Are you avoiding taking responsibility? – Ezekiel 18, Part 2

Editor’s Note: I’m thankful to guest blogger Brandon Hershey for this week’s study of Ezekiel 18!

Do you have older siblings? I have older siblings who went to the same school that I did. Maybe you know the feeling of walking into class on the first day, and the teacher says to you, “Oh… your Brian’s brother…?” All of the sudden a burden of expectation is placed upon you…for better or for worse. If your older siblings were troublemakers, you might feel like you are pre-judged to be a bad student. The teacher might say something like, “I’d better keep my eye on you! Your Brian’s brother.” Likewise, if your siblings were great students, you might feel pressure to live up to higher expectations. You might hear comments like, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” Whatever the situation, it is very easy to feel judged based on those who came before you. But let me ask you this: though your siblings behavior will almost certainly affect you, of no fault of your own, does that mean you are not responsible for your actions?

As you think about the answer to this question, turn in your Bible to Ezekiel chapter 18. There we’ll find a situation very similar to the scenario of older siblings.

Before we jump into chapter 18, I always like to zoom out and remember some larger context. I find it helpful to situate specific bible stories within the overall biblical narrative. So let’s rewind a bit. The nation of Israel split into two kingdoms around 930 BC. The 10 northern tribes became Israel and the 2 southern tribes became Judah. After a series of unfaithful kings, the people of Israel strayed from their relationship with God and were unfaithful to the covenant that God made with Israel. As a result, God allowed foreign nations (Assyria) to come in and conquer the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. Over 100 years later, Judah starts to fall to the Babylonians in 605 BC when the first group is taken into captivity back to Babylon. Daniel is part of this first group of exiles to be carried off to Babylon. Ezekiel was part of the second group of exiles who were carried off to Babylon 8 years later in 597 BC. He becomes a prophet to the exiles who are in Babylon in 593 BC.  This means that the people that Ezekiel is prophesying to have been living in captivity for approximately 12 years.

At the same time, Jeremiah is nearing the end of his ministry by prophesying to the people of Judah who have not been taken into captivity. This means that Jeremiah and Ezekiel are contemporaries. For a period of about 7 years, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were prophesying at the same time, just to two different audiences – Ezekiel to the captives in Babylon; Jeremiah to the people of Judah still living in Judah.

We know from our study of Ezekiel so far that Ezekiel, through symbolic role-playing and metaphors, has been predicting the destruction of the temple and of all Jerusalem as a result of their unfaithfulness to God, which ultimately happens a couple years later in 586 BC. As we pick up in chapter 18, we see a glimpse of how the exiles in Babylon were reacting to these prophecies. Open a Bible and read Ezekiel 18:1-4.

Right from the beginning, God seems to be setting a tone that he is not too happy. Verse 2 could be paraphrased to say, “What are you people thinking by quoting this proverb?”  As we have seen in the last number of weeks, the exiles in Babylon were not exactly being faithful to God. They were worshiping other gods and making idols to take the place of God. Yet, in spite of their unfaithfulness to God, they were making excuses for their current sins. The exiles in Babylon were essentially blaming their current sufferings on the sins of their ancestors by quoting this proverb, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

If you are anything like me, the first time you read this proverb, you are probably wondering what it means? Whatever it means, it is pretty clear by verse 3 that God does not want the exiles to be saying this proverb. God is being pretty firm when is says, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel.” So why doesn’t God want them saying this proverb? In this proverb, the exiles represent the children and their ancestors represent the parents, so the exiles are experiencing the unpleasant consequences of their ancestor’s actions.

Have you ever eaten a sour grape before? It’s not a very pleasant experience. You might make a weird face or even spit the grape out. By quoting this proverb, the exiles are claiming that they didn’t do anything wrong; they didn’t eat the sour grapes, but they are still experiencing the unpleasant consequences of having eaten the sour grape. It was their “parents” fault for eating the sour grapes so the parents should be the ones to suffer the consequences. It’s not fair that the children suffer for the parent’s mistakes. They thought they were being punished because their great grandparent’s sins.

The problem with this attitude is that it led to a spirit of fatalism and irresponsibility. In other words, because the current exiles believed their suffering was not their fault, but instead the fault of their ancestors, they did not feel any sense of personal responsibility for their current situation. They didn’t think they were guilty of any sin. They were making excuses for their own sin. They felt that God was being unjust by making them suffer in exile, that they were getting punished for something they did not do.  

Remember the illustration above that I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Going to a school where your older siblings attended. Hopefully it is obvious to us, that the teacher would be wrong to project expectations onto a student based on a sibling’s actions. As a teacher, we are trained NOT to do precisely that. I know that each student is their own individual and should not be judged based on their sibling’s behavior. While a teacher would be wrong to make a judgement about a student based on a sibling’s behavior, the student would be equally wrong to expect special favor simply because of their last name.

