Extreme Judgment, Yet Extreme Grace – Amos 9

(Sorry that this posted a day early for many of you … these are written in advance and I scheduled the wrong date)

The Bible certainly contains a message with the extremes of both judgment and grace. When God judges, it is full and final – the ultimate. And when God saves, it is only done because of his great grace. Unlike the natural mind of the world who asks the presumably intelligent question, “How can a God of love be a God of judgment and execution?” … when the appropriate question is rather, “How can a perfect and righteous God justly extend grace to evil sinners?”  The answer to the latter is that he is able to justly do so because of the substitute of the holy for the unholy, the payment made by the perfect Lamb, and the extension of righteousness offered to those who will receive it.

So we see in the Scriptures the lowest of lows, and the highest of highs. And in today’s chapter, we see these disparate ideas – of the complete judgment of Israel, yet the promise of a glorious future for a remnant to return.

This last chapter of Amos gives a statement of the destruction of the nation …

Israel’s Judgment

9:1 – I saw the Lord standing by the altar, and he said: “Strike the tops of the pillars so that the thresholds shake. Bring them down on the heads of all the people; those who are left I will kill with the sword. Not one will get away, none will escape.

2 Though they dig down to the depths below, from there my hand will take them. Though they climb up to the heavens above, from there I will bring them down.

3 Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, there I will hunt them down and seize them. Though they hide from my eyes at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent to bite them.

4 Though they are driven into exile by their enemies, there I will command the sword to slay them. “I will keep my eye on them for harm and not for good.”

5 The Lord, the Lord Almighty—he touches the earth and it melts, and all who live in it mourn; the whole land rises like the Nile, then sinks like the river of Egypt; 6 he builds his lofty palace[a] in the heavens and sets its foundation[b] on the earth; he calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land—the Lord is his name.

7 “Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites[c]?” declares the Lord. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor[d] and the Arameans from Kir?

8 “Surely the eyes of the Sovereign Lord are on the sinful kingdom. I will destroy it from the face of the earth. Yet I will not totally destroy the descendants of Jacob,” declares the Lord.

9 “For I will give the command, and I will shake the people of Israel among all the nations as grain is shaken in a sieve, and not a pebble will reach the ground.

10 All the sinners among my people will die by the sword, all those who say, ‘Disaster will not overtake or meet us.’

The picture of the temple falling upon the heads of the worshippers is a symbolic one of the extent of judgment to drop upon the nation. There is no place to hide, high or low – God will send a slaying judgment in one form or another. As well, God is sovereign as well over the natural forces of the world, and he may use these at his desire to accomplish his ends.

With Israel’s history of incredible deliverance from Egypt, there was a sense that a God who went to this extreme out of his love for them would never be a God who would allow calamity and annihilation to befall them. So Amos writes to say that they are no more special at this point than Cush – an area of Africa of relative insignificance, essentially at the end of the known world. God had allowed other nations to experience a successful sort of exodus – the Philistines and Arameans – but certainly they were not chosen especially by God. Israel should not feel a unique shelter from severe judgment.

Amos has been a pretty negative book … filled with thundering words of judgment and destruction. But the final verses will take a totally different turn and possess an entirely different flavor …

Israel’s Restoration

11 “In that day I will restore David’s fallen shelter—I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins—and will rebuild it as it used to be, 12 so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” declares the Lord, who will do these things.

13 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains     and flow from all the hills, 14 and I will bring my people Israel back from exile.

“They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.

15 I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the Lord your God.

Amos says that a further day would come of restoration for a remnant of the people of Jacob. Though as a nation they were destroyed, a remnant would someday return to the land of promise. This happened in the nearer term under Ezra and Nehemiah, and in reference to a millennial age yet future, it shall happen again – forever, never to be removed.

The passage brings into it the concept as well of the Nations – of Gentiles to have hope in God’s grace and restoration. That is incredible!

Folks … If you have any remnant in you of some amount of personal merit for the goodness of God that you have received … any portion of your salvation or hope that is based in something you see good about yourself … get rid of it! Even the ability to see and understand the gospel, and to respond to it in submission, comes as a gift of God’s grace – which is by definition his merit extended, where wrath is deserved.

God had no obligation to ever extend grace … not to Adam and Eve, not to Noah, not to Abraham, not to Israel, not to David, not to Paul or Peter or any of the church founders, and not to you or me. But he does. Boast in him … in his grace alone.

Advertisements

The Day of the Big Re-Set – Amos 8

Every so often in the history of a people, there is an event that is a giant “re-set.”  It becomes THE event of a generation, or a century. Clearly, after that moment, everything is going to be different.

My parents’ generation had that experience in 1929 with the great depression. Others recall Pearl Harbor Day as having this life-altering reality. For many of us, we recall 9/11 in some measure in this way. I know I did – being up in Pennsylvania when it happened, listening to the events on the radio while driving home, I knew that this was a watershed moment in my life and generation.

The ultimate “re-set” for a nation is of course when they are essentially wiped out as an independent entity. And that is the nature of the prophecy of Amos to the people of Israel just a few decades before the Assyrians (and later the Babylonians) would pillage God’s disobedient children. Their sin had made them ripe for judgment …

8:1 – This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. 2 “What do you see, Amos?” he asked.

“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.

