Every week as we make our way through The Story, I struggle to distill an entire chapter into a 30-minute sermon. Last week it was more difficult because the chapter included history and prophecy and alternated within stories and between the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Given the direction we took, Jeremiah was highlighted while Ezekiel was glossed over almost completely. That was hard because there are some incredible passages that Ezekiel wrote and they continue to resonate 2,500 years after they were written.
Interpreting prophecy has never been my passion as a pastor. I’ve heard enough misinterpretation, individual ideas, bad comparisons, and faulty theology to keep me away for years, but to avoid the prophets completely would be a two-dimensional theology in a three-dimensional world. There wasn’t an opportunity to explore Ezekiel more within the sermon, so hopefully this postscript will suffice to start our minds and soften our hearts toward God’s message:
“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.
“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
One of the concerns I have when modern readers interpret prophecy is that we don’t read it in it’s original context and therefore we distort much of the meaning. Ezekiel was in exile with a portion of Judah, but not the whole nation. In the midst of a foreign land he was tasked with telling his fellow citizens living in exile that God was still moving. Often when we think about God moving, we use it in positive terms (“I really feel the Spirit moving”, “That was some moving worship”, “The Lord is moving me toward a new opportunity”), but Ezekiel was telling the people about God’s moving as it relates to disciplining His people.
Everything God was doing was for good, not necessarily their comfort; ultimately it was for His glory: Then the nations will know that I am the Lord. Even though it’s been said repeatedly in recent sermons, I cannot overstate the importance of this concept. Our lives are more about God’s glory than our enjoyment or comfort. This doesn’t mean that our lives don’t matter to God, but that there’s a priority at work and our physical lives are not the top priority. As the Israelites understood the importance of God being made known, then Ezekiel was able to share encouragement toward the people.
Even though these words were written to those people in that time, they still apply to us in that God’s heart does not change. Although we shouldn’t try to apply every single word, it is important for us to be reminded often of the work of God. He still desires to cleanse us form impurities and from idols. He still wants to give us a new heart and put a new spirit in us. And now that Christ has returned to heaven and the Holy Spirit’s presence was poured out at Pentecost, we are able to receive the Holy Spirit in us and move to follow God’s decrees and keep His laws. To end this beautiful promise full of hope and power, God reminds us of the echoing refrain of His story, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
There is so much in those words that we could focus on for days and barely scratch the surface, but I would encourage you to do just that. Reflect on what it means that God wants to cleanse us, especially as we talked about all of the broken cisterns that we dig continually. Remember that God wants to give us a new heart and put a new spirit in us, He has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit and we should always be living lives full of the Spirit. Call to mind the fact that God wants to be our God and He wants us to be His people.
The creator of the universe moves continually. Sometimes it’s through close experiences or deep and intimate moments, and sometimes it’s through His discipline. However He moves, God is constantly making His name known throughout the nations, echoing this refrain.. Since God has done so much in us and for us, our response should be to partner in His work and bring him all glory, honor, and praise!