Tonight I want us to discover what the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel may be saying to us as we face the start of a new 12 month period in the life of JPC. I want us to look at Ezekiel 33.1-16; and my headings tonight, after some words of introduction, are first, EZEKIEL FOR TODAY; secondly, HIS AND OUR GOD; and, thirdly, HIS AND OUR COMMISSION.
You may have seen last month the brilliant closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London with its amazing organisation, mechanics, staging, design and acoustics. That was human science and technology at its remarkable best. But what was it for?
The Times newspaper said it was for “a celebration of British culture … a love letter to invention and innovation … [and] … flashes of inspiration from Britain old and new.” But what is that culture that was broadcast around the world to at least 750 million people? According to the organizers, it is a culture dominated by nihilistic and decadent celebrities.
A, if not the, high point was Eric Idle singing (and getting scores of thousands to join in) “Always look on the bright side of life.” That, of course, was a song from the film, The Life of Brian (a take off of the life of Jesus). It was the song Brian, the Jesus figure, sang as he was hanging on the Cross and dying. Here are some of its nihilistic and blasphemous words.
“For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow.
So always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath
Then after some offensive crudeness, it continues:
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true.
You'll see it's all a show
Keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.
Always look on the bright side of life...
(I mean - what have you got to lose?)
(You know, you come from nothing –
you're going back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!)
Always look on the right side of life...
Well, how should you react as more and more are, nationally. committed to this culture of nihilism, which more precisely is the idolatry of decadent secular humanism? That is where you, as a human being, are central and live as though God did not exist. So what can we learn from Ezekiel on how we should react?
What (our first heading) has EZEKIEL to say FOR TODAY?
Let me start with some background.
Something like our current culture was confronting Ezekiel in Babylon in the years immediately following the exile to Babylon of some Jewish people in the year 597BC. For one thing Babylon was famous for its science. Some say it was the inventor of astronomy. But the Babylonians were also known for their idolatrous sexual decadence. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us Babylon was noted for its ritual prostitution. I quote: “the foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger once in her life
The problem, however, was that this type of fertility religion in various forms was all over the Ancient Near East. And it was abhorrent to those faithful to Yahweh (or Jehovah of the older translations, LORD in modern translations), the living and true God of Israel. But as in the UK many in Israel and Judah had compromised. They became party to this idolatrous decadence and the social injustice that went with it. And the result was God’s judgment on his people in previous generations through the ruthless Assyrians; but now in Ezekiel’s time there was judgment through their successors as a super-power, the Babylonians.
So in 597 BC Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and took captive and back to Babylon a number of Jewish people including Ezekiel. But these exiles, who were only a proportion of the population of Judah, seem to have thought it would only be a short time before they were back home. They were not taking seriously the fact that this was God’s judgment.
Jeremiah, an older prophet who overlapped with Ezekiel but had not himself gone to Babylon, wrote a letter to these exiles. He said they should prepare for the long-haul - in fact for 70 years:
"Build houses [he wrote] and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jer 29v5-7).
Wise advice – for then as now. But foolishly the exiles in Babylon (as well as the people back in Judah) were still incapable of seeing reality. They continued to live as though the true and living God did not exist by still ignoring or defying his word. They did not follow the exile Daniel who (the Old Testament tells us) learnt to be in a minority of one (when necessary); and he was in high office. Instead, they continued to conform to the idolatry, decadence and injustices of their pagan neighbours.
So Jeremiah in Judah continued to, and now Ezekiel among the exiles started to, give more warnings about God’s judgment. For God’s judgment wasn’t going to stop with the year 597BC
But in Babylon many said: “don’t listen to Ezekiel and all his horror stories. Rather just look on the bright side.” These were the false prophets who said (Ezekiel 13v10-11):
"Peace," when there is no peace, and … when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash. Therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall.” (Ezekiel 13v10-11)
Ezekiel is not always easy to understand. But, “peace, peace” and the metaphor of “whitewash on a collapsing wall” is not hard to understand. It has been so true to life down the ages.
And it is true of contemporary life in the West. Surely it is when governments think all will be well in the end. So the whitewash of more money or new structures in Education, the NHS or social services will solve the problems of huge cracks or breakdowns in society and public life. But they fail to see these problems have a spiritual and moral dimension and call for repentance. Instead these same governments are marginalizing or even outlawing Christians and their doctrine and ethics. At the same time they are facilitating this religion of secularism and sexual decadence in schools, hospitals, and social services and also nationally – witness the promotion of same sex marriage. And many today think all will be well.
Ezekiel, by contrast, would say, “No! Expect the judgment of God on your sins; so expect negative social consequences.” He was certainly saying that to the exiles in Babylon, and he was proved right. For in 586 BC – eleven years later than the first attack of Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC, there was another and greater Babylonian attack on the Jews who remained behind and for rebelling against the Babylonians. This time Jerusalem was utterly destroyed with its Temple burnt to the ground and great numbers deported to Babylon. Yes, Ezekiel is so relevant for today.
But what lay behind his response to all this? That brings us to our …
... second heading, HIS AND OUR GOD
At such times as these especially, the number one essential is to begin with the reality of God – the God who is there. Unless you understand something of who he is (his being and nature), what he does (his actions and work) will never make sense. So, first, Ezekiel began with God’s greatness and glory. Ezekiel was so clear about that.
In Ezekiel chapter 1 there is a report of an amazing vision the prophet had of God while in Babylon. Included was a vision of God’s divine chariot throne. And it assured him, and the people with him, that God was not limited to Jerusalem and its Temple. If only these exiles would trust and obey him, they could experience his presence, protection and power in pagan Babylon.
