It's a simply progression of numbers. Often, we name a task as less-than-onerous when we name it "as easy as 1-2-3." Those are the numbers we count when we get ready to do something, lift something, start something with other people. "On three" is the signal to get into sync, get ready. Something is going to happen and we are all going to be involved in it...we all are going to be participating.
There are two 1-2-3 moments in today's readings. They highlight the tension we seem to live in with regard to knowing the God of the Hebrew scriptures over and against the God we meet in the New Testament. That is, if we choose to bifurcate the God of mercy from the God of judgment. Easy enough when we compare lessons like the ones from Ezekiel and I John, at least on the surface.
In Ezekiel, the progression from one to three is all about the impending judgment. Because Israel and Judah have sinned, and sinned with relish and abandon it seems, the prophet is told to shave his head and beard with a sword (ouch) at the end of the siege. The hair is to be divided into three parts:
- the first portion is to be burned in the fire
- the second portion is to be scattered with the sword to the left and right
- the third portion is to be tossed into the wind, with only a little bit of remnant preserved ;
and thus the exile begins. With famine and plague, with sword and violence and with the destruction of the community by dissolution and transportation, Israel and Judah will cease to be. This is God's judgment. It is horrific, nightmarish and overwhelming to think of the suffering that the people went through during this time. Everything fell apart, and their consolation was only to be found is a faint promise of return from a prophet with a poorly shaved head and face, holding a few strands of his hair in one hand and a sword in the other. Small wonder we struggle with this experience of God.
The next progression seems to be more gentle, that the God of I John is, in Christ, much more about mercy. After all, John talks about love and light, and how it is coming into the world. It dispels darkness, dissolves shadows and obliterates sin. As we confess and repent sin, embrace and live out forgiveness we are made whole in Christ by the love of God. John's progression is aimed at naming where people in the community are with regard to their maturing into this new life:
- the first segment are little children (those young in the faith)...their sins have been forgiven in Jesus' name
- the second segment are parents (in faith, those senior to the little ones)...they know the one who has existed from the beginning
- the third segment (a little out of order, being those "adolescent" in the faith)...they have conquered the evil one, because the faith (and God) are strong in them.
I really is tempting to split God into two distinct beings by holding these representations up as evidence that one god is of judgment and the other of forgiveness...but in truth, the reality of ONE God is that the God who judges is the one who forgives; and the God who forgives is the one to whom judgment is reserved. In the despair of Ezekiel's testimony, there is a faint hint that God's forgiveness is quickly following on the heels of God's wrath. In John's letter, even as we are assured of God's love for and through us, we are also reminded that we are agents of God's in this world. It's a world that is coming undone, and our knowledge of the love and grace of God will be required of us as this sinful and broken thing that is creation is mended and healed.
The challenge before us, really, is to see God for us in both these experiences of the divine. If we are going to grow as human beings, beloved of God...then, both Ezekiel and John posit, we better start acting like it.