Ezekiel must be one of the most difficult books in the Bible. How many people have got past all those wheels and creatures in chapter one? We find the language and symbolism terribly off-putting, many of his concerns incomprehensible, and many of his targets irrelevant. Yet, despite all these problems, if we let Him, we find that God still speaks to us through this strange and wonderful book.
Ezekiel follows Jeremiah, both in the Bible and in real life. Jeremiah prophesied the exile, and we believe Ezekiel was deported to Babylon with the first wave of exiles in 597 BC. The prophecies were given just before, during and after the capture of Jerusalem. When we start the book, things are going badly, and are about to get much worse. In brief, this is a complete disaster for God's people.
We could approach this book in a number of ways. There is a large amount of social, economic and political background which would help you understand some of the details. I would love to give you a systematic overview of the theology proclaimed by Ezekiel. We could go through the book and look at the ways it points to Jesus and the whole New Testament message.
Instead, I believe God wants us to learn this morning how to follow in Ezekiel's footsteps. He wants us to learn how we can be as effective for Him as Ezekiel was. If you want a title, you could regard this morning as a short course in applied prophecy.
Before we start to look at Ezekiel properly, there are three things to say about the overall content.
Firstly, according to Paul, our goal is love. Ezekiel talks quite a lot about love. How do we receive God's love, and how do we share it? There are three stages, each building on and continuing the earlier ones. They are: Worship, Understanding and Action.
We have started this morning in worship. We are continuing our worship as we seek to understand our Father better. And later, we will have the opportunity to act in response to His word. That is how Biblical love is put into practice.
Secondly, we need to recognise that prophecy in the Bible is not about the future. It is almost always about how we are to live today.
Even when prophecy is about the future, it is not given to predict the future. It is given so we can recognise the future when it arrives. Don't worry if Gog and Magog mean nothing to you. Read it anyway, store it away so that when the time comes the Spirit of the Lord will be able to speak to you and say ‘This is it. This is what I was talking about. This is what I want you to do.'
Thirdly, and the most difficult for us to grasp, is one of the basic messages in this book. There is no absolute dividing line between the sacred and the secular, between the material and the spiritual, between the human and the divine. Holiness is more to do with how you work than how you pray, more about how you behave at the human level than how you perform your spiritual duties.
The incredible message before us is this: in order to accomplish God's will, the human and the divine have to come together. This points us to God's action, both in the incarnation of Jesus two thousand years ago, and in the way He acts in and through our lives today.
Let us look at some parts of Ezekiel's message to us. It is divided into four main sections. You may notice there are a lot of fours in this book.
In chapter 1, Ezekiel sees something of the glory of God and learns to worship. He starts, just as we have to, with worship. In a time of great suffering, Ezekiel discovers that God is great and powerful. If we are suffering, it is not because God is weak but because we are sinful people living in a sinful world. Ezekiel knew something of the greatness and the glory of God, and he could get the traumatic events he lived through into perspective because of it.
The book starts off with an inexplicable and almost indescribable encounter with God, the vision of the four creatures and the wheels within wheels. That is where Ezekiel started, not understanding, but simply meeting God, and that is where we each have to start. We do not need a vision of wheels and chariots, but unless we know that the Sovereign Lord has taken hold of us and our lives will never be the same again, we have not even begun.
Note two things. First, our starting point is not doing religious things, it is not being spiritual, it is not being good. Going to church does not get us on the first rung of God's ladder.
Second, it is something God does. The language we use is all wrong: we talk about ‘accepting Jesus', about ‘asking Jesus into my heart'. But the gospel is not about what we do. The message is not a question: will you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord? It is a challenge: Jesus is Lord - are you going to submit to him or fight him? And if you choose to submit to Him, the only possible response is to worship Him.
It is a choice you have to make, and you are personally responsible for that choice. This is one of the strongest themes running through Ezekiel, and something which is sometimes hard for us to accept.
In Ezekiel's day, just as in our own, people found it hard to accept responsibility for their own decisions. The Bible teaches the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children, to the third and fourth generation. So when they suffered, people did not ask "What have I done wrong?", they blamed their parents and grandparents. "It's not my fault." Does that sound familiar?