The exiles of Judah wanted to have it both ways. On one hand, they were blaming their ancestors for their current suffering. On the other hand, they also wanted to claim their ancestor’s special privilege as God’s chosen people. In both cases, the underlining problem was an unwillingness to accept individual responsibility for their sins.

So why did the exiles have this attitude that their fate was so closely tied to their ancestors? Although it seems like the exiles are shirking their responsibility by embracing this attitude, they did have some valid reasons for thinking that they were being punished for their ancestor’s sins. To be fair, their ancestors did sin through their unfaithfulness to God.  

  1. Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai: Exodus 20:5, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”
  2. Ezekiel had been teaching that the sufferings of the exiled could be traced back to the persistent rebellion, idolatry and unfaithfulness of previous generations of Israelites.
  3. God’s judgment fell indiscriminately upon the nation, both the bad and the good, leading the exiles to believe that they were not responsible. “If I’m going to be punished whether I’m good or bad, why even try!”

For these reasons, the exiles living in Babylon were not taking responsibility for their own actions. They were confusing the corporate history of the nation of Israel with the call for individual responsibility and God didn’t want to hear their excuses anymore.

Coincidentally, the exiles in Babylon weren’t the only ones quoting this proverb as an excuse; the people who are still living in Judah were quoting the exact same proverb.  We know this because the prophet Jeremiah – who remember is prophesying at the same time back in Judah – quotes the same proverb in chapter 31:29-30:

“In those days people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.”

Jeremiah’s response is identical to the response that God gave to Ezekiel in chapter 18: he wants everyone to take responsibility for their own actions. Jeremiah has more to say and we’ll come back to this verse later.

For now, consider your own life. Are you taking responsibility for your actions? Yes, others’ actions can adversely affect your life. But are you using that real pain and suffering as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for your actions?

What will God say? In the next post, we turn back to Ezekiel 18 and we’ll see how God responds.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Are you making excuses? – Ezekiel 18, Part 1

Editor’s Note: I’m thankful to guest blogger Brandon Hershey for this week’s study of Ezekiel 18!

Do you ever make excuses to justify your behavior? We might make excuses to justify simple things in our lives like why we don’t eat better, or why we don’t exercise more, or why we speed, or maybe even why we don’t return our shopping carts at Walmart.

Recently, I saw a commercial on TV about all the excuses that golfers sometimes make for their poor shots. If you are a golfer, perhaps you are guilty of using some of these excuses:

Or maybe you’ve been telling yourself you want to get to the gym more and your excuses sound like the ones in this Nike commercial:

As a teacher, I often hear some good excuses as to why students didn’t turn in their homework or complete an assignment on time. Although I don’t hear the classic “the dog ate my homework” excuse, students continue to find creative excuses for not getting work done on time. For example, students who take our 10th grade honors class, are required to complete two assignments over the summer – one due in early July and the other due right before school starts. To be clear, we meet with all of the students before the school year ends, we explain the requirements of the assignments, and we set them up with all the resources that they need. Needless to say, usually a couple days before the first due date rolls around, my inbox starts filling up with desperate pleas for extensions. Over the years, I like to keep a file with all my favorite excuses. Here are four:

Hi Mr. Hershey, I am about halfway done with my essay and I was wondering if I could get a week extension due to our playoffs for baseball. We just found out our schedule yesterday.

Hi Mr. Hershey, Can I get an extension for my Inherit The Wind essay. I just got back from vacation and I need some more time. Can I have til the end of this week?

I can’t hand in any of my english assignments because the website has been down for me for a while. When I checked with a friend, the site was down for him as well.

I only found out now that the site was back up, but can’t find where to submit my assignment. Also, my school email is on the fritz and will not allow me to attach documents of any sort. Would it be all right if I submit my assignment tomorrow when I have the time to look for the submission area?

I’m sure that some of these students had legitimate reasons as to why they couldn’t get their assignments done on time, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating on my end as the teacher.

What is really happening when we make excuses? No matter how we spin it, excuses really just push responsibility away from ourselves and onto someone or something else in order to make ourselves feel better about our actions or our inaction.

While some excuses may not carry much consequence, what about the excuses we make for the sin in our lives? Maybe you have an addiction that you keep sweeping under the rug, telling yourself it’s not that bad. Maybe you have someone in your family that you know you need to forgive, but your hard heart won’t let you. Maybe you need to ask for forgiveness, but your pride prevents you from humbling yourself to admit you were wrong. Perhaps you know you need to spend more time with God through personal devotion or prayer but you justify yourself by comparing yourself to others, thinking that you are doing as well as the next guy. Maybe American consumerism prevents you from living the sacrificial life of a disciple of Jesus. Whatever the case, I’m confident that each of us can think of some sin in our lives that we are quick to excuse. I want each of us to consider what excuses we make that keep us from growing closer to Jesus.