3 “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”

The reading of these verses about a basket of ripe fruit is more dramatic in the original Hebrew, because the words translating “fruit” and “time is ripe” sound very, very similar. It would be like saying, “The dog snarled at the boy like he wanted to take a bit of a bite out of him.”  Yes, the time was ripe for ripping Israel from their false security, and their pleasant songs of (hypocritical) worship would be replaced with wailing. The devastation would call for … SILENCE!

The reasons God would do this to his chosen people are rehearsed yet again …

4 Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, 5 saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”—skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, 6 buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

7 The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.

Amos repeats a theme from chapter 5 – the issue of their material exploitation and injustice. The picture is of merchants who tolerated holy days – Sabbaths and festivals – yet were impatient to see them end so that they could get back to selling and cheating people in varied ways.

8 “Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn? The whole land will rise like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink like the river of Egypt.

Here is another picture of the “re-set” that Amos said was coming. The Nile River in Egypt was known throughout the ancient world for its annual flooding. This would bring on the one hand a good deposit of rich silt for agriculture, but on the other hand, if the flood was too high, towns would be wiped out. The Aswan Dam of 1970 has brought order to this cycle in modern times. But the picture is that Israel would experience a “judgment flood” and would find everything “re-set” on the other side – if they survived.

The scope of the re-set is seen in the following verses …

9 “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.

10 I will turn your religious festivals into mourning and all your singing into weeping. I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads. I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.

11 “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.

12 People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.

13 “In that day the lovely young women and strong young men will faint because of thirst.

14 Those who swear by the sin of Samaria—who say, ‘As surely as your god lives, Dan,’ or, ‘As surely as the god of Beersheba lives’—they will fall, never to rise again.”

This final verse is a bit odd, but, it references those who had confidence in Samaria = Israel = Northern Kingdom. Whether their faith was placed in the god over Dan or Beersheba, the land was getting wiped out. Dan was the northernmost area, whereas Beersheba was the southernmost. It would be like us saying, “from Caribou, Maine to Key West, Florida.”

Be sure to note this major idea from these final verses: the greatest loss was not of food or water or anything of the material world. The most-felt loss was of the Word of the Lord. God would be silent; he would not be found; he would not be speaking through prophets anymore. He.Was.Gone!

It is a hard sell that the greatest need any of us have is the live-giving Word of God. It is nice to have material and measurable success in your life or in the corporate life of the church family. But the greatest need is knowing God’s Word. It is nice when everything about life and church is going well and booming and progressing. But, the greatest need is knowing God’s Word.

To you reading this … thank you for investing in knowing God’s Word. It is exceedingly difficult to get anything even close to a majority of people in a church like TSF to make such an investment. Why? Because, like Israel, too many do not actually believe their greatest need is the life-giving Word of God, or that their highest commitment needs to be growing in it and their knowledge of God.

A big life calamity that is a “re-set” might change that, but why wait for disaster?

Inside the Beltway Thinking – Amos 6

There is a phrase that is used in our time within the realm of political discourse to speak of a certain mindset in Washington, D.C. as “inside the beltway thinking.”  This refers to politicians who go to Washington, who become a part of the scene and lifestyle there, who adopt the culture of self-serving and uncaring leadership, and who become therefore isolated from the real world outside of the Capital Beltway.

I had a friend who was elected to a high position in government at an unusually young age. As an older man, he reflected on that portion of his life – a time that he looked back upon decades later as filled with a lot of futility and false pride. He once told me, “When you walk down the marble halls of the state capital, the sound of your footsteps echo back to you and seem to say, ‘You’re really something now, you’re a pretty big deal!’”

It is to such a crowd of elite leaders in Israel that Amos speaks his fifth and final message (of those written in chapters 2 through 6). And in verse 1, even the leaders in the Southern Kingdom are included in the warning.

6:1  Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!

2 Go to Kalneh and look at it; go from there to great Hamath, and then go down to Gath in Philistia. Are they better off than your two kingdoms? Is their land larger than yours?

The cities and nationalities mentioned in verse 2 were of surrounding areas that had been conquered in recent decades by Assyrian kings and warfare. Was Israel larger or stronger than these fallen places?  The answer to that question was “no.”

3 You put off the day of disaster and bring near a reign of terror. 4 You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves.

5 You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments.

6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.

Again, as in earlier chapters, the indulgent lifestyles of the leading classes of people in Israel were excessive in the extreme and sustained through injustice. The Hebrew word for “lie on beds” is a colorful one picturing a person with arms and legs spread out in drunken fashion. Their drinking was excessive – by the bowlful! And they did not grieve over the ruin of Joseph –referencing the Northern Kingdom. Remember that there was no tribe of Joseph, but that he had a double portion through his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. The tribe of Ephraim was especially large, and sometimes the Northern Kingdom was called “Epharim,” and in this case it is referenced as “Joseph.”

7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.

The Lord Abhors the Pride of Israel

8 The Sovereign LORD has sworn by himself—the LORD God Almighty declares: “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.”

9 If ten people are left in one house, they too will die. 10 And if the relative who comes to carry the bodies out of the house to burn them asks anyone who might be hiding there, “Is anyone else with you?” and he says, “No,” then he will go on to say, “Hush! We must not mention the name of the LORD.”

11 For the LORD has given the command, and he will smash the great house into pieces and the small house into bits.

12 Do horses run on the rocky crags? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness—13 you who rejoice in the conquest of Lo Debar and say, “Did we not take Karnaim by our own strength?”

