A billionaire pastor’s replica of Solomon’s temple, and God’s unsettling tour of the original – Ezekiel 8, 9 and 10, Part 2

Brazil's evangelical church preaches the Bolsonaro revolution | Financial  Times

Brazilian billionaire pastor, Edir Macedo, built a church designed to look like Solomon’s temple. See the picture above. You can read more about it here. It has a sanctuary for worship, a museum, and a helipad for Macedo’s convenience. I wonder what it would be like tour that building? How similar or different is it from the original? And perhaps most importantly, what would God think of Macedo’s massive $300 million dollar building? We can only speculate. Today, though, we will hear what God had to say when he took Ezekiel on a tour of the original temple.

First, let’s try to get in Ezekiel’s heart and mind. Have you ever had that feeling, after having been away from your hometown for a while, and you come back, look around, amazed how much you recognize and yet unsettled by how much has changed.  Then you see that your favorite park is gone, and in its place is a superstore with a huge parking lot.  No more climbing trees, playing sports in the grass, or using the playground.  Instead it is a Big Box Store.

As we continue studying Ezekiel 8, I suspect Ezekiel had some of those disconcerting feelings.

In the previous post, we learned that in Ezekiel chapter 8, God takes Ezekiel, in a vision, to Ezekiel’s hometown, the city of Jerusalem. Ezekiel had not been back there in six and a half years, and now through the miracle of what I am calling a virtual reality dream vision, Ezekiel flies 900 miles to Jerusalem and arrives at the temple. The first thing he notices is that his own people, the Jews, have set up an idol in the temple courtyard. All is not well.

What does Ezekiel see next in this virtual reality dream vision?  Read Ezekiel 8, verse 4.

God’s glory is there!  Just as Ezekiel had seen before in the previous visions in chapters 1-3!  He doesn’t spend much time describing it, but we would do well to pause a moment and consider what this must have been like for Ezekiel.  Seeing the glory of God would be amazing.  Seeing it once would be astounding.  This is now the third time Ezekiel gets to see God’s glory.  The first two times, God’s glory came and totally surprised Ezekiel in Babylon.  Now he sees God’s glory in the temple, which is where the glory of God resided. 

Even though he sees God’s glory, he has also seen an idol in the temple. What is going on?  Continue reading, and we’ll see what else God shows Ezekiel in the temple. Read Ezekiel 8, verses 5-18.

God takes Ezekiel on a tour through room after room in the temple, and in each room the people of Israel have desecrated the temple with worship of idols and foreign gods.  On the tour, four times God asks Ezekiel a question: “Do you see this?”  If God were talking in contemporary English, I think he would say, “Can you believe these people???”  Why is God so astounded? Because his own people, in his own temple, are participating in one desecration after another, right there in his place of residence. 

Each time, after he asks the question, “Can you believe it?”, God says, “You better believe it, because guess what?  When we head into the next room, you’re going to see things even worse than that!” 

On God’s tour of the temple, things are going from bad to worse.  In each of the rooms there are descriptions of various kinds of idol worship.  The room in verse 10 is likely describing Egyptian idol worship.  Notice in verse 11, the elders of Israel are in another space using pagan religious worship.  These are not the elders in Ezekiel’s house in Babylon who we met in the previous post. They are the elders who were living in Jerusalem all along, and Ezekiel sees them practicing pagan religion in the temple. 

What is worse, did you hear what the elders said?  Look at verse 12.  Amazingly, they claim that God doesn’t see them, that God has forsaken them.  I find that fascinating.  Though they have constantly disobeyed him, though they abandoned him, including the audacious rebellion of allowing idolatry in God’s temple, they blame God???  It is also interesting that at this point neither God nor Ezekiel comment on the elders’ convoluted logic. 

Instead, as the tour continues, in verses 14-15 we read that God brings Ezekiel to another room where woman are worshiping the Babylonian fertility god Tammuz.  Then in the next room, in verse 16, twenty-five men have turned their backs on the temple and are worshiping the sun. 

In the concluding verses 17-18, God has had enough, and he tells Ezekiel that he is done with the people in Jerusalem.  No matter how much the people cry out, God will not listen to them.  This sounds very ominous. In chapter 9, God takes action.

Check back to the next post as we learn what God does about the apostasy in his temple.

Eeyore, Virtual Reality, the Billionaire Space Race and the Holy Spirit – Ezekiel 8, 9, & 10, Part 1

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Do you have an Eeyore in your family?  Maybe you are the Eeyore!  You know the person who is sigher, moaner and groaner.  Because life is sooooo hard!  We say to that person, “Why are you grumpy?  Cheer up!” or we try to cheer them up, giving them suggestions for how they can change.  We would much rather them be smiling and laughing!  But the fact of human personality is that some people are naturally more like Eeyore.  More melancholic, maybe seeing the glass half-empty.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is wrong with them. Though it seems to me that our culture tends to give the impression that cheeriness and positivity is right, and sighing and moaning and groaning is wrong.  But is that always true? 

Would it surprise you to hear that the people who sigh and moan and groan just might have a special place in God’s heart? 

We’ve been studying the life of Ezekiel, and this week in our five-part series on Ezekiel 8, we’re going to find out if the Eeyores of the world have a special place in God’s heart. Turn to Ezekiel 8, verse 1, which begins with a date.