As we continue through Ezekiel in chapter 18, we see that the exiles in Babylon were making some excuses of their own. Chapter 18 is basically God’s reaction to their excuse. From this reaction, we see God’s perfect justice expressed in His serious attitude towards the consequences of sin, we see God’s perfect love expressed in his heart for the oppressed, and most importantly we see God’s passionate desire for repentance expressed in his plea for the exiles to turn from their sinful ways.

We’ll get started studying Ezekiel 18 in the next post!

A story of hope – Ezekiel 17, Part 5

This week we have been studying the parable of the Eagles and the Vine in Ezekiel 17. I described at an ancient parable to read when you have lost hope. Why? Because Ezekiel’s parable is a message to Israel that says, “Israel, though you have turned away from me, though you are in exile, though you are facing the consequences of your disbelief and wicked behavior, return to me, and you will find hope in me.  I will receive you and give you new life.” 

I met the new ministry acquaintance this past week, and as we were introducing ourselves, we told one another brief versions of our life stories. Very typical for when you are meeting someone new. He told me the story of how he grew up in a non-practicing Jewish home.  He went to college to party it up.  He eventually met a girl who grew up in a Christian home, but at the time she wasn’t living in line with God’s heart or the way of Jesus.  But little by little God was at work.  The girl’s Christian background and family influenced them both. They got married and moved to a major city where he started to try to break into the world of journalism and broadcasting.  God was still at work, and my new friend eventually knew he needed to seek God.  So he walked through the doors of a local church, and the people there led him to become a disciple of Jesus.  He was in his 20s, and he had a new hope. 

What about you?  What in your life is dead and needs God’s renewing power?  Hope is not lost. In God there is always hope of new life!  Return to him.  I heard someone suggest recently that during the last 18 months so many of us, because of Covid lockdowns and quarantines, have spent a lot of time watching TV, social media, Netflix, and all the other streaming services, and we have been changed.  Our attention has become accustomed to screens.  Is it possible that is true of you?  I know it is true of me.  So easy to just sit on my phone and watch videos.  So much TV to watch.  You can stream shows while you’re driving. 

I wonder if God is thinking, “What about me?”  What will it look like to turn to him as sustaining power of our lives. Hope is found in him.  Let’s learn the lesson of the eagles and vine.  Let’s not be like the vine.  Let’s not be like Zedekiah.  Let’s turn to God.  Make space for God in your life!

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

When it seems like hope is lost, there is still hope! – Ezekiel 17, Part 4

Do you look around your life or around the world and wonder if things are going so badly, that there is no hope for a brighter tomorrow? If you feel something like that, you’re not alone. Many people experience the encroaching darkness in our lives, and we wonder. I wonder. Am I making a difference in the world? Will my kids make good choices? Will I be financially secure in the years to come? Am I wasting too much time on unimportant things? We can speculate about all sorts of concerns, and whether or not we’re going to make it through. What can be so difficult, though, is when hope erodes. There is an ancient parable that reminds us that there is still hope!

The parable of the Eagles and the Vine that we have been studying in Ezekiel 17 has so far been been telling the story of recent history in Jerusalem, and that recent history has pretty much been bad news. But the parable is not done.  God has more to say, and to many, what God says in part 2 of the parable might not sense to you, when you consider how his people had ripped up the covenant and turned their backs on God.  Look at verses Ezekiel 17, verses 22-24, the surprise ending to the parable.

God says he will do what first eagle did, except he will do it better.  What did the first eagle do? Read about it here. How will God do it better?  Here’s how: When God takes the top of the cedar tree, he will not carry it far away to another land like first eagle did.  Instead, God will take that shoot and plant it in Israel where it will grow, produce fruit and flourish. 

Ezekiel 17 doesn’t include an explanation of this part 2 of the parable, like it did for the first part of the parable.  But because we know the interpretation of the first part, which we studied here, we can now understand the meaning of the second part: God will plant a new king in Israel.  The land will be healed and fruitful under the leadership of that new king.  He doesn’t say how, and he doesn’t say when this will happen.  But we know how, and we know when.  We do? We do! This is a messianic prophecy, and God is talking about Jesus!

Therefore, part 2 of the parable is meant to give hope to the people listening to Ezekiel.  They are a small group of Jews living in exile in Babylon, and they are hearing God’s prophet talk about the destruction of their beloved home city.  This is bad, bad news for them.  They have heard Ezekiel share this news repeatedly.  Think about what must it have been like to hear such terrible news about the future?  How do you feel during those periods of life when its one shock of bad news right after the other?