14 For the LORD God Almighty declares, “I will stir up a nation against you, Israel, that will oppress you all the way from Lebo Hamath to the valley of the Arabah.”

There are some interesting pictures in these verses:

–        The anger of the Lord was such that if ten people in a home were killed, and a relative came along to deal with the bodies, he would be afraid that anyone might still be left alive who escaped somehow, and his voice would bring God’s wrath back upon them.

–        Amos asks if horses run on rocky crags – well of course not. And do oxen plow the seas – that is ridiculous. And so it was just as unimaginable what these corrupt leaders had done with the system of justice. In the final couple of decades before the destruction of the nation, a series of six horrific kings fully defiled any system of justice or righteousness.

–        Israel was proud of a victory they had achieved on the east of the Jordan in recovering an area named Lo Debar … but Amos intentionally makes a play on words by referencing it as Lo Dabar, which means “nothing” in Hebrew. Their great, proud victory was nothing in God’s eyes.

Having fallen into sin, it is the nature of man to be self-indulgent and proud. This is especially true of so many who by whatever good fortune are able to find success in the measurements of this world … be it in government, business, education, entertainment, or whatever. It is easy to have your life’s footsteps seem to echo back to you that you are a pretty big deal, only to at the end of it all find at the top of the ladder of success that it was leaning against the wrong building and had taken you to Lo Dabar – nothing.

Fat Cow Women – Amos 4

It is generally not a popular thing to call women “cows.”  But the prophet Amos was not in the business of being nice, but of rather calling in dramatic tones and pictures to a wayward people to attempt to awaken them to their spiritual plight.

Chapter 4 of Amos is the second of five messages that the prophet delivers to the nation of Israel. He speaks to them about their indulgence and injustice, their hypocritical worship, and the certainty of judgment due to their lack of repentance.

4:1 – Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”

2 The Sovereign Lord has sworn by his holiness: “The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks. 3 You will each go straight out through breaches in the wall, and you will be cast out toward Harmon,” declares the Lord.

The land of Bashan is the area to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee and is in modern-day Syria, comprising also the Golan Heights. It is an area spoken of on multiple occasions in Scripture as a rich land for pasture and agriculture. And so, the prophet speaks of the bossy rich women of Israel as like the fat cows in the pastures of Bashan – feeding their many self-indulgent passions through the exploitation of the masses of poor and needy people.

Amos says to them that a time is coming when they will be strung together like a chain of fish and led away into captivity toward Harmon – on the road through Bashan toward Assyria.

We next see the prophet condemning their false pride in worship and religious observance…

4 “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years.

5 Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings—boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do,” declares the Sovereign Lord.

Bethel was the center of worship in the north; Gilgal was the place where Israel first entered the Promised Land and was also a place of worship and sacrifice. But their worship was simply perfunctory – their animals and agricultural offerings even coming from wrongly-seized lands. All of it was a sacrilege to the Lord, who knew their hearts and lifestyles were far from righteous.

God gave them sufficient warnings …

6 “I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord.

7 “I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town, but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up.

8 People staggered from town to town for water but did not get enough to drink, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord.

9 “Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, destroying them with blight and mildew.

Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord.

10 “I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord.

11 “I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord.

Every one of these events in verses 6-11 – hunger, drought, famine, blight, diseases, locusts, plagues, death – were foretold in the covenant God made with Israel as the natural consequences that would follow their disobedience. A year ago we studied through Deuteronomy (see HERE) and wrote about this very list of consequences, and now we see them piling up on Israel, and STILL they would not turn back to God.

Therefore, they should prepare for judgment …

12 “Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel, and because I will do this to you, Israel, prepare to meet your God.” 13 He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord God Almighty is his name.

Summarizing the content of this prophecy of Amos, what might we take away as topically similar to our world today?  Amos essentially condemned materialism, exploitation, empty worship, and a denial of the natural consequences of disobeying God. Does that sound anything like America in 2014? The people to whom Amos spoke essentially had the worldview of “I want to live well and look good, while being also seen as spiritual and in the position of good standing with God because of my obvious blessings.”

Could there even be “trending” of Evangelical Christians toward such worldviews – conscious or not? Could a nice church person in 2014 conclude that their life blessings are the just rewards of God indicating they are in sufficiently good standing?  Could worshipping God just enough, when there is no other schedule priority, give a modern Christian a sense of security about their faith?

The Principle of Cause and Effect – Amos 3

Today is the first of five readings/writings this week from selected portions of the prophecy of Amos.

If you read these devotionals this week, by Friday you will know the message of Amos and understand his timeless applications to modern life. If you choose to not participate, you will not know what the biblical prophet Amos had to say that is any different from Amos Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

What I did in that paragraph above is lay out for you a cause and effect, and that is what we will see in today’s reading.

Background of Amos – Be sure to check on the web page on the bar at the top entitled “The Prophets” to see where our fellow for this week fits into the scheme of the Old Testament Prophets. Amos was from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and his prophecies were largely to the Northern Kingdom of Israel (though there are prophetic utterances for a variety of nations, and even for his own land of Judah). So we would date Amos at about 760 B.C., which would mean that his prophecies of destruction would be fulfilled in Israel less than 40 years later – as the Assyrians plundered the nation and took them into captivity.

The Character Amos – This prophet was not from the sort of background you would expect. He was not from nobility or education, but was rather a shepherd and agriculturalist. We might see him as a sort of good ole boy, Duck Dynasty family member being used by God to deliver a message from God. His prophecies and pictures are very earthy and from a sort of working-man’s hands-on perspective.