Today, we no longer associate suffering with sin. Perhaps we should, a bit more. But we still refuse to accept responsibility. It's the fault of society, it's my upbringing, it's my genes. I can't help it, I am a product of my environment.
The people of Israel were mis-using a Biblical truth to hid from their own responsibility. Ezekiel took a part of Jeremiah's message and repeated it with even greater clarity. I've got some great news for you: you will not die for the sins of your fathers. Instead, you are each going to die for your own sins! You can imagine their reaction. Big deal! But it offers hope as well: all you have to do is turn back to God and you will not die.
Ezekiel also recognised his own responsibility to proclaim God's word, whether people wanted to hear or not, whether people would respond or not. We need to face up to these two questions: Where do we use God's word as an excuse to avoid doing His will? And where do we fail to proclaim His word, whether it is welcome or not?
God cares about the other nations - the people who do not know Him. Note that He does not condemn them for disobeying the law: they do not have the law. They are condemned for going against basic principles of morality that all people understand. They are condemned for malice, greed and pride, for gloating over the misfortunes of other people and other nations. They do not need the law to tell them that such behaviour is wrong.
God does not expect the non Christians to live like Christians. The Christians can't even live like Christians most of the time... God is the ultimate realist.
One example in this book is the Sabbath. In chapter 20, Israel is condemned for profaning the Sabbath. The nations were doing worse things on the Sabbath, but are not criticised for it. The message is clear: don't ask non Christians to keep the Sabbath - they can't and won't, and that does not give God a problem.
What then is the problem with Sunday Trading? People whose lives are so empty that if they can't go shopping one day, it is a wasted day for them. Or if they can't earn more money, the day was wasted. The problem is the emptiness and greed in people's lives which Sunday Trading will feed, not cure.
Some people used to find Sundays so depressing. Of course they found it depressing: they spend the rest of the week rushing around doing things to avoid facing up to the bleak reality of their lives, and on Sundays they could not keep up the pretence that their lives were fun and going somewhere. Sunday was depressing because it allowed them a brief glimpse at the reality of their situation. The problem is a life without purpose.
I am not saying that a Christian who knows God and has a purpose to their life cannot get depressed. I am saying that, given the state of the world today, it takes a great deal of effort to live without God and not be depressed.
The theme of godly leadership occurs several times in Ezekiel, particularly in chapters 33 and 34. God wants leaders who will care for His people, feed them and bind up their wounds, without taking their personal responsibility for their own lives away from them.
The Valley of the Dry Bones. This must be one of the best known and most enduring images in the entire Bible. That's us, lying on the ground. We are the army of God, and we are not only dead, we are bones, not only bones but very dry bones. Without God's miraculous intervention, we are totally useless. Whenever we are tempted to pride, whenever we consider the wealth of talent He has blessed us with as a Church, and He has indeed blessed us, we must remember the valley of dry bones.
As usual with Ezekiel, there are four stages: sinews, flesh, skin, and breath. As people, we have been joined together by sinews. He has given us all the internal organs, all the resources we need. He has clothed us with skin to provide a tough layer to protect us from the harsh world outside. We are complete in every detail, but we are still ineffectual. There is still something missing: the Breath of God.
We need the Spirit of God to breath into us, as individuals and as a Church, to supply His life because without His life we cannot do anything to spread His love. We are totally dependant upon Him, and unless we believe this and rely on His life and His power, we are nothing more than spiritual corpses walking around and playing spiritual looking games. But with His Spirit, we can stand and be the people He wants us to be: a mighty army, ready and able to do His will in this world.
The book finishes with a vision of the Temple and the nation of Israel being organised to serve God. God is interested in our human institutions and organisation. He knows we need them. He gives us structures to limit us to give us freedom. He gives us families and jobs and Housegroups and Church Services. He does not see some parts of our lives as spiritual and other parts as unspiritual. Effective, efficient organisation is a Godly character.
The River flowing from the Temple is one of the key pictures being given to describe what God is doing today, the blessing He is pouring out.
God's blessing flows from the Temple, from the place of sacrifice. This speaks to us of Jesus' death on the cross, where He suffered as our substitute so that we may enjoy the blessing that belonged rightly to Him.
