In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the River Kebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
On the fifth of the month – it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin – the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the River Kebar in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the Lord was on him.
A little word of warning. There will be some who read the study today who will not like it. But the intention is to remain in truth and to challenge us all to move onward in our relationship with the Lord.
I am one who believes that there is no such thing as the ‘status quo’ for a Christian. If you have not been moving forward, then you have been slipping backwards – there is no middle ground, simply because of the nature of life on earth.
Perhaps to help understand this, we can be compared to salmon swimming upstream in the spawning season. The aim is to get to the spawning grounds, but we swim against the current. The world we live in is not only something that we happen to pass by each day, but is something that places pressure on us and affects our lives. If the salmon were to stop swimming, they would have further to go to reach the spawning grounds than before, because they would be swept downstream by the strong current that they are in. Even to stay still they need to put effort into swimming.
That is what it is like for us who profess a living faith in Christ. We drive down the road, read a magazine, watch TV, listen to the radio, or even spend time on Facebook – all of these places are filled with advertising. Advertising can provoke envy and greed – the feeling that you are missing out on something – and this is quite the opposite of being grateful before God for what he has given you and to ask him for your blessings and what you need.
Many will use credit cards to deal with the false hunger (envy, desire, lust, whatever other base part of you was inspired by advertising) and so even increase debt to deal with the ‘itch’ created by the advertising profession. And while we in the west have a big degree of ease and comfort and place ourselves in debt for things that we do not need, and actually are a distraction from what we should really be doing with our lives, others even living in the same country have nowhere but the street to live, nowhere but the waste bins and rubbish dumps to look for food and clothing, and are persecuted simply for being poor.
This is Sodomy at its worst! I do not apologise for using that term, and it is very appropriate during a study of Ezekiel – because it is this prophet that gives the true definition of what the sin of Sodom was. And Ezekiel was using this to point out such sins in his own day. It seems that not a lot has changed in the two and a half thousand years since then…
The world brings many pressures into our lives. It is dangerous for us as Christians to think otherwise. The appeal to the darker side of humanity that is fed on by advertising is only one of the things. There is the pressure to have more, to earn more, to get promotion, to reach the top. In the process people use lies, they put down others, make fun of those on lower earnings, consider themselves better than others… And I am just reminded of the words of Jesus, “who shall be first will be last…”
We have it upside-down, and this pollutes the church and every individual in it. To think that you are immune is something that the devil wants you to think. To think that you ‘have it under control’ is similarly what the devil wants you to think. And so you can be swept downstream, further away from the blessings god has prepared for you in His love.
Thank goodness that He is an intervening god and does so much to come after us and to rescue us from our foolishness!
And what has all of this got to do with today’s reading? Simply that the same things were true for the Children of Israel all the way back in the time of the exile. They did not have to face quite the same temptations of advertising as today through so many hi-tech devices, although Babylon was a surprisingly hi-tech civilisation, with electric street lighting and plumbing for hot and cold water in the homes of the middle and upper class citizens of the city.
But this was not a people who knew God, and who would have thought little of the god of the Israelites because they were so easily defeated. They would see themselves as superior, and that they were being blessed and supported by their own gods.
I can imagine there were many among the exiles who were weaker in their faith, and so becoming tempted by other gods, especially at a time in history when each nation had its own god or gods, and when wars were partly seen as a conflict between those gods. Success is attractive and people want to gather themselves to the perceived source of that success.
This is even how the power of Rome grew later, and why they built the Pantheon – originally with a statue of Mars, the god of Rome, in the centre, and the statues and symbols of the gods of the defeated nations in the alcoves around the edge of the room. All of these in a lower position than Mars to show they were subservient to him. (Of course this place is now one of the Christian basilicas of Rome, and a beautiful place to visit. Yet you can still see how it was designed for this original purpose.)
The problem today is that there is a spiritual pantheon in existence. All the gods of the world are surrounding the one god that is superior and in the centre. And, sadly, it is not our god – not the god of the Jews or the Christians. This god is clearly money, or the love of wealth and possessions. Mammon maybe. And I have met only a precious few Christians who have replaced Mammon, or the love of money and wealth, with our heavenly Father.