As we go to chapter 3 today, let me simply summarize for you that the first two chapters included pronouncements of judgment on six different surrounding nations and Judah, and finally most specifically to the northern 10 tribes known at this time as “Israel.”  Chapters 3 through 6 give five “messages” from Amos that detail God’s reasons for the pending judgment. Our reading today is the first of these messages …

1. Judgment is coming because of God’s special relationship with Israel (1-2)

3:1,2 – Hear this word, people of Israel, the word the Lord has spoken against you—against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt: “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.”

Numerous times in the Old Testament God points out to the nation of Israel that they were unique among the nations of the world – only they had been favored by God to be HIS people. One would expect that to produce a profound obedience arising from such a blessing … but such was not so. Even though God had done wondrous things – like delivering them from Egypt to a bountiful promised land – the people turned away from him into disobedience. In the same way that as parents we discipline our own children more than those of another family, so God had a right to discipline his own rebellious family.

2. Judgment was coming because of the law of cause and effect (3-8)

Here is a series of seven “if this, then that” statements …

3 Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?

4 Does a lion roar in the thicket when it has no prey? Does it growl in its den when it has caught nothing?

5 Does a bird swoop down to a trap on the ground when no bait is there? Does a trap spring up from the ground if it has not caught anything?

6 When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city,     has not the Lord caused it?

7 Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.

8 The lion has roared—who will not fear?  The Sovereign Lord has spoken—who can but prophesy?

None of these illustrations happen or eventuate without a cause. For example, the only reason a trap springs up from the ground is because something has triggered it to do so. It does not just do it on its own. And so, God’s judgment is certain to follow the disobedience of the people.

3. Judgment is coming because of unparalleled oppression and injustice (9-10)

9 Proclaim to the fortresses of Ashdod and to the fortresses of Egypt: “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria; see the great unrest within her and the oppression among her people.”

10 “They do not know how to do right,” declares the Lord, “who store up in their fortresses what they have plundered and looted.”

Ashdod would speak of the Philistines. So the text here is saying that if emissaries from Philistia and Egypt – places notoriously dreadful for sinful oppression and injustice – were to come to Samaria (Israel), they would be shocked at a level of corrupt behavior beyond anything even seen at home!

4. The certainty of total destruction (11-15)

11 Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “An enemy will overrun your land, pull down your strongholds and plunder your fortresses.”

12 This is what the Lord says: “As a shepherd rescues from the lion’s mouth only two leg bones or a piece of an ear, so will the Israelites living in Samaria be rescued, with only the head of a bed and a piece of fabric from a couch.”

13 “Hear this and testify against the descendants of Jacob,” declares the Lord, the Lord God Almighty.

14 “On the day I punish Israel for her sins, I will destroy the altars of Bethel; the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground.

15 I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished,” declares the Lord.

A shepherd who arrives late upon the scene of a lion having captured and devoured a sheep from the flock may find only a few bones or a portion of an ear as visible proof of what happened. So completely and thoroughly would Israel be destroyed. The altars of Bethel refer to the location of a golden calf for worship erected by a king of an earlier era. These “wealthy” people who had accumulated their gain through evil practice would have both their winter and summer residences destroyed.

God is a good bookkeeper. And though there is grace and forgiveness in the gospel message that provides a deliverance for those who trust and believe, God does not suspend all the laws and principles of cause and effect … of obedience that leads to blessing, but disobedience and injustice that leads to destruction.

This sort of message was not popular in the time of Amos, nor is it popular today. In a portion we’ll not read this week in chapter 7, Amos is told to take his nasty message back home to the south where he came from … Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”

That is the message of our generation as well and the reaction to the objective truths of Scripture … essentially “get out of here with that old-fashioned and ridiculous message of fairytales about a god of judgment.” But ridiculing and rejecting a message and messenger from God does not make truth any less true – then or now.  #CauseAndEffect, #Timeless

Of Shepherds and Celebrities (Ezekiel 34)

We all hear voices.  And no, they don’t need to be audible to be heard.  I’m speaking of the various voices that cloud our senses each and every day.  Just stop and consider how many things you read just on your morning commute: road signs, billboards, bumper stickers—some of these things serve to guide us, others to entice us, and others simply to entertain us.  Other voices screech at us from the covers of magazines, from television commercials, from books, from our peers—all of which promises us “the good life,” of luxury, health, and hassle-free weight loss.

I’ve come to expect promises like these coming from the world of advertising.  But as a pastor, nothing is more infuriating than hearing this message come from the world of Christianity.  To be a “pastor” is to be a shepherd—to guard and guide a flock in such a way that places Jesus as the greatest of life’s treasures.  Yet you needn’t look far to find “shepherds” who shamelessly hammer God’s word into a message of happiness and wealth—and that’s assuming they open the Bible at all.  We’ve turned leaders into celebrities, anointed figures in whom we place our trust—often to be later disappointed.

In Ezekiel 34, God turns His attention to the shepherds of Israel.  Previously, God had made clear that Israel’s failure to possess the Promised Land was their failure to maintain the relationship He’d established with them through Moses.  Now, God places the blame on the shoulders of Israelite leadership.

