I am taking a break from posting sermons to return to movie reviews, something I have not posted in a while.
It has also been a while since I have gone to a movie that has gotten such scathing reviews as has "Serenity." It has been called "terrible and insane" here and "an exhaustingly tedious drama devoid of compelling attributes" here. On the other hand, some good reviewers like Richard Roeper really like it.
My children will assume that I like the movie solely because Anne Hathaway is in it. While that is reason enough to like a movie, it is actually not the basis for my giving it a good review.
Before I talk about the substance of the movie, though, there are a couple of preliminary thoughts. First, the movie has what many people are calling a major "twist" about two-thirds of the way through. I don't really think of it as a twist as much as an explanation, a natural step for the somewhat off-the-wall storytelling involved; but semantics aside, if you read too many reviews and know that "secret" of the movie ahead of time, it will doubtless affect how you view it. I will try to avoid spoiling that secret here, but I have to dance around it a little to make my point. Second, the movie's R rating is well-deserved, both because of its rampant profanity/obscenity and a few of its racy and violent scenes. I often am turned off by this kind of usually gratuitous stuff. I am not affected that way here, because it has a very real and consistent purpose and is not, ultimately, gratuitous. I cannot tell you what the purpose is without revealing the secret of the movie, but I can tell you that while I was initially offended, by the end of the movie it all made sense in a satisfying way.
Appreciating this movie depends on your willingness to accept the concept of point of view. You are seeing and hearing everything that happens from a certain perspective, and you don't really know all you need to know about that perspective until the movie is over. If you have been willing to suspend judgment long enough to let it play out, I predict that you too will be satisfied by how it all plays together.
Yes, there are characters whose actions don't seem at first glance to make sense. Yes, several characters are stereotypes. Several reviews have accused the actors of being wooden or not really trying very hard. Respectfully, I think those reviews miss the point entirely There is a very good reason that these characters are the way they are. It is a matter of perspective.
This is a nouveau-noir thriller that appears to plow some old ground. Hard drinking, chain smoking veteran seeks to abandon all he knows. Femme fatale from his past reappears with a tempting offer that abandons all morality. He tries to resist. Something is not as it should be. The bad guy is really, really bad.
I understand why reviewers think they have seen all this before.
They are wrong.
Perspective is a wonderful thing. Seeing the world through someone else's eyes, approaching what you see in light of someone else's experience, trying to understand what is before you as it is colored by the thoughts of another ... this is a delicate and difficult exercise. Many people never understand it. They just apply their own perspective and decide what is in front of them is silly.
This understanding is of course far more important in many other areas than it is in watching a movie. Atticus Finch famously said, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Our social and racial and political conversation in this country could certainly do with a little attempt by listeners - on all sides - to think about where the speaker is coming from before launching into a response. We would all get along better and achieve more solutions if we would consider perspective a bit.
I know that last paragraph sounds a bit high-handed for a review of a popcorn movie, and I suppose it is. But I think the "twist" of this movie is not such a twist; it is just recognition, realization of something we should all strive to figure out: Why do things look and sound as they do? Could it be because we are not understanding why they are there, where they came from, how other people view them?
Oh well, I said I was staying away from sermons in this post. Just go see the movie, if you can stomach the language and the blood and the intimacy scenes enough to get to the punchline. I am not suggesting this is one of the world's great movies - "Casablanca" it is not - but I do think it will keep you thinking long after you pull out of the parking lot.
Monday, January 28, 2019
Sunday, January 20, 2019
(You can listen to the audio of the sermon here.)
The Dead Sea is called the Dead Sea because essentially nothing lives in it. Nothing but microscopic bacteria and fungi can grow there. It has no outlet, so it a cul-de-sac, if you will, for all the silt and salt and potash and other runoff. Its shores are pitted with quicksand. You literally cannot sink in the Dead Sea – the stuff in the water will hold you up. It is not just ocean water – it has a different chemical composition. The Dead Sea literally discharges asphalt.
Ezekiel sees the vision of the uncrossable river, which ends in the Dead Sea and makes the water there fresh.
We cannot miss the message. God’s river flows from our new temple, providing a divine presence to the surrounding territory. “The vision of a river flowing from below the temple area becomes a visual parable of sustaining and transforming hope for the land.” [Gordon Matties, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville, Abingdon, 2003) at 1226.] The “divine presence among an authentic, transformed and transforming worshiping community creates blessing, renewal, and healing.” [Id.]