Scholars tell us that the likely date in chapter 8 verse 1 is September 17, 592 BCE. But it literally says that it was the sixth year, sixth month and fifth day, which is a reference to how long Ezekiel and the 10,000 Jews from Jerusalem had been living in exile in Babylon.  Then we read that Ezekiel is sitting in his house, and the elders of Judah are sitting before him.  That detail jumped out to me.  This is the first time we’re hearing about people possibly listening to Ezekiel.  All we’ve heard so far is God telling Ezekiel that the people wouldn’t listen.  Yet here are the elders of the people sitting in his house.  Why are they at his house?   

First of all, who were the elders?  Like Ezekiel, the elders were part of the 10,000 Jews who were exiled from Jerusalem.  They were the ones in charge, kind of like local government leaders.  The way Ezekiel writes it in verse 1, it almost sounds normal that elders were there. 

But all along we have been noting how unusual and unconventional Ezekiel’s method was, and as a result, how much of an outcast he must have been.  Even though the elders have come to visit him, I still think that Ezekiel’s unusual prophetic skits and doom-and-gloom messages of judgement must have been really off-putting to most people. Might it have been possible that the elders were curious that God might actually be speaking through Ezekiel.  Have these elders had a change of heart?  Are they here to repent and return to the Lord?

Will God give Ezekiel a message for the elders?  Normally messages from God are introduced with the statement, “the word of the Lord came to me.”  In chapter 8, verse 1, Ezekiel says something different, “the hand of the sovereign Lord came upon me there.”  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  We’ve heard that phrase before.  In Ezekiel chapters 1 and 3, we learned that the hand of the Lord was on Ezekiel.   The hand of the Lord is very different from the word of the Lord.  When the hand of the Lord comes upon Ezekiel, God’s power is going to be displayed or at work in his life.  How so?  Read verse 2.

A glowing figure appears!  Does the description of this figure sound familiar?  It’s very similar to what Ezekiel describes in chapter 1, verse 27, which was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord!  Amazing!  Has God’s glory shown up again?  It doesn’t seem that way.  Here in verse 2, it seems that this glowing figure might be an angel.

I wonder if the elders there in Ezekiel’s house could see it.  I doubt it.  I get the sense that the hand of the Lord was only on Ezekiel, allowing only Ezekiel the privilege of seeing the glowing figure.  Think about being in that room watching Ezekiel have that experience.  Did Ezekiel’s eyes glaze over, did he go into a trance?  Did his body move at all, or was he totally still?  Did Ezekiel lose consciousness of the room around him?  So many questions!  It only gets more interesting.  Look at verse 3.

What????  The glowing figure grabs his hair???  The Spirit lifts him between heaven and earth, in a vision? What is going on here.

That must be one of the most interesting verses in the Bible.

I will admit that I was fascinated over the past few weeks watching the billionaire space flights.  (Aside… I was also a bit sickened by the amount of money spent on those very brief flights so a handful of people could experience a few minutes of weightlessness.) But those space flights took people way up into the sky, into the space that could be described very similarly as what Ezekiel experienced.

Still, the Spirit’s transportation of Ezekiel is so much better!  I love sci-fi, and what I read in that verse seems to me to describe what you might see in a sci-fi movie. Doesn’t it sound like he is being teleported like Star Trek?  Except that it seems like Ezekiel is describing flying!  So did Ezekiel physically leave his house?  Did the elders sitting there have a shock of their life as Ezekiel suddenly disappeared in front of them?  Maybe.  We don’t know. 

It seems more likely, given the word “vision” that this was all happening in Ezekiel’s mind, rather than in his body.  Just because the glowing metal fire angel grabs his hair, it doesn’t mean that it physically happened to him.  It was likely a vision, a dream, a work of God, an experience in his mind that was a purposeful gift from God to him. 

Also, did you notice the work of the Spirit?  The Spirit was heavily involved in Ezekiel’s life when God first gave him a prophetic vision and called him to be a prophet.  The Spirit is real.  The Spirit is at work.  As Christians we know that the Spirit lives in us.  It is so good to be reminded of that over and over again in Ezekiel, because we can forget about the Spirit in the busyness of our day to day lives.  The Spirit is the gift that Jesus said he would give us. In John 16:7 and Acts 1, Jesus said that it will be for our good that Holy Spirit will be within us and with us.  It is only to our benefit to remind ourselves of John 15 and the importance of our connection to the vine and to the Spirit.  To discover and get to know the one who lives within us and with us. 

The Spirit was clearly at work in Ezekiel’s life, transporting him, through the vision, to Jerusalem.  Ezekiel can vividly see what is happening in Jerusalem.  It’s like Ezekiel is wearing a virtual reality headset, and he feels like he is there at the temple in Jerusalem.  Have you ever tried a VR headset? It is amazing.  You feel like you are there.  VR is a lot like dreaming, especially if you have vivid dreams.  When you dream, what you experience is happening in your mind, and you feel like you are there, though you are asleep.  It is simply amazing what our minds can do. 

In this vision dream Ezekiel flies into Jerusalem, his hometown.  Remember that Ezekiel hasn’t been back there in six and a half years.  How amazing it must have been for him!  You know that feeling when you’ve been away for awhile, and you return?  It can give you the chills.  You miss home.  You miss the familiar.  You miss family and friends.  When I’ve gone on international trips, though I’ve had the privilege to travel and live in some beautiful places, I always come back to Lancaster and think, “This place is amazingly beautiful. I have missed home!”  Ezekiel had to be feeling some of that excitement.

