We all need some good news at the moment, don’t we? After five weeks of lockdown and winter weather, many of us are searching for something to lift our spirits and improve our mood.
Well, in this morning’s Ezekiel reading we get some good news worth waiting for! We hear words from God that are even more encouraging than the latest vaccination statistics! Today’s Old Testament passage includes divine promises that must have been ‘music to the ears’ of those who first heard them, and should be equally precious to us today.
If you’ve been tuning in over the past few weeks you will know that Ezekiel was a prophet in the fifth century BC. He was God’s spokesperson to the exiled people of Israel, now living in Babylon. Using Ezekiel as his mouthpiece, God had explained to the exiles that they had been sent far from home because of their sin.
For decades previously, God’s people had failed to live according to his laws, they had worshipped idols, and they had been led by greedy, selfish and foolish leaders. As a consequence the Babylonian army had been allowed sweep away their defences, occupy their land, invade their capital city and even destroy the Jerusalem Temple. The nation of Israel was now dispersed and depressed, and a had become laughing stock amongst its neighbours.
A wise man once said that “the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” And they were right. The root cause of Israel’s rebellion against God – and the source of all human wrongdoing – is found in our heart. In Jewish thought our heart isn’t just the organ pumping blood around our body – it also refers to our mind, our will and our innermost desires. And the problem with the human heart is that its grown to love other things more than God. From the fall of Adam onwards, we all have an inbuilt tendency to run after pleasure, prosperity or popularity – rather than to love and serve the Lord.
But don’t take my word for it – listen to Jesus. Because in Mark chapter 7, Jesus says “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil comes —sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”
Whenever we follow the disordered desires of our hearts, human beings are left unclean in God’s sight, our relationship with him impaired, and we are left spiritually and morally lost. That was the state of Ezekiel’s companions in exile. And – as Jesus says in our passage from John’s Gospel today – its the natural condition of everyone who’s not yet been “born again”.
But now for that good news I was telling you about! Because in our reading today Ezekiel reveals God’s remedy to the human heart condition. These four short verses summarise the plan of rescue and restoration that the Lord had in store for Israel – and ultimately, for the whole world. Let’s look at those verses together…
In verse 24 today God says: “‘I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.” He repeats this promise again in verse 28, doesn’t he?: “you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” In other words, God is promising his scattered and exiled people that they will return home. In a ‘new exodus’, God will bring the Israelites home from Babylon, just as he had brought them out of Egypt hundreds of years before. Judea will be re-populated and Jerusalem will be rebuilt.
Sure enough, this new exodus happened in the year 538 BC – about 50 years after Ezekiel spoke. The Babylonian Empire crumbled, and Persia became the new Middle Eastern superpower. The Persian king (Cyrus) granted permission for the Jewish people to return home. At least 50,000 Jews made the journey back to their Promised Land – a journey we can read about in the biblical book of Ezra.
The second dimension of Israel’s redemption appears in verse 25 today. Through the prophet, God says to his people that “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.” In short, God will forgive his people for all they’ve done wrong. They won’t stay in his ‘bad books’ forever. They will be purified from their sin and cleansed of their guilt. It’s a wonderful offer of grace and mercy that would have been seized on by Ezekiel’s contemporaries.
Wonderfully, the same offer of forgiveness remains available today, of course. Cleansing from guilt remains on offer to all who turn to Jesus in repentance and faith. A cleansing that is powerfully symbolised in every Christian’s baptism.
Thirdly and finally, in verses 26 and 27 the Sovereign Lord promises heart surgery for his people. Through Ezekiel, God promises a complete renewal of their hearts and minds: “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.”
You see, the offer of forgiveness alone was not enough. It could not be the end of the story. If God was to make sure that his people would not wander from him all over again, he had to solve the problem of the human heart. And so the Lord promises to renew and regenerate the heart and spirit of his people. He would breath new life into their souls so they could love and serve him wholeheartedly in future.
What’s more, God would also send his own Holy Spirit to dwell within them. Ezekiel says God’s people will discover a new power within them who will help them live good and holy lives. A new power that would enable them to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, to live as faithful disciples of the Lord. Altogether, this inner renewal would represent a radical transformation of the human psyche – no wonder Jesus compared it to being “born again”!
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that this gift of God’s Spirit was not given immediately, but had to wait until the day of Pentecost – five centuries after Ezekiel. But ever since that day, the ascended Christ has been pouring out his Spirit on his people. Since Pentecost, God has been giving a new birth to every person who puts their faith in Jesus – whether we are Jew or gentile, male or female, young or old.
As I finish, think what the watching world must have made of all this? What must the nations around Israel have thought as they saw them return home from exile and rebuild their lives. Perhaps the wisest among them gave glory to God for the new exodus he had accomplished?
In a similar way, let’s hope that people today see our Christian lives and give glory to God. Let’s pray that our neighbours, friends and colleagues see the effect of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Let’s pray that they notice something distinctive and attractive in our actions and attitudes. And, above all, let’s pray they will want to discover more about the Lord Jesus we love and serve!
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