The Gallup Organization polled 1,000 U.S. adults in mid-April of last year and found that 42 percent labeled themselves “born-again” or “evangelical.” However, in a survey held one month later on 1,000 Americans, the poll found that only about a quarter of the population hold to “core evangelical doctrines.”
Gallup identified three core evangelical beliefs as: believing that the Bible is the actual word of God, engaging in evangelism by encouraging friends and relatives to believe in Jesus, and having undergone a born-again experience. The results found that only 22 percent were found to hold all three beliefs. It seems that many in America claim to be followers of Christ, but their belief system would call that into question.
In 2005, Ron Sider, whom some of you may remember from the book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, wrote another book reflecting on some of these polls that have been done. The title of the book is The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. In a review of the book, one writer says, “His conclusion is that there is “…widespread, blatant disobedience…” among those who claim to be evangelicals. The five areas of human behaviour measured and used to reach this conclusion were divorce, materialism and the poor, sexual disobedience, racism, and spousal abuse in marriage.
In light of his survey, Sider argues that a stark contrast exists between historic New Testament Christianity and the practices of contemporary evangelicals (31-32).
Sider concludes that many within evangelical circles have reduced the gospel to a formula for the forgiveness of sins. This formula neglects the expected transformation of lives to reflect Jesus Christ, which Sider maintains is inherent within the New Testament definition of salvation (64-68).
Although I don’t know what results would come from a similar survey in Canada, I suspect that there would not be much difference. These are serious concerns and certainly invite us to evaluate our own lives. They are not the first time in the history of God’s people that such concerns have been raised. In Ezekiel 33:30-33 we read words that sound like a very similar indictment. Read text.
The context of these words is a very significant time in the history of God’s people. As you know, we have been reading a lot about God’s condemnation of his people because of their sin and the coming fall of Jerusalem. In Ezekiel 1:2, Ezekiel wrote that it was the fifth year of the exile to Babylon. In Ezekiel 33:21 he wrote that it was the twelfth year of the exile. Nebuchadnezzar had come to Jerusalem, attacked it, overcome it and had taken people into exile in Babylon, but had left many people in the land and even appointed a Jew to be king. For seven years, Ezekiel had been prophesying about the sin of the people in Jerusalem and the fall of the city of Jerusalem. He had been prophesying from exile in Babylon about the home land of his people. The whole time he was prophesying, the people in exile were hoping that he was wrong. They hoped that Jerusalem would win over Nebuchadnezzar and that they would be able to go back home again.
In 24:1,2 Ezekiel had written about the beginning of the siege against Jerusalem. Now in 33:21,22 we read that the news came to the exiles that “The city has fallen.” What devastating news! It was the end of their hopes of a return, it was the nail in the coffin that sealed the fate of the people of Israel as they had been. We have a glimpse of the devastation that filled the people in exile in Psalm 137 where they sorrow that they are supposed to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land. They mourn longingly for their homeland, for the place where God lived. Now they heard the news that their homeland was destroyed by the Babylonians and their hope for a return to it vanished.
The news of the fall of Jerusalem was a crisis of faith for the people in exile. Perhaps you have experienced things in your life that created a crisis of faith. Perhaps someone you loved died suddenly, or you were let go from a job, or a friend you trusted let you down. Was it a time when you grew closer to God or further away? Was it a time when you were more open to God’s leading or were you careless about what God was trying to do in you?
For Israel, it was a time when they wondered about God and their relationship to God. What would this crisis of faith demonstrate? How would it impact them as a people? It is in this context that the message of Ezekiel 33:30-33 is written. It was a powerful message for them and is also a powerful message for us.
At this watershed moment, what did God have to say to His people? Three statements in Ezekiel 33:30-33 confront the people with the same condemning conclusion. They seemed interested in God, but their lives did not demonstrate a genuine faith.
The people in exile were curious. They wanted to know what God had to say. The elders had often come to Ezekiel in the past to listen to him. In 8:1, 14:1; 20:1 the coming of the elders was an occasion for a prophecy from Ezekiel, but now things were different. Perhaps before this, they were interested in Ezekiel’s words, but they did not really believe them. They probably thought, “How is it possible that God’s city of Jerusalem is going to be destroyed?” But now they were ready to say, “Ezekiel, you were right!” One would think that the listening of the people would increase, that they would have a greater desire to listen, a deeper passion to truly hear what Ezekiel was saying.
