The Prophetic Stare? – Ezekiel 6, Part 1

Photo by Eleanor on Unsplash

I’ve been listening to a compelling podcast called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.  Mars Hill is the name of a megachurch in Seattle, Washington.  It was a church started by a small group of people in 1996, but eventually came to be synonymous with its lead pastor, Mark Driscoll.  At its height, the church had something like 10 extension campuses and 15,000 attenders.  In the summer of 2014, after a series of accusations and troubles, the pastor, Driscoll, suddenly resigned. Rumors of problems had been whispered down the lane, but it didn’t seem like anything close to a resignation was coming.  While he admitted that he could have been a better leader, Driscoll pretty much pled not-guilty to the church discipline brought against him.  The accusations were severe, revolving around his brutal, aggressive and abusive leadership style.  Instead of fighting the charges, Driscoll resigned and left.  What surprised many people both inside and outside of Mars Hill is that the church fell apart rapidly.  Within months, it closed.  There is no Mars Hill anymore.  Imagine that.  A church of 15,000 done in a matter of months.  And why?  For many reasons, of course.  One reason I would like to suggest is religious idolatry.  We can worship celebrity.  If the celebrity falls, others can fall with them, because those followers have placed the celebrity on a pedestal. 

We’ve been studying the life and ministry of the prophet Ezekiel, and what God has to say in Ezekiel chapter 6 will speak to us about religious idolatry.  Ezekiel lived in the city of Jerusalem about 600 years before the time of Jesus.  The city was attacked by Babylon, who defeated Jerusalem and then exiled 10,000 of its Jews, including Ezekiel, back to Babylon.  There they lived for five years, when God showed up in a glorious vision to Ezekiel, calling Ezekiel to be a prophet to his fellow 10,000 Jews, because they were rebellious.  Curiously, God calls Ezekiel to communicate this message through skits.  This week God has a new skit he wants Ezekiel to act out.  Turn to Ezekiel chapter 6, and read verses 1-2.

There we read what we will hear over and over throughout the book, God speaking his word to Ezekiel.  God specifically instructs Ezekiel to, “set your face against the mountains of Israel.”  God will ask Ezekiel to “set his face” toward or against things at least nine times in the book.  What does this mean, setting your face?  

I am calling this the Prophetic Stare. To set your face is to stare, willfully, resolutely, and for a reason. 

Through the prophetic stare, there is not actually any inner supernatural power coming from Ezekiel.  Have you ever heard of superheroes who have laser vision? Or heat vision?  That’s not what the Prophetic Stare is.  Ezekiel is not like Superman with his laser vision.  There is no physical power in Ezekiel’s Stare. 

The Stare is, instead, like all of Ezekiel’s prophetic sign acts, a symbol of what God will do.  God has the power.  Ezekiel doesn’t.  Sometimes God gave prophets power to do miracles.  But not Ezekiel.  Instead, the Prophetic Stare communicates a message about God’s power.

Therefore, the Prophetic Stare is better compared to a spotlight that is illuminating something.  Maybe you have seen this on TV or movies when a police helicopter is chasing a suspect at night.  The chopper is flying very low over the ground where the suspect is trying to flee the scene of the crime.  A spotlight operator up in the helicopter shines a powerful spotlight back and forth, seeking to find the suspect.  Suddenly the light reveals a person running like mad, and the suspect is caught.   

The Prophetic Stare is like that.  But the light shining from Ezekiel’s stare is not a massive ten million candle-power spotlight.  Instead, the Prophetic Stare shines the light of God’s truth, exposing the reality of a situation.  Through the Prophetic Stare, God is shining is light of truth and judgement on something. 

Maybe you’ve experienced this.  Have you ever been hiding something, and you get caught?  Or maybe you’ve told a lie, and the truth comes out.  I think that probably describes all of us at some point in our lives.  So what hidden truth is God asking Ezekiel to reveal through this Stare? Keep following along with the posts this week, and we’ll find out.

In the rest of this post, though, I want us to consider how the Ezekiel would have looked performing the Prophetic Stare.  Remember the context? Ezekiel is living in Babylon along with 10,000 of his fellow Jews who have been exiled there.  He has already gained a reputation for performing skits.  Here in chapter six we read about the third prophetic skit.  The first was in chapter three (which I blogged about starting here), when Ezekiel was to go to his house where people would tie him up, and God would make his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth so he couldn’t speak, that is, until God freed his tongue to speak only and precisely what God told him to speak.  Then last week we learned about the second skit, in chapters 4 & 5 (which you can read about starting here), and it was a doozy.  Ezekiel was to build a little model of Jerusalem being attacked, then lay down on his side 430 days, eating a very specific diet, and cooking over cow manure. Likely he was performing the skit outside where people could see him, and I suspect the other Jews wondered if he had lost his mind.  That second skit got even weirder when, at the end of the 430 days, he shaved off his hair and beard with a sword, dividing the hair up equally in three parts, burning one third, chopping up one third, and throwing the other third in the wind.  Why?  All of it was a prophetic message of judgment against Israel.