We read that he flies into the temple.  It seems to me that it is not a fictional Jerusalem, or a Jerusalem of his dreams.  I can’t say for sure, because this is prophecy, which tends to be highly symbolic.  If Ezekiel is seeing what is happening in real life in Jerusalem, his is being given a vision that is very different from how many of us dream.  I don’t know if your dreams are like this, but mine tend to be really weird.  They are based in reality, but things get warped and wild.  My friends from different eras in my life, friends who don’t know each other, can be part of the same dream.  Locations get mixed up.  Our minds create amazing stories in our dreams.

It does not seem like that is happening in Ezekiel’s vision.  It seems like God’s Spirit has enabled Ezekiel to see the real Jerusalem. 

While that must have been thrilling for Ezekiel, the thrill evaporates very quickly.  All is not well.  Notice that last phrase, “…where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood.”  Yikes.  There in the inner court of the temple was an idol from a pagan religion.  Of course that would make God jealous.  Consider how Ezekiel would have felt. It would be a major shock, if Ezekiel didn’t previously know it was there. 

When I traveled with my wife to Cambodia a few years ago, we visited some Buddhist shrines and temples. Though they were active Buddhist places of worship, they allowed tourists to walk through them. They were ancient and impressive, filled with pictures and statues of Buddha and Buddhist symbols. Given my belief in Christianity, I wasn’t worshiping, but I because I was in the sacred space of a different religion, I remember walking through them feeling a discomfort, an awkwardness. 

Now imagine how it would feel if you walked into your church building, and especially into your church’s worship space for Sunday worship, and someone had placed the statues and symbols of another religion there.  I suspect there would be some righteous outrage.  That is exactly what Ezekiel sees in the temple of God.  Something is very, very wrong in Jerusalem. What does Ezekiel see next in this virtual reality dream vision? 

Check back to the next post to find out!

Is this the strangest (and most interesting) verse in the Bible? – Ezekiel 8, 9, & 10, Preview

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I would like to introduce you to what I consider to be one of the strangest (and maybe most interesting!) verses in the Bible.  Ezekiel 8:3,

“He [the glowing metal fire creature] stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head.  The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance to the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood.”

Did you get all that?  Do you need to read it again?  Yes, that is a real Bible verse! 

We’ve been studying the amazing book of Ezekiel for a few months now, and lest there be any doubt of its uniqueness, I think what happens next will seal the deal.  So far Ezekiel has experienced some very shocking visions, and God has asked him to perform unsettling prophetic dramas, living among his fellow 10,000 Jews in exile in Babylon.  In chapters 1-7, therefore, we learned that Ezekiel’s ministry is unconventional.  It is true that last week in our study of chapter 7, we heard Ezekiel preach a fairly standard prophetic word. Get ready, though, because what happens next is anything but.  Just read that verse again up there.  What do you think it means? 

Check out Ezekiel chapters 8, 9 and 10 ahead of time to see for yourself, then I’ll look forward to talking about it further on the blog next week!  I think you’ll find that what happens next in Ezekiel’s life is very applicable to us.  I know…whatever is going on in Ezekiel 8:3 seems like the last thing that might relate to life in America in 2021.  But there’s a lot more to the story.  More than you and I need to consider, as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus in our world.

God doesn’t want you to tithe – Ezekiel 7, Part 5

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We conclude this five-part series studying Ezekiel 7 with the final element of the antidote to economic idolatry, as taught by John Wesley: “Give all you can.”  If you are earning, and if you saving, as we learned in the previous post, you will have the ability to give generously.  Living simply and practicing generosity are greatest antidotes to economic idolatry.  When we give generously we show in a very practical way that we trust in God, not in money.  Are you giving sacrificially? 

Often when we have these kinds of passages, the topic of tithing comes to mind.  A tithe is the concept of giving 10% of your income back to God.  God told Israel to tithe to him, and somehow or another that idea got carried over the Christian Church, as if that is what God wants for Christians too.  The problem is that there is no teaching about tithe in the New Testament.  Furthermore, God told Israel to give three tithes.  Two of them were annual, and one was every third year, so they gave the equivalent of 23% every year.  But a portion of that was kind of like the taxes we pay, as they were supporting a nation.  So the better question is, what does the New Testament teach?  2 Corinthians 8 & 9 are the best chapters to learn about generosity in the New Testament, and I can sum it up with these principles: Give consistently, joyfully and sacrificially. 

For some of you the idea of giving 10% of your income sounds impossible.  If so, as an act of trust in God, challenge yourself to take a sacrificial step in the direction of being more generous.  For others of you, giving 10% is nothing.  What would sacrificial giving look like for you?  20%, 30%, more?  70%, 80%?  If a person has a net annual income of $1 milllion per year, they can give 90%, and still have a lot more to live on annually than most everyone in the world. 

But what about the wisdom of investing?  Yes, investing is wise.  But I have to ask, investing toward what?  Investing to build up an estate that will do what?  Be turned over to your family when you pass away?  Are you sure that your family will use the money in your estate, which is God’s money, in a way that is honorable to God?  Don’t give your money to your family if you are not absolutely convinced that they will use it according to biblical principles.  Create a giving plan so that your estate benefits God’s Kingdom.  I think everyone should include their local church in their will.  Too often people talk about investing, because they want to be wise stewards of their money, but they don’t end up being as generous as they could be.

Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.  John Wesley himself was an example of this.  Take a look at this video:

Examine your heart.  What has your heart?  Does money?  Or does God?  When God has our hearts, we will live a life that turns away from economic idolatry by practicing simple living and consistent sacrificial joyful generosity. 

The surprising antidote to economic idolatry – Ezekiel 7, Part 4

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What is the antidote to economic idolatry? Sometimes I think to myself, “I hate money.” What I mean is that it can seem like life is one long travail of trying earn money. Do you ever long for financial independence, so that you don’t have to think about whether or not you have enough money? I long for it. The car breaks? No problem, I have plenty of savings to fix it. My family wants to go on vacation? Also not a problem. The finances are there, and off we go. I long for all my loans to be paid off, for a savings account safety buffer that could handle anything surprise life throws my way. Of course my wife and I are working hard toward that reality, seeking to pay debts and save money. I work full-time, she works part-time, and I also work a part-time job. But the reality is that for the last 24 years we’ve been raising a family, and it’s not cheap. We also work in careers that, while they pay solid wages, we don’t have the margin to make fast financial progress. Sometimes we also make bad financial decisions, spending on what don’t need. Sound familiar to anyone? What can happen is the longing in our hearts and minds, turns into economic idolatry. We can place our hopes and trust in money.

It seems the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day had succumbed to the temptation of economic idolatry, as we learned in the previous post. What does God have to say about that? Look at the rest of the Ezekiel 7, and it is really bleak.  Read verses 23-27.

When people have put their trust in money, rather than in God, he turns his face away, and then the end has truly come. It doesn’t matter if it is a commoner or a king.  Doesn’t matter if it is in the temple or the town. There will nothing but devastation.  Money will not be able to save them.

When the end comes, God says, then people will know that he is God.  Money is not God. Money does not have the power to save.

We can strive and strive to make a name for ourselves, to make money for ourselves, to care for ourselves.  But in the end, we learn that money will not save us.  Sure, money can be a load of help in many ways, but this passage calls us to examine our hearts, our longings, to see if we have allowed money, and what it provides us, to divert our longings and trust away from God. Are we practicing economic idolatry?

To me, this is one of those teachings from God’s Word that, though it is not new, we need to hear it regularly.  Just like Israel, we can be enticed by money and the promises it makes to care for us.  We live in a culture that regularly tells us so.  So what do we do about it?  What is the antidote the economic idolatry?  We must make sure that our priority is worshiping and trusting God.  I think we would all say, “Of course” to worshiping and trusting God. But how does trusting in God and worshiping God work itself out in practical terms when it comes to money?  I believe one of best answers to that question is found in what John Wesley preached over 200 years ago: “Earn all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can.” You can read the entire sermon here.

What did Wesley mean? First, earning money is not wrong. Some of you are gifted at it, and that is wonderful.  Even if you aren’t gifted at earning money, still work hard.  It glorifies God to avoid laziness and work faithfully.

Then as you earn, whether you earn a lot or a little, be very careful about the lure of that money in your heart.  Once the money starts flowing, it opens doors doesn’t it?  We can purchase things we could never purchase before, and it is so much FUN!  It feels great.  It feels like our money, that we worked hard for, and thus we can finally enjoy life!  This happens a lot to younger people who are flexing their earning muscles for the first time.  The transition from a high school or college part-time job to a full-time job with a significant salary is heady.  After years of working for minimum wages or being the stereotypical broke college student, you now have a full-time job with a real salary. Sure, you might be paying off student loans, but you can also trade in your junker car and get a new one.  You can start to think about purchasing a home.  You can start to save for vacations.  You can update your wardrobe, pick up a hobby, go out to eat.  It feels like the world is your oyster. 

This is also the case for adults who start earning bigger and bigger salaries as they advance up the ladder.  It applies to empty-nesters and retirees.  As your expenses go down and your income goes up, then your opportunities to spend go up. That’s when you start hearing words like “travel,” “leisure,” “entertainment,” and the like, which we can believe is our due after decades of working hard and raising families. 

What I am describing is the typical American approach to money.  This is also the typical Christian approach.  It is very easy for that approach to become economic idolatry.  It is not, however, consistent with Jesus’ approach.  When Wesley sought to teach Jesus’ approach to defeating economic idolatry, after “Earn all you can,” he said “Save all you can.”  What he meant was not that we should dump our money in a savings account or in investments.  What Wesley meant was that we should not spend our earnings primarily on ourselves.  We should save our earnings for another purpose.  Wesley’s “save all you can” was a commentary on money and spending.  Just as God told the Jews, we can be so enticed by what money can do for us, how it can make us feel, and it so easily becomes idolatry.  The antidote to economic idolatry, then, Wesley says, begins with “saving all you can.”  That means living simply. 