So we read in Ezekiel 33:30, 31a that they were talking about Ezekiel and his message. They wanted to come and listen to him speak. God had a word for his people and they were eager to hear it. Ezekiel’s words about Jerusalem had come true and so they were listening attentively. “Religious meetings were never so well attended.”
The only problem is that the message of God only went as far as their ears. The judgement of God against these people at this time was that they “do not put them into practice.” Earlier I mentioned the polls taken about evangelicals and the book written by Ron Sider. It seems that “Ours is not the only age that treats God’s spokesmen as if they are public entertainment.” The Jewish exiles were entertained by the words of Jeremiah, but even the crisis of faith induced by the fall of Jerusalem did not change their behaviour.
The Bible often speaks about people who are eager to hear from God, but don’t do what He says. In Jeremiah 42, 43, there is such a story. Kareah and Jezaniah and other army officers wanted to know if they should stay in Judah or escape to Egypt as others of their countrymen had done. They said to Jeremiah, “Pray that the Lord will tell us where we should go.” Jeremiah went away and inquired of God and ten days later he came back to them and told them, “This is what the Lord the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your petition says…stay in this land, I will build you up…” After Jeremiah had delivered the message, the people said, “You are lying! The Lord our God has not sent you…” They wanted to listen, they heard the message eagerly, but they did not respond with obedience.
Jesus talked to the Pharisees who seemed eager to listen to God, but in Matthew 15:3 He accused them when He said, “why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” Their involvement with God was with the ear, but they did not obey God from their hearts. They were careful listeners to God’s words, but they did not follow that with obedience.
The poll by Gallup shows that there are many today who listen to the word of God, even eagerly, but do not do it. The ears of many church going people, the ears of most evangelical Christians are interested in God. They are willing to come to church every Sunday and hear what God is saying. They are careful to listen to what God is saying and eager to learn what God’s word says, but it seems that not nearly everyone who hears obeys. The ears are in tune, but the will is not.
Does this describe you? Do you, do I need to hear the words of James 1:22 – “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
But this hypocrisy may go even deeper. In verse 31b we read that “with their mouths they express devotion.” Once again we see something that is very good. Likely the Jews in exile were worshipping God in their synagogues and speaking to one another about God’s great deeds in the past. Perhaps they celebrated the Passover and asked the question “why is this night different than all other nights?” In answering that question in the midst of their celebration, they would have declared the mighty deeds of God. They were not shy about affirming their admiration for God.
However, once again, we read that they did not put righteousness into practice. Their mouths were saying all kinds of wonderful things, but something else was going on in their hearts. The text says their hearts “are greedy for unjust gain.” That is the NIV translation, but most other translations say this somewhat differently. KJV says, “their heart goeth after covetousness;” The Message has, “all they care about is making money and getting ahead.” NASB says, “their heart goes after their gain.” From the NIV we would get the impression that they are dishonest and cheaters and that is their sin, but the other translations indicate that the sin is much more subtle than that. It is not only unjust gain, but simply gain. The point that I think they are all making is that these people were self centred. They said they were interested in the things of God, they declared that God was wonderful, they even witnessed to the amazing deeds of God, but it was not genuine because what they really cared about most was not doing God’s will, not glorifying God, not honouring God, but rather what pleased them. They were most interested in themselves.
The mouth was in tune, but the heart and the will were not in tune with God at all.
In Luke 16:14, the writer comments about the Pharisees saying that although they appear to be deeply concerned about the things of God, in reality, they “loved money.” At this time things had not changed much.
To express devotion with our mouth is worship. Devotion is the verbal declaration of the wonder of who God is. As we read the Psalms, as we sing songs in church we “express devotion with our mouths.” Proclamation with the mouth also refers to witness. Perhaps we are quite vocal in telling others about Jesus and what He has done. This is a good thing, we ought to do this. Each year when we celebrate Christmas, we have many opportunities to declare what God has done. We sing carols and proclaim that Jesus has come into the world. But is it possible that the accusation against the exiled Jews can also be levelled against us? We come here each Sunday and sing the songs of God. We affirm that witnessing is a good thing. We agree that God is wonderful, but is it God we really care about or is the most important person in our life us? Is our first love the God we so boldly declare or is our first love ourselves?
Sometimes there is a dichotomy between what our mouths declare and what our hearts are truly passionate about. I believe that the warning is for us.
