Strange Traditions

In the previous study we began to look at the vision of Ezekiel that began during a visit of the elders to his home. We saw that the vision took him to Jerusalem and to the temple complex, there to discover the elders of Israel defiling the place and praying to idols. Our reading continues from this point.

Again, he said, ‘You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.’
Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw a woman sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. He said to me, ‘Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.’
He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs towards the temple of the Lord and their faces towards the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east.
He said to me, ‘Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.’
Ezekiel 8:13-18

Let me first deal with a phrase here that has no modern counterpart and causes confusion. “Putting the branch to their nose” is translated differently in another translation as “thumbing their noses at me.” Whereas the spirit of this translation may not be far from the truth, the reality is that the true meaning of this phrase has been lost in the mists of time, and various commentators have varying interpretations of the true meaning.

The more I read, the more I feel that we can’t be definitive about this. There is the feeling, however, that because Israel was defiled with the worship of foreign deities, that this was just another foreign act – and all of these acts, in the very temple complex dedicated to the Lord – were an insult and affront to the Most High God.

Some refer to Persian practices, continued into Zoroastrianism, where worshippers greet the morning sun holding a branch of tamarind or olive – which was taken to be a sign of humility. So at least there is some kind of historical context of interpreting this as a foreign practice of sun worship. This is bad enough in its idolatry, but it is being done right by the temple of the Most High, with the men turning their backs, both literally and figuratively, on the true god.

You may or may not have heard of the god Tammuz before. His is a name belonging in the Akkadian and Sumerian traditions, and is even related to their version of the flood story. The story of this god is quite strange, and you can find the main details on sites such as Wikipedia. But this was a shepherd god, and also a god associated with fertility rites. He was said to die each year, and that the love and the tears of mourning would bring him back from the dead. The tears were that of the goddess Ishtar, and it was a representation of the spring rains that brought fertility to the land. So the custom of mourning the god Tammuz, or weeping for Tammuz, is a pagan fertility rite and also associated with the cult of Ishtar.

The fact that this pagan fertility rite was taking place right at the entrance to the Lord’s house is what made this more than a sin, but a direct provocation against the Lord.

So, in summary of the vision so far, we have three main examples of provocation through idolatry and pagan worship taking place within the courts of the Temple of the Lord. As a result of this, God was allowing calamity and closing his ears to the cries of his people and closing his heart to pity.
I don’t know about you, but I would never like to be in the position where I thought that the Lord would not listen to my prayers and hopes, or where he would refuse pity to me.

At the same time, I need to repeat again that the refusal of pity and the closing of his ears and the bringing of his wrath – this came after hundreds of years of patience. Yet, among Christians, it seems that one has only to whisper an idea that another does not agree with, and you can be accused of devilry and be told that you are on your way to hell.

Excuse me? But where in scripture does it allow you to become the judge, the jury, and the executioner? Especially as Jesus commanded not to judge! There is only one judge, and his name is Jesus.

I know it is not a proper interpretation of scripture, but there was a thought that came to my mind that is appropriate to the vision of Ezekiel. Rather than do a fertility rite of spring, it would be better to do some spring-cleaning in your life.There is one area where judgement is allowed (other than the specific case of false prophets that Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount) and that is to look in the mirror and to judge that person right there.

Now don’t take this the wrong way or become obsessed about it. Too many Christians go through life with a deep sense of personal unworthiness. If their faith is true and they have accepted for themselves the works of Jesus on the cross, then this sense of unworthiness is actually a belief and faith in a lie. We have been clothed in Christ when we identify in his death and resurrection. And so we are clothed in his righteousness, and God does not see or look on our sins. More than that, we are now adopted into the family and are children of the Most High god. This is not unworthiness, but a life as princes of the Most High – children who inherit heaven.

The life you led before meeting Christ, for sure you were unworthy then! And yet, even then, you were loved. Christ died for you and for me while we were sinners. For sure, your life and my life is not perfect, but we are being made perfect every day in Christ Jesus. To consider yourself unworthy when you are adopted into the family, made a son of the Most High, and a brother to the firstborn, Jesus, and clothed in his robes of righteousness… to consider yourself unworthy when you have all this and all that it implies – this is almost an insult to the goodness of God and the inheritance you have received.

Worse than that, it is to place your eyes in the wrong direction. It is to focus them on the earthly, the fallen, the sinful. It is a focus on failure, and from this to be sensitive to the failures in others. This grows into bigger problems, because from this you look for the path out of failure, and the evil one will lie to you and tell you to bind yourself in chains of legalism. This leads to giving others the same sinful advice, and to judge others who do not bind themselves in these heavy chains. Life becomes hard, and people become quick to judge harshly.

Brothers and sisters, this is not the way! This is the way of the world, and it does not belong in the church or in the life of any Christian.

Do you not know that your very body is a temple of the holy spirit? Paul wrote about this more than once. It was important, because it cuts against one of the heresies that is often preached from the pulpit – even of those churches that claim evangelical fundamentalist principles. Paul taught this to let you know that you are never separated from god no matter what sins you get involved in. In fact he goes so far as to ask, what has the holy spirit to do with prostitutes? Because, if you are a Christian, you do not only unite your body with the prostitute, but that the body has the holy spirit within…

Maybe you did not think of this before, of how close the Lord is for every sin that you do? Maybe one reason that this thought did not occur is because of the false teaching about sin separating us from god. This is preached out of context and taught wrongly.

Listen, the people of the world are separated from god, and that is because of the fall and because of sin in the world. We were born into sin and inherited sin and were even taught sinful ways by the ignorance of either our parents or peers or both. This sin separated us from god and there was a price to be paid. So in this aspect, that teaching of separation is absolutely true!

But hey, there is good news! Christians call it the gospel, but that is only the old Greek word meaning good news. And the good news is this: that while we were dead in our sins, Jesus died for us. And we who identify with his death and resurrection are no longer separated from God, but can now draw close to Him. Hey, it’s even better than that! We have become part of the family! And nothing shall separate us from god! Nothing! So how dare anyone preach that we as Christians can be separated from God? That is simply not true and I will always declare it for the heresy that it is!

I mean, if Paul talks about uniting the holy spirit with a prostitute when a Christian takes a prostitute, it surely just proves this point – and it was a point that Paul was eager to make. Why? Because you need to realise that wherever you go and whatever you do, you do it with god. And this should increase your ability to live in righteousness. Whatever you are doing or involved in, nothing is hidden and god is right there with you. Not only in the room with you – but in you!

So maybe we need to recognise this fact, stop every now and then, and speak with the one who is already with you and in you. Ask him for strength, to be led in the right way – and, as I said yesterday, to present to him all the desires of your heart.

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