WOLVES IN SHEPHERD’S CLOTHING

The word of the LORD came to me:  2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.  4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.  5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.  6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.  (Ezekiel 34:1-6)

Sheep StockGod indicts these false shepherds for allowing God’s people to be scattered rather than unified.  They have taken care of themselves, and neglected the people they were charged to lead.

Surely we can name some extreme cases of “false shepherds,” men who abuse their power behind closed doors and forced silences.  But what about men and women who openly promote a message of prosperity and happiness?  Surely there are worse sins for a leader to commit than to be guilty of a little positive thinking.

But this is not the gospel.  You see, if our deepest problem was an inability to attain our dreams, than a message of wealth and prosperity would be exactly what we need.  If our problem was a loss of happiness, then a message of self-esteem would be exactly what we need.  But our problem is not found in our dreams or our emotions.  Our problem runs much deeper.  Our problem is a heart that is bent only toward self-interest—it’s what the Bible calls “sin.”  Earthly solutions of wealth and happiness only drag us further toward self.  What we need is forgiveness.  What we need is the cross.  Any pastor whose message stops short of the cross is to be ignored, abandoned, and dismissed.

God has some very specific things to say about this type of leader:

7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:  8 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep,  9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:  10 Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.  (Ezekiel 34:7-10)

THE TRUE SHEPHERD

This has been the “bad news.”  God is violently angry at even the spiritual leaders of Israel.  The situation seems utterly hopeless.  God offers a profound solution.

11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.  12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.  13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country.  14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.  15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD.  16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.  18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?  19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad,  22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.  23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.

Don’t miss how radical this is.  Every other major religion establishes leaders to help people reach their fingers toward God.  Christianity is the only religion that says, “No; that’ll never work.  God has to come down to you.”

And that’s what God did.  You might already be connecting some of the imagery here to John 10—where Jesus describes Himself as “the good Shepherd” (John 10:11).  The false shepherds seek to sap life from their people.  Jesus seeks to offer life from His own veins.

THE TRUE PASTURE

The passage finishes out with a lasting promise of peace:

25 “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.  26 And I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing.  27 And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them.  28 They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid.  29 And I will provide for them renowned plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the reproach of the nations.  30 And they shall know that I am the LORD their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord GOD.  31 And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord GOD.”

Despite God’s fierce anger, He promises to restore His people.

No pastor is worthy of your admiration.  There is only one “good shepherd.”  So how do you know whether a pastor is worthy of your time?  Your respect?  Your attention?  It’s simple: he constantly, joyfully points to Jesus.  As a pastor, I pray that this could be said of me.  And I pray that my people would experience a deeper love for Jesus than my words could ever evoke.

Will God Forgive Repeated Repentance? (Ezekiel 33)

“All of life is repentance.”  These were the words of Martin Luther—the first of many that he nailed to the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany.  Luther had shirked his father’s expectations of entering the legal profession in order to become a monk.  Though a deeply religious man, he spent countless nights in mortal terror.  What if he died without confessing all his sins?  Surely if he died with sin still staining his heart, he would stand before God an unjust man.

So what led this troubled young man to turn from his fears and become a catalyst for a movement of change?  It’s simple.  Fear can only motivate for so long.  What changed Luther’s life, was what one historian called the “glorious rediscovery of the gospel.”  Luther came to realize that he could stand blameless before God not because he had “repented” properly, but because of a grace that would cover even the sins he’d been too blind to see.

CALL TO REPENTANCE

In Ezekiel 33, we hear God change His voice from one of violent judgment, to a call to repentance.

10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’  11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, 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?  12 “And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins.  13 Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die.  14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right,  15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die.  16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.  (Ezekiel 33:10-33)

Are you as confused as I am?  The people have finally recognized their own failings.  But God says that righteousness is no help for the person who sins (v. 12).  Why not?  Because if God’s standard is total purity, then even a single sin can ruin a lifetime of spotlessness.  Who can possibly stand before God?

Have you ever felt this way?  There are times in my own life that I simply don’t “feel” forgiven.  And I know I’m not alone in this.  “I know God forgives me,” you might say.  “I just can’t forgive myself.”  Or perhaps you wonder if God will forgive you for a sin that you keep committing.   If I ask God to forgive the same sin over and over, will He really forgive me?

The answer is simple, though mysterious.  The gospel tells me that my forgiveness is not determined by the purity of my repentance, but on the purity of the Savior.  I am forgiven by grace, not works.  I may not “feel” forgiven, but why would I trust my own moral standards?  God declares me clean—whether it’s the first time I ask His forgiveness, or simply the latest in a string of clumsy prayers.

THE DAMAGE OF SELF-DETERMINATION

Still, this question raises still others. If I am consistently stumbling in a particular area, what is it that prevents me from approaching victory?  Granted, there are some sins—addictions in particular—that result in a lifetime of struggle.  But while the Christian life isn’t defined by perfection, it is nonetheless a quest for maturity.  And—as we have repeatedly emphasized—there is no greater barrier to spiritual growth than a focus on individual rights.  Here’s what God says through Ezekiel:

17 “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just.  18 When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it.  19 And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this.  20 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.”

21 In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has been struck down.”  22 Now the hand of the LORD had been upon me the evening before the fugitive came; and he had opened my mouth by the time the man came to me in the morning, so my mouth was opened, and I was no longer mute.  (Ezekiel 33:17-22)

Sometimes we fail to repent simply because we don’t trust that God’s way is truly better.  A lifetime of obedience doesn’t offer the immediate thrill of pornography or the power of gossip.  No wonder Jesus would describe the Christian life as a “narrow road.”