Rivers are a type, a recurring theme in scripture. The river that pours out of the Garden of Eden spreads into four rivers, including the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Jordan River is the scene of great moments in both the Old and the New Testaments. The River of Psalm 46 makes glad the Holy City.
The last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, with its picture of New Jerusalem and the eternity we will have with the Lamb, tells us that from the throne flows the river bordered on both sides by the tree of life that we first saw in Genesis.
So when Ezekiel has this vision of the uncrossable river with the new temple as its source, he is seeing a concept that pervades scripture literally from beginning to end.
Let’s review. Ezekiel is a prophet of the exile, preaching to people who may never have set foot in Jerusalem. At least a portion of his audience has been born in exile. Many, many more of them have given up any hope of returning home, of seeing the temple rebuilt, of ever again setting foot in God’s promised land. Ezekiel has told them with regret of the cost of their sin, of how the chariot of God, riding the wheels-in-wheels, has carried the glory of God away. Chapter after chapter of warning and messages of doom have followed. God has looked for someone to build up the wall, to stand in the gap to carry the people through their transgressions [Ezekiel 22:30], and there is no one to be found. So, God has done the only thing He can, promising not to rely on the actions of Israel but rather to come to them Himself, when they are nothing more than disconnected dry bones in the parched desert, to recreate His people, inspired with His very breath. He has taken Ezekiel to the holy mountain of the Lord and shown him the new temple.
We have seen that not only will God rebuild us, but He will make us into something far better than we were before. We know that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, that God dwells within us; and we know that we will be restored, brought out of exile to something newer and brighter and bigger and better and more unimaginable than our wildest dreams. Exile will end.
We had our Eden, and we turned away. We fell, and we wandered. Whether you identify most with the Hebrew children in slavery in Egypt; Israelites adrift in the desert for forty years, afraid to enter the Promised Land and begging for water from the rock; beleaguered children of God in the hills of Hebron, battling Philistines and Ammonites; or the exiled people of Jerusalem, driven from home to a land of their captors; the Old Testament gives us picture after picture of the consequence of our own bad choices.
But the Old Testament is the word of God, so it cannot leave us abandoned in misery. The Old Testament holds Psalms of peace, the promise of generations as numerous as the stars, and the prophecy of restoration.
That all comes together in Ezekiel’s vision, as we see our new temple, our splendid home for the glory of God, where God will live with us forever and ever, indwelling us and protecting us.
So, what about this river?
I suppose this is the point in the sermon where I should tell a moving story about rivers. Perhaps I should quote A River Runs Through It or talk about the historical importance of navigable waterways to the expansion of every modern civilization. Maybe now is the time to talk about how Mom and I entertained each other by singing “Ole Man River” every time our travels took us across the Mississippi, which was often when I was young.
But part of the beauty of the symbolism of the river is that it needs no explanation, no cute stories or history lessons. It speaks for itself. We all know what a river is and does, what it means to people.
Rivers flow. Rivers sustain. Rivers carry us forward. Rivers bring what we need.
Ezekiel’s river is no ordinary river. It grows to an uncrossable size.
As you would expect with ancient prophecy that is not unscrambled for us in scripture itself, there are many explanations out there for what this river is. Some see it as a symbol of the presence of God, growing and sustaining. Some see it as the gospel message, spreading out from the temple as we carry our witness into the world, feeding those who were without hope and linking the temple to the world. I think that both of those are true, at least part of what Ezekiel is seeing here. When the temple is rebuilt and the glory of God returns, His presence will flow out of us and the good news will spread as the river nourishes the land.
Some see this river as a simple foreshadowing of Revelation, a preview, if you will, for Ezekiel’s benefit, of eternity. And, of course, there is the literal view that this is a virtual photograph of some actual building that will be built, and the dispensationalist view that sees this as the continued description of Jesus’s millennial power base.
But if what I said last week is close – if the new temple is a picture of us, God’s people, when we are redeemed and restored and indwelt by the Spirit of God, if we are as Paul says the temple of the living God [2 Corinthians 6:16] – then the river means something else.
If the new temple is God’s redeemed people, then what comes out of us? What flows from our lives to the fruitless, dying, parched, salty marshes around us?