It also speaks of the need for us to sacrifice our lives to be a blessing to others, to be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
The point of measuring the depth is quite straightforward. There are two things for a normal river to do. It can be fed from streams and tributaries and grow larger, or it can spread out, become wider and shallower and eventually seep into the ground.
There is only one source of God's blessing, and that is God Himself, and only from the place of sacrifice. No tributaries feed this river. But instead of petering out, it gets both wider and deeper. This goes against our experience and reason, but is the way God operates. God's life, God's blessing is self-sustaining.
So these are some of the powerful messages running through this book. Earlier in this service, we were worshipping the Sovereign Lord. We have now been continuing our worship in seeking to understand Him better in order that we may act in ways that really express His love.
But there is another reason why I have been sharing these aspects of our Father's character. It has given you the opportunity to respond - not just agree to an abstract truth, but respond to God's Word. Has something within you connected with anything in this service with a "Yes! I recognise my Father in that!"?
This is the point where we come nearer to home, and focus on what God wants to do to change us so that through us He can change the world.
People say God does not speak to them, but I am convinced the problem is they do not recognise the voice of God when it comes. Sometimes God's voice comes very gently, and sometimes with great force, but either way we can fail to recognise it. Where do you think the prophecies in the Bible came from?
I am sure that most of the prophecies in the Bible started as feelings or ideas which became recognised as the voice of God. Someone saw a market trader adjusting the scales to cheat his customers and felt: that is not just against the law, it is wrong. Or someone heard a popular preacher saying how things may be tough, but God will look after us as He did in the past, and thought: I'm not sure He will this time. And eventually they became convinced that this feeling or thought as expressing something of God in the situation.
Your conscience is very often the voice of God. Listen to it, both for yourself and for others. But God does not just speak about negative things. Have you ever thought: somebody ought to do something about that? Or: the Church ought to... Or: why don't the Elders...? Or: I'm sure we should not be allowing this to happen. Or: wouldn't it be great if...
When you get these ideas or feelings, one response is: Lord, is that You? You could then try this prayer - and this is the dangerous one - Father, if this is you speaking, what do you want me to do about it?
Sometimes He simply calls us to private prayer about the need or issue. Sometimes He wants us to talk about it with other people. Sometimes He wants you to tell your Housegroup Leader or the Elders. Sometimes He wants you to do something more, to take part in organising something which will go some way to meeting the need He has identified.
Sometimes we are swamped by the size of the needs we see. Don't worry if the need is much bigger than any response you can make. Remember the loaves and fishes: God can do far more with the things we offer Him than ever we could imagine. And remember too that everything must start somewhere. Most of the large Missionary organisations started with one person going, in obedience to God, to one place. As a response to the needs of the world, it is hardly adequate, but it is all one person can do.
Remember how the Bible Society began, with Mary Jones walking over the Welsh hills. Your small, totally inadequate response could trigger a world-wide movement of God's Spirit. All He is asking you is to be obedient, to do what He is asking you to do, to do what you can.
If God is speaking to you, it is because He wants you to do something for Him. Most of us fail to consider ourselves prophets because we fail to act on the things God says to us.
What is the outcome? We need to meet again with God, to allow Him to remind us of things we know but forget so easily.
Ezekiel closes with a new name for Jerusalem, it means "The Lord is there". And that brings us to the final message from Ezekiel.
Some times a thing can be true, but only partly true. God is here, we recognise and rejoice in His presence. It is true, but it could be a thousand times more true. Do you want people to say ‘God is here!'? Do you want them to say it of the Church as Westborough? Do you want them to say it of your life? If we are prepared to meet with God, to love Him with all our hearts, to do the things He wants us to do, then that promise will be fulfilled.
1 The Vision of God
2 The Scroll
3 The Watchman
(Before the Siege)
10 The Glory Departs
14 Individual Responsibility
16 Israel's Adultery
18 Individual Responsibility
20 Israel's Adultery
(During and After the Siege)
33 The Prophet as Watchman
34 The Shepherds of Israel
37 The Valley of Dry Bones
40 The Temple
43 The Glory Returns
47 The River from the Temple