By Simon ManchesterSunday 17 May 2015Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 0 minutes
St Thomas’ Anglican Church
The Serious God – Down in the Depths
Ezekiel Chapters 18-24
Father,we thank You for every privileged opportunity we have to open the Scriptures,to sit quietly and consider Your Word to us. We pray that You would help us to be good hearers and then good doers. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
These Sunday mornings,we are looking at the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. Everybody who is in a real relationship knows that love means having to say ‘sorry’ occasionally. And a real apology and a real acceptance is like two ends of a bridge,meeting. One without the other is terrible and hopeless. An apology with no acceptance,a person willing to accept but no apology… terrible. And if we are to relate to God,exactly the same principle applies. There needs to be an apology and there needs to be an acceptance.
And today,in Ezekiel,I want to just follow two truths with you,from a slab of the book. The first truth,the first theme that we are going to follow is that God has a case against His people. And the second truth or theme is that God has compassion for His people. The case against,compassion for. He has a concern to get people approaching Him with an apology and He has a willingness to meet them,when they approach Him.
This sermon is especially important for people in three groups. First of all,those who may be listening today,who don’t think much about God at all. You do not know God has a case against you,you do not know how you would fix it if there was a case against you,and you do not even know that a relationship with God is the No 1 issue for you on the planet. This sermon this morning is also important for people who are prone to drift,theologically. I don’t mean drift mentally – all of us are prone to drift mentally – but to drift theologically. You may be the sort of person who can easily lose the seriousness of God and therefore you tend to get a bit sentimental and wishy-washy in your faith. Or,you may be the sort of person who tends to lose the gracious side of God and therefore,you get legalistic and harsh towards yourself and towards others. And this sermon is also especially important for people who are experiencing some kind of crumbling in some part of their life – genuine trouble going on in your life. And you need to be reminded of the situation that we are in,in this world,so you won’t be shattered when things go wrong. And you need also to remember the goodness of God,who is able to take broken things and rebuild for better things.
What we have seen in Ezekiel in the book so far is we have seen God’s explanation for His people in exile. If you haven’t been here for the last few weeks,I will just remind you in one sentence,that God has taken His people out of the Promised Land,toward the end of the Old Testament story,for seventy years because of their consistent unfaithfulness to God. And what we are going to see this morning,from Ezekiel 18,is God’s case to draw His people to their return. He has sent them to the pigs. Do you remember how the prodigal son ran away and went to the pigs? And he was sitting with the pigs and all the dishonour and the humiliation and the hunger and the sadness and the memories which woke him up to return. And that is what God has done. He has sent His people to the pigs.
And we are also going to see today His compassion to see them restored. There are plenty of treasures in the chapters this morning. This is the last section of Ezekiel 1-24,and those of you who have a mental picture of the Book of Ezekiel,you may remember,you can divide it into three parts,1-24 – God’s Word,warning His people,25-32 – God’s Word,warning the nations,33-48,God’s Word to restore. And we are at the very end of the warning to His people. Let’s think of these two themes. First of all,God’s case against His people.
Look at Chapter 18 Verse 2. The people are blaming God for their exile. What do your people mean by quoting this proverb,’The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? In other words,the people have a proverb which says,’Our ancestors wrecked everything and we are paying the price’. If you were to put it into a bumper sticker,it would be something like this: They failed,we feel.
Yes,God’s people have been unfaithful up until now and we are paying for it. That is what they are saying. And you can see this is a complaint,because in Chapter 18,Verse 29: the house of Israel says,’The way of the Lord is not just’. Now God’s Word to His people is very clear. Look at Chapter 18 Verse 20: God says you are responsible: the soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father,nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him,and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against Him.
In this Chapter,Ezekiel sets out three generations. A father (Verse 5),a son (Verse 10) and a grandson (Verse 14). That would be the normal family that you might hope to see. If you looked at a family gathered,you would see the grandfather,then the son,then the grandson. The three generations. And in this picture,Ezekiel says the father chooses to do God’s will,the son chooses against God’s will and the grandson chooses for God’s will. For… against … for. And Ezekiel says that nobody in the family is going to get the reward of another person. Each one is going to get their own reward.
This chapter is not teaching,incidentally,salvation by works. This chapter is teaching that people are responsible to turn to God or turn away from God. It is their responsibility. If the road-sign says,’Highway’ and you choose the road to the highway,you get the highway. If the road-sign says ‘Cliff-top’ and you choose the way to the cliff-top,you get the cliff-top. God will not listen to the person who blames someone else as things go wrong because,He says,you are responsible.