Ezekiel’s river is not for the temple; it is for the land. It springs from the temple, no doubt. It is fed by the temple, sourced from the throne of God… but it is not for the temple. It is but a trickle at the walls.
This river is for the world.
The world needs what the temple has.
And if Ezekiel’s vision is true – and I believe it is – then what the world needs is flowing from the temple, and it can nourish the starving and heal the sick and bring life from the Dead Sea.
That raises an immediate problem for those of us who are reading scripture carefully. If the river flows from the new temple, and if we are saved and are now the temple of Christ, then why is our land still parched? Why do sin and disease persist? Why hasn’t the river of God changed our dead world into something fresh?
We can only reach three possible answers. One, scripture is just wrong. Two, God is just not powerful enough to do it. Or Three, something is interfering with the power of God, something is keeping the river from flowing.
We know that One and Two are incorrect, so that only leaves Three. But we don’t like to think about that, because if we ask what could possibly be blocking the river, we know the answer must be “us.”
I want to propose to you that God loves the whole world, that God has a design for feeding and caring for the whole world, that God has a purpose and a strategy for making sure that the whole world hears the gospel, that God has the power to do all of that, and that God has entrusted His plans to us. I want to propose to you that God will carry out His plans through us unless we stop Him.
Hear me. I did not say that He will carry out His plans to touch the needy and bring the Word to everyone if we do everything right, if we work hard enough, if we obey constantly enough, if we do our best. No, I said that God will carry out His plans unless we stop Him.
God has given us free will. He has chosen to work in our world. And He has given us abilities and brainpower and options that we can pervert and use to stand in His way.
The river springs from the throne, from the place where God’s glory blesses His children constantly, and it reaches out into a dying world.
The river is what God’s people have to offer to the world. Better said, the river is what God offers to the world, often through but sometimes in spite of, God’s people.
Most of us do not block the river on purpose. We try to serve God. We travel and knock on doors and cook meals and serve in soup kitchens. Some of us go on mission trips to far off places; others give money or stay close to home to assist the needy around us. Hopefully, all of us make our efforts to share the gospel, to bear witness to what Christ has done for us, to tell others that they too can host the glory of God and know His presence – even if we don’t use those words.
We do this out of obedience, of course, but I think more of us that just that. I don’t think we serve and witness simply out of duty, although that would be reason enough. No, we give and serve because we love, because our hearts are broken and our spirits are moved by the need and hurt around us. We are moved to share the gospel out of love, for our neighbors’ houses are on fire, and we have the key to the rescue. They have fallen in a hole, and we know the way out, because we have been down there before.
So, this sermon is not about why we should witness and why we should serve. I believe – today I choose to believe – that you know why. I believe – I choose to believe – that you want to serve and are moved by love of your neighbor, your enemy, your fellow man.
No, this sermon is not about the why. This sermon is about the how.
Too often, we approach obedience by mustering our own effort, when we should serve not out of effort but out of abundance. When our witness and our service are right, we do not churn up enough “want-to” to go out and suffer through a day or a week or a month or a lifetime of giving because we have to. We seek the best for others and share because we know that we are not needy, because we know that we have been given much, because we cannot help it.
When your service is drawing on your own resolve and your own reserve, it will inevitably run out. When your witness is based on your deciding to tell people the story and model Jesus as long as you can, based on your Roman Road or your Evangelism Explosion on your youth group training or whatever formula someone has taught you, it will be finite. Good intentions will carry you only so far.
This river does not come from Ezekiel. Ezekiel is only along for the ride.
To be clear, this river is not created by the temple. It flows out of the temple, to be sure, but it flows from the throne of God.
So my point is simple – the river that turns the salty sea into fresh water, that feeds the fish and the animals and the blooming fruit trees in marshy land, that grows to an uncrossable current – this river comes from God. We do not gin up service. We cannot create a witness. We cannot decide how and where and to whom we should share the gospel. We simply have to let the river flow.
The primary principle of bioethics that our physicians are all taught is the Latin maxim primum non nocere: “first, do no harm.” Before your doctor embarks on a plan of treatment or surgery or medication, she first makes sure that she is not making it worse. She does not stop there, of course. Doing no harm is not the end, just the beginning, but it is the beginning. To attack the disease, first, do no harm.