Now today we have another skit, and I want you to picture in your mind as Ezekiel walks out of his house, into to the street out front.  People in the ancient world didn’t stay inside like we do.  They lived in the hot middle east, and there was no such thing as A/C or ceiling fans or window fans.  So they would find shade outside where the air could move more easily.  Many of Ezekiel’s neighbors would have been outside.  There would likely be people walking on the street.  So imagine, Ezekiel walks out of his house, in view of his neighbors and passersby, and he stops and stares.    

A man in my church family and I were recently talking about the weirdness of Ezekiel, and this man, who has been a fireman for decades, told me that he once went on a fire call to a local apartment community.  When the firemen got there, the person living in the burning apartment was standing outside the burning apartment.  Stark naked. 

Get this, she had cut her hair, put it in the sink, took off her clothes, set the house on fire, and walked outside where she waited.  What would we do if she said, “God told me to do it as a sign”?  We would do exactly what the authorities did with her.  They committed her to the hospital.  My friend said that when she was released, she went back home and set her house on fire again!  Think about that.  She’s not altogether different from Ezekiel, right?  Minus the property damage.  My point is that people are watching him.  You can imagine people in the street, especially kids, saying, “Oh look, look, look, here comes Ezekiel out of his house!  What’s he going to do this time?”  This time he walks out the door, and he stares. 

Did he allow his eyes to wander around, or did he keep them fixed straight ahead?  Furthermore, did he stare a long time?  Maybe he was just standing there like a statue for a while?  I wonder if people tried talking to him, “Watcha looking at, Ezekiel?”  Did they get up close to his face, wave their hands in front of him, saying, “Earth to Ezekiel, earth to Ezekiel, are you there?”  

Who was Ezekiel staring at? And more importantly, why would God ask him to stare? We’ll talk about that in the next post.

Idolatry in the church? – Ezekiel 6, Preview

Photo by NATHAN MULLET on Unsplash

Earlier this year in one of the Current Events sermons, I talked about Ravi Zacharias and his moral failure, which came to light over the last few years. (You can read the sermon blog posts starting here.)  He was deeply abusive to many women, and there was a leadership culture in his organization that did not adequately hold Zacharias accountable.  He passed away before the investigation revealed the extent of his abuse.  I was stunned and deeply saddened by the news of Zacharias’ abuse.  He was such a gifted thinker, writer and preacher who God used to strengthen the faith of many, including me.  Maybe you’ve experienced a shock like that, when a Christian you respect and hold in high esteem fails. It hurts, doesn’t it?

Certainly, the moral failure of anyone is serious, and we should be concerned about it.  But there are times when a Christian leader fails and it rocks our worlds emotionally and sometimes spiritually, to the point where we can have a deep ongoing struggle.  Have you experienced anything like that?  I suspect that our appreciation for Christian celebrities is mostly good and helpful.  We enjoy their music because it points us to a deeper relationship with Jesus.  We read their books because they help us know God better and live more in line with his Kingdom.  We listen to their TV shows and podcasts because they inform us about God’s word.  At the same time, are we evaluating if our appreciation for such Christian celebrities has crossed a line into idol worship? 

I wonder that about my admiration of Ravi Zacharias and other so-called Christian celebrities.  What I also wonder is whether our celebrity culture has so impacted evangelicalism that it can lead to idol worship during our worship services.  I think it is possible.

Last week in our ongoing study of the prophet Ezekiel, we talked about American Christian idols, and this coming week we’ll talk about how idolatry might be happening inside the church, even in our worship services.  Yes, even in Faith Church’s worship service.  As you can imagine, it concerns me greatly.  What about your church worship service? Might there be idolatry in yours?

Check out Ezekiel chapter 6 ahead of time to see what you might learn, then we’ll discuss it further next week.

Do You Worship These American Idols? – Ezekiel 4 & 5, Part 5

Photo by Ben Iwara on Unsplash

What do you think are some American idols? 

Sex and money are probably the first that come to mind, and for good reason.  Next in line and perhaps more tempting for some people are two potential idols related to money, and that is materialism and consumerism.  Love of money, Paul writes, is the root of all evil.  It relates to a hunger for luxury, comfort and entertainment.  Retirement is another.  Note that Paul says it our heart desire that leads to idolatry. We do not have to be rich to idolize these things.  In fact, the inability to experience something just might make us desire it more, to idolize it more.

But what other potential idols tempt us?

There are also some possible idols in areas that might seem like they are good things.  Health and family.  Idolizing family can be a bit of a tough one to understand.  Isn’t it good to be committed to family?  Yes, absolutely.  But can we take it too far. If our family gets in the way of God’s Kingdom, we can start to abandon our participation in God’s Kingdom in favor of our family.  God’s Kingdom must always be our priority.  It seems to me that most of the ways we lovingly support our families will be in line with the goals of the Kingdom.  But we would do well to look out for those times when the Kingdom and family might be in conflict.  In those situations, we should choose Kingdom.  I have watched people leave a church because they thought another church would have more programs for their family.  In what seems like a move to support their family in a God-honoring way, I suspect they at least partially succumbed to idolizing their family at the expense of pursuing the Kingdom.  What would have been better, in my opinion, would be for them to stay at their church and teach their kids the important lesson that their kids are not the center of the universe, but Jesus is. In so doing they could work together with the church family to support the discipleship of their family. 