Some of you at St Thomas’s may know that I am not exactly on the cutting-edge of technology and one of the reasons that I stumble every now and again in my sermons is because there are blotches from my quill. But when I was a groovy youth leader,back in the 70s,I was on the cutting-edge of technology and we used to buy or rent,every now and again,little filmstrips. These little filmstrips were basically wound on to this very old projector and a cassette dropped into it,a cassette player. And then this cutting-edge technology,with little kids gathered around the wall,we would wind this little filmstrip forward. And I always remember one of them was a very clever little filmstrip. It was called ‘enry. And it was about a couple whom I think came from somewhere like Birmingham in the UK. And ‘enry and his wife were waiting to win the Pools and they were refusing,regularly,consistently,to pay their rent. And as they went on,basically not answering the door to the landlord,their house began to crumble. And they got to the point of starting to blame the landlord for what was going on around them. And finally they got to the point of actually disbelieving in the landlord,the great climax of the process was that ‘enry said,’We don’t think there even is a landlord’. And such is the ability,you see,of the human heart to blame.
God puts responsibility,according to Ezekiel Chapter 18,into our hands. We are not free. We can’t regenerate ourselves. We can’t bring ourselves to new birth and new life,but we are responsible to seek or to hide. That is our responsibility. And this is God’s case against the exile – you did it. You are in the exile because you did it.
In Chapter 19,you see how sad this is,because Ezekiel composes a lament,a lament for the Israelite princes. They have been captured like lion cubs. You see this in Verse 4 and Verse 9 of Chapter 19 – the kings,like cubs,have been captured and taken away to other countries and the nation has been uprooted like a vine (Verse 13). It is a sad situation. The kings had a net thrown over them and like young cubs,they are dragged off to another country. And the whole nation of Israel,like a vine,has been uprooted and planted no longer beside the water but now in the desert of Babylon. It’s a sad thing. And the reason that this has taken place (Verses 3 & 6) is because the kings have been devouring people,which I presume means they have been destructive,not constructive,and you will see in Verse 12,they have stirred God to fury.
Is this just a one-off? Did the people just do something foolish and are now suddenly whisked off to exile in Babylon? Not at all. Ezekiel Chapter 20 shows that it is not a one-off failure. It has been a constant thing and Ezekiel Chapter 20 is a long chapter that surveys the history of Israel and shows that generation after generation,the people rebelled against God. And God has been patient and patient and patient,for His name’s sake,but they have been consistently rebellious. Chapter 20 Verse 6 – the people that He brought out of Egypt rebelled; Chapter 20 Verse 13 – the people travelling in the desert rebelled; Chapter 20 Verse 21 – the people who are now in the Promised Land rebelled (those still in Jerusalem); and Chapter 20 Verse 30 – the people who are now in exile rebelled. They have all been rebellious.
And we therefore discover in Ezekiel Chapter 21,that God has a weapon that He is going to bring against the city. And the weapon,if you look at Chapter 21 Verse 9,is a sword. This is what the Lord says,’A sword,a sword,sharpened and polished. And of course the sword is Babylon.
God is so powerful,not only can He raise up Babylon to act like His sword,but if you look at Verse 21,he can actually cause Babylon to choose the job. This is how sovereign God is – Chapter 21 Verse 21 – the king of Babylon will stop at the fork in the road,the junction of the two roads,to seek an omen. He will cast lots with arrows,he will consult his idols,he will examine the liver (one of their methods of making a decision). Into his right hand will come the lot for Jerusalem,where he is to set up battering rams,to give the command to slaughter,to sound the battle cry.
So God has the sword,called Babylon,and God has the sovereignty to steer Babylon to do the job of disciplining His people for generations of unfaithfulness.
I don’t know if you remember how long it was between David’s sin and David’s confession (David the king,who committed adultery and murder). And then this long period where he was hard and resistant and (he says later) unhappy. And then he came to confess. And God used a prophet to bring him to confession,a prophet called Nathan. And Nathan came in with a brilliant story,which got under David’s guard,and caused him to confess and suddenly be free,before God,of his sin.
God is using a prophet to get His people,again,to confess. The prophet is Ezekiel. Ezekiel is using every communication weapon he can possibly think of. He is using preaching,he’s using drama,he’s using stories,he’s using illustrations,he’s using poems,he’s using laments. He cannot get the people to come up with a confession. The hardest thing in the universe is the human heart. You and I have the ability to so harden our heart,it is scary. Of course the softest thing in the universe is God’s heart,untainted by sin. But ours,infected by sin,is able to steel itself incredibly.