How are rivers stopped? There are only two ways. One is if the rain stops falling. That cannot happen with this River of Life, for its source is inexhaustible. It is not dependent on a cloud or a storm or a spring or a big lake. This river is sourced directly from God, who is infinite in power and love. There is no drying up the headwaters of the River of Life.
But there is another way that rivers don’t get where they need to get. They can get dammed up. It takes effort, and planning, and the intention to redirect the river to a different purpose, but we can stop a river. We can build a dam.
Dams of course serve purposes. Whether it is for power generation or the creation of beautiful – but no longer flowing – tourist destinations, dams are built on purpose.
We don’t dam up God’s river because we are bad people. We have good ideas. We want to use our own ingenuity to redirect the current of God into creating energy for our own projects. We want to capture God’s power to create a resort lake that we can enjoy ourselves. We want to direct the river the way we want it to go.
When Jesus tells the apostles that who is not against us is for us [Luke 9:50], He is giving us a clue here. We play a lot of offense, working hard to come up with plays and schemes and just the right long pass to score our holy touchdowns. Jesus says that we should focus not so much on what we can do to forward the ball as on eliminating that which is holding us back, that which is against us.
Think about it. When Jesus encounters what would stop Him – demons, diseases, hypocrisy in high places – He does not hesitate. He is aggressive. Jesus drives out demons, heals diseases, and spends a great deal of time chastising those within the religious establishment who are hampering God's plan. But when it comes time to see the work of God unfold, Jesus takes what is available – whether it is spit and mud or jars of ordinary water. He does not go shopping for yeast and flour and pull out a fancy rod and reel when He needs to feed five thousand. He does not invest in a mighty ship to help His friends make it through the stormy Sea of Galilee. And He does not spend time rushing to Lazarus’s bedside to bring the latest and greatest medicine before his friend dies. No, Jesus knows the power that is available, and He knows that He does not need to run around and acquire or create the greatest blueprints and gadgets anyone can think of. Jesus approaches hunger and storms and death the same way – He stands up and looks toward heaven and lets the power of God roll. Jesus’s ultimate act for us, the cross, is an act of submission.
I don’t think the river imagery in Ezekiel’s prophecy is accidental. If we are the new temple, then we have a responsibility for the Dead Sea, the wilting plants, and the starving fish. We owe the world the chance to live. We have the rescue plans, but they are not an elaborate scheme that is dependent on our efforts, our smarts, our insight. God is more than powerful enough. The River of Life will grow to uncrossable torrents. The issue is not what we will create nearly so much as it is what we will prevent.
It is popular among some to publish articles with titles like “God Cannot Be Stopped.” The Reformed movement among evangelicals believes that idea strongly. Don’t misunderstand me – I believe it too, if by saying “God cannot be stopped” we mean to say that God is all powerful. Of course He is. God can do whatever He chooses.
But that is the issue. God has chosen to work through us. He has a mighty river of blessings for the world, and He is sending them out through the temple, through us. And at the wall of the temple, it is not yet a roaring river – it is still a trickle. God lays out this vision for Ezekiel for a reason – we need to understand that where we first encounter God’s river, it is not yet even a brook, and it is within our power to redirect it or even to dam it up.
God could choose to overcome our bad choices, and maybe He will. Maybe He does. But I see the actions of too many Christians that divert or redirect or even block the work of God. We think we know better. We have a different idea. We embark on our personal mission and forget the principle “first, do no harm.”
We fail to witness, fail to serve, fail to share the gospel and the love of Christ not because we don’t do enough right things but because we allow impediments to the work of God. Too often, tragically, those impediments are of our own making.
How do we stem the tide of God? How can we possibly dam up the river? Let me offer a suggestion or two, just by way of example.
First, we too often start by placing ourselves in the control tower. We decide too often that we know best, that the way that God will work is to put us in charge and then withdraw, leaving it to us to use our brains and our energy to get His work done. We don’t say it that way, of course, but our actions belie any other explanation we would give. We are just so proud of ourselves, of our faith and our knowledge and our doctrine and our willingness to help and serve and witness, and we are just so sure that God has chosen us to bless the world and answer all the questions. We give lip service to slogans like “God is my co-pilot,” and we like that because it leaves us in the pilot’s seat.