Health can also be difficult to think of as an idol.  God wants us to experience good health, and he is a God of healing, but in our society, we can take it to an extreme.  Constant dieting, exercising, or medicating, with a strong desire to be perfectly healthy.  This is fueled by a media culture which often shows us images of health or medical products promising health.  Cancer surgeon Atul Gawande, in his book Being Mortal, admits that the medical industry, and especially practitioners in his own field of cancer surgery, can be guilty of making promises they cannot keep.  For example, they will tell a cancer patient that they can be healed, when the surgeon knows that the chances are more like hitting the lottery jackpot.  But in addition to being sold unrealistic promises of modern medicine, and in spite of the real amazing miracle of so much of modern medicine, we can choose to idolize health, rather than have a balanced view of the aging process.

Very much related to this is the area of image (body, online, or reputation).  We can idolize an image of ourselves, an image that we want people to believe is true.  That we are successful, that we are happy, that we are advancing.  During Covid I put on a good 10-15 pounds, and I can see it in the mirror.  Believe it or not, thinking about that can occupy my thoughts.  I can fixate on it.  How about you? Does that resonate?

Same goes for social issues and politics.  We can scroll through our newsfeeds, read books, articles, and watch videos seemingly nonstop about politics.  We can get fire-breathing mad about it.  Since we just had the Fourth of July, there were loads of articles about how patriotism and nationalism can be idols.  We worship God and God alone.  Not a nation, not a flag, not even an idea of a nation.  We worship only Jesus, and we are citizens of his Kingdom.  Our citizenship in an earthly country is temporary and falls to a distant second place behind our citizenship to the Kingdom.  That’s why we don’t sing patriotic songs in worship, and why we don’t pledge allegiance to a national flag in worship.  We Christians pledge our allegiance only to God. 

Then there are sports.  I heard the story about a golf outing one of our church family was on recently, in which they were put in a foursome with people they did not previously know.  One of those persons got so passionate about their game, or rather their poor game, that at the 17th hole, they threw their putter and golf ball across the green into the adjacent forest, cursing, and screaming, “I done with this _____ game!  I’m going home!” Have you ever gotten inappropriately passionate about sports? Maybe even just watching them on TV? We can spend inordinate amounts of time, money and emotion on our favorite sports team. How does that compare to the passion we give to worshiping God?

One of the idols that I have been wrestling with in my life is time on my cell phone.  A cell phone in and of itself is a tool.  It is great for communication, taking photos, and managing other aspects of life.  Cell phones have amazing capabilities.  But they can become idols.  Each week mine gives me a screen time report, and I can become very embarrassed at the amount of hours I spend on it playing games, watching funny videos, sports videos, and reading the news.  Social media can be such a time waster. 

But will I change? How about you?  What idols tempt you?  What aspects of life in America do you give your life to?

What is idolatry? – Ezekiel 4 & 5, Part 4

Ancient Canaanite Teraphim. Figurines of fertility goddess. | Wellcome  Collection

Those statues above are ancient Canaanite idols. When I look at them, I can have a hard time imagining how people would worship them, believing they might have power. But as we have seen in our study of the life and ministry of the prophet Ezekiel, even the Jews who had a long history experiencing the power of the one true God, Yahweh, were tempted to worship idols.

We can be people who watch Ezekiel performing his strange skits, and we can write him off as emotionally and mentally unstable, or we can try to take it to heart.  Perhaps God, through Ezekiel, might want to teach us some important principles. How so? Start by asking the question of yourself, Am I being disobedient?  Am I being an idolater? 

I want to get a bit more specific.  What is American Christian Idolatry?  What I am asking you to consider is this, “In what ways do we American Christians succumb to idolatry?”  To answer that question, we first need to answer, “What is idolatry?”  This is an important question that will come up again and again in Ezekiel, so it is important that we understand idolatry at this early point in our study of this book. 

For the Jews, idolatry was the worship of other gods besides the one true God, their God, Yahweh.  God himself enshrined this principle in the Ten Commandments.  The first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me,” and second is “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”  God explained that second commandment further, which we read in Exodus 20, verses 3-6.  There he helps the people of Israel understand what idolatry is when he says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”

Did you hear the definition of idolatry there?  Idolatry is when we worship anything other than God.  An idol is the physical representation of the thing we worship.  Idolatry is the act of worshiping it.  In those ancient days when God first gave this command to the Jews, many nations located around them, the Egyptians, Canaanites, etc, all believed in gods, and their people would carve images of these gods out of wood, metal or stone.  In their hearts, minds and worship, the god and the physical image of that god were basically one and the same.  They believed those false gods had power to answer their prayers, heal them, and provide for them.  So they would give offerings to those idols, in hopes that their wishes would come true.

But the one true God, Yahweh, said, “Israel, you are not to make any idols of other gods or even physical representations of me. You are only to worship me as I am.”  Israel was only to trust in God because he was the only true God.  This teaching is repeated in the New Testament for the church, for us Christians.  We are only to worship God.  Paul writes, for example, in 1st Corinthians 10:7 and following, “Do not be idolaters…flee from idolatry…Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy?”

So what things, other than God, might we be tempted to worship in our day?  We might not believe that there are sun gods or sea gods, but are there other things that captivate our hearts and minds?  I think so.  We have American idols.  Not the singing competition, but many other things that we can devote ourselves to, and in so doing commit idolatry. 