That’s what Ezekiel is facing,as he deals with God’s people. In Chapter 22,he lists the crimes,to prove the ungodliness,and he uses illustrations to try and make them see how dangerous the situation. He talks about them in Chapter 22 as being dross,just about to be skimmed off from the fire. He talks about them as being a place without rain – dirty,filthy,dusty,desperate. And in Chapter 23,he uses another very earthy chapter,another earthy picture,of God’s people,the north and the south,like two insatiable lovers who chase every possible affair they can.
Please don’t think that what we are reading about here is another group with hearts unlike our own. There is a sense in which their hearts are unlike ours,because they are without God’s Spirit. But what we are seeing in these chapters is the human heart,left to itself. Please don’t think we are reading chapters now about people who live at King’s Cross who are the crime kings and the porn kings and nothing like us. What we are reading about here is the human heart – my heart and your heart – capable of saying,’I will go anywhere but Christ’. We have that ability. And therefore,of course,when we think like that and when we live like that,we become restless as well as rebellious. It is a tragic situation as well as a sinister situation. And Spurgeon once said that the person who is avoiding Christ is like that dove that has been released from the Ark before there is actually a place to settle. And all the bird can do is flap around … and eventually come back. There is nothing really substantial to settle on. And if you have ever seen a bird trapped in a room,and people trying to corner the bird,in order to free the bird,this is what God is doing. He is trying to corner His people,in order to free His people,so that they will take responsibility for their sin,not blame anybody else,see that it is a very deep problem,a fatal problem,and come back to Him for the fix,for the solution. Exactly what Jesus did,in Mark Chapter 7,when He said to the Pharisees on one occasion: forget about all your ritual,forget about your washing hands and your little rules and all that sort of thing. You will never fix the heart with all that ritual and religion. The only way to have a heart fixed is to bow down before Jesus Christ and get a new heart and have your heart changed,softened and made new.
God has a case against His people. And in Chapter 24 of Ezekiel, the communication reaches the maximum cost. First,in Chapter 24,the people are told that they are not the choice meat in the pot. Remember back in Ezekiel Chapter 11 Verse 3,they thought that they were the choice meat in the safe pot in Jerusalem. And now God says – I have a shocking thing to tell you. You are not the choice meat in the pot. You are the chunks who will be cut up and cooked. You are the chunks of meat,you are not the choice people. And then the ultimate cost to Ezekiel in Chapter 24 Verse 16,he is to lose his wife and he is not to grieve. Incredible…just as God’s people,Chapter 24 Verse 25,would lose their temple and are too shocked to grieve.
So do you see what is going on here? This is the thread which is running through the chapters of God’s case against His people. But thank God,there is another thread which runs through and it is the compassion that God has for His people. And it is summarised in that first chapter that we read – Chapter 18 Verse 31,which says,’Why will you die? I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,’ says the Lord. ‘So,turn and live!’
That is our second thing this morning – God’s compassion for His people.
On Thursday (which is my day off),I went to the Manly corso and I was talking to an old man on a bench. And he owns the fish-shop where I had bought my fish and chips – and he had come out for a breather,and he was sitting on one end of the bench (as far away from me as possible) and I said to him,’What is your nationality?’ And he said,’I am Serbian’. And I said to him,’Are you Serbian Orthodox?’ He said,’Yes,I am.’ I said to him,’Do you believe that Jesus is the Saviour?’ He said,’You save yourself.’ I said,’Why did Jesus come?’ He said to me,’Nobody knows.’ I said to him,’He tells us,in Scripture,why He came.’ He said,’Who wrote that stuff?’ I said,’The eyewitnesses wrote the stuff.’ He said,’So you say. We save ourselves.’ I said to him,’Can you save yourself?’ I pause at this moment,so that you will just reflect on what a brilliant conversation this was! I have humbly recorded this in the best possible light that I can for myself… but the conversation went something like this,and I said to him,’Can you actually save yourself?’ And he said,’We are dust and we go to dust.’ I said to him,’Is Jesus Christ now dust?’ And he said,’You think what you like.’ I said to him,’It seems to me,from Jesus,it’s either Heaven or hell’. And he said,’So you say.’ I really liked this man. I really liked him. He got extremely animated as we talked. I couldn’t get anywhere with him,absolutely nowhere. I could do nothing at the end of the conversation except shake his hand and say that I really appreciated his fish and chips. And then we separated.
But you see,God is not weak,like me. God can turn a person at any second of any day,so that they repent and believe. Nevertheless,we are told in Scripture that He says to people: you must take responsibility – turn,and live. And He also tells us in Scripture that He has compassion for the person who does not turn and live.
