It’s good to see everybody in church today. I was concerned folks might not be back after last Sunday’s water sermon from Jeremiah—we’ve been focusing on water in the Bible all fall. Granted, last Sunday was about a lack of water, a drought brought on by God himself in response to Israel’s unfaithfulness. Bad enough that God held back the rain. Worse that God held back from helping his people. He refused to answer their prayers due to their hardheartedness. But today is Reformation Sunday, so let’s reboot. Turn the page. Pick a different prophet. Make a change. This is what God does. No, the Lord doesn’t himself change—the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. What God changes is his people. By the end of Jeremiah, and here in Ezekiel, the Lord gives them a new heart and a capacity for relationship—a new covenant not written in stone, but written inside their souls. Jesus speaks to this new covenant over the communion table—a covenant made possible by his own blood shed. In Christ, God “forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.” Grace marks a new beginning, it is a reformation.
The Protestant Reformers stressed grace alone as the means of new birth. Salvation is all God’s doing. You can never do anything to earn it. And yet you still must do something to show you’ve received it. Jesus said that you can only tell a tree by its fruit. The apostle Paul said you have to run the race to win it. So run with perseverance, the Bible says, and fix your eyes on Jesus who not only makes sure that you run well, but that you always win.
Jesus describes a day when those racers having loved their neighbors, served the poor, told the truth and worked for justice are confirmed as “good and faithful.” Dressed in white and anointed with the oil of victory, Jesus says to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your prize, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” Call it Judgment Day, the Second Coming or the Finish Line, Christians have always affirmed, as we did today, that Jesus will return to do justice, reward the righteous and set the world right forever. It’s a hope that shows up in the Old Testament too. It’s the ultimate outcome of Jeremiah’s new covenant, a vivid watercolor painted here in the prophet Ezekiel.
Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophesied concerning Israel’s captivity to the Babylonians—a savage nation devoted to slaughter and conquest. God would have saved Israel from Babylon had they stayed faithful. He’d chosen Israel of all nations to be his beloved, had moved into their neighborhood and blessed off their sandals with prime real estate, national defense and guaranteed retirement. Yet despite being graced by God’s presence—symbolized by this magnificent Temple in which resided God’s glory—the Israelites behaved as if they were entitled to it. Like the prodigal son they took advantage of their father’s goodness and did as they pleased—browbeating the poor, defrauding their neighbor and engaging in an immorality so vile that even the surrounding pagan nations were appalled.
Unlike the parable of the Prodigal Son, here in Ezekiel, it’s the father who took off. Just as God’s presence had been a sign of His favor, his departure became a sign of His judgment. In response to his people’s shameless behavior, God packed his bags and declared lights out for the Temple, Jerusalem and the nation. He left in a glory-filled fury, abandoning Israel to its destruction. God’s exit cleared the way for Babylon to wipe them out.
But now, here in Ezekiel’s fourth and final vision, the father returns. God comes back. His judgment had been for the sake of their salvation. The Lord flips the lights back on so that “the glory of the Lord filled the house.” It’s a house, a new Temple, for which Ezekiel provides eight long, detailed, even tedious, chapters of plans. While God’s return was wonderful and exciting, reading through these house plans can be brutal: “The building whose door faced north was a hundred cubits long and fifty cubits wide. Both in the section twenty cubits from the inner court and in the section opposite the pavement of the outer court, gallery faced gallery at the three levels. In front of the rooms was an inner passageway ten cubits wide and a hundred cubits long.” It makes you want to pick up Leviticus just for fun. If you’ve ever led a Bible study that felt like it was going nowhere but you felt guilty about ending it, pull out Ezekiel and you won’t have to worry about anybody ever coming back.
My Wednesday night sermon small group was concerned. Here in chapter 47, our passage for this morning, the emphasis shifts to the landscaping, and at first glance the tedium is still present: “Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, a man measured one thousand cubits, and the water was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and the water was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and the water was up to the waist.” This stream of water spilled out from inside God’s new house, as if someone had left the shower running. What started as a trickle got so deep so fast that soon you could swim in it. And suddenly you’re like, wait a minute, any trickle that becomes a river in less than a mile and a half is a miracle trickle. Verdant trees with leaves that never turned brown bore fruit every month along each bank. And all of this lushness blooms in a dead desert near the Dead Sea, barren badlands where trees don’t grow and fresh water don’t flow. God transforms both uninhabitable desert and languid sea into a abundant garden. The Lord raises even the land from the dead.
For a people ravaged by war and exile brought on by their own shameful mutiny; severed from God with no hope of reunion or redemption; such an unexpected and underserved paradise ushered forth hymns of joy sung with tears of relief. Ezekiel paints their salvation with vivid images of abundance: limitless water, boundless fresh produce, medicine for healing, fish and animal life to enjoy. It’s actually sounds a lot like America—enough that I wonder whether Ezekiel’s vision has the power to stir us as it must have stirred our exiled Israelite forebears. Abundance is status quo in our country. Why yearn for Ezekiel’s paradise when you can get fresh fruit even in the winter, medicines at the pharmacy, beautiful scenery on any day at the lake and water no further than the twist of a spigot?
Of course such abundance is not the global status quo—talk to those who’ve recently returned from the Dominican Republic, just off of America’s southern coast. Many political scientists assert that coming world wars won’t be fought over who controls the oil, but over who controls the water. In India, about 170 million people drink water every day that has been carried home by foot, one out of six people in a country of 1 billion. That’s the number of people in the United States who live east of the Mississippi. It’s as if everyone from Maine to Key West, from New York to Chicago, from Memphis to Atlanta, relied on water that someone had walked to collect every day. In India, their space program made possible the discovery of water on the moon. But even the Indian scientists and engineers who oversaw the project don’t have running water at home. In the twenty-first century, it is estimated that as many as 100 million people worldwide are making the water walk every day, with hundreds of millions depending on water that has been carried, almost always on the head of a woman or girl.