In the midst of so much bad news, God’s desire is that the small group of Jews hear his heart, and that they would not be unfaithful like the people in Jerusalem.  This parable is an opportunity for them to evaluate their lives so that they might be faithful and have fruitful lives.

Notice what God says in the end in verse 24.  In this we see the hope-filled upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God. The tall he brings low, and the low he makes tall.  That which is green he dries up, and that which is dry he makes flourish.  God gives us a picture of amazing hope for his people.  Theses are people who are exiled in Babylon, far from home.  These are people who have heard yet again that their homeland is about to be destroyed.  These are people that seem to have no hope.  God says there is still hope.

When it seems like our life is dead, dry, or not flourishing, remember that God is the one who brings dead things to life.  Maybe you carry the false names that people have called you. Maybe you believe negative things about yourself, often because others have declared those about you.  Maybe your feeling loss of hope at your job, or maybe you lost your job.  Maybe you have financial difficulty.  Perhaps you struggle with anxiety, with relationships, with parenting, or with school.  It is all real and oftentimes very difficult.  It might even be that your life is like Israel, like the Jews in Ezekiel’s day who were disobedient and rebellious towards God.  Maybe your relationship with God feels distant or dead.  Maybe it could be said of you what God said about Israel, “You are unfaithful.” 

Know this.  The parable in Ezekiel 17 reminds us that the end of your story has not been written.  Sure, just like Israel, you might be facing consequences of your decisions.  But that is not the end of the story, because in God’s upside-down Kingdom he makes the dead come alive and flourish.  There is hope in the Lord!

Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

What is your automatic response when life goes bad? – Ezekiel 17, Part 3

Last week I caused a car accident. Thankfully it was minor, and no one was hurt. As I was driving, I glanced down at my phone to check the GPS, and in that split-second, the vehicles in a line of traffic in front of me slowed to a stop. It all happened so fast. I looked up, realized the pickup truck in front of me was stopped, and I slammed on my brakes. My car skidded, but there wasn’t enough space, and I rear-ended the pickup. I hit them hard enough to deploy my airbags. Because my phone was connected by Bluetooth to my car, the airbags triggered an automatic call to 911. Within seconds, the emergency operator was talking to me asking how I was doing. Soon after that, local police arrived. It was amazing and comforting that technology and people were instantly available to help in my time of need.

What is your automated response in times of need? Our automated responses reveal who we are and what we care about, don’t they?

As we have been studying Ezekiel 17 this week, we have learned, through the parable of the Two Eagles and the Vine, the major historical events that had recently occurred in the city of Jerusalem. The parable turned out to be an allegory about those events. If you want to learn more about the parable, pause this post and start reading the first post in the series.

The final event in that recent history was a desperate plea made by Jerusalem’s King Zedekiah to the king of Egypt, Pharaoh, asking for military help to overthrow Babylon’s control of Jerusalem. Will Zedekiah succeed?  Will his ploy to enlist help from Egypt work?  Let’s keep reading as we now come to the part of Ezekiel 17 that is a prophecy about the future.  Look at verses 16-21.

In these verses, God says that Zedekiah’s plan of rebelling against Babylon by getting military help from Egypt will be an utter failure.  Babylon will destroy Zedekiah and his forces, just like the vine in the parable will be withered completely.  And why?  Why would God allow his people in Jerusalem to suffer such defeat?  Look at verse 20.  There God gives the answer, “because he was unfaithful.”

There it is.  This is what we have heard all along in Ezekiel.  The people of Jerusalem will be attacked and defeated again by Babylon, but this next time will devastating.  No puppet king.  No treaty.  No peace and prosperity. Their rebellion will be answered with destruction because they were unfaithful.

Before we start thinking about how awful that is, and it is awful, God reminds us that this is all happening because the king of Jerusalem and the people have been unfaithful to God.  They rebelled not just against the king of Babylon, but first they rebelled against God.  They worshiped false gods and made idols.  They practiced ritual worship that included prostitution or child sacrifice.  They committed acts of injustice.   The people no longer knew God.  That’s why God has been repeating a phrase throughout the book of Ezekiel, “Then you will know that I am God.”  He says a variation of that phrase again here in verse 21, “Then you will know that I have spoken.” 

Think about it.  There is Zedekiah, King of Jerusalem.  He is a puppet king, controlled by Babylon.  He’s not free. His people aren’t free.  Yes, they have peace, but only if they do what Babylon says and pay tribute, in the form of taxes, to Babylon.  Not many people would like to be controlled by another nation.  So Zedekiah wants to be free from the shackles of Babylonian control.  His solution is to reach out to Egypt for help.  Egypt? Why Egypt?  Egypt is another regional power.  They might have a common interest in pushing back Babylon’s ever-increasing encroachment. But take notice of a pretty important detail in Zedekiah’s plan for rebellion: when Zedekiah knows he will need help to rebel against Babylon, he does not choose God for help!