But what is living simply?  To determine whether or not you are living simply, I would encourage you to avoid measuring yourself against people wealthier than you.  Instead, consider measuring yourself and your spending by comparing and contrasting yourself with Jesus and how he lived and taught.  Consider people far less wealthy than you.  In fact, I think we not only need to measure ourselves but also have other people measure us.  When it comes to spending, we can very, very easily let ourselves off the hook to live an unexamined life.  What can result is that we spend God’s money far more on ourselves than we need to.  What we want and what we need has been confused.  We can survive on far less than we believe or realize.  We don’t need luxury.  We don’t need most of what our world says we need.  Yet how often do we continue to indulge ourselves?  Probably quite a lot. To address this in our lives, we can ask someone who will speak bluntly to us to evaluate our entire financial world.  Ask someone to audit your investments, your spending, your income.  Give them access to every dollar, for the purpose of making change so that you are growing more in line with the biblical discipleship teaching of simple living. 

Then take the next step, which is “Give all you can.” We’ll talk about how to do that in the next post.

When money is worthless – Ezekiel 7, Part 3

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My wife Michelle and I recently celebrated our 25th anniversary by going out for dinner. As a bonus, we had a gift card!  We made a reservation, arrived a few minutes before the time, and sat down in the lobby, waiting for the hostess to call us for our table.  I pulled out my phone to check notifications, and as I did so, I felt something funny.  The gift card came out of my pocket along with my phone and fell to the ground.  Whew, right?  Don’t want to lose that!  I grabbed the card off the floor, put it back in my pocket and eventually we got our table and ate our meal. 

About an hour later, the time came to pay the bill, so I reached into my pocket for the gift card, and there was no gift card.  I double-checked all my pockets.  No card.  I looked on my seat, and I looked on the ground under the table.  No card.  I started getting nervous.  You know how the emotion builds up inside you when something goes missing?  On the one hand we didn’t actually need the gift card.  But on the other hand, it would sure be nice to have money come off the bill!  Michelle suggested that I look in the lobby.  I thought that was simply impossible, there’s no way that having already once fallen out in the lobby, that the card would have fallen out again in the short time we were called to our table.  Worse, what if it did fall out, and now it was gone?  I was not happy.  So I retraced my steps, walked into the lobby, and there sitting on the bench was the card!  About an hour had gone by since we were sitting there, and no one had swiped it.  I was elated!  I hate wasting money.  The thought of losing the gift card would grate at me for long after than night. 

As we continue studying Ezekiel 7, learning about what caused God to say “The end has come,” what we will hear about is very similar to the idea of losing gift cards. In the previous post, I mentioned that Israel had been tempted by something. We read about this temptation in Ezekiel 7, verses 10-14.

Did you hear the temptation?  Israel, it seems, fell hard for it. 

Verse 10 is basically a repeat of what we’ve already heard so far.  The day of doom is here.  Watch out!

But in verse 11, after starting with more of judgment, the message from God concludes with a hint about the temptation that Israel fell for.  “No wealth, nothing of value,” will be left.  God brings up money. 

Then in verses 12-13 he continues talking about it, referring to the buyers and the sellers.  While it is true that he says his wrath is coming upon the whole crowd, what is his purpose in singling out the buyers and the sellers?  What is it about buying, selling and wealth that God is addressing?  Clearly, it has God concerned! 

In fact, God is so concerned that he says in verse 14, that there is nothing they can do about overturning his judgment.  No amount of military preparation will save them from onslaught that is coming. Let’s see how he continues with this already brutal message.  Read verses 15-22.

Verses 15-18 are a callback to what we have been hearing now in chapters 4-6.  In chapter 4, through a 430-day long skit, God said that an enemy army was going to attack Jerusalem and put up siege works around it.  Then in chapter 5, he said that the siege would affect the people of Jerusalem in one of three ways, which was symbolized by Ezekiel cutting his hair into thirds.  This same theme was repeated in chapter six, when God gives a three-part judgment about Israel’s religious idolatry.  The three parts are the same each time.  The people will die by sword, famine and plague.  It will be awful.  Notice verse 17, where the image is quite vivid.  In the old NIV it says, “every knee will become as weak as water.”  What does the new NIV say? “Every leg will be wet with urine.”  You know what that means, right?  People will be so upset, so scared, so beside themselves, they will not be able to control their bladder. Why? What was the reason, or one of the reasons for this soon-coming devastation?

In verse 19, God returns to the theme of the passage, making clear the reason.  The people will throw their silver into the streets, and their gold will be an unclean thing.  You and I both know that you don’t throw money in the garbage.  Have you ever had one of those scares where you are a digging through a trash bag full of nasty, smelly food and trash because you suspect that a missing check got tossed with the mail?  Yeah, I can describe that so vibrantly because I’ve had to do some of that digging. Very similar to my walk of shame back to restaurant lobby to look for the missing gift card.

Yet there in verse 19, we read that the people are throwing money out like it is garbage.  Worthless.  Even unclean.  Why?  God says that silver and gold will not be able to save them from God’s judgment.  That is an interesting phrase.  Silver and gold will not be able to save them.  Why would God say that unless the people were looking to their silver and gold to save them? 

They were looking at their silver and gold as their salvation!  For evidence of this, read the final sentence of verse 19, where God describes how their trust in money will turn out to fail them.  It will not satisfy their hunger, it will not fill their stomachs, because it made them stumble into sin. 

So last week we learned in chapter six that the people had worshiped idols, including the detestable practices that were part of pagan worship.  Now this week we learn that they were trusting in money to save them.  Look how God describes their love of money in verse 20.  They used jewelry to make detestable idols.  That brings both issues together.  But it was more than just using jewelry to make idols.  God’s words in verses 19-20 show how much the Israelites had trusted in their money to save them.  They were practicing economic idolatry.