Second, we rely on our own energy, our own abilities. We know that God has given us our gifts and talents – and of course that is true – but we too often conclude, rather arrogantly, that those gifts and talents are all that God has to work with. We limit the work of God to what we can see, what we can do, what we can figure out. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. We need electricity, let me build a dam.” We substitute our best idea and our strength in the moment for the inspiration and sovereignty of God.
Third, we give up too soon. We share the gospel faithfully for a time – and it may be a long time -- with that neighbor, or that husband, or that co-worker who is still no closer to finding Christ, and we decide that we are a failure, that God cannot or will not work through us, that we can’t do it. We see a Dead Sea in front of us to our east, and we know that it is called the Dead Sea for a reason, so we decide it would be a hopeless place for us to waste our effort. We decide to go west and find some more fallow ground to plow, never noticing that the river of God is flowing due east, away from us in the rear-view mirror.
Fourth, we hinder the flow of God when we actively build barriers, when we flaunt our sin and follow completely different paths. We all read the news. We all see how those in the church are building obstructions to the world’s acceptance of Christ and the success of God’s work. Clergy sex abuse and public denominational infighting are easy targets, but it also happens more subtly. How many friends do you have who have been turned off, at some point in their life, from the gospel because of hypocrisy, thoughtless statements, intolerance, and a failure to love? How many times have you inadvertently hurt the cause of Christ through something you have said or done, only realizing later that you represent Christ to your neighbor, and this time, you have represented Him badly?
Finally, and perhaps most deadly, we don’t believe in rivers. We know that rain falls, but when we don’t see the rain, we conclude that there is no more water. We have not gotten an angel-guided tour of rushing waters like Ezekiel got, and we know in our common sense that rivers don’t stream out of temples. We don’t let the river flow because we don’t really believe in the river. Hebrews tells us that “[w]ithout faith, it is impossible to please Him.” [Hebrews 11:6] Oh, we believe in God in a sentimental, historical, no-atheists-in-foxholes kind of way; but in terms of a daily reliance on the dominion of the Father to accomplish His purposes, we are not on board. In Mark 6, we are told this story:
Many who heard Him were astonished, saying… “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” … And they took offense at him. … And He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled because of their unbelief. [Mark 6:2-6]
Friends, too often we dam up the river.
I am not suggesting that we should do nothing. I am not saying that the river of God does not need us. The vision of Ezekiel is not the whole Bible. There are too many scriptures where Jesus works His work by asking His followers to participate, to offer up their fish and loaves, to cast their nets, to take up their crosses and lay down their lives. Too often Paul instructs us to go, to give, to share, to do.
But look carefully at the words of scripture. Our service is described as laying down, as surrender, as bearing, as being a disciple as we are going. Paul tells us to present ourselves as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable service. Jesus tells us to take His yoke on ourselves and find rest. The ultimate call of Jesus is not to implement our own ideas but instead to follow Him.
The end of the story, of course, is that God does work through our minds and our ideas, does honor our efforts, does bless our plans and work through our work. But it happens when we let the river flow, when we step out of the driver’s seat and get rid of this “God is my co-pilot” nonsense. Not only is God not the co-pilot, He is the pilot and the navigator and the air traffic controller and the guy who fuels the plane. We are along for the ride, and He gives us the great privilege of allowing us to participate.
I know there is a risk that I will be misunderstood today, that you might interpret my words to mean that we don’t have to obey, don’t have to do anything, that we can just shut down and get out of God’s way. That is not what I am saying. God has chosen to work through us. He has called us to obedience. We were saved by grace through faith in order to obey and to serve. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Ephesians 2:10] We are to share the gospel. We are to love our neighbors.
I am not contradicting any of that. I am suggesting that we must examine how we do those things. God’s love is a mighty river, flowing from the throne. We are His new temple, becoming what we cannot imagine, part of His overall plan. When you obey, serve, witness, share, love – see yourself as that temple, built by God. Understand that His work is so much grander than you can imagine, that you have the honor being a part of it. Make your first priority to do no harm, to get on board, to do what helps rather than to search out your own path.
When we work with Christ and allow God to flow through us, we see the trickle grow into a stream which, before we know it, is the uncrossable river of life.
Let the river flow. If you want to see dead trees live and brackish water become sweet, I promise you that you don’t have either the first clue how or the slightest ability to make it happen. But we serve the one who does and who can.