Think about this from God’s point of view, as he is watching this play out.  His people, the Jews have rebelled against him for decades, so he allows Nebuchadnezzar and the military of Babylon to attack and capture Jerusalem and exile the people.  We can imagine God thinking, “This will get their attention.  Now they will return to me.”  But they don’t return to God.  Instead, when he is desperate to break free from Babylon’s control, King Zedekiah goes to Egypt for help!  If you’re God watching this, you’re shaking your head thinking, “Why won’t my people return to me?  I love them.  I rescued them from slavery in Egypt all those years ago.  I gave them the Promised Land where they could flourish.  Now they are fixated on turning away from me.” 

Think about the irony of Zedekiah reaching out for help from Egypt, when it was Egypt that enslaved Israel centuries before.  Zedekiah has finally trampled on God’s covenant with Moses one time too many, and God says that Zedekiah’s plan will fail, and Babylon will decimate Jerusalem.  As we heard in chapter 7, the end is near

But the parable is not done.  God has more to say, and to many, what God says next, in part 2 of the parable, will make no sense whatsoever, especially when you consider how his people had ripped up the covenant and turned their backs on God.  Check back tomorrow, as we’ll look at the surprise ending to the parable. 

For consider how you typically respond when life blows up in your face. What is your normal go-to for help? Do you call a friend? Do you google it? Do you eat some ice cream or grab a beer? Does God cross your mind? What do you need to do to make turning to God your automatic response?

Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

Interpreting the parable of the Eagles and the Vine – Ezekiel 17, Part 2

Can you interpret the allegorical parable of the Eagles and the Vine in Ezekiel 17? In the previous post, we talked about how this parable is for people that have lost hope, or are feeling it slip away. So it is important that we understand it.

In this second post of a five-part series studying Ezekiel 17 (the series started here), let’s read the parable in verses 3-10, trying to understand it.  Please don’t peek ahead!  Don’t look at your Bible’s study notes!  Like I said, God will eventually explain it the parable.  Just keep your eyes on verses 3-10 and see if you can figure it out.  Go ahead and read the parable in Ezekiel 17, verses 3-10.

Alright.  You get all that?  It’s a pretty simple story.  Most parables are simple.  But what is so difficult is understanding their meaning. Let’s review the story to make sure we understand it. 

A powerful eagle flies to the country of Lebanon, which is famous for its cedar trees, and there the eagle breaks off the top of a cedar tree and carries it away to another land where the eagle plants it. 

Then the eagle gets some seed from “your land.”  Whose land?  Your land?  What land is God talking about?  Scan back up to verse 2.  Who does verse 2 say that Ezekiel is talking to?  The house of Israel.  Ezekiel is talking to his fellow Jews living in exile with him there in Babylon, but their homeland is Palestine, the land of Israel.  So this eagle scoops up seed from Israel, planting it in the fertile soil of Israel with abundant water.  The seed grows into a vine.  Notice the detail in verse 6.  The vine grows, turning its branches toward him.  Toward whom?  The eagle.  The vine’s roots also stay under the eagle, as the vine grows.  It is a picture of peace and prosperity.

Another powerful eagle appears, and things start to change.  The vine sends its roots out toward the new eagle, seeking water from the eagle.  A detail in verse 8 is important.  In verse 8 the parable reminds the listener that the vine had been planted in fertile soil with abundant water, but that wasn’t good enough for the vine, because it sought water from the new eagle. 

What will happen to the vine?  It will be weakened, stripped of its fruit, and uprooted.  Even a rescue operation like transplanting the vine will not work.  And that is the end of the parable.

So what does the parable mean?  Before we read the next section of verses in Ezekiel, and before you check your Bible’s study notes to try to help you understand what the parable means, let’s meet our cast of characters. We have four primary figures in the parable: the two eagles, the tree and the vine. Can you guess who they represent? Answers are at the bottom of the post! Before you scroll down to reveal the answers, try to guess!

Who is the first eagle? 

The top of the tree he breaks off and plants in a different city? 

The seed that became a vine? 

Hint: We talked all three of these already in previous sermons.

The second eagle?  This one is tricky because we have not yet talked about it in our study. 

Okay…do you have answers for all four? If so, scroll to the bottom of the post and check your guesses! Then return to this spot in the post and keep reading!