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll suggest some possibilities for what might be American Christian idols.

God has a barber?!?! – Ezekiel 4 & 5, Part 3

Photo by Michael DeMoya on Unsplash

I really like my barber, Shane. He gives me and my sons a fantastic cut every time we see him. He has a great personality, and I enjoy talking with him. We have razors at home too, and I will ask my wife to cut my hair as well, to save time and money. She will admit that it is not her favorite, though, especially because Shane does such a good job.

I wonder what it is like to be a barber, cutting the hair of so many people day after day. And what does he do with all the hair? I guess he throws it away. I’m thinking about my barber because in today’s post, in our ongoing five-part series of the really strange skit God has the prophet Ezekiel act out in Ezekiel chapters 4 & 5, now Ezekiel plays the role of God’s barber.

Read chapter 5:1-4, which is part four of the skit. If you want to catch up on the other parts of the skit, the first post in the five-part series is here.

Ezekiel, God says, is to take a sharp sword, and like a barber, shave his head and beard. Then he is to pull out a scale and divide the hair up into thirds.

Imagine the people watching Ezekiel not only cutting his hair, but then dividing it equally into thirds.  God says that Ezekiel must be precise. He can’t just eye it up.  God says Ezekiel has to use a scale to divvy his hair up into three equal piles.  That’s just odd. I mean, it’s hair we’re talking about here. It barely weighs anything, and you can pretty easily eye it up into equal piles. If I’m watching Ezekiel measuring hair on a scale, I’m thinking he is nuts. But the skit only gets weirder.

First God says Ezekiel is to burn one third of his hard inside his little model of Jerusalem.  Next he is take a third and really chop that up.  I bet some of the people watching jumped back in fear when Ezekiel pulled out the sword again and started whacking. What must he have looked like hacking away at his hair!  The final third he throws into the wind.

If you saw someone doing that in your town or city, what would you think?  Especially after this guy had just spent 430 days lying on his side and cooking food over cow poop.  Total bonkers right?  This guy must be out of his mind. 

But no.  He was a prophet of God, doing what God told him to do, following very precise instructions.  If I saw someone doing that, I would likely be thinking, “Yeah, right, buddy…God told you to do that?  Uh no, God doesn’t ask us to do that kind of thing.”  And we would get away from him as fast as we could. 

Except that God did tell Ezekiel to do all that, and in the concluding verses, God gives a detailed account of why.  Read chapter 5, verse 5.

God is describing what will happen to the people of Jerusalem, because of their wicked rebellion.  Just as Ezekiel is to cut his hair in thirds, one third of the people in the city will die inside the city, one third will be killed by the enemy armies outside the city, and one third will be scattered and pursued by the enemy.  It’s gruesome.  But it is not random.  God says in verses 7-11 that Israel has been unruly, not keeping his laws.  They have worshiped idols, even allowing idolatry in the temple of God.  And they will face severe consequences of turning away from God. In verse 11, the symbolism comes full circle when God says, “Israel, I am going to shave you.” Just like Ezekiel has separated his hair from his head, God will separate Israel from himself because they have broken covenant from God.

Read verses 13-17 to learn more about the consequences.

This is awful stuff.  God himself is against Israel, and that means they are in big trouble.  The message of Ezekiel, through the method of the dramatic skit of 430 days, lying on his sides, cooking food over cow manure, and cutting his hair, is a harsh, awful message of God’s impending judgment against Israel. 

Why?  Primarily because of the sins of disobedience and idolatry.  Israel had worshiped the false gods of other nations, including setting up physical idols in the temple.  This is a total betrayal of their relationship with God.

Do you think Ezekiel’s 430-day skit made a difference?  Did anyone see him doing this day after day, and think “Yes, we have been disobedient, we have practiced idolatry.  We need to repent!”  I don’t know.  Ezekiel doesn’t tell us.  If I were to guess, I would doubt it.  Especially because we know the end of the story.  Those terrible dramas of judgment that Ezekiel acted out, with his model of Jerusalem and his hair…they all come true.  We’ll learn about that later in the book.  For now, we would do well to think about what principles we can learn from this story.  Check back to tomorrow’s post to find out what principles from Ezekiel’s bizarre skit might be transferable to our lives.

Yellow cap Coke and Ezekiel’s bizarre prophetic skit – Ezekiel 4 & 5, Part 2

Why Coca-Cola Bottles Have Yellow Caps Right Now

Have you ever seen Coke bottles with yellow caps?  Know what that means?  The yellow caps indicate that the Coke has been made using a slightly different recipe. All Coke is Kosher, but yellow cap Coke is even more Kosher. Kosher? Jews have special dietary laws, called Kosher laws.  We studied this in the Deuteronomy series a few years ago.  Deuteronomy chapter 14, specifically, includes a list of clean food and unclean food.  You can read about it here. Jews to this day continue to practice Kosher Law, and regular red cap Coke is always Kosher. But during one season of the year, some Jews can’t drink red cap Coke. That season is Passover. During Passover, some Jews have additional Kosher rules, so Coca-Cola uses a different recipe for Passover Coke to make it accessible to Jews. Learn more about it here. Yellow cap Coke helps us understand the shocking request God has for Ezekiel.