CALL TO MINISTRY

The answer comes in the example of Ezekiel himself.

23 The word of the LORD came to me:  24 “Son of man, the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess.’  25 Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: You eat flesh with the blood and lift up your eyes to your idols and shed blood; shall you then possess the land?  26 You rely on the sword, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land?  27 Say this to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: As I live, surely those who are in the waste places shall fall by the sword, and whoever is in the open field I will give to the beasts to be devoured, and those who are in strongholds and in caves shall die by pestilence.  28 And I will make the land a desolation and a waste, and her proud might shall come to an end, and the mountains of Israel shall be so desolate that none will pass through.  29 Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have made the land a desolation and a waste because of all their abominations that they have committed.

30 “As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’  31 And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain.  32 And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it.  33 When this comes–and come it will!–then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:23-33)

In today’s world, we assume that spirituality is on something of a spectrum.  We can look to “religion” as a source of values and general principles—but let’s not be a “fanatic” about it.  And yet, as Ezekiel’s life demonstrates, maturity comes when we begin to see God as the greatest treasure of our lives.   And yet, as Ezekiel’s life also demonstrates, there will always be those whose treasure lies elsewhere.  We cannot measure our lives through small-minded notions of “success.”  Instead we devote ourselves in faithfulness, and in quiet confidence, every step of the way.

“Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress” (Ezekiel 16)

According to a nineteenth-century novelist, “the most precious possession that ever comes to a man in this world is a woman’s heart.”  Humans are fragile creatures, and yet our loves are a force of nature.  And by design.  Man was created for romance.  In the Bible, the first words of recorded human speech are a love song from man to woman: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  She shall be called ‘woman’ because she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23).

In a very real sense, the entire Bible is a love story.  God cares for His people in the same way that a loving husband cares for his bride.  In Ezekiel 16, God describes the unique love He has expressed for Jerusalem:

Ezekiel 16:1-14  Again the word of the LORD came to me:  2 “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations,  3 and say, Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.  4 And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths.  5 No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.

6 “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’  7 I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.

8 “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine.  9 Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil.  10 I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk.  11 And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck.  12 And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.  13 Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.  14 And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord GOD.

God’s people were not known for their own beauty—it was “through the splendor” given to them from God alone.  God stretched out His hand, and had gained the heart of His bride, His people.  But if our earlier author is correct—if a woman’s heart is man’s most precious possession, how painful must it be to lose that heart?  Few images evoke more raw emotion than the image of God pursuing an unfaithful bride.  Indeed, if you and I possess a “relationship” with God, then disobedience goes far deeper than a lapse in our religious devotion.  It’s a profound betrayal of the deep love of God.  Over and over again, God uses the image of adultery to drive home the deep wounds that idolatry creates.  Even the following excerpt is only an abbreviated selection of God’s words.

Ezekiel 16:15-43  “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his.  16 You took some of your garments and made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore. The like has never been, nor ever shall be.  17 You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore.  18 And you took your embroidered garments to cover them, and set my oil and my incense before them.  […]

30 “How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute,  31 building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment.  32 Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!  33 Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings.  34 So you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; therefore you were different.

35 “Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the LORD:  36 Thus says the Lord GOD, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them,  37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness.  38 And I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy.  39 And I will give you into their hands, and they shall throw down your vaulted chamber and break down your lofty places. They shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful jewels and leave you naked and bare.  40 They shall bring up a crowd against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords.  41 And they shall burn your houses and execute judgments upon you in the sight of many women. I will make you stop playing the whore, and you shall also give payment no more.  42 So will I satisfy my wrath on you, and my jealousy shall depart from you. I will be calm and will no more be angry.

As you read this passage, can you not hear the strain in God’s voice?  The desperation of a lover scorned?  Nothing cuts deeper than betrayal, especially when it comes from someone we care deeply about.  And yet we are no different than Israel.  Just as the nation looked for other means of protection and value, so too do we look to lesser things for our own sense of protection and worth.  We are betrayers.  We are whores.  And we are in need of grace.

BrideThe amazingly good news is that God has always had a plan to bring His wayward bride back to Himself.  Israel would endure hardship during her years in exile, but hope lay at her journey’s end.  God would not forget about Israel, but years later His Son Jesus would inaugurate a new era through the church.  And what image does God’s word use to describe Christ’s relationship with the church?

Ephesians 5:25-27  25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

In our sin, we are adulterers and whores.  But in grace we are a bride, washed clean and presented before God in blameless splendor.  As whores we’re clothed in our own rags.  In Christ we’re clothed in righteousness.  One of my favorite worship songs is called “Wedding Dress” by Derek Webb, so I close with the chorus:

“‘Cause I am a whore I do confess
But I put you on just like a wedding dress
And I run down the aisle, I run down the aisle
I’m a prodigal with no way home
But I put you on just like a ring of gold
And I run down the aisle
I run down the aisle to you.”

Thank you, Jesus, for loving the unlovely and making Your bride whole.

“But I’m not hurting anyone!” (Ezekiel 8:1-18)

Our world is one of profound moral confusion.  When social scientist Christian Smith interviewed young adults on their views on morality, most of them said that right and wrong are simple matters of “common sense.”  Yet when we look at the world, we find that morality isn’t very common at all.  In fact, if there’s any common thread, it’s the fierce commitment to the preservation of individual choice.  No one has the right to challenge the views of someone else.  To do so would be intolerant at best and bigoted at worst.