Now that we have the cast of characters, do you understand how the parable is a prophecy that is very similar to the prophecies Ezekiel has proclaimed previously?  Yes?  No?  Maybe?  Well, thankfully, God explains the parable.  But before we read the explanation, see if you can use the identity of the cast of characters to interpret the parable!  Then read Ezekiel 17, verses 11-15, for the explanation.

In verses 11-15 God says that the parable is essentially an allegory telling the story of Jerusalem, its two most recent kings and their international political affairs with Babylon and Egypt.  This is the history that has been the context of the book of Ezekiel.  Here’s a summary: Babylon attacked and defeated the city of Jerusalem.  King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon forced King Jehoiachin of Jerusalem, along with Ezekiel and 10,000 other Jews from Jerusalem, into exile in Babylon.  Then Nebuchadnezzar installed another member of Jerusalem’s royal family, Zedekiah, as the new puppet king in Jerusalem. To keep peace and thrive, all Zedekiah had to do was follow the decree of Nebuchadnezzar.  But Zedekiah rebelled, seeking military help from Egypt.

When Ezekiel was telling this parable to his fellow 10,000 Jews in Babylon, everything he told them thus far in the parable was recent history.  Ezekiel and the 10,000 Jews living in exile in Babylon knew all about the various kings and their international politics.  But Ezekiel and his fellow Jews in Babylon were left with some troubling questions; the same questions that God asks in verse 15:  Will Zedekiah succeed?  Will his ploy to enlist help from Egypt work?  Will Israel be freed from Babylonian control?

Check back in to the next post as we come to the part of the parable that is a prophecy about the future, and how it can help us when have lost or are losing hope!

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

Answer Key for Cast of Characters:

First Eagle: King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

The Tree: King Jehoiachin of Jerusalem who was exiled to Babylon at the same time as Ezekiel.

The Vine: King Zedekiah, who was Jehoiachin’s relative, who Nebuchadnezzar installed on the throne of Jerusalem as a puppet king.

The Second Eagle: Pharoah, the king of Egypt.

An ancient parable to read when it seems hope is lost – Ezekiel 17, Part 1

Have you ever had that feeling of being dead inside?  Lacking hope.  Lacking energy.  Blah.  Depressed.  Feeling like there must be more to life than this.  Looking around for answers and satisfaction, and maybe finding it temporarily in TV shows, social media, food, alcohol.  What do you use to ease the frustration of life? 

Maybe you’re in a dead-end job.  Maybe you have a relationship that is going nowhere.  Maybe you’re a parent and feel like a failure in raising your kids.  Maybe it’s a health situation that lingers, lingers, lingers and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  Maybe you’re growing older, and you know you are closer to the finish line than to the start.  Maybe you’re real close.  Maybe you’re scared.

Maybe you look at the price of living and find it utterly maddening.  Gas just jumped to $3.35/gallon here in Lancaster.  Prices of food are going up.  Car and home and rental prices seem ridiculously high.  There’s a lack of affordable housing, and your salary might not be keeping up with it all.  Do you ask for a raise?  Do you look for another job?  Or maybe you try a side hustle.  But do you really want to add one more thing to your already busy life?  You think to yourself that you’re already probably too busy.  You go to bed exhausted, you don’t sleep that great, you wake up still tired, and you face another day to make another dollar or try to pay attention in school, and you wonder if this is what life is supposed to be about.  Where can you go for help?  You know the churchy answer is “God,” but maybe he feels real far away.  You might have even prayed in the past, and it didn’t seem to help.

Turn to Ezekiel 17.  We’re going to hear a story that I think speaks to the reality of the frustration of our world.  Read Ezekiel 17, verses 1-2.

In our study of Ezekiel, we’ve watched as God has told Ezekiel to perform skits.  God has given Ezekiel astounding visions.  God has asked Ezekiel to declare straightforward prophetic sermons.  Here in Ezekiel 17, verses 1-2 God tells Ezekiel that his next prophecy will be a parable, an allegory. 

When you think of parables, you probably think of Jesus.  Jesus is famous for his parables.  They are creative stories, genius in their simplicity and power.  But sometimes Jesus told parables, confused the heck out of people, and then did not let his listeners in on what the parable meant.  Other times he told the parable and the meaning.  In Ezekiel 17, thankfully, God will tell the parable and the meaning.  I would like read the parable, and you see if you can figure out what it means.  Before you read it, let me give you a couple important hints that I hope will help you understand Ezekiel’s parable. 

First hint: Think about the content of nearly all of Ezekiel’s prophecies.  More than likely this one will be similar.  What was the content of his previous prophecies so far?  I’m not going to tell you.  Sorry.  I want you to think about it and remember as you read to the parable.

