1990)

?The residents of Gettysburg had little reason to feel satisfaction with the war machine that had churned up their lives,? writes Gary Wills.  Though General Meade lost as many troops as General Lee? ?Both sides, leaving fifty thousand dead or wounded or missing behind them, had reason to maintain a large pattern of pretense about this battle ? Lee pretending that he was not taking back to the South a broken cause, Meade that he not let the broken pieces fall through his fingers. 

It would have been hard to predict that Gettysburg, out of all this muddle, these missed chances, all the senseless deaths, would become a symbol of national purpose, pride, and ideals.  Abraham Lincoln transformed the ugly reality into something rich and strange ? and he did it with 272 words. 

The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration.  Lincoln?s train arrived toward dusk in Gettysburg.  There were still coffins stacked at the station.  Early in the morning Lincoln took a carriage ride to the battle sites.  He was still wearing a mourning band on his hat for his dead son.  Those on the raised platform were hemmed close in by standing crowds. 

The platform was set at some distance from the burial operations.  Only a third of the expected bodies had been buried, and those under fresh mounds.  When Lincoln rose, it was with a sheet or two from which he read: 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.  

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.  

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us?that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion?that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

?How then shall we live?? Now that we?ve experienced the sword of terror.

?There is a flow to history and culture,? writes Francis Schaeffer:

This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people.  People are unique in the inner life of the mind ? what they are in their thought world determines how they act.  This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity.  It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives.  The results of their thought world flow through their fingers or from their tongues into the external world.  This is true of Michelangelo?s chisel, and it is true of a dictator?s sword. 

?As a man thinketh, so is he,? says Proverbs. Now more than ever, having tasted the sword of catastrophic terror, what we think about the world will determine how we live. Our family systems, our social and religious systems, the culture in which we live, with all of its marketing and advertising systems, all are forces that influence our inner world, and thus our way of life. Add to this a dimension of terror and you have a pretty strong mix.  But, says Schaeffer, ?An individual is not just the product of the forces around him.  He has a mind, an inner world.? The outer theater of action, though powerful as it may seem, must not be allowed to control, damage or manipulate the inner world.

St. Paul says, ?Do not be conformed to this world (don?t let the world squeeze you into its mold); but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.? The inner thought world determines the outward action.

I loved the scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The scene is Shawshank Prison and the inmates are all in their prison garb gathered at tables eating their daily ration called dinner. Andy Dufresne, a banker wrongly accused of murdering his wife, sits down to eat after having just spent the last month in solitary confinement. His fellow prisoners ask him how he did it; how he maintained his level of sanity in such harsh solitary conditions.  He says, ?by listening to Mozart.? They said, ?they let you have one of those record players in there?? He points to his mind and says, ?No, it?s all up here.? ?No matter what they do to you, they can?t take that away from you??

?You can get busy living, or get busy dying.?

Victor Frankl spent two-and-a-half years in Nazi concentration camps. Evil had captured the European world with the Nazi reign of terror. In the realm of death, says Frankl, one can escape from death only by living. 

It was in the Nazi realm of death that Victor Frankl concluded that a human being cannot be denied the ultimate freedom of choice: one?s attitude about life and its purpose. In sum, circumstances do not control who we are or who we become.

Going back to biblical times, the Romans in many ways were an advanced society.  But they had no real answers to the basic problems of humanity. Their gods (godlets) were not big enough. Like the Greeks, their gods were nothing but amplified humanity. Their gods depended upon the society that had made them, writes Schaeffer, ?and when this society collapsed the gods tumbled with it.?

The emperors declared themselves gods, but when these human gods died, eventually the foundations of Rome fell with them. The people?s strength and world-view simply crumbled.  Schaeffer writes: It is important to realize what a difference a people?s world view makes in their strength as they are exposed to the pressure of life. The Christians? strength rested on God?s being an infinite-personal God. God had spoken in ways people could understand.  Christians had absolute, universal values by which to live and by which to judge society, and thus were able to resist the weaknesses of Roman culture.

Lives and value systems, the way we think, will collapse without a sufficient base. Like the great Roman Empire, over time and pressure, cultures and individuals with a weak foundation will fall to pieces. Christianity could stand even when Rome fell because its base is in Christ. Now, more than ever, if our value system, our thoughts, are not based in the eternal God we know in Christ, not only will our life have little meaning, we will shrink and crumble in the face of terror.

?How then shall we live?? lament the people of Israel.

You, son of man (human one), I have made a watchman for the house of Israel, writes the prophet Ezekiel.  Whenever you hear a word from my mouth you shall give them warning.  You have said, ?our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them, how then shall we live??  Say to them, ?I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?? 

