16 min read
I remember when one of my sisters told me about a date she went on with a guy she met. He was cute, played sports, worked for the college, had a good job. He picked her up, took her to a nice dinner. She was really excited about this guy. But about halfway through dinner, he pulled out his phone and he started texting. Sitting there at the table. Answering emails. Talking to who knows who. He would ask her a question, and while she was answering it he’d be talking to someone else. And at the end of the date, he said, “that was so great, I had such a good time. Want to hang out again tomorrow?”
And my sister was so confused. “You want to be with me, but you spent the whole night trying to be with somebody else. I don’t know if you were doing work emails, if you were making plans with a friend, maybe you were texting some other girl. I don’t know! But you weren’t with me! What makes you think I’d want to do that again?”
You see, he was on a date with my sister, but his heart was somewhere else. I want to suggest that that is exactly what’s happening in our reading this morning.
We’re going to look at Ezekiel 14. Let me set the stage for you. The book of Ezekiel is the record of a prophet of God named Ezekiel, as a matter a fact. He’s the prophet, writing all this down. Now in the time of Ezekiel, God’s people had forgotten him, they had rejected his will and his word, and they worshiped other gods. And so, after warning after warning, God allowed Babylon to attack Israel. And over time, Babylon conquered the people of God. Babylon destroyed the city of God, Jerusalem. And Babylon takes many of the Israelites captive, taking them back with them to Babylon. Ezekiel is one of these exiles. Ezekiel lives in Babylon, in a Hebrew refugee camp, or settlement there. And God is speaking to Ezekiel, and through Ezekiel as his prophet.
Then certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me.
That brings us to this morning’s reading. One day, Ezekiel is hanging around his house, when, verse 1 reads, then “came certain of the elders of Israel unto me, and sat before me” (KJV). The elders have come to the prophet. Now this isn’t just a Sunday afternoon visit– hey Ezekiel, hows the family, how’re the kids? No, If the elders of Israel come to a prophet together, like this, this is for business. They have come because they want the prophet to do what a prophet does. They want him to speak God’s word to them. They want to hear what God would say to them in their exile.
It’s kind of like us coming to church. We know there’s going to be some worship, and we’re going to be encouraged when we sing together. We know there’s going to be a sermon, and we are ready for that word from the Lord. We want to hear him speak to us. And so we come to the pastor to see what the Lord would say through him. This is what the elders of Israel, the leaders, the chiefs,the vestry, are doing. The most important people in the community, are coming to God.
Now, it’s hard for us to understand how important this moment was. But think about it! Why were they in exile? For rejecting God, for worshiping idols. But now the people who rejected God, who worshiped the idols of the nations, who ignored the word of God, are now coming to hear God’s word. This is a big moment, this is a big deal! This sounds like a good thing. I mean, isn’t this what God wanted? Isn’t this just what we’ve been waiting for, God’s people to come home? You would think God would be excited, happy, welcoming at least. But that’s not what happens at all.
And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them?
The elders come to God for a word, but God isn’t glad to see them. He is not happy. He’s offended. Why? Because they’ve come to get a word from God, but they haven’t given up their idols. They haven’t given up their sin. He says the gods they have been going after are still in the back of their mind, are still in their hearts, and their iniquity, their sin, is still before their face. Like looking at a bright bulb and then seeing spots when you look away, their sin was so recent that it’s still seared on their vision. So God says to the elders: Your idols are still in your heart. The sin is still in your eyes! And now you’re going to come to me for a word? Should I even listen to you? God is not impressed.
Now, it’s tempting, for me at least, to wonder if God is over-reacting. I mean, yes, his people have sinned. They broke his rules. Yes, they worshiped other gods; but they’re here now! Isn’t that something? Isn’t that good? Well, not exactly.
You know the story here. It is a sad one, and it’s repeated often: The man comes home from the business trip, and the wife finds something in the luggage that shouldn’t be there. He comes home from a meeting with perfume on his shirt. Some of you have lived through that. We’ve all seen someone we love go through that. Now, imagine if someone said: but at least the man came home, right? That’s a good thing, right? Isn’t his coming home worth something, even with whatever he might be doing on the side?