Second hint: Parables are stories where one thing or group of things symbolizes another thing or group of things.  So, when you hear a parable, you should think, what might that object refer to?  When you are trying to understand most parables, it can be very helpful to make a cast of characters.  For example, Jesus tells a parable about a man who holds a banquet and invites various guests to the banquet.  But he’s not really talking about a man, a banquet, and guests.  Instead, the man, the banquet and the guests stand for something else.  The man stands for God, the banquet stands for the Kingdom of God, and the guest are the people God wants to enter his Kingdom.  See if you can do the same thing for this parable.

The parable is recorded in verses 3-10. Please only read those verses. Don’t peek ahead!  If your Bible has study notes, please don’t look at your study notes!  Like I said, God will eventually explain the parable.  Just keep your eyes on verses 3-10 and see if you can figure it out.  Ok! Read Ezekiel 17, verses 3-10, and then in the next post we’ll try to interpret it.

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Have you ever lost hope?

Have you ever lost hope?

I paused after typing that question, thinking to myself, “Have I ever lost hope?”  There have certainly been difficult periods in life, and I know I have become very frustrated, very anxious, and very sad.  But I don’t know that I have lost hope, at least in the sense of losing all hope.  I’m talking about losing hope in a final sense, to the point where a person thinks seriously about committing suicide.  I know I haven’t been at that point.  Maybe you have.  Maybe you know the feeling of darkness creeping in, when it seems there is no way out.  Even then, hope is not lost.

Though we might not have encountered that final sense of lost hope, my guess is that we have experienced at least a partial loss of hope.  Last night we were watching Conestoga Valley High School’s varsity boys’ soccer team play Penn Manor.  In the first half, CV dominated, keeping the ball on Penn Manor’s side of the field nearly the whole half, pounding shots at the goal, but they were unable to put one in the back of the net.  There was no doubt that CV is the better team, but the score was 0-0.  Early in the second half, though, with the ball yet again on Penn Manor’s side, the Comets’ defense cleared the ball, and they caught the CV defense a bit flat-footed.  In the ensuing breakaway, Penn Manor scored a goal.  At this point in the game, CV probably had 95% possession, and loads of shots on goal, but scored none of them.  Penn Manor had one shot on goal, and they scored it.  But hope was not lost, as there was lots of time on the clock.  We could tell that after trying so hard, getting so close, now being down 0-1 was an emotional setback for the CV team.  But CV did not give up the fight, knowing that when you keep possession, taking shots, invariably one will go in.  Then Penn Manor scored another breakaway goal.  Now down 0-2, and with time dwindling, CV had a mountain to climb.  They kept fighting, kept shooting, and nothing was going on.  Still, hope is not lost.  Yes, scoring goals in soccer is difficult, but with CV’s skill, speed and fight, they could do it, even with the game clock under five minutes.  With the ball near the midfield stripe, a Penn Manor defensive back took a rocket shot, sailing it over the unsuspecting CV keeper’s outstretched arms, and into the goal.  Even though it was a high school game, I wouldn’t be surprised if that shot made ESPN’s SportsCenter highlights this morning.  The Penn Manor team and fans went wild.  It was one of the most impressive goals I have ever witnessed live.  It was particularly grueling because, without question, CV is the better team.  Maybe you know the feeling.  It could be when you wanted a relationship to work, and you tried to work it out, but the pain was too deep, and the relationship broke apart.  It could be when you studied and studied, in hopes of getting a high enough grade on the final test, so you could pass the course, and when the grade came back, you didn’t pass.  Even then all hope, final hope is not lost.

There are times when life seems hopeless.  It could be that you feel hopeless about our national political situation.  Or maybe about paying off debt.  Or about beating an addiction.  Even then hope is not lost.

This coming week we study Ezekiel chapter 17, and we’re going to hear an interesting story about two eagles, a tree and a vine, that will teach us an important reminder about hope.  Read it ahead of time and see what you think, then in the next post we’ll start talking about it.

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Practical ways to stay connected to God – Ezekiel 15 & 16, Part 5

What do we do to stay connected to God?

First of all, we must spend time with him, getting to know him, hearing from him.  Too often Christians have said that to build a relationship with God, “Go to church on Sunday,” as if what happens in that building is what God really wants.  Not so.  We don’t need a building to worship God or to be a church family.  I think that is especially obvious when we hold worship in the park twice each year. Sure, a building makes gathering for worship convenient, and they can be used for many good things in line with the mission of God’s Kingdom, so we do well to care for church buildings.  But let us not mistake entering a building with staying connected to God.  We need to have a connected, vibrant relationship with God that goes beyond the four walls of the church building.  That means opening up time in our lives to be with him throughout the other hours and days of our week, and that will likely mean sacrificing other activities to make time for God.   