The people?s lament comes after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Ezekiel has been appointed a watchman, a prophet among exiles in Babylonia. His personal sorrow included the death of his wife, the ?delight of his eyes.? Ezekiel, the reluctant prophet, rose to the occasion confident that God?s Spirit could blow on death to bring life.  The popular belief was that Jerusalem, being God?s dwelling place, was fixed firmly against attack.  Yahweh?s city was Jerusalem, the temple his dwelling place.  When the temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem brought to rubble, the foundation of the faith of Israel was dealt a death-blow.  But the dry bones would rise again!

The prophet revealed a God who was not confined to earthly boundaries. God himself promised to be the shepherd of a scattered people. Without a prophetic voice and word the people would not have recovered. Ezekiel plumbed the depths of the spiritual nature of humanity, revealing both the negative of human sin and the positive of God?s deliverance.

True religion is not a veneer, but an inner spiritual strength. The need is not for superficial change, but an alteration at the center of living. The prophet recovers from the ashes of destruction a new and living faith. God does not will that anyone should perish.

Writes John: ?For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.?

Ezekiel shows us that Yahweh, the Lord God, is the defender of his people and not their destroyer; the preserver and giver of life, not the taker.

Radical Islam or any religion that says that God or Allah orders the taking of human life is blasphemous ? its foundations are perverted and corrupt. God does not will that anyone should perish, for he does not ordain killing; but in the event that evil does strike a blow we will have been warned, the harassed and helpless will have been prepared.

In the wake of catastrophe we are now faced with the difficult task of interpreting the question ? ?How then shall we live??

In response to the lament in verse 10: our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them, how then shall we live?  the watchman, Ezekiel, instructs us all: turn back; turn back.

Life, not death, is God?s priority. So ask yourself, ?What are your priorities?? The way of life for Israel, is the way of Yahweh revealed in the Torah, reinforced by the prophets, and ultimately lived in the person of Jesus. To a people harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, embodied the Torah (Law) as the way, the truth and the life. The wages of sin, self-centeredness, says Paul is death.

To turn back, to repent, and receive Jesus means more than just some unconscious remedy for sin.  It involves new thinking and thus a new way of life. It means to receive Jesus, ?the way, the truth and the life,? as our way of life. 

Thus is the proper response to the Shepherd that says, ?Follow me.? In the face of terror people are turning back, from an otherwise unconscious self-centeredness to an awakened other-centeredness. For such is God?s gracious longing; such is the cry of those under the rubble. God has the power to transform ?the ugly reality into something rich and strange.?

Seeing the love of Jesus in God?s people, seeing an outpouring of love to the helpless and harassed, shows the kind of power that changes hearts. The outpouring of love at St. Vincent?s Hospital in lower Manhattan in their ministry of healing to terrorized crowds shows us a power that changes habits. Seeing the rally of rescue workers and their unrelenting search for survivors in a mass of rubble shows us the power of hope in the midst of despair. And even here at home, in this church, people rallying to answer phones, deacons putting out communications, volunteers producing bulletins and newsletters, gathering together for prayer and services of worship ? no matter how heroic or how small ? all of these things find their unity in the nature of God and in the outworking of divine love in the experience of God?s people.

?How then shall we live??

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  (272 words, and if you?ll indulge me, I?ll close with just 26 more):

From firm foundations, citizens of commerce created on this continent a culture of free enterprise and expression.  On September 11, 2001, with equal access to our nation?s liberties, cultural despisers, under their god, attacked our citizens and symbols.

Now we are engaged in a great global war, testing whether our culture or any culture so created can long endure.  We are met with terror not on a great battlefield of war, but in the global workplace, the field we call fair trade.  We dedicate that field as a final resting-place to unsuspecting citizens robbed of their lives.  Such honor is fitting.

But in a larger sense, we cannot consecrate this field.  The moms, the dads, the children; the brave, the vulnerable, the frightened; civil servants living and dead who struggled on the ground and in the air have hallowed this field far beyond our handpicked words.

The world will not remember what we say, but it must never forget how they died.  The memory of those who died here will be advanced in the liberty of those who live here.  To honor the dead we must now be dedicated to the daily task remaining before us?that when fear strikes we take courage; when terror attacks, we take increased devotion to that struggle between fear and freedom, knowing it was within the mindset of liberty that these citizens lived the last full measure of their lives. 

And for this cause we must make up our minds that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall bring forth a new birth of freedom into the fields beyond our borders, that the world might know that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth. 

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.  Amen.