It interested me, when I was younger, that my father was born in Moscow, Russia (bring birth certificate). That was not their home, but his parents were in Moscow trying to get out of Russia just at the time when he was born. They did not succeed in getting out, but were sent back to their home in the Crimea and so my father grew up in Russia. When they returned to where they had lived, other people had taken their house because they thought they were not coming back and so for the next 10-12 years, they lived in a different house. Then in the early 1940’s, they were sent away from their home again. The Russians tried to send them to Siberia, but the German army came into the land and they, being considered Germans, were saved from that fate. For a number of years, they lived as refugees – no home, no land, dependent on others. Because the Germans were helping them they were cared for to a degree. The same thing happened to my mother and her family. At one point, they were given a home to live in that had belonged to someone else. The other family was still in the area and my grandmother said that it was very uncomfortable to be put in someone else’s house, especially because they knew what it was like to have their own house taken from them.
These stories of loss of place, of being refugees are a part of my history. I have heard them from when I was young and have gained somewhat of an appreciation for the difficulties which refugees face and what it feels like to be displaced. Some of you are living in the house your grandparents lived in. I, on the other hand, have no sense of a place which I can call an ancestral home. My parents grew up in Russia and came to Canada. There is no one of the family living in the place where I grew up. Since we were married we have moved about 9 times. We do not live in the place where our children grew up.
Perhaps that is why part of the discussion which takes place in Ezekiel 11 makes sense to me. As you may recall, Nebuchadnezzar had come to Jerusalem and captured it and had sent a large number of the people to Babylon. I can identify with those exiles. Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar had given governance of Jerusalem to those who were left behind and they promptly took over the properties of those who had been taken away.
In chapter 11, Ezekiel has a vision about the people who have been left in Jerusalem. He explains this vision to the exiles in Babylon. In the vision, God reveals that the people in Jerusalem are not following Him, but “are plotting evil and giving wicked advice.” In verse 2, he quotes one of their sayings. Their motto was, “Is it time to build houses? This city is a cooking pot, and we are the meat.” What was going on?
There are several things which this saying reveals about their attitudes and about what was happening. The phrase, “we are the meat” means that just as the meat is the choicest part of a pot of stew, they thought that they were the favoured ones and those who had gone into exile were the rejected ones. They considered the exiles as rejected by God. Later in verse 15, they say, “They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.” They had acted on this belief by taking over the houses of the people who had gone into exile.
The question, “Is it time to build houses?” therefore expects the answer, “no.” They did not need to build houses. In fact, what they did have to spend their energy on was defending themselves against the Babylonians who were coming again. They knew this and the advice of the leaders was, “it is time to prepare for war.”
They wanted to revolt against Babylon. But, they were over-confident. The phrase “Jerusalem is the pot” was their way of saying that we, the choice people, will be protected by the fact that we are in the chosen city of Jerusalem. We are safe from attack and everything is going to be OK.
But as Ezekiel prophecies, he prophecies that things are going to be very different. He first of all warns the people who are still in Jerusalem. He rewords their saying and says, “The bodies you have thrown there are the meat and this city is the pot.” In other words, it is not the residents of Jerusalem who are the choice pieces of meat, that is, the chosen people of God. Those who have died are better off than those still living in Jerusalem. This is a completely different way of thinking than those living there expected. Then he goes on, still referring to their saying that Jerusalem was the pot, but warning that the pot was not a place of safety. He warns that they would be taken out of the pot – that is out of Jerusalem and we read in verse 10, “You will fall by the sword, and I will execute judgement on you at the borders of Israel.” According to II Kings 25:18-21 many of the people who were now still in Jerusalem were killed at Riblah near Israel’s northern border.
Remember that Ezekiel is prophesying this to the exiles in Babylon. The prophecy sounds like bad news all around. It is bad news to hear that the people in Jerusalem think that the exiles are unworthy and rejected of God. But it is also bad news that God is going to destroy Jerusalem. Can you imagine what it would have been like to hear these things as a person in exile in Babylon? Your house has been taken by someone else. You are considered as rubbish because you are no longer in the promised land. You can’t go back home because it is going to be destroyed. This would, of course, have made a terrible situation for the people in exile. They would have asked, “Where is God? Are we accepted by God? What is God going to do with his people?” It was a terrible time, a terrible feeling. They were abandoned by the people and they were not sure if God was with them. All their life they had learned that God was in Jerusalem. Now they were not in Jerusalem and God was going to destroy Jerusalem. What hope was there? The news gets worse at the end of the chapter Ezekiel sees a picture of the glory of God leaving the temple and the city of Jerusalem. In other words, God has abandoned the city. As they heard this, they must have wondered, “Has God abandoned His people?”
Are there times when you wonder where God is? Are there times in your life when you think that perhaps God has forgotten you? Are there times when you admire the work God is doing in other places in the world, but you don’t see God at work in your own world? Are there times when you recognize the sin in your own life and wonder if you will ever change? Are there times when difficulties, trials or hardships make you question what God is doing or if he even cares?