Because morality has become so deeply personal, one of the arguments I often hear is this: “I’m not hurting anyone.”  Do you see the argument?  As long as my behavior doesn’t damage anyone else, it must be morally acceptable—so lay off.

The problem is that if the gospel is true, then the God of the universe is deeply hurt by anything that violates His ferociously and eternally holy character.  And that’s what we see God reacting to in the book of Ezekiel—a book that calls Israel to repent of her sins in the face of a God who is in control of every circumstance.

In chapter 8, we see God offering Ezekiel yet another vision—not of Himself, but of the nation:

In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord GOD fell upon me there.  2 Then I looked, and behold, a form that had the appearance of a man. Below what appeared to be his waist was fire, and above his waist was something like the appearance of brightness, like gleaming metal.  3 He put out the form of a hand and took me by a lock of my head, and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy.  4 And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I saw in the valley.  (Ezekiel 8:1-4)

Ezekiel is being offered a panoramic view of Israel’s idols.  What is an idol?

“An idol is anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that… is central in my life, anything that seems to me…essential… An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that… holds such a controlling position in my life that… it moves and rouses and attracts so much of my time and attention, my energy and money.” (Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, “Idolatry” in Life in God: Studies in 1 John)

In Ezekiel 8, we see God addressing four specific idols.  And if we’re honest, these idols are no less powerful today.

IDOL 1: JEALOUSY

5 Then he said to me, “Son of man, lift up your eyes now toward the north.” So I lifted up my eyes toward the north, and behold, north of the altar gate, in the entrance, was this image of jealousy.  6 And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see still greater abominations.”  (Ezekiel 8:5-6)

The first idol is jealousy.  Jealousy occurs when I do not find joy and satisfaction in what God has given me, and instead look for it in the life of my neighbor.  Have you ever experienced this?  You might say: “My life would be better if _______________.”  And you know you’re experiencing jealousy when you fill in that blank with something that belongs to another.  “If I only had a job like his.”  “I wish my spouse was more like that.”  And it’s an idol that never goes away—because there will always be someone that you perceive as being “better off.”  The end result is a continual game of one-upsmanship, a game we’re all destined to fail.

IDOL 2: SELF-INDULGENCE

7 And he brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked, behold, there was a hole in the wall.  8 Then he said to me, “Son of man, dig in the wall.” So I dug in the wall, and behold, there was an entrance.  9 And he said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here.”  10 So I went in and saw. And there, engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel.  11 And before them stood seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up.  12 Then he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, ‘The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.'”  13 He said also to me, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit.”  (Ezekiel 8:7-13)

The people of Israel had taken to worship images of beasts and reptiles—finding satisfaction in things other than God.  Do we worship images like this?  Of course not; we’ve just grown much more sophisticated.   Left to our own devices, we fill our need for pleasure and power with sports, with pornography, with hobbies—with anything that allows us to experience joy and satisfaction.  And this also means that it’s not just “bad” things that can become idols—even “good” things become an idol when we give them too great a priority.

IDOL 3: SELF-SUFFICIENCY

14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.  15 Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? You will see still greater abominations than these.”  (Ezekiel 8:14-15)

Tammuz was the Babylonian god of fertility, who promised the people a life of blessings.  If you remember, the people of Israel were enduring hardships during their exile in Babylon, so it’s understandable that in their desperation they’d look elsewhere for a shred of hope.

While the surface problem was worshipping another god, the deeper issue was the idol of self-sufficiency.  They failed to trust God, and turned to other solutions.  Do you trust God to run your life?  Often it’s easier to find our own way.  We can trust our education, our training, our ability to find and raise a family.  God seems almost unnecessary—maybe even more like a hobby.

IDOL 4: SPIRITUALITY

16 And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the LORD. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east.  (Ezekiel 8:16)

The final idol was one of spirituality—or perhaps better yet false spirituality.  Worship of the sun was common in many ancient eastern cultures.  We can only speculate why—perhaps it’s because unlike God, the sun can be visibly seen.   The same is true today: when we gather for worship, we can become more focused on the visible expressions of worship (music, preaching, etc.) then the object of our worship.  If I focus on God in my worship, I become a growing student of His Kingdom.  If I focus on the expressions of worship, I become a consumer of religious services.  I learn to critique the smallest details of a spiritual gathering based on whether I found the experience to be “engaging” or “relevant.”  When my spiritual life becomes reduced to these qualities, I have become addicted to a spiritual idol.

GOD’S RESPONSE TO IDOLATRY

What is God’s reaction to these idols?

17 Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here, that they should fill the land with violence and provoke me still further to anger? Behold, they put the branch to their nose.  18 Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.”   (Ezekiel 8:17-18)

If the gospel is true, then I can no longer base my morality on whether or not I’m “hurting anyone else.”  Instead, I base my morality on whether or not I’m offending God’s righteous standards.  And there’s more.  A life lived for self will only bring ruin. In an article in the New York Times, Erica Goode cites research that shows that high self-esteem can actually be linked to negative human behavior:

“High self-esteem…was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors…[in studies] carried out on aggression, they found that it was narcissism, self-love that includes a conviction of one’s superiority…that led people to retaliate aggressively when their self-esteem was threatened…[College students] who were invested in appearing attractive…reported more aggressiveness, anger and hostility than others, more alcohol and drug use and more symptoms of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia…They also became more depressed as the year wore on.” (Erica Goode, “Deflating Self-Esteem’s Role in Society’s Ills,” New York Times, October 1, 2002)

Goode cites one of the researchers who concludes:

 “The pursuit of self-esteem has short-term benefits but long-term costs…ultimately diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and leading to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.”