In the previous post, we learned that God instructed his prophet Ezekiel to act out a very odd drama. First, Ezekiel was to draw a picture of the city of Jerusalem, and then build a model of enemy army siege works around the city. Then he was to lay on his side for 430 straight days, right next to the model. He was probably acting this out in front of his house for all his neighbors and passersby to see.

During those 430 days Ezekiel has to eat and go to the bathroom, right?  God has it covered.  Read Ezekiel 4, verses 9-13, for the third part of this prophetic skit.

Ezekiel will measure out food and water ahead of time, following God’s specific recipe, and that is what he will eat and drink.  So though he was tied up with ropes, laying on his side, God clearly allows him some freedom to move around enough to physically sustain himself.  Scholars have examined the caloric content of the meals God instructs Ezekiel to eat, and they believe it is starvation-level. As we’ll see, God has a reason for this, but imagine being Ezekiel. He is being asked to lay on his side for 430 days, which is a long time. Worse, at least in my way of thinking, is that for those fourteen months, he will be barely eating enough to survive. God is asking Ezekiel to give his life to this prophetic skit.

How he is to cook is maybe the weirdest part of all this.  He is to set his own poop on fire, and use it for fuel.  Why? This a sign, God says in verse 13, a sign that the people of Israel are going to be punished by God when an enemy army lays siege to Jerusalem, which will result in the Jews eating defiled food and starving.

What we read in Deuteronomy 14 is that, for Jews, food could become defiled in various ways, and I’m guessing it is not surprising to you to hear Ezekiel suggest to God that food cooked over human excrement is one way to defile it.  Gross, right?  That’s why I think we’ll all get what Ezekiel says in response to God.  Read verse 14.

Right on, Ezekiel!  I wouldn’t want to eat food cooked over burning poop either.  Then I thought, “Hold on a minute. Ezekiel, are you telling me that the poop cooker has you all upset, but you’re okay with lying on your side for 430 days, barely eating enough food?”  Interesting, isn’t it, what gets Ezekiel upset!  Then again, maybe you and I would agree with Ezekiel because it feels like God has pushed this prophetic drama one step too far.  Maybe Ezekiel is thinking, “Yeah, I’ll lay on my side for 430 days, because I want to fulfill the prophetic duty God has given me.  But if it means that every day for 430 days I have to eat food cooked over poop on fire, I draw the line.”  I get it, Ezekiel. 

Notice, though, that Ezekiel’s rebuttal to God is not just, “Ew, that’s gross.” Or “No way, God, that’s too hard, that might literally kill me.” Instead Ezekiel says he has never eaten any defiled food, which is a way of saying, “God, I have always followed the dietary laws in the Mosiac Law, and I don’t want to break them now.”  Maybe Ezekiel just came up with a spiritualized way to get out of this disgusting and daunting aspect of the prophetic drama God is asking him to perform, or maybe he really was genuinely concerned about ritual purity, especially because he was a priest.

Either way, Ezekiel is disagreeing with God, and that is pretty bold, right?  When God tells you to do something, you do it.  Or do you?  Have you ever disagreed with God?  I think most of us have, because sometimes we don’t want to do what he wants us to do.  Even Jesus disagreed with God.  Remember the story of the night before he died? What did Jesus pray?  “Lord, I don’t want to do what you want me to do.”  He didn’t use those precise words, of course, but that is the gist of what he prayed (I wrote about it further here).  Jesus also praying, showing his obedience, “Not my will, but yours be done.”  Then he went through with the difficult plan God had for him. 

Ezekiel will go through with God’s plan incredibly difficult plan, too, but not before questioning God.  Do you think God would be mad that Ezekiel says, “Not so, Sovereign Lord” to God’s request about cooking over human excrement?  Maybe, especially when we consider that God has been saying all along to Ezekiel that he is so upset that, “Israel is rebellious.”  Will he consider Ezekiel to be rebellious for not wanting to eat food cooked over flaming poop?  Maybe.  Read verse 15.

God relents!  Kinda.  He says, “Ok, fine, you can use cow manure instead!”  Uhhhh…is that really any better?  How appetizing does that option sound?  Which do you prefer? Cooking over human excrement or cow manure? Neither?

What I have come to learn from living in and traveling to different countries is that cow manure is a common fuel source for cooking.  Even in a major metropolis like Kingston, Jamaica, for example, cows roam the streets of the city, leaving their dung behind. People can collect their manure, shape it into patties, and allow it to dry in the sun.  I remember driving through the city streets, observing concrete block walls on which someone had plastered a whole bunch of discs of cow patty right there on a wall so it could dry.  The people would use or sell it for cooking fuel.  God, then, is providing Ezekiel a viable option that in Ezekiel’s view would be far better than using human poop to cook. But if Ezekiel is on his side, tied up, where is he going to get manure?  More than likely, similarly to the way Jamaicans in Kingston get it: Ezekiel could get dried cow patties from roaming cows passing by. 

This is a great story, isn’t it?  But what is God’s purpose for this weird drama? What God says next really gets to the point of all this. Read verses 16-17.  

This long drawn-out skit that Ezekiel will perform day after day for 430 days is a prophecy.  Through Ezekiel’s drama, God is saying that he will bring an army to erect siege-works around the walls of Jerusalem, choking out the city’s ability to have food and water, and ultimately condemning the people to waste away, appalled at their deterioration.  Why?  Because of their sin, their rebellion against him.