God reveals what is most important in this discussion of economic idolatry.  The heart.  Our motivation.  Our desire.  As Paul would write to Timothy, it is the love of money that is the root of all evil.  Money itself is not the problem.  Gold and silver are just metals.  But when our hearts become entranced by what money can do for us, we can be tempted into idolatry.  For Israel, God is saying that they moved their allegiance from trust in God to trust in money.  Rather than see God as their savior, they saw money as their savior. 

It makes sense, because money can buy us what we need.  We need food.  Money buys the food.  We need clothing.  Money buys the clothing.  We need shelter, and money pays the rent or the mortgage. 

Often, though, our hearts become enthralled by the promise of money, that it will provide our hopes, our dreams, our care, our peace, our joy.  God lays bare how the Israelites were doing just that.  Trusting in their money and possessions, rather than him.  They even crafted it into idols, which shows how far their allegiance had traveled away from him. 

So what will happen?  In verses 21-22, he says that he will turn over all their money and possessions to foreign oppressors and robbers.  And God himself will turn away from them.  God will allow them to experience what it means to trust in their money.  That will reveal to them that money is not actually able to protect them.  Then they will know the truth about where the real power, the real security, the real hope lies.  That phrase, “I will turn my face away from them,” is the worst thing that could happen to them. 

I know that you and I don’t see God’s face right in front of us.  God doesn’t actually have a face.  What he is doing here is using a literary device called anthropomorphism, which is when you explain a concept by giving it a human characteristic.  In this case, a face.  What God means is that he is watching out for, protecting, providing for his people.  But because they are putting their trust in money, which is tantamount to them saying they don’t trust him; they are saying to him, “Lord, we don’t need you because we have money.”  So God says he will stop supporting them.  And then what will happen?  If God turns his face away from us, if he stops caring for us, we are finished.  And you might as well throw the money out with the garbage because it will not care for you.

And then what?  God says things get really bleak.  Check back to the next post to learn more. 

Is God a frustrated lover? – Ezekiel 7, Part 2

Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

Have you ever experienced the frustration of loving someone who isn’t loving you back? It is a common human relational reality. Spouses that are scorned or betrayed. Kids neglecting their parents, and parents neglecting their kids. Friends that don’t care when you are struggling.

Have you ever considered that God might feel like that? In Ezekiel we find God in the position of scorned lover.

In the previous post, God told Ezekiel to prophesy that the end has come! What “end” is God talking about?  And what will happen at this end?  Let’s keep reading.  Look at verses 3-9.

Brutal words from God, aren’t they?  Imagine being the people living around Ezekiel there in Babylon, as he conveys this prophetic word from God.  Good times, right?  I can imagine them saying, “Man, Ezekiel, you are really downer.  We don’t even live in Israel anymore.  Why are you telling this to us?” 

If they listened closely, they would have heard why he was saying this to them.  First of all, it was a message from God.  Isn’t that alone enough reason for them to pay attention?  Just because this message was from God.  God is speaking!   Well, apparently it was not enough reason, because we know the people did not pay attention to God.  They hadn’t paid attention to him for decades.  Which is not that hard to understand, because you and I often read God’s word and then go and do something different.

But there is another reason why God was communicating this message of doom and gloom through Ezekiel.  As God says in verse 4, when the end comes, they will know that he is God.  The insinuation is that they currently did not know that he is God.  They might have said in response, “Uh no, that’s not true.  We believe in God.”  But their actions told the real story.  Observe their current practices, and the people did not show that they knew that he was their God.  That’s not hard for us to understand either.  We can say we believe one thing, then live a life that is inconsistent with that belief.

So the people of Israel have wandered far afield from God, and therefore the end will come.  Then they will know, God says, that he is Lord. We heard God says this phrase, “Then you will know that I am the Lord” four times in chapter six.  Why does he keep saying it?

What we hear in that phrase is God longing to be close to his people.  They don’t know him, and he wants to be known by them.  He wants restoration and reconciliation with his people who have turned their hearts and minds away from him.  That emotion from God, that longing from God is continuing here in this next prophetic word in chapter seven. 

It causes me to think about why this would have happened in the first place.  Why should God have to be in this place of longing and crying out for his people?  Think about it.  Last week in chapter six, God said he was so upset because the people were worshiping other gods, who were actually false gods, meaning that they weren’t even gods at all.  There is only one true God.  And his name is Yahweh. How often do you think about that? God has a first name. He actually uses his first name many times in Ezekiel.

Notice in Ezekiel 7 verse 4 that the word Lord is in all capital letters?  Most English Bibles print it using a capital L, then small caps for O-R-D. When you see that, the translator wants you to know that the Hebrew word being translated there is the actual name of God, Yahweh.  You might ask, why don’t English translations write out the word Yahweh?  It is out of respect for Jewish culture and practice, which views the actual name of God as so holy and revered that they do not say it or write it.  But translators of our English Bibles still want us to know when the actual name of God is being used in the Hebrew.  So look for that capital L-O-R-D.  When you see the word Lord with a capital L and lower case o-r-d, however, it is the generic title for a Lord, a ruler, a master, not the name.  That helps us know when the personal name of God is being used.