If there is something else going on in his heart, his coming home is absolutely worthless. It’s worse than worthless–it’s insulting. It’s offensive. To come home with that in your eyes and that in your heart–get out!
And this, I think, is why God is so firm, so harsh. Because God’s people haven’t just broken his rules, they’ve broken his love. They’ve rejected his promise, his covenant, his life. He’s not offended because they broke an unimportant rule. God is offended because his people have rejected him. It’s not abstract sinfulness; there is no such thing. Sinfulness is unfaithfulness to God. It’s spiritual adultery. Idolatry is spiritual adultery. It’s breaking relationship with the true God for a relationship with another one. It’s a spiritual affair.
This is what God is talking about when he says that the elders of his people still have idols in their hearts. He says, you’re coming to me, yeah, but you’ve got someone else on the side. I’m not the only God you’re worshiping, not the only God you’re trying to get a word from. And if you, my chosen people, want to come to me while you are still messing around with the Babylonian gods, you have something else coming.
Our Nightmares And Our Daydreams
Now here’s the question: do we do that? We have come today into the presence of God, to get a word from the Lord. The warning here is that we better not have sin before our eyes. We better have pure hearts. We better not have idols in our hearts when we come in here.
But here’s the problem. We do have idols in our hearts. We do. It might not look like an idol in our minds–you probably don’t have a statue you’re praying to back home. But we have things that we worship, don’t we? We have things that we think will fix us, save us, satisfy us.
Think about it. What is the thing that gives you value? What’s the thing that makes you feel important, that you think is going to get you the life that you want? Maybe it’s status. Maybe it’s fashion. Maybe it’s your career. Money. Your family. Maybe even your own righteousness. The things that you put time and money and energy into, your nightmares and your daydreams, the things that you put all your identity in instead of in God. These are your idols. And you brought them in this morning. You might have daydreamed about them already.
And we have sin still in our vision. Sin so fresh from our last week, from last night, that the image is still glowing in our eyes. The things you did that you knew you shouldn’t have done. The times you spoke unfairly. The way you put down that person you can’t stand, in your heart or maybe to somebody else. Maybe your secret sins, or maybe your obvious ones. It doesn’t stay at home in the closet. It’s on your breathe, it’s in your heart, it’s in your eyes. It’s in mine too.
This morning, we come into the house of God asking him for a word. And he says, don’t you see what you brought in here with you? All your idols, all the sins of your week. Don’t you see what you’re doing? You’re coming to me for a word while your heart is somewhere else. You’re looking for other things to protect you, other things to make you happy, and you’re cutting me out.
We are just like the elders of Israel. And so God tells Ezekiel, my people may be coming to me, but their hearts are somewhere else. They might say they want a word, but they’re cheating on me.
The Cost Of Rebellion
God tells Ezekiel what to say to the elders.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations. For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the Lord will answer him myself. And I will set my face against that man; I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people, and you shall know that I am the Lord.
Notice, now it’s not just elders anymore. Anyone who comes with sin in their eyes and idols in their hearts, he says, will be cut off. Because you have offended against his love! You’ve gone behind his back. And now you would just come home? Like it’s all ok?
And if the prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. And they shall bear their punishment—the punishment of the prophet and the punishment of the inquirer shall be alike— that the house of Israel may no more go astray from me, nor defile themselves anymore with all their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God, declares the Lord God.”
More than that, if a prophet tries to tell them it’ll be ok, or if a preacher says it’s all going to be just fine while his elders are compromised like this, they’re going to get it too. God will set his face against the prophet too, and will cut him off as well. He’s going to suffer, just like the elders are going to suffer. Their sin will be his sin, their punishment will be his punishment too.
See, this is the cost of rebellion. This is the just justice of God. The rejection of the God of life is the rejection of life. The rejection of the God of love is the rejection of love.
When we cut off our relationship with God, it is right, just, and fitting that we would then be cut off.
When that guy, on his date with my sister, keeps pulling out his phone–she is right to not go out with him again. She is right to end that relationship. Really, she didn’t even have to. He already did. His heart is somewhere else.