That is how the people of Israel who were in exile in Babylon were feeling. They were abandoned by their people and abandoned by God. What hope was there?
God answers this devastating message with a word of hope in Ezekiel 11:16-20. Let us read these verses.
In these verses, God promises three wonderful things. He promises first of all in verse 16 that He has not abandoned them, but that rather than being with them in Jerusalem, he will be with them in the lands to which they have been scattered. This was good news to the exiles. God was with them!
The second promise is found in verse 17. There he promises that he will bring them back to the land and give them the promised land once again. This promise began to be fulfilled about 70 years later when Ezra and Nehemiah brought some of these people and their descendants back to the land and built the temple and the city once again. It will be completely fulfilled when all of God’s people will be in the New Jerusalem when Christ returns.
The third promise is that God would renew them spiritually. Israel was in this position because of sin. But God promised that he would renew them so that they would not live in sin, but have the power to live in a new way.
This is the story of Ezekiel 11, and this morning, I would like to focus on two of the encouraging phrases that appear in Ezekiel 11:16-20. I would like to encourage us with hope because in this chapter we see something about how God works and what He is going to do in us.
Please look in your Bibles at verses 16-20. If you take a cursory look at these verses, you will notice very quickly that one phrase is repeated over and over again. It is the phrase, “I will.” Beginning in verse 17, we read:
I will gather you from the nations
I will bring you back
I will give you back the land of Israel
I will give them an undivided heart
I will put a new spirit in them
I will remove from them their heart of stone
I will give them a heart of flesh
I will be their God.
Eight times God speaks to the people about what He will do.
God has a project. From the beginning of creation, God has had a project. His project is to create a people who will be His people. When Adam and Eve sinned, He promised to initiate this project. When wickedness increased in the earth, he chose Abraham to carry forward His project. When the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt, He chose Moses to bring them out and make a covenant with them. Now in the midst of the devastation of the land because of the sin of his covenant people and in the midst of exile, He promises that He is still working towards the fulfillment of His project. As New Testament people we know that in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus to die and rise again in order to bring forgiveness of sins and to give eternal life. On the basis of the work of Jesus, God is building His church. From its beginning in Jerusalem, the church spread to Judea, Samaria and has continues to spread to the ends of the earth because God is still working on His project.
The phrase “I will” tells us that God is accomplishing His project in the “big picture view of things. We have seen that “big picture” when He chose Abraham, Moses, David, Ezekiel, Jesus and Paul. We have seen that “big picture as God has continued to work through Martin Luther and Billy Graham and all the great missionary movements of the last 100 years.
The trouble we have is that we don’t always see that “I will” also pertains to Rosenort EMC. Does God’s project have anything to do with our church? Is God building His church as He promised to Peter and the other disciples in Matthew 16? Is He building His church here in Rosenort, through the Rosenort EMC? What are the things God is doing in our midst to build His church?
God is at work in those who have been faithful to Him for many years and continue to visit the sick and care for the dying. God is at work in the structures which have served the church for many years and in spite of ways of doing things that are not always the best, God still draws people to Himself and teaches them His word. God is at work in new ways. God is at work developing leaders in our midst who will make major contributions in the kingdom, just as past leaders like Rev. P.L. Friesen made. God is at work in new programs like “Morning Out for Mom’s,” MDS service and “Sing Stunde.” Through these we are reaching people and serving God in ways that can only be described as a work of God. It is very encouraging to hear that God says “I will” and to realize that He is at work in our midst as well. It helps me see that the work of the church is not just a bunch of good activities that we do because we have to, but rather a movement of God that is accomplishing His eternal project.
When God says “I will” to a group of discouraged exiles who are wondering if God still cares about them and has anything to do with them, He reveals that He is still actively engaged in accomplishing His project. God’s “I will” is still active, which makes us ask, “What else does He want to do in our church to extend His Kingdom?” Are we willing to join Him in the work that He is doing? Last weekend at the Mission Fest, Dr. Ron Cline challenged us to be ready to join God in His work. He invited us to a life of service. God says, “I will!” The question is, “Will you, will I join Him?
But God’s “I will” does not only speak to things like church planting and evangelism. God also is at work in our individual lives. When we run into trouble – be that health trouble, emotional trouble or spiritual trouble, our tendency is to run first of all to summon all of our own resources to try to find a solution to the problem. Then when we run to the end of our resources, we run to an expert who will help us solve our problems. So we go to the Doctor or the counsellor or the pastor. These are not bad things to do and we should do them, but when we hear the words, “I will” from the mouth of God, it invites us to also go to God. If you are spiritually lost, God’s “I will” promises that he will forgive your sins and give you eternal life. If you are going through a time of depression, God’s “I will” assures us that He will not abandon you there, but will work in you and work with you to bring you to Himself and ultimately to joy. If you are physically ill, God’s “I will” promises that He is the healer who will bring you through life if not now then in eternity. When God says, “I will” he is telling us that He wants to work in our lives, that He is at work in our lives. How is God at work in your life? Are you letting Him do His work?