Guess what, though?  The drama is not yet done.  God has more odd instructions for Ezekiel, as we’ll see in the next post.

A prophetic play date? – Ezekiel 4 & 5, Part 1

Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash

Have you ever heard of a prophetic play date?  Imagine God telling you, “Go into your attic or your kids’ room, get out their Legos, build a mini-model of your town or city, and then build fighter jets from a foreign country dropping bombs all over it.  This will be a sign to the people of your community.”  Doesn’t sound like God does it? Doesn’t sound like prophetic ministry either. So keep reading, because this week in our five-part series studying Ezekiel chapters 4 and 5, we’ll learn about one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible.

For a month now we have been studying the life of the prophet Ezekiel.  So far God has commissioned Ezekiel to be a prophet to his fellow 10,000 Jewish exiles living in Babylon.  God told Ezekiel that the content of his message will be one of declaring the truth to the exiles, that they are rebellious, obstinate and stubborn.  Last week, we heard the first prophetic message that God gave Ezekiel, and it was a message for Ezekiel.  God said Ezekiel was going to be like a watchman for the exiles, that he would tell them only what God would tell him to say.  Now turn to Ezekiel 4, where God has a message, through Ezekiel, to the 10,000 Jews in exile in Babylon.  Start by reading Ezekiel 4:1-3.

This is just the beginning of the prophetic play date, as we will learn that Ezekiel’s task is more like a skit that has multiple acts.  So let’s take a deeper look at this first part of play date/skit. 

For starters, I want us to think about where Ezekiel might have performed this skit.  The text doesn’t tell us.  If we assume that there is no gap between the end of chapter three and the beginning of chapter four, then it would seem like Ezekiel is still in his house, in which case he might be tied up unable to move, and with his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, he is unable to speak.

It seems to me unlikely that Ezekiel is still shut up in his house, though, given the details we will hear about in the rest of the passage.  We just read about a prophetic play date/skit that was intended for people see, so I suspect Ezekiel is acting it out in front of his house.

There is another important question. The skit begins with God asking Ezekiel to play with toys.  Why does God want Ezekiel to draw the city of Jerusalem, then build a mini-model of Jerusalem being attacked?  At the end of verse 3, God says, this play act is a sign to the house of Israel.  A sign of what?  Hold on to that question, too, as God will answer it.  For now, let’s see how this odd prophetic drama develops.  Continue reading verses 4-8, which is the second part of the skit.

Woah!  Ezekiel is to lie on his side for 390 days and then 40 more days?  That’s 430 days, just over fourteen months!  Ezekiel is going to be laying on his side for fourteen months???  Could you imagine this?  It’s almost unthinkable.  It seems to me that it is a weird idea from God.  More importantly, what does it mean?

In verse 4, God says that Ezekiel’s act of laying on his side symbolically represents the sin of the house of Israel.  Ezekiel is not atoning for their sin, or paying for their sin.  Instead, the play act itself is the prophetic message, telling the truth about Israel’s sin. 

When he mentions the 390 days for the sin of Israel, God is specifically referring to the nation of Israel.  After the land had a civil war and split in two, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel located in the north were called the nation of Israel, and the other two tribes in the south were called the nation of Judah.  When you read about the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, you read a sad, sad story.  Northern king after king after king was wicked, as this once powerful nation gradually slid away from God.  God says in verse 5 that the 390 days that Ezekiel is to lay on his left side represent one day for each year the northern Kingdom of Israel was in rebellion against God. 

At the end of the 390 days, he is then to roll over to his right side, where he will do the same for another 40 days, this time one day for each year of wickedness for the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  That means that the southern kingdom of Judah was not as wicked as the Northern Kingdom, which is exactly what we read in the books of 1st and 2nd Kings.  The Southern Kingdom had many righteous kings.  But eventually, particularly during the reign of Manasseh, Judah was sinful too, which is what led God to allow Babylon to attack and subdue Judah’s capital city, Jerusalem, and to exile the 10,000 Jews to Babylon, of which Ezekiel was a part.

So think about what God is asking Ezekiel to do.  Lie on his side every day for 14 months!  Now add the detail from verses 7-8, and we learn that Ezekiel’s model of the siege of Jerusalem is there the whole time, and Ezekiel will also be tied up with ropes so he cannot turn. 

It’s like God has given Ezekiel a Broadway show which has a run for 14 months.  Every single day he will be acting out this play.  It seems to me it would get old midway through the first day.  Wouldn’t his side hurt?  Yes it would!  Remember that Ezekiel is 30 years old at this point.  Is that how you would want to spend your days as a 30 year old?  How is the job of a prophet sounding right about now? 

Now let’s bring up the question we talked about before: where is this drama taking place?  Ezekiel is likely in acting the drama out in front of his house where people could see him every day.  But if he was out in the open, think about the weather issues he would face.  It could get cold.  Hot.  Rainy.  Dry.  Would he get sun-burnt?  I suspect those 14 months were rough. If God asked me to perform this prophetic play act, I think I would get very tired of it after three or four hours.