It could be while you’re driving.  It could be while you’re washing dishes.  It could be a specific quiet time.  Maybe you get a lunch break, and you can find a quiet spot. Staying connected with God can occur in any time where it is just you and him.  In those dedicated times alone with God, include study of God’s word, reading devotional books, memorizing God’s word, praying, listening in the quietness, and just being in his presence.  In those moments we are saying God, “I remain in you, I stay with you, I need you.  Be like the vine and the branches, empower me by your Spirit, help me to orient my whole life around you.  I want to bear much fruit for you.”

Then consider developing what Brother Lawrence called an unceasing conversation with God, whereever you are, all throughout the day, even when you are busy. I know it can be hard to focus on two things. For example, am I have a conversation with God as I type this post? It can be hard. But Brother Lawrence was right when he said that if we practice a continual conversation with God, we can learn to keep it going. He called it the Practice of the Presence of God. You can read or listen to his small, fascinating book for free here.

So in conclusion, I have to ask, are we giving the idea of being disciples of Jesus lip-service?  Are we saying, “I believe,” but then not actually living our lives in such a way that shows we really want to bear much fruit?  Are we living our lives pretty much disconnected from God? 

As we saw in our previous posts in this five part series on Ezekiel 15 & 16, let us not wander from God, but stay with him.  Sit with him.  Remain in his presence.  Get to know him.  Serve him.  Sacrifice for him, the one who atoned for our sins.  No matter if you are at work, at home, driving, or wherever you are, remain in him.  To remain in him means we are acknowledging his presence, our need for him, the Holy Spirit within us.  To remain in him means we remember who we are in him.  We remember that we are children of a living, active, loving God and that knowledge will move us to love others as he loves us.  The more we are connected with him, the more of God will be seen in our actions, our attitudes, our choices, our thought patterns. 

Finally, invite others into the process.  He made us for relationship and for community.   Our faith is not solitary or individualistic.  We need to be together as we remain in God. Encouraging one another in our connection to our main source of life as it was intended to be, challenging one another to deeper connection and communion with God. 

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Do you feel disconnected from God? – Ezekiel 15 & 16, Part 4

How close do you feel to God? Do you feel distant? Maybe you participate in your church’s worship, and you feel closer, but the rest of the week is so darn busy you can go for days without giving God a thought. The result feels like a growing distance between you and God. As we conclude our discussion of Ezekiel 15 & 16 in this post and the next, we have already seen how desperately God wants to be connected with us.

In the previous post we talked about the importance of atonement, and how atonement makes it possible for us to have a connection with God. As we think about how God’s atonement leads to the transformation of our lives, I remembered something Jesus once taught.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus was thinking about Ezekiel 15 when Jesus taught about the vine and the branches in John 15.  Read verses John 15:1-8.

See the parallel between Ezekiel 15, which we studied here and here this week, and John 15?  Wood from the vine that is no longer bearing fruit gets pruned.  In verse 6 we see the closest parallel to the point that God is making in Ezekiel 15.  Jesus says in John 15:6 that those branches which no longer bear fruit are not only cut off, but they wither and die and are good for nothing except to be burned.  This is the very point God made in Ezekiel 15.  In Ezekiel’s day, the people of Jerusalem were not bearing fruit; they were like grape wood that is not making grapes, and therefore they are only good for kindling. 

The principle in both passages is that God desires to be connected to his people so that his life-giving power will flow from himself to his people, and they will flourish and bear fruit.  This is the same principle in Ezekiel 16, which we studied here and here.  The queen becomes, out of her free will, disconnected from her king, and her life is the opposite of flourishing.

God wants to be connected to his people so that his people can experience his power, flourish and bear fruit.  What, then, will it look like for us to be people who are connected to God? 

The first way we often answer that question is worship services. Our hearts desire is that our church family gathers to worship and connect with God together.  That is important and inspiring.  But we need to think about connection with God beyond the 1-2 hours we participate in gathered worship. We also seek to be people who connect with God throughout the rest of the week. 

Jesus in John 15:4 describes connecting with God as remaining or abiding.  Another word we could use is “Stay.”  Stay with God.  Stay connected to God.  How do we stay connected to God throughout the hours and days of our busy lives?

Maybe Jesus means that we need to believe in him. No doubt, especially in the Gospel of John, we read Jesus calling us to believe in him.  That is important.  But belief does not guarantee connection with God.  James the brother of Jesus writes in chapter 2 of his letter than even the demons believe, and of course they are not connected to or staying with God.  So belief must move to action.  We do something about our belief.  In John 15, I highly doubt that Jesus is talking about belief when he says, “Remain in me.” What do we do to stay connected to God, to remain in him?

We’ll talk about some practical ideas in the next post.

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