What was the pressure on these ancient Hebrews? I see two main areas. First, the failure and defeat of Israel and being taken into captivity. Yes, there would be the stories about home to tell the children so that none would forget. But they were now enslaved to the successful people – the Babylonians. In the culture of the period this meant that many could think in the way that was expected at the time – that Jehovah had been defeated by the gods of the Babylonians. So why not align yourself with success? Why not aid this successful and god-blessed people?
There were certainly those who changed sides, and found ways to become more than slaves and servants of the people of this powerful nation. Those who found status in the new land, better income, better housing, a more comfortable lifestyle, even to employ servants of their own. Isn’t this the same as people desire today? So if we can see that this was clearly a sinful path for an ancient Hebrew, how is it that so many Christians are blind to the same temptations today?
The second main area is that they had their understanding of God completely upside-down and back-to-front. It became one of the main purposes of the ministry of Ezekiel to bring the understanding the right way up and the right way round – to see God as He is.
As I pointed out in the previous study, even Ezekiel considered himself despised by god and from a people who were despised by god. He felt rejected and far from the throne of grace. God needed to break through this thinking and to open heaven to him, make him see that God is never far away. To help him understand that it is sin that is hated, not the sinner. (Oh how many Christians need to pay rather more than just lip service to that one!!!)
The fact that there has been a judgement on the nation does not mean that the love of God for his people has ended. When a father has chastised his child, it does not mean that he has stopped loving his child, or caring for the child. He will still provide food, water, clothing, a place to sleep in safety, his arms of love to hold and comfort, and his hand to guide. Ezekiel needed this to be revealed to him first, so that he could bring the good news – the gospel if you like – to his people.
These two areas of thought are huge in themselves. Either one deserves a bible study or a whole series of sermons… And yet there is even more in this introduction that I want you to notice. It is only there by implication, and is not definite – so there can be some reading this who can rightly say that the scripture does not exactly say it. Yet I think the implication is significant enough to say something about it.
We read that Ezekiel was already a priest. This does more than to tell us that he was of the tribe of Levi, from which the priests were chosen. It tells us that Ezekiel already was employed in a ministry to his people. But it is only on this day, by the River Kebar in Babylon, that the hand of god came on him in power.
I think the implication is clear – he was in a ministry, but not yet anointed by God. That only began on this significant day. And the same is the situation in too many churches today. The person in the pulpit, or leading the worship, or in some other ministry – that person may have had the ambition to be so employed. Or he/she may have been chosen by the congregation. And yet God did not anoint the person for ministry.
This is quite the opposite situation from what I was speaking about in a previous study. Because there are many who are chosen by God, and anointed by him, who are yet sidelined by the church and the leadership. A sin or a misunderstanding, or sometimes even just a circumstance of life, resulted in leadership closing down the ministry and, for some reason, never allowing it to be restored. And that this is an intolerable situation, because one thing is for sure about our God: he is all about restoration!
But the situation I speak of here in this study is of those in leadership and ministry who were not anointed by God to be there (and are often the ones to close down the ministry of the truly anointed ones!). This is a situation that is far too common. People can falsely believe that there is anointing merely because of a Christian college diploma, because of education and knowledge and natural talent to speak. And such people can become pastors, or even bishops and higher authorities.
We need, as god’s people, to be sensitive to these things but without being judgemental. What is needed, in every church and congregation and fellowship, is for people to meet together without the leadership team and to pray for that team and the leaders they have. To ask for god to place his anointing on the leaders, or to replace them with those who have genuinely been called and anointed by God.
This is not rebellion. This is love in action. And it has nothing to do with judgement. You must not go judging the leadership team, but always respect. We are only given a limited permission to judge the false prophets when judging people, according to the teaching of Jesus.
Who knows, maybe – like Ezekiel – the pastor pursuing a career without the anointing can have the heavens opened for them, and visions of god, and to receive the anointing that will truly bless the church and move it forward in a powerful way.
Praise God – He can do it and He wants to do it!