As I read the last phrase which occurs in 33:32, I wonder if it is a picture to illustrate the points made in the previous verses or if it perhaps even takes the hypocrisy one step further.
Music speaks deeply to our hearts. When we hear a beautiful song, it stirs us within. The songs we sing stir our emotions and we truly enjoy them. The notes, the words, the melody of an instrument all combine to send shivers up our spine and give us a warm feeling inside. How many of us have not made commitments in our hearts or been moved in our hearts and emotions by a song we have heard. This is wonderful! In fact, just to illustrate the point, let us sing a song together. “I Surrender All” (366)
This is what was happening to the people in exile. They took the words of Ezekiel and they were stirred by them. They thought they were beautiful. Their hearts were fully engaged in the message they were hearing. Their emotions were involved, but once again Ezekiel accuses them that their obedience was not involved.
Mark 6:20 tells us that Herod liked listening to John the Baptist. He enjoyed the words, something stirred in him when he heard John speak to him, but that did not prevent him from cutting John’s head off. Being involved emotionally in the beauty of words was not enough. Like the exiled Jews, it did not result in obedience.
One writer says, “Popular music in every age has been renowned for its ability to move its hearers only fleetingly.” When we sang the song a few moments ago (“I Surrender All” (366)) did you enjoy the words? Do you like the melody? Do you do what it says? Please look at the words again. Is it true in your life? “All to Him I freely give?” “Humbly at His feet I bow?” Worldly pleasures all forsaken?” Are we also just singing words, but not really living them? Our involvement in God’s way is also often only with our emotions.
“The exiles themselves were quite willing to grant a successful prophet his due: popularity. But they treated his work as mere entertainment.” What about us? I John 3:18 encourages us, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
What will motivate us? What will move us from listening to doing, from declaring to conformity, from emotional involvement to obedience?
We have recently enjoyed watching the winter Olympics. If an athlete was quite confident that he could win a medal. What would his performance be like? He would likely work very hard to actually win that medal. If, on the other hand, an athlete thought that he would never win anyway, he might be tempted to give up. Such mind games actually happen and countries hire psychologists for their Olympic team to help the athletes deal with them. Confidence about the end makes a difference in performance.
I believe that the last verse in this chapter is intended to encourage obedience by such a perspective. Ezekiel 33:33 says, “When all this comes true—and it surely will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” This is an encouragement to the exiles. The word “when” suggests that there is a time coming. The phrase “all this comes true” points to the fulfillment of all that God has promised to do. It points to the promises that God would restore Jerusalem once again, that He was still in the business of making a people who would follow Him and that God’s kingdom would be the everlasting kingdom. The phrase “and it surely will” gives assurance that the promises of God will indeed come true.
When Ezekiel says, “then they will know” it presents the end perspective on things and invites the people to understand that since God will accomplish His work, obedience is better than empty listening, mouthy devotion or entertainment spirituality.
The same wisdom will also help us. With an earthly mentality or a defeatist attitude it is hard to be generous to the poor, to live a holy life or to love our enemy. But if we can look at things from the perspective that all of God’s promises will come true, then we will be encouraged to obedience. If we can remember that in eternity, God will reign and all the ways of God will be lived and the brother whom we do not get along with, who has hurt us, will be our neighbour and that all our needs will be met in a wonderful paradise, then we are encouraged to obedience.
I read about a person who had been to lectures given by Professor Stephen Hawking. He writes, “Even if you've never heard him speak you are bound to have heard of him: he's the scientist who suffers from motor neurone disease and is almost entirely paralysed. The way he communicates is truly extraordinary. With just about the only muscle function he has he uses a single button to laboriously select words from a computer screen on his wheel-chair, and when he's finished a speech synthesiser delivers his words in a robot-like voice. Doing a question and answer session with him is an amazing experience: it can take him five or ten minutes or even longer to compose a reply to a question, but during that time there’s not a whisper in the audience. Everyone is eager to hear what the great man has to say. No-one jumps in with their own answer to the questions because they know they'd look a fool. And if he says something controversial people don't get up and rant at him: they weigh what he says, because he is after-all probably the greatest theoretical physicist alive. It's far more likely that he's right than they are.”
When God speaks, do we listen to His words with deep attention? Do we express our wonder at His greatness? Do we feel a sense of awe in His presence? As we recognize the eternal perspective let us make sure that we go beyond empty listening, devotion that is only in our mouth and entertainment spirituality to a whole hearted obedience.