And you know this in your own life! When someone betrays you, you know they deserve to be punished, to be cut off. They do!
With God it is no different, and so God punishes these elders. He says I’m going to turn away from them. I’m going to cut them off. Because they come to me with sin in their eyes and idols in their hearts. And anyone who tells them it’s not a problem–I’m going to cut them off too.
Do you see the trouble this passage leaves us in? We have sin in our eyes and idols in our hearts, and we have come to worship. It does not honor God to come to him with a heart that is somewhere else! We think that we are being good Christians on a Sunday morning, but if we think about what we’re bringing in with us, that is flatly offensive. And here’s the problem: our hearts are always somewhere else!
Our God Loves Sinners
We cannot get pure motives in coming to the Lord. We cannot clear all the lingering sin out of our lives, hard as we try, and we cannot clear our idols out of our hearts. We deserve to be turned away from, and cut off from God’s people. So then, what hope do we have? If coming to God when our hearts are in a different place is worse than not coming at all, what hope do we have of ever being in his presence? And that’s where our passage cuts off.
But what does God do?
Does he leave his people there in Babylon?
Does he leave us here, unable to do what we must do?
Praise God, praise God! Because this is not the end of the story. Because, if you know this God, then you know that this God loves sinners. He really does. And when they betray him, and when they cheat on him, when they come to him with compromised eyes, and compromised hearts, he does not cut them off forever. This God is going to make a way for his people Israel. This God is going to make a way for the elders. And he’s going to make a way for you, and for me.
Remember the last thing God says to the people: if a prophet comes and speaks falsely to these people, he’ll be punished just like them. Their sin will become his sin, their punishment will become his punishment.
A prophet did come, you know. And more than a prophet. He was the Son. He came not just speaking the word of God; he was the word of God. And he did not just speak peace to a rebellious people; he declared it as the Son of God himself. And you know what happened? He took the sin of the people on his shoulders. Their sin became his sin, their punishment became his punishment. And all creation turned away from the sight. The very Son of God was cut off from life. Why? So that all God’s people, with sin in our eyes and idols in our hearts, might be made clean. Might be set free. Might be welcomed into the presence of the God we have so greatly offended.
Our sin, our unfaithfulness, is real. It’s grievous. It is worthy of condemnation, but Jesus stepped into the bullet, he took what we deserved that we might have what we don’t. He is the reason we can come into this house and worship and live, even when our hearts are so mixed up. This is what he’s done. So what do we do with this?
First, some of you wondered whether or not you should have come this morning, because you knew. You knew you had sin lingering in your eyes you knew you had sin in your heart. And so you didn’t want to come, because you knew that that could not honor God. You’re right! And yet Jesus says, with his arms outstretched, but come in anyway! Come anyway! I was cut off so that you could come in!
Second, some of you didn’t invite your friends, or you didn’t want someone to come, because their motives were not pure. You’re right; they don’t deserve to be here. But you want to know something? Neither do you. The only reason you are here is the same reason they are welcome here: because Jesus says, with arms outstretched, come anyway! Come anyway! I took your punishment, I was cut off in your place. And now I’m offering you a place at the table. Come anyway. Come anyway! Bring. Them. In.
Third, there’s still a problem with our hearts. Jesus wants us to come in anyway, but he doesn’t want us to stay with compromised hearts. He wants us to grow in righteousness. So how do we do that?
I’ll tell you how. It starts with confession, just like every Sunday we start with confession. When we discover that we are compromised, confess it! Bring it to him. And then look at Jesus. Look what he did for you, look what you deserve versus what you got. When you begin to see how beautiful the love of God in Jesus is for you, when you see how little you deserved his work and how extravagantly he has given himself for you, the less room those idols will find in your heart, and the less shiny those sins will be to your eye. It is the prophet Ezekiel who declares, by the power of the Spirit, God will take your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. So keep coming to him. Keep offering him your sin, because he already knows and he’s already taken it, and he will make you new, again and again. Even this morning, as we come into his house. That’s his promise.
And that’s good news.