I point that out because it shows us God’s heart.  He wants to be in a first-name basis relationship with his people.  He wants to be known by them, to be in a genuine relationship with his people.  He cannot fathom that they have allowed their hearts and minds to be wooed by gods that aren’t even gods at all.  Worse, there might have been demonic forces behind idol worship, including demons performing supernatural acts.  No doubt, that display of power can be enticing. But we know demonic power is nothing in comparison to the power of God.  What’s more is that the people of Israel had plenty of evidence in their history to remind them of the power of God.  How could they have allowed themselves to be enticed to the point where God would say, “They don’t know me anymore”?  You can hear the sadness in God’s voice.

I wonder if that resonates with you at all.  Do you feel a distance from God?  Could God say the same to you, “I want you to know me”?  He does want you to know him, to be in a real relationship with him.  Evaluate your relationship with God. Have you turned away from him?  Can it be said of you that you are not striving to grow a relationship with him?  And why?  What might entice you to ignore God?  What tempts you?  The Jews in Ezekiel’s day were tempted in other ways too.  And God, through Ezekiel, points another specific temptation that very much relates to us today. Check back to the next post to learn about that temptation.

Doge Coin, NFTs, GameStop and the end of the world! – Ezekiel 7, Part 1

Economists look back over the last year or so reporting that, in addition to Covid, it has been a unique financial year in other ways. For example, have you heard of Doge Coin?  It is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money, which I don’t have the time or knowledge to try to explain.  There are many cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin is probably the most famous, but Doge Coin this past year skyrocketed in valued, gaining something like 24000%, then losing half that.  Still, it made some people millionaires. 

Then there were NFTs, which stands for Non Fungible Token.  Also based on digital platforms, whoever owns the NFT of a picture or video or other digital media is the owner.  Like cryptocurrency, NFTs can be difficult to understand.   Yet people are selling NFTs for thousands and thousands of dollars. 

Then there was GameStop.  The video game store was doing very poorly, until supporters started buying its stock like crazy, and GameStop’s valuation went through the roof. 

Then there was the New Jersey sandwich shop, Your Home Town Deli.  The previous two years it did $36000 in sales, but on the stock market it was valued at over $100 million.  How could this be?  It led to a deep dive in complex investing, shell companies, and foreign investors seeking to cash in on manipulating the system.

All of these stories illustrate people hungering for wealth.  Take cryptocurrency for example.  If a person would have bought Doge Coin when it first came out, they would have seen their investment multiply exponentially.  That promise of get-rich-quick is as old as time, and still plays on our hearts, doesn’t it? 

We can be enamored with the promise of financial freedom, of debts gone, of bills paid, of new clothes, homes, cars, gadgets and vacations.  We can convince ourselves into believing that if we just had enough money, life would be so much better. 

Though I am the one saying this, don’t for a second believe that I am not preaching to myself.  I can long for more money.  I can dream that my dissertation will get published as a book, and I’ll become a best-selling author, and my wife and I will be financially independent for the rest of our lives. 

What I am really longing for?  Peace.  Security.  Stability.  I can spend a lot of time thinking that it is money that will bring what I hope and dream for.

What I wonder is if this is actually economic idolatry. 

Please hear me that I am not just talking about rich people.  Can rich people have economic idolatry.  Of course.  But what about people with less money, or no money? Can they have economic idolatry?  Yes.  And because this is a sermon to Christians, is it possible that there is economic idolatry in the church?  Yes. 

What, then, do we do about this?

I suggest that our continuing study through Ezekiel’s life and ministry will help. A major focus of the Old Testament book of Ezekiel involves God, through Ezekiel, calling out the people of Israel for their idolatry.  Last week we looked at religious idolatry.  This week we’ll see how Israel committed the sin of economic idolatry, how we can too, and most importantly, what we can do about it.

So open up a Bible or Bible app, turn to Ezekiel 7, and read verse 1.

This chapter starts with a phrase that is standard for the prophets, “The word of the Lord came to me…” What word of the Lord? What we are going to learn is that this next word or message from God to Ezekiel is in a very different method from what we have studied so far.  To this point, God has asked Ezekiel to perform a variety of bizarre skits.  Now in chapter 7, God gives Ezekiel what appears to be standard prophetic preaching, just words.  There is no vision, no skit.  Ezekiel just hears the word of the Lord, and that is what God wants him to proclaim.

In fact, we will see that this prophetic message in Ezekiel chapter 7 is not only the stereotypical prophetic method, but also the stereotypical prophet message.   Look at verse 2, where we read that the word from the Lord is, “The end has come!” 

Now you know where those street corner preachers get their message from.  Ezekiel 7.  It reminds me of the guys with the megaphones shouting that the end is near.  Or maybe they’re holding signs with “The end is near!” painted on it.  Might be a big sign on a sign post, or those placards that have a front and a back sign that they wear over their shoulders and walk around.  That way they can display the signs saying, “The end has come!” and yell into a megaphone at the same time. 

Normally those prophets of doom and gloom are talking about the end of the world.  Maybe they are referring to Jesus coming again.  Maybe the battle of Armageddon which is described in the book of Revelation.  Or they could be suggesting some other kind of massive upheaval like a world war.  What “end” is God talking about?  And what will happen at this end?

Check back to the next post, as we’ll find out!

Are we living in the end times? – Ezekiel 7, Preview

Photo by Jared Murray on Unsplash

The end is near!!!

Encouraging start to this post, huh? 

