We are nearing the end of our journey through the book of Ezekiel. I know it has been quite difficult to get to grips with it at times because of its unfamiliar language, imagery and cultural references — but I hope that you have been managed to engage and draw something from it each week. Over the years our own thoughts, understanding and the imagery we use for God, have changed on but some things remain as they were, so let me start with a question. What is the Glory of God?
The glory of God is the beauty of his spirit. It is not an aesthetic or material beauty, but it’s the beauty which emanates from his very character and it is the very essence of his nature. It’s something which deserves to be glorified and we do that by recognising its presence and holding it in the highest of regards by offering dignity, honour, praise and worship. But even though we are aware this “essence of God” is around us, where should we look for it?
The Jewish people in the time of Ezekiel turned towards the Temple.
The Temple had begun its life as a Tabernacle: a tent which the nomadic tribes could put up, take down and carry with them from place to place as they sought out new pasture for their animals. It was used to house the Ark which contained the tablets of the covenant law — those stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed and then handed to Moses. The tabernacle became a symbol of God’s presence and when the people eventually settled down in the Promised Land, that ‘temporary’ tent became a ‘permanent’ Temple built from stone. It was a place of grandeur on which no expense had been spared, and it was intended to last for ever (or so they thought!): a place where God could dwell in safety and from which his glory would be evident to all.
But we know that all earthly things are temporary: empires come and go, as do monuments and buildings, and that is just as true regardless of whether they are made from canvas or constructed from stone.
Nebuchadrezzar II, the king of the Babylonians, first stripped the Temple in Jerusalem of its treasures and then finally destroyed it around 597 BC and the people of Israel were carted off into exile in Babylon: this was just 20 years or so before Ezekiel wrote his testimony and well within living memory. The people may even have personally witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as they were dragged away and it must have felt as though God had completely abandoned them. But Ezekiel offered them words of hope. In a vision he had seen the Lord re-entering the Temple and he had heard a voice saying —
‘This is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet. This is where I will live among the Israelites for ever.’ (Ezk 4:37)
The Temple was to become a physical space where God would take up residence but for this to become true, his strict conditions had to be met and all evidence of idolatry had to be removed from within the Jewish nation.
We now know that, thanks in part to the work of Nehemiah, the Temple was rebuilt and for a while all was well, but we also know that it was to be destroyed again.
Jewish tradition holds that God returned to his spiritual home when the Temple was rebuilt but some say that God really re-entered the Temple when Jesus went into Jerusalem and overturned the tables of the money changers. Since the Temple had last been destroyed, the Pharisees had begun to follow the letter of the Law rather than the Spirit and the Temple courts had once again been corrupted. The Temple had become a glorified cattle market where visitors were being overcharged and short changed for their animal sacrifices and Jesus was angered by what he saw so he threw everyone out.
Now this didn’t go down well with the Jewish leaders, who were no doubt taking a cut of the profits from the stall holders, so they questioned Jesus about his authority — but Jesus answered with a riddle.
‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ (Jn 2:19)
They knew the amount of time and energy that had gone into placing stone upon stone and fitting out the interior of that building. It had taken 46 long years to construct it even though this Temple was vastly inferior to the original, so how could HE possibly rebuild it in 3 days. What they didn’t realise, but has been pointed out for us in John’s Gospel, was that this was not a statement of engineering prowess but rather it was a defiant challenge to be translated as —
‘Even if you kill me, I will return in three days.’
And so, even if we hadn’t already realised it, Jesus was reminding us of the concept that God was living in a human body. Jesus had become ‘the’ Temple in which God dwelt.
So what does all of this mean for us? Well, at this point I need to make a short detour and return to last week’s topic — if you remember Phil told us about how God renews our hearts. Throughout the Old Testament and on into the New there are numerous references to the human heart. For example, in Jeremiah chapter 31, the Lord declares —
‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (Jer 31:33)
Again in chapter 32 God says —
‘They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them.’ (Jer 32:38-39)
Ezekiel’s concept of the heart was so important to him that he even repeated the same message as part of his text, first in the third person plural and then in the first person singular.
‘I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.’ (Ezk 11:19)
and then …
‘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.’ (Ezk 36:26)
What was true for a whole nation could equally be applied to the individuals within that nation — and for ‘nation’ read ‘worshipping community’. But if we now look at the New Testament we find that it is Jesus himself who cuts to the ‘heart’ of the matter (no pun intended). First, in his Sermon on the Mount, he said —
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’ (Mat 15:8)
And then, following comments about what was perceived by the Pharisees to be an infringement of the Law, he said —
‘the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.’ (Mat 15:18)
You see, in Bible speak, the heart isn’t just a muscle or a pump that forces blood around our bodies, but it represents the core of our very being. That shouldn’t come as too much of a shock: by coincidence, today is the 14th of February, commonly referred to as Valentine’s day and today, many will have pledged their heart as a sign of their love for their partners. But here it’s much more!
The heart is a metaphor for the place where our thoughts are moulded before we even think them. It’s the place where our instinctive responses are stored causing us to react by doing good rather than doing evil (if our hearts are God centred). It is the place where, if you let him into your lives, God dwells within us and from where his glory shines out into the world, not because of us, but because of his work through us. We are built in the image of God and God’s Temple is no longer a building: it’s not a church or a great cathedral, but it’s the hearts of those who are willing to give their souls and bodies as a living sacrifice to the Lord our God.
The mistake many people make is to focus on earthly things. Earthly relationships, money, power, talent or beauty, these fill their hearts of those who do not understand God’s ways. But when these things fade, as fade they inevitably will (because they are only fleeting expressions of enjoyment), they will fall into despair.
What we all need to realise is that God’s glory is constant, and is ‘in-dwelling’ in us and can be seen in people and in the beauty of the world around us. And as we journey through life with God in our hearts, we will recognise God’s Glory in a person or a forest, or in a story of love or heroism, fiction or non-fiction, or, maybe even in our own personal lives. But everything good stems from God! And as our way to God is through His Son, Jesus Christ, we will find the very source of all beauty in Him, through his Spirit, if we are in Christ. Nothing will be lost to us. All those things which may have faded in life we will find again through him.
Copyright © 2015-2018 St John the Evangelist, Ashton Hayes. All rights reserved.