The reason that the people of Israel were in exile was because of their sin. Century after century, year after year God had confronted the people with His way and century after century, year after year they had failed to keep it. Even the best failed. Abraham failed, Jacob failed, David failed. Many repented and came back to God and were known as God’s people. Many more did not care that their lives were in shambles and they were filled with sin and continued to move towards destruction. Destruction was now a reality as many had already been sent into exile and many more were about to be destroyed in Jerusalem. They are described as a people who have a heart of stone or as one writer puts it “a petrified heart.” There was no spiritual life.
We noticed that God says “I will” eight times to these people. The one promise that I would like to spend a little time on is the promise found in verses 19,20. God promises that in place of the stone heart, they would be given a heart of flesh, that is a living heart, a heart capable of response, a heart that is soft to obedience to the way of God.
But notice that the promise of a new heart is different than the other promises. The first four promises are “I will give you.” The promises about a new heart, the second four promises are “I will give them.” It is speaking of a future people. Who are those future people who will receive a new heart? We are the people who have received this promise. We are the people who have received the gospel of Jesus Christ. Have we understood this part of the gospel message? We understand that in Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven, but have we understand that God is giving us a new heart? We have understood that we have eternal life, but have we understood that we are being changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Have you ever tried to replace a window or a door that had a rotten sill? If you just putty over the rotten part, it doesn’t last long. To properly repair such a window or door, all of the rotten parts need to be removed and replaced. A coat of paint will not cover rotten wood. A coat of obedience will not cover a rotten heart, it needs to be removed and replaced. Just like the people of Israel who had a heart of stone, we also have a heart of stone and need a new heart. We need God to take our stony hearts, our broken lives, our inability to change and give us a new heart.
All of us struggle with temptation. When we repeatedly struggle with the same temptation, we don’t need to reinforce the rules. Making more rules does not help us keep those rules. The problem is that in our heart, we don’t want to do what is right. God’s law is good, but we can’t keep it. We don’t need to get an accountability partner. Having someone keep us accountable is a very good thing to do, but when the partner is no longer there or if we choose to ignore his help, we will still fall. The problem is that our heart wants to do what is wrong. We don’t need the help of an expert who will show us a new way of coping with our problem. The help of an expert can be very useful at times, but for every solution there is a new problem because our heart does not want to follow the right pattern. The problem with every one of us is that our heart is corrupt and we desperately need a new heart.
The promise which God made to these people at this time is a promise which is still relevant today. We need a new heart, not a new way of doing things, not a new motivation, not a partner to keep us accountable, not a gimmick for success, not the help of a professional guide. We need a new heart that is put there by God.
In last weeks message, we talked about the way back to God and that it must begin with repentance. In that message, in Ezekiel 18:31, God invited the people to “get a new heart.” Now we find that God is the giver of that new heart. How does that new heart come? How is God giving us that new heart?
Have you ever been consumed with guilt after you have sinned? That guilt is a part of the process in which God gives us a new heart. Here is what happens. We sin and after we sin we feel guilty. In our guilt we come to the place where we become sick of ourselves and our sin and we cry out to God to change our hearts. The guilt leads us to give up and cry out to God. When we cry out to God, He begins to work in us to give us a new heart.
Have you ever been really angry at someone who was doing something really stupid only to realize that you have done the very same thing? As you realize the trouble that certain actions lead to and you realize that you are helpless to change those actions, it is God at work in you bringing you to the place where you give up and cry out to Him to change your heart. When we repent and cry out to God, He moves in and begins to fashion a new heart within us.
Have you ever experienced trouble as a result of a sin you have committed. As you are upset and bothered by all the trouble you have gotten into and you realize that you just can’t seem to win, you cry in desperation to God to change you because you can’t change yourself and you need help.
This is the gospel message. God begins to work in us as he brings us through guilt and observing other people’s trouble or our own trouble to the place where we reach the end of ourselves and realize that we need Him. This is the promise of Ezekiel 11:19,20, when we give up and come to the end of ourselves and repent and pray, God begins to work in us to give us a new heart.
Elisha kept telling the king of Israel everything the king of Aram was doing. The king of Aram was upset and began to look for Elisha. Elisha’s servant was afraid because he saw the forces of Aram coming against them. Elisha prayed so that his servant’s eyes would be opened and when they were, he saw that the hills above were full of horses and chariots of fire. He was able to assure his servant, “ Don’t be afraid…those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” In the passage we have studied in Ezekiel today, we have discovered that the power of God is active in our world. God is at work among us in ways that we often fail to see. Are we joining Him in His work? God is at work changing our hearts beyond what we often perceive. Will we receive it from Him?
My prayer is that these two phrases, “I will” and “I will give them a new heart” will encourage and strengthen you to put your hope in what God is now doing in you.