But have you wondered if the end actually is near?  Have you looked at our world situation, our national situation and wondered if we can last much longer?  If you have, you’re not alone.  I’ve heard people speculate about it a lot lately, especially given the tumult in our world and nation in the last few years.  Geo-political strife. Racial tension. Religious persecution. Ethic cleansing. Global warming. Nuclear disaster. It can seem like life on planet earth is grim. Maybe we need to support the efforts to get back to the moon or Mars…

Musings about the end times have been a part of Christian discussion, and especially evangelical belief, for a long time.  Remember how popular the Left Behind series was?  The Left Behind series was an attempt to dramatize what it would be like if the end times happened in our world.  The first novel was published on December 31, 1995. 15 novels later, the series concluded in 2007.  It also spawned a load of kids’ books and three movies.  The end times were a fascination, however, long before the Left Behind series began.  Larry Norman’s popular song about the rapture, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” came out amid the turmoil of 1969.  Keep traveling backward in history.  Imagine how Christians living through the World Wars must have felt about the end times.  They had a far better case for believing that they were living in the end times than just about any other time in history.  Now travel back further in time to the 1860s, and our American Civil War was another awful period that sure looked like end times.  Globally, speaking there are plenty of other examples.  Genocides, Holocausts, terrible disasters, war, and displacement. All seem like end times.

The original proclamation of “The end is near!” goes back way further still.  Millennia further!  600 years before the time of Jesus, Ezekiel boldly declares not that “The end is near,” but that “The end has come!”  While he may have heard the prophet Amos say this years earlier (see Amos 8:2), Ezekiel is simply declaring what God told him to say about the times he lived in.  So what end had come during Ezekiel’s lifetime?  More importantly, why was God saying that had the end come?  

Though the end has not come for us, meaning that Jesus has not returned, we can learn much from the end times that had come upon the Israelites in Ezekiel’s day.  God has important principles to share with us through the message he gives to the prophet Ezekiel.  As I studied the passage this week, it struck me how relevant it is to our current situation of American Christianity in 2021. Check out Ezekiel chapter 7 ahead of time to see for yourself, then I’ll look forward to discussing it further with you next week.

How to have the right kind of worship service – Ezekiel 6, Part 5

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

I’ve heard a variety of opinions about Faith Church’s worship service over the years. Maybe you’ve heard similar sentiments about your church’s worship.  “We should be more liturgical.”  “We should be more traditional.”  “We should be more contemporary.”  “We should be more professional…” including the suggestion that we hire instrumentalists.  Lot of opinions. Often they conflict.

Our worship serve team has thoroughly studied, prayed and discussed these opinions numerous times, and we have come to the conclusion that worship that God desires flows from worshipers who have humble, teachable hearts.  Humble worshipers say, “God, I come to worship you, not thinking that I have worship figured out, not thinking that I have to worship in my preferred way, but instead I come to worship you as a learner of worship.  Teach me God how you want me to worship you.”

As a result, Faith Church has attempted to add experimentation and creativity into worship.  We want it to be participatory rather than professional.  While we strive for excellence, we also give grace.  We rise above our personal preferences and opinions, seeking to know God and become more like him.  We do not want to be idolaters of false worship.

Therefore, we seek to learn about worship from a variety of Christian traditions.  There are many Christians who practice a high liturgy.  Some Christians emphasize silence.  There are megachurches, house churches, online churches and churches of all shapes and sizes.  All of them have potential pros and cons that we can learn from as we think about how we worship God when we gather.  But God must be the focus. Every time we gather for ritual worship, just like we do every Sunday, we pray, “Lord, help me learn to worship you, to keep you as the focus.”

This is why, over the years, we’ve worked hard at Faith Church to make sure God is the focus of our worship services.  But really, that is exterior work.  By exterior, I mean the way the sanctuary looks, the songs we sing, the style of music, the audio, the visuals, the preaching, the other elements of worship.  They are all important, and they should all help to focus us on God. 

But the more vital work that needs to be done is in our hearts and minds.  God often says to the Israelites that he despises their outward worship, even when that worship looked correct, because he did not have their hearts.  What we studied this week, Ezekiel 6, made that very clear.  Obviously, the people had not given their hearts and minds to God because they were willing to give their hearts and minds to false idol worship! 

This, then, is a call for us to examine our hearts and minds, asking God to help us cast away any opinions that might be getting in the way of us worshiping him and him alone.   

Finally, we can Christians can worship Christian celebrity.  In the first post in this series, mentioned Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll. Think about the Christian authors, singers, podcasters or TV preachers that you follow.  Be careful that your heart and mind worships God and not those Christian celebrities.  Of course, other Christians, including the celebrities can help point us to God, including how to live more faithfully to him.  But, frankly, too often a Christian celebrity becomes larger than life in our minds because they tell us what we want to hear.  They believe what we believe, and in a world of many competing beliefs, we find great comfort in having our beliefs affirmed.  The problem again, though, is that those beliefs are so often just opinions.  The celebrities don’t point that out, though, because their celebrity status relies on popularity, on gaining followers who support their ministries and purchase their products, so they tend to play to and affirm the opinions of their base, telling them that those opinions are actually the truth.  That is dangerous, and so often leads to false worship. 

Do you need to repent?  Do you need a person like Ezekiel in your life to examine your opinions and confront you that those opinions are not actually keeping worship of God as primary in your life?  Have you allowed your opinions about worship to become idolatry?