Also think about how those people would react to him.  The first few days, he would likely be a curiosity.  “What are you doing, Ezekiel? Why are you lying on your side, tied up, playing with toys?”  Was Ezekiel allowed to answer their questions?  Did he speak out, condemning Jerusalem’s sin?  Remember that Jerusalem was where they were all from!  In other words, through this play act, he was telling his own people that they were sinners. Did they get the message?

I doubt it. As the days and weeks went on, it seems to me that Ezekiel laying there playing with toys would become like wallpaper.  He would fade into the background, or even more likely, he would probably be considered a weirdo, maybe even someone who is not all there mentally.  I can imagine mothers nervously scolding their children, “Stop staring at him!  He’s crazy. Let’s keep walking.”  So not only would this play act take a physical toll on Ezekiel, but it would also be relationally humiliating.

Except, that’s not the end of this story. Not even close. The drama only gets weirder.

Check back to the next post to learn more!

American Idols – Ezekiel 4 & 5, Preview

Do you worship idols?

Of course not, right?

Or do you?

When I was in seminary for my Master’s degree I took a course called “American Idols.”  It wasn’t about the famous singing competition!  Instead it was about the various ideas or objects that we Americans idolize.  There are a number of really good possibilities for the category of “American Idol.”  What possible idols do you think we studied in that class?  Take a moment and make a list.  What tempts you?  Is there anything that usurps the role or focus that God should have in your life?

As you think about that list, let me repeat the question I started with, “Do you worship idols?”

I can’t answer that question for you personally.  But I feel pretty confident in saying that American Christians are often tempted and actually succumb to idol worship.  I’m not talking about statues made of metal or wood.  I’m talking about other American idols that we’ll talk about next week, maybe some on your list.  I say this not to judge or shame you, but because I know myself, and I know the pressures we American Christians face in our society.  Idol worship is alive and well, even among Christians.  Idol worship can infect a church, including church worship services.

This coming week on the blog we continue our study of the prophet Ezekiel, and we will learn that Israel was worshiping idols.  They were practicing idolatry, and God will ask Ezekiel to call it out.  That means we’ll need to talk about what idolatry was like for Israel in that day and age, as well as what it might be like in our day.  In order to be followers of Jesus who have hearts becoming more and more like his, we will want to avoid idolatry.  What we will find in this next section of Ezekiel is that when God asks Ezekiel to call out Israel’s idolatry, he asks Ezekiel to do so in a very bizarre way.  Check out Ezekiel chapters 4 & 5 ahead of time to see for yourself, then I’ll look forward to talking about it further next week!

A powerful lesson about success from the SNL Prophet – Ezekiel 3:16-27, Part 5

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Remember how I told you that Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry is not going to be what we typically think of prophetic ministry?  Instead of preaching to crowds of adoring people, Ezekiel will often perform dramas or sign acts, like skits.  He is the Saturday Night Live of prophets.  In our final post in this five-part series on Ezekiel 3:16-27, God gives Ezekiel his first skit assignment.  Read Ezekiel chapter 3, verses 24-25.

Does something sound off to you? In the first description of the skit, Ezekiel is to shut himself inside his house.  Ezekiel was supposed to prophesy to his community of 10,000 Jews that they are rebellious, so you’d think that God would tell him to go out to where the people are and start preaching to them.  Maybe go door by door, making sure he visits every single person.  Create a list of all 10,000 exiles, and start working your way down the list. But nope, God says, “Go home, Ezekiel and shut yourself in your house.”  Why would God say that? 

As we read in verses 24-25, there’s more to the skit. God says that once Ezekiel is in his house, people will come into the house and tie Ezekiel up so that he cannot go outside.  Being shut up inside his house is the opposite of what a truth-telling prophet is supposed to do, the opposite of what God said he should do when he called Ezekiel to go out among the people and tell them the truth. What is going on here?

At this point, you might be thinking, “But what about yelling? That must be what God wants him to do!”  If I were alone in my house, tied up and stuck there, but my job was to inform the people outside that they were in rebellion against God, I could easily just start yelling. Those ancient homes weren’t soundproof.  It might be somewhat muffled, but Ezekiel could still get his message out, maybe even draw a crowd, by yelling.  Except that’s not what happens next in the skit. Read Ezekiel 3, verse 26. 

God shuts Ezekiel’s mouth!  Ezekiel will be unable to rebuke the Israelites.  The prophet is totally incapacitated and silenced.  This skit is counter-intuitive, isn’t it? God gives Ezekiel a mission, and then makes Ezekiel physically incapable of completing the mission!  What is the purpose of that?  Why would God do this?  And clearly it is God doing this.  Couldn’t God just skip this skit and let Ezekiel go out there and speak his prophetic message? 

What God says next gives us a clue to figure out why he would keep Ezekiel silent.  Read Ezekiel 3, verse 27. 

Now the skit makes sense! When God speaks to him, then God will give Ezekiel the ability to communicate to the people, no matter how they respond.  That is key.  God wants Ezekiel to communicate one thing, and one thing only: the words God gives him.  God does not want Ezekiel to speak anything else.  Ezekiel will be physically able to communicate only the message of the Lord. 