We live in a world that insists that my life is moral so long as I’m not hurting anyone.  But nothing is more damaging than self-interest.  The good news of the gospel is that Jesus abandoned His own rights by coming to earth to seek and save the lost:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

If the gospel is true, then it means that in myself I am profoundly lost.  But it also means that in Christ, I find more joy and satisfaction than any idol could ever offer.  To surrender our idols can be a painful and difficult process.  But the rewards are beyond measure.  What are you going to serve today?

Stranger in a Strange Land (Ezekiel 1:1-3:3)

To be a prophet was no easy task.  A “prophet” was someone who spoke on God’s behalf.  And when your heart beats in time with God’s, it makes you especially sensitive to those whose hearts do not.  The prophets’ shared task was to deliver God’s message to a world that valued happiness more than holiness—in other words, a world not unlike our own.

Ezekiel was one of these prophets.  Ezekiel wrote during the actual period of the exile—placing his book between 593-565 B.C.  He delivered God’s message to a people who endured a sense of hopelessness and homesickness as strangers in a land far from their home.  What was his message?  God is bigger than the worst of our circumstances, but our circumstances often call us to radical repentance.  Only by turning away from self and toward God would Israel find herself restored through God’s redemptive power.

The book is loaded with God-sized visions that dazzle the mind and explode the senses.  When Ezekiel is first called by the Lord, it is in the midst of a fantastic vision:

Ezekiel 1:1-3, 26- In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.  2 On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin),  3 the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the LORD was upon him there.  […]

26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance.  27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him.

28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

The vision was as spell-binding as it was terrifying.  In Israel’s religion (at least from Moses onwards), no one could see God and live.  Here, the vision of God is obscured only by a rainbow.  Why a rainbow?  The first time we see a rainbow (Genesis 9), it is to symbolize God’s promise to never again flood the earth.  A rainbow appears here to remind us that no matter how bad things may seem, God is a God who keeps His promises.

EZEKIEL’S VISION

Seeing this vision, Ezekiel’s only response is to fall to his face in shock and awe.  God bids him to rise:

Ezekiel 2:1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.”  2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.  3 And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day.  4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’  5 And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.  6 And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.  7 And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house.  (Ezekiel 2:1-7)

Like many of the prophets, Ezekiel faced the reality that not only would God’s message not be received, but it would be met with open hostility.  If you’re a person of faith, there’s a strong chance that you’ve found yourself in hostile territory.  Our world is perfectly comfortable with religion—just so long as it’s kept personal and private.  Under no circumstances can you “push your views” on others.  And in such a world it’s extremely tempting to settle back and say: “I’m not overly religious.  I really don’t want to push my faith down anyone’s throat.”  But if we’re honest, what is it we’re really saying?  We don’t want to rock the boat.  “I’m not comfortable making anyone uncomfortable.”  But to follow Jesus is to be counter-cultural.  To follow Jesus means saying the hard things.  To follow Jesus demands our very lives—can we really be surprised that we lose a few friends in the process?

This sounds hopeless.  What could possibly motivate me to remain faithful in a faithless world?  There’s a clue in this passage.  Though Ezekiel casts Himself at the Lord’s feet, God tells Him to rise.  God speaks to Him.  Ezekiel received the word of the Lord, but years later there would be a true and better Word (John 1:1) that would come to earth.  God would literally come near to each of us in the person of Jesus Christ.  And because of what Jesus accomplished through His death and resurrection, we can now draw near to God in the confidence of being adopted into the intimacy of God’s own sons (Galatians 4:5-6).

Do you hear how radical the gospel is?  Through no work of my own, God approves of me.  I have a relationship with the creator of the universe.  And if I have His approval, who else’s do I need?  I no longer need to fear the rejection of my coworkers.  I no longer need to worry that I might anger or offend someone.  In fact, if I find approval in God alone, then the gospel sets me free to offend people—so long as I offend them with the truth of the gospel.

CRAMMING RELIGION DOWN YOUR THROAT

The next scene is truly spectacular.  Ezekiel is consecrated—set apart for Godly service.

8 “But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”  9 And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it.  10 And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe.

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.”  2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat.  3 And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 2:8-3:3)

In some strange vision, Ezekiel literally eats a book.  Ezekiel was called to speak to the people—to reveal the character of God.  Do you see the irony?  What some find bitter, Ezekiel finds to be sweet.  What some consider “religion crammed down your throat,” others consider a delightful feast.

What about us?  If I believe that God is harsh and cruel, then chances are I’ll lack the confidence to live out my faith.  I’ll “shield” others from ideas (such as “sin” and “judgment”) in an effort to make the gospel more “relevant.”  But the gospel doesn’t need to be made relevant—it already is relevant.  If instead I am confident in the gospel—that I am a sinner saved by grace—then I can live out my faith in confidence and humility.

The world is not getting any easier—nor did Jesus ever promise that it would.  If you are a person of faith, then you can be prepared to suffer the loss of both friends and reputation.  This loss seems unbearable, until we weigh it against what we gain in Jesus.  What have you really got to lose?