Secondly, Ezekiel was clear on God’s absolute sovereignty. So there needed to be confidence that God rules and was ruling over the whole world and not only over his own people. Ezekiel prophesied about the surrounding nations, and not just Israel and Judah, that they, too, would experience God’s judgment for their sins (chapters 25-32). And, by the way, beware of thinking this talk of judgment in the Old Testament teaches God is harsh and vicious while by contrast the New Testament teaches that he is kind and gentle. So the Old Testament, therefore, needs to be revised. No! That was one of the first Christian heresies.
Always remember that the God of the Old Testament is none other than the one who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So the one who is judging Israel and, in time, will judge Babylon, is our Trinitarian God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You, therefore, cannot separate the pre-incarnate Christ before he was born in Bethlehem, from all this - his Old Testament activity. Yes, it is a mystery. But never forget, while the New Testament begins with Jesus as a baby in a manger, it concludes in Revelation with the risen and reigning Jesus Christ as the great and awesome judge of all.
That relates to the third thing that Ezekiel was clear about, namely that while God is all-holy he is also all-loving. The whole Old Testament teaches that God’s nature is to be holy and righteous. He cannot tolerate sin because it is so destructive.
As a matter of fact, the decadent idolatry the people were adopting in Judah and in Babylon involved child sacrifice as well as temple prostitution and all sorts of other social evils. For God just to smile at all this and let things go from bad to worse, is simply not a loving thing to do. It is as unthinkable as for someone letting a blind person cross the road when the traffic lights are red, but claiming to love them. So God’s warning of judgment, unless there is repentance and a turning around, is a sign of his love.
Three times Ezekiel reports that God does not want the death of the wicked – in chapter 18v23 and 32 and in our chapter 33. Look at verse 11:
“Say to them, 'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (33v11)
Who, tonight, is feeling like those folk being addressed in Babylon? By now, Ezekiel had seen that at last some of the exiles were facing the reality of their sin and that it was leading to God’s judgment. Look at verse 10 of chapter 33:
"Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?" (33v10)
As we have just heard, Ezekiel says they are to “turn from their ways and live.” This is a hinge moment. Indeed, chapter 33 is a hinge chapter in the book of Ezekiel. For as people began to repent, Ezekiel starts to tell of all the positives that come from being right with God. Later in 36v25-27 Ezekiel speaks of God’s wonderful promise:
“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.” (36v25-27)
And, as we now know, Christ today will do just that if you ask him and you turn from your evil ways. He cleanses you from “your impurities” through his supreme loving work on the Cross, where he was receiving the judgment you deserve. And he will give you his Holy Spirit and that new heart to be able to obey him if you ask him.
So there you have something of Ezekiel’s understanding of God you need as you seek to witness and work in a modern pagan or secular environment. Remember Ezekiel’s consciousness of the greatness, the sovereignty, and the love of God in the context of his holiness.
That brings us, thirdly, to HIS (Ezekiel’s) AND OUR COMMISSION
It is right that tonight we should ask ourselves, what fundamentally as a church we should be doing at this point in time. Our foundation is clear. It is for us to be, I quote, “a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth.” And our vision is clear: it is for Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain. But all that has to include “warning” people of the danger both for now and especially for eternity of ignoring or defying the true and living God.
The Apostle Paul’s last recorded sermon before his trial at Rome was to church leaders from Ephesus. It is recorded in Acts 20 and includes these words:
"Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20 verses 25-31).
With the phrase, “I am innocent of the blood of all”, Paul seems to be echoing Ezekiel whose commission was to be a “watchman” with a particular job of warning people of danger. But Ezekiel’s commission included a warning about his own possible failure! Look at verses 7-9 of Ezekiel 33:
"Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you will surely die,' and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood [hence Paul saying he was innocent of the blood of all]. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.”
So there is a twofold challenge there, surely, for today. There is a warning to us about failing to warn others, as well as a warning to others to heed our warning. But note four things about biblical warnings.
One, as we’ve said, they are evidence of God’s love. The goal is for people, verse 8, to be “dissuaded” from evil ways and repent, not to suffer.
Two, warning must be done graciously and with compassion. Paul said, “I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Three, while warning others of God’s judgment, you must never condemn them. God, who sees the heart, alone can do that. And, …
Four, warnings must follow repentance with encouragement.
The last part of the book of Ezekiel contains encouragement, not only about a new heart but also about a totally new future. He says when you help others turn back to God, there are amazing results. He tells you to think about dead bones coming to life, a brand new temple where God truly is, a brand new nation with a brand new city where all will be well for its name is “the Lord is there.”
I must conclude.
Ezekiel’s prophecies were given in the sixth century BC. But Paul tells the Corinthians, referring to earlier judgments of God recorded in the Bible, that they …
“… were written down as a warning for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come [that is in Jesus Christ ]” (1 Cor 10v11).
That fulfilment in Christ means that the warnings are not just about judgment in ancient Israel or the principles of those judgments applied today – which is necessary to do. They also relate to that final judgment day when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead and to heaven and to hell. But says Jesus (John 12v47):
“I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.” (John 12v47)
So now between Christ’s first and second comings we have a time of grace and opportunity. How, at this church, we must seize these opportunities to tell others of Christ’s saving work and his kingship. But that saving work is in the context of God’s judgment. For Jesus says in the very next verse in John’s Gospel (12v48):
“There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.” (John 12v48)