To summarize, what we have learned in this section, Ezekiel 3:16-27, is God’s warning for Ezekiel, giving Ezekiel clear guidelines about his prophetic task.  He is a watchman who must communicate only the word of the Lord.  This is so important that God essentially binds him to that task. 

The account stops there.  Ezekiel doesn’t tell us how it all went down when he actually left the plain and returned to his house to perform the skit, but we can believe that it happened as God said it would.  Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry has launched under some very unique circumstances, but for good reason.  God wants Ezekiel to be successful. He wants to make sure that Ezekiel is a prophet of the Word of God.  This prophetic ministry is not to be of Ezekiel’s making, but of God’s.  So God actively restrains Ezekiel to that task.  Rather than seeing God’s work in Ezekiel’s life as meddling or overpowering, we can see it as God’s grace in Ezekiel’s life.  God graciously places Ezekiel on a trajectory of success.

That doesn’t mean “success” in the sense that the people who hear Ezekiel’s message will turn back to God. They very well might not.  Instead, the success will come in the form of Ezekiel accomplishing the mission God had for him.  I find that very instructive.  We so often think of success as “bigger is better.”  Success in American Christianity has long been described as growing the church, and people assume that growing the church means “more people showing up for worship, giving more money, so that they can big more and bigger buildings, to fit more people and have more programs that those people will attend.” 

Let me say something very clearly: Bigger does not automatically equal better.  Very big churches can actually be quite unhealthy.  At the same time, very small churches can be sick too.  A large church can be healthy, and a small church can be healthy.  Same goes for churches of all shapes and sizes.  Large churches have pros and cons.  Small churches have pros and cons. 

What is important in God’s eyes is that we follow the way of Jesus, not that we build bigger churches.  In other words, what is important is that we are faithful to God.  Ezekiel was to be faithful to the task of being a watchman prophet, speaking only the word of God. 

Carry this over to our lives as followers of Jesus, and we find principles that we can apply to our lives.  We, too, are called to be faithful, to be the watchmen and women not just of our own lives, but also of those around you in your church family.  Husbands and wives, you are watchman for each other.  Parents and Grandparents, you are watchman for your kids and grandkids.  What will it look like for you to speak the truth in love to them? How can you rid yourselves of extra distractions so that you can spend more time sitting with Jesus, listening, and learning more of the heart of Jesus and asking for what ways you can follow those ways in your life?

God’s Spirit is alive and well – Ezekiel 3:16-27, Part 4

Photo by Khalil Yamoun on Unsplash

God’s Spirit is alive and well! God’s Spirit is at work in the world and in our lives.

Do you agree? Do you wish God’s Spirit was more…well…real? Do you ever wonder or doubt? If so, you’re not alone. In this post, I hope you find some encouragement in the Spirit’s activity in the life of Ezekiel.

What we have seen in the previous posts in this week’s five-part series on Ezekiel 3:16-27, starting here, after God gives Ezekiel a mission/warning about being a watchman prophet, the scene changes.  Let’s start reading again at Ezekiel chapter 3, verses 22-23.

Remember that God has given Ezekiel a warning.  Ezekiel was to be the watchman prophet who would first hear and then speak the word of God.  Now God says to him, go to the plain and there I will speak to you.  Ezekiel had just spent 7 days, overwhelmed, and in response to God’s call, he gets up and goes to the plain.  There God’s glory appears to him again, just as it did beside the Kebar River, which we learned about starting with this post.  Ezekiel does the exact same thing he did by the river: he falls face-down.  In verse 24 we read that the Spirit enters him and raises him to his feet. 

We should start keeping track of the work of the Spirit in Ezekiel.  We have seen the Spirit in every chapter so far.  The Spirit of God is active in Ezekiel’s life.  Very active.  How often do you think about the work of the Spirit in your life?   For Ezekiel this work of the Spirit in his life was astounding because that kind of relationship with and experience of the Spirit was not the norm for the common person in the Old Testament.  But in the New Testament church, we learn that the Spirit has a totally new relationship with disciples of God. Read Acts 2 where the Spirit arrives and fills the lives of the first Christians.  Paul would go on to write that we Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit.  He lives with us.  That means a relationship with the Spirit is normal for us, yet I wonder if the Spirit feels distant to you?  What can you do about that?

Think about how this work of the Spirit must have felt for Ezekiel. He is out on a plain where once again the glory of Lord is blowing him away, to the point where he falls face-down. The Spirit enters him and raises him to his feet.  This is amazing.  Frankly, I can’t get enough of it. I find it inspiring to read about God at work like this, because God can feel so distant sometimes.  Do you ever feel like that?  That God can seem like an intellectual idea to be believed, rather than a real being to experience and have relationship with?  That was Ezekiel’s reality too.  He knew that the presence of God resided in the temple in Jerusalem.  But that was 900 miles away and five years ago. There in Babylon, the 10,000 Jewish exiles were far, far away from that.  Do you think they started to wonder if all the talk about God was a distant memory, maybe one that wasn’t even real?  Have you had those thoughts?  We want the experience of God, in addition, and probably more than ideas of or stories about God.  Furthermore, we want the stories of God to be not only about times in the past, but real encounters now.  Ezekiel’s encounter with God reminds us that God is alive and well, that the Spirit does work in our lives. 

Check back to the next post, as God gives Ezekiel some instructions.  Some really odd instructions.