My Wednesday night group was quick to remind me that living here in the land of abundance doesn’t mean you have access to it—especially in these difficult days as joblessness and poverty have intensified. He same was true for Israel. There was plenty of abundance available, but they had no access to it. And it was their own fault. Despite eight chapters of magnificent, if meticulous, plans, Ezekiel’s Temple never got built. Instead, what did get built once the Israelites returned from their Babylonian captivity was a comparably low-rent replacement. Moreover, according to the prophet Haggai (and later Jesus too), this lesser rendition didn’t house God’s glory the same way that the first one did. This was because the people soon started trashing the new Temple as badly as they’d trashed the first. The Lord said in Ezekiel that surely my people “will never again defile my holy name with their detestable practices and their loathsome abominations.” But they did. Divine judgment and near-total annihilation failed to induce any lasting reform. No sooner were they restored to their land than their willful and hypocritical disobedience resumed. Haggai and other prophets pick up denouncing the people where Jeremiah and Ezekiel left off.
Perhaps this is another reason why Ezekiel’s Temple was never built. God knew better than to try and live among people again. He knew that taking up residence in their midst would only lead to their total annihilation. Holiness cannot tolerate infidelity and injustice. So God kept his distance. Just “describe the temple to the people of Israel,” the Lord commanded Ezekiel. He never says build it. “Let them consider its appearance,” God said. He never commands them to purchase stone and lumber. “Just show them the plans,” he said, “that they may be ashamed of their sins.”
How would a set of plans cause shame? Hope maybe. I had some good friends flooded out by a raging tropical storm in the South. The water rose waist high throughout their subdivision as they slept. Had not their 2-year-old awoke, seen the water rising around his bed and screamed, he probably would have drowned. As it was, they all awoke and scrambled for higher ground, salvaging a few personal belongings but basically losing everything else. Homeless, the four of them were shoe-horned into a small apartment when I stopped by to visit. They recounted the dismal days they’d spent pouring over lost mementos and treasures, lamenting labor now wasted remodeling their house on their limited budget, as well as time spent haggling with insurers and government relief agencies. But just as I was about to conclude that their plight was an inconsolable saga of sadness with no end in sight, they pulled out this long tube of paper and grinned. Giddy, they unrolled the source of their happiness. House plans. Blueprints. “This is going to be our new home,” they said.
Ezekiel’s house plans were Israel’s hope too. But how would God’s plans for a new Temple ever induce shame? As a kid I lived in a house my brickmason dad built himself. I remember the house plans and my brother and me getting to pick out our own room. We got to have real wood paneling and blue shag carpet, a red bean bag chair with peace signs and beads and a lava lamp (it was far out). Six weeks later, my parents were out to dinner and I was asleep in my room. I awoke to smoke encircling around my face. Our house was on fire. I was rescued by a heroic babysitter who yanked me out of my drowsy stupor and, along with my little brother, high-tailed it across the street to our neighbors’ just as the flames burst through the roof. All of my parents’ hard work and dreams literally went up in smoke.
But what made it worse was that it turned out to be my fault. I had mischievously knocked over this basket of blankets my hard-working mom had folded downstairs. Goofing around, I jumped on them like a trampoline mashing them down into the hot coils of this electric heater. That night, while my parents were out, the blankets caught fire. What the fire didn’t get, the water from the fire truck hoses did. And unfortunately, insurance didn’t cover everything. Some of the damage would remain. My dad and the architect had to draw up a whole new set of plans, salvaging whatever they could for the reconstruction. Seeing that set of plans made me feel horrible. Ashamed. I knew that the replacement house would never be as good as the original. The stains that splotched my Dad’s beautiful stonework fireplace were permanent reminders of the way things weren’t going to be now because of me.
Maybe that’s the kind of shame the Israelites felt when they saw Ezekiel’s plans. That glorious Temple would never be built in their lifetime. The low-rent replacement they’d enter each Sabbath for worship would remind them of the way things weren’t going to be now because of them. In the parable of the prodigal son, it’s desperate shame that turns the ungrateful young boy’s life around. He’s no longer fit to be called his father’s son anymore—he returns to his father and asks to be treated like a slave. But his father would have none of it. Overjoyed that his son is alive, the father puts a white robe on his shoulders and lays out a spread fit for a prize-winning athlete. The hard love that beckoned the prodigal son to feel shame was the same love that brought him back, and presumably the same love that brought about some change in his life. We can do nothing to earn God’s grace, but we still must do something to show we’ve received it. Grace will change you. I don’t play with blankets anymore. And I’m still really careful when it comes to electric heaters. But that’s not why my parents let me live in their rebuilt house. They let me stay because they love me and they were overjoyed that I was alive.
The house my Dad rebuilt was never as good as the original—but it also wasn’t the last house. Many years later, they built another one out in the country among the Carolina pines. It overlooked a river where the fishing is good, as well as the verdant green of a beautiful golf course where the trees never turn brown. The sun sparkles every morning and it’s quiet and peaceful and better than that first dream house ever was. And I got to live there too. Ezekiel’s house plans are a preview of heaven, a final house being built not with lumber and stones, but with you and me as living stones, made righteous by Christ. Turn to last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation and there you find “the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” and “the tree of life producing its fruit every month; and leaves for the healing of the nations.” There’s “no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be our light, and we will reign forever and ever,” overjoyed that everybody’s alive and that everybody’s home.