Fifth Sunday of Lent 2023

Today’s post is going to be a little different in that it’s also a book review. Over spring break I was able to read a most excellent book I wanted to share with you. By the Rivers of Babylon by Michael D. O’Brien is a historical fiction novel about the early life of the prophet Ezekiel. I fell in love immediately and one of the overall themes of the book fits in perfectly with this Sunday’s Gospel reading – God’s timing.

In case you haven’t noticed, either from Scripture or your own life experience, God doesn’t follow a schedule we can easily decipher. In the story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus, Jesus finds out about Lazarus’ illness 2 full days before He begins to journey to Bethany. Jesus is about 30ish miles from Bethany at this time (the previous chapter of John tells us Jesus traveled to Samaria after some confrontations at the Temple in Jerusalem). At a walking pace, it would have taken them at least 2 days to get to Bethany, maybe longer. And Jesus waited to get started.

I’m sure everyone was wondering why Jesus chose to wait. If they had listened closely, they would have already known the answer to their question:

When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

John 11:4

Something larger was at work in Lazarus’ illness. Jesus could have rushed to Lazarus’ side and cured him of whatever was ailing him. But, the bigger, more miraculous, impossible story happens because Jesus choses to wait for God’s timing. To reflect more fully on God’s timing, check out this week’s video.

The Israelite people experienced this time and again. In By The Rivers of Babylon, you walk with Ezekiel through the crumbling of faithfulness in Jerusalem and into exile in Babylon. While this at first sounds like a depressing read, Ezekiel’s perspective lifts your eyes to heaven and God’s larger plan that is at work. Below is my full review:

Because of the distance of time between today and Biblical days, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the world during which the Bible was written. We rely on ancient texts, cultural traditions, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to reveal to us what life could have been like during the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, the glory of David’s kingship, or times of exile. We are also blessed by the imaginations of authors such as Michael D. O’Brien who, through his new book, By The Rivers of Babylon, can open up for us a whole new perspective on a particular moment in Biblical history. 

O’Brien has crafted a beautiful book about the early life of the prophet Ezekiel, or Yezekiel in the Hebrew O’Brien utilizes. I was entranced by this book and the gentle way O’Brien unfolds the young Ezekiel’s life. The inside of the dust jacket includes the question, “What makes a prophet?” I found this to be a poignant question. While the book thoughtfully unfolds moments of Ezekiel’s life which are clearly preparatory for his eventual calling to be a prophet to the exiles, O’Brien also invites the reader to consider what God could be preparing them for someday. Do we each have a unique purpose to which God is calling us? How is God using today to prepare us for the tomorrow we do not yet see?

I’ll share one quote as an example:

“I am carefully fitting corner bricks to overlap with bricks of the adjoining wall. Ah, if only I could mold a whole wall in an instant, go my thoughts. I could carry it here on my shoulders. I could put four walls together and make a house in the blink of an eye.

Then I smile at the notion. Life is like this, I remind myself. You cannot move a whole wall on your shoulders. You move the wall brick by brick. This is how God as built Israel, little by little, step by step.

pg 178

What a beautiful, timeless insight into the human heart. We want things to happen immediately. We want quick answers, minimal waits, instant gratification. The story of Ezekiel through O’Brien’s imagination is one of slowness, anticipation, and difficult waiting. Instead of lashing out against their conquerors, Ezekiel offers a prayerful approach. He trusts in God’s plan for His people and continually unites himself to that plan through simple acts of love and generosity. He also would have been a man immersed in the psalms, which O’Brien does a masterful job of weaving into all sections of the book. Through these psalm-prayers of Ezekiel, we are able to witness a powerful form of praying in, with, and through the words of Scripture.

You know you’ve found a good book of Biblical historical fiction when the first thing you want to read after finishing is the book(s) of the Bible referenced. This is exactly how I felt and what I did upon closing By The Rivers of Babylon.

I cannot encourage everyone enough to find the time to read this book, and then to go on to read through the book of Ezekiel. I am already planning a second read through, likely of both.

Daily Graces.