The power of God is what we are going to see,as well as the compassion. His power is unquestioned,but human responsibility is also very clear. And God,without any helplessness whatsoever,takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner. He says in Chapter 18 Verse 23 – He is pleased when they turn and they live.
This appeal of Ezekiel,to the people of God,to turn and live of course is an appeal to the people of God,but it has a wider impact. God calls on the world to turn and live. And He continues to be compassionate to those who do not turn,without being derailed by His feelings,without being shocked by the decision people make,without falling into compromise,without changing His plan in the slightest. He laments the decline in people’s fortunes. And that is why,in Chapter 19,there is the lament. This is a lament. I take no pleasure in the death of anyone… I am pleased when a person turns and I lament those who do not turn.
And He still plans,in Chapter 19,that there will come a lion who will take the throne and there will come a vine who will provide the ruler’s sceptre. That,of course,that lion,that vine,is the Lord Jesus. And then if you look at God’s plan in Ezekiel Chapter 20,Verse 41,you will see that He has a plan for good. It says,’I will accept you as fragrant incense when I bring you out from the nations,and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered,and I will show Myself holy among you,in the sight of the nations. Then you will know that I am the Lord when I bring you into the land of Israel,the land I had sworn with uplifted hand to give to your fathers.’ The long rebellion and the hard purging of being in exile is going to lead,eventually,to great compassion and great rescue.
In Chapter 21,He describes the sword that He will use. But look at Chapter 21 Verse 6. He says to Ezekiel,’Groan before them,with broken heart and bitter grief’ because of what is coming. In Chapter 22,He lists the sins and He describes their hopelessness,but He says,very famously,in Chapter 22 Verse 30 – I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before Me in a gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it,but I found none.’ See,He is looking for someone who might be the solution,because He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. He is pleased when a person turns. He laments the loss of the lost. He groans for those who will perish. He looks for the answer,the solution. And in Chapter 23,He describes the two halves of the kingdom like two ruthless,adulterous people,wrecking a marriage. And yet,He says in Chapter 23 Verse 35 ‘You have forgotten Me.’ And,in Chapter 23 Verse 25,He speaks of His jealous anger. Jealous,because He hates the break-up,He hates the intruders,He hates the rejection,He hates the cost.
And could there be anything more significant,when we get to Chapter 24,than the death of Ezekiel’s wife,who is the delight of his eyes,who is,of course,a sign-post to the day that God Himself would lose His own Son,’My servant,in whom I delight’. But the death of Jesus,of course,would have the sting in it,the sting of Judgement. And the death of Jesus would have salvation in it,in a way that Ezekiel’s wife could only look forward.
You think how the Apostle Paul puts it,in 1 Thessalonians 4. He says,’We don’t want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep – that is,believers who lie down at the end of their days,and then rise up,to be with Christ. But,we believe Jesus died,and rose again – that is,He took the Judgement. He took the sting for all the sins of His people.
So there is the hope and there is the encouragement. It is Jesus whom the Lord finds to stand in the gap and bare the wrath,in order that the believer might be spared.
So I want to draw your attention to those two themes: God bringing His case against His people,to draw out their confession,and then God revealing His compassion,all through those chapters,because there is a willingness to welcome,and there is a means to do the work,namely the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.
I mentioned at the beginning the bridge,the idea of us sort of bringing some apology,and God bringing some forgiveness together. Actually,that is a very bad picture,because as the believer gets up and says to himself or herself: I am going to return and go to my Father and say to Him,’Father,I have sinned against You and I am no longer worthy to be called Your child’,the believer gets up and begins to go and discovers that a whole bridge has been built. The death of the Lord Jesus has come from Heaven to earth,from the perfection of God to the need of us and covers the complete distance,so we have nothing to do but step onto it and enjoy it and rejoice in it.
And this is Ezekiel’s Old Testament call to God’s people,to return to Him with their hearts and a real apology,and find that there is the hope of return and acceptance.
I finish by mentioning this to you this morning,and it applies to everybody who can hear me speak,and that is this: to change the analogy,God will be a storm or a shelter to everybody. He will either be a storm,from whom you will never escape,or He will be a shelter from whom you will never perish.
And now,focussed on the Lord Jesus – storm or shelter – this is a decision that you must make: will Christ be your storm or your shelter? It’s a decision which never changes. It is a choice which never changes. Everybody must choose Christ as their storm or their shelter,and Ezekiel just previews this in the chapters we have looked at.