And when we join in the work, when we are not an impediment, when we walk a thousand cubits and understand how God will bless the world and we get on board, then we see the river of God flow.
Sunday, January 13, 2019
You can listen to the audio of the sermon here.
In the Disney movie, Pocahontas sings:
What I love most about rivers is: You can't step in the same river twice. The water's always changing, always flowing…. I look once more just around the riverbend, beyond the shore where the gulls fly free. Don't know what for. What I dream the day might send just around the riverbend for me. Coming for me. [Stephen Schwartz, “Just Around the Riverbend,” 1995]
Sir David Attenborough says, “We only know a tiny proportion about the complexity of the natural world. Wherever you look, there are still things we don’t know about and don’t understand.... There are always new things to find out if you go looking for them.” 
While Sir David is speaking of the natural world, the same thing is true of the spiritual world. We serve a lord of new wineskins, a God of constant re-creation. We who are caught up in the tragedies of day-to-day life in this world know that the what is and what-will-be are not the same. There is always something new around the riverbend.
Pam Mark Hall’s words, as sung by Amy Grant, speak to us:
No longer what we saw before, but not all that we will see tomorrow, when we lock the door on all our disbelieving. When He appears, our view will clear, and we'll be changed by His glory. But I'm caught in between the now and the not yet; sometimes it seems like forever and ever that I've been reaching to be all that I am, but I'm only a few steps nearer, yet I'm nearer.... [Pam Mark Hall, “The Now and the Not Yet,” 1984]
What has God got new, just waiting for you?
The last nine chapters of Ezekiel are hard reading. They tell of Ezekiel’s last vision, an extended description of a new temple that is yet to be built. He is taken to a high mountain and given a tour by one who resembles a man but is surely not human. This angelic tour guide gives Ezekiel a detailed report of each detail of this new structure, which from a distance resembles an entire city. Ezekiel is instructed to tell all of Israel about this new temple, with its surrounding lands and districts.
These chapters can be tedious, as they resemble the parts of Exodus that lay out the details of the tabernacle or the parts of First Kings that provide the plans for Solomon’s Temple. If you read this chapter verse by verse, you may not get much spiritual value out of it.
But if you have read the whole prophecy and understood the significance of the people’s sin in Ezekiel’s eyes, and if you remember last week’s sermon about how the glory of God left the temple, then these last eight chapters mean something else. You have read of the exile, of the terrible penalty to be paid for failing to obey, the pain of separation from God. And then, in these last eight chapters, Ezekiel is shown, in excruciating detail, God’s plan for a new temple.
And that is how this book ends, with the idea of the new temple. Next week, we will discuss one particular facet of the new temple, but for today we are going to look at the temple as a whole.
What could God be telling us when He speaks to people in exile about the building of a new temple?
Biblical interpreters who look for a literal interpretation have trouble with these chapters, which is largely why they are rarely taught and why so many people describe this as difficult scripture. Those who look for a specific, literal counterpart for what is described in these chapters generally fall into four camps.
First, could Ezekiel be describing Solomon’s temple? Unlikely, since that temple had been destroyed before the people were taken into exile. More to the point, this new temple has no place for the ark of the covenant, no holy of holies. This is not Solomon’s temple.
Well, what about the replacement for Solomon’s temple, the so-called Second Temple built by Zerubbabel when the people came back from exile? Was Ezekiel seeing a prophecy about that? Again, it does not seem so, since that temple was much smaller than what Ezekiel visualizes. We know what that temple – which stood until 70 A.D. – looked like, and it did not match all these details. Again, this temple has no place for the ark.
Some – of a dispensationalist bent – believe that Ezekiel is talking about what they call the millennium temple, the home base for Jesus’s future literal thousand-year reign during the captivity of the beast. This requires a certain reading of Revelation that I do not share, but it is certainly a respected view.
A fourth view is that Ezekiel is describing the church, looking into the future to the era of the New Testament. There is a problem here, though, since Hebrews makes it clear that there is no longer a need for sacrifice after Jesus’s crucifixion, so the animal sacrifices described by Ezekiel don’t seem to fit with the idea of a New Testament church.
I have a different answer. It is admittedly an interpretation. If you are a dispensationalist or one who takes one of these other more literal views, you won’t agree with me. Our difference here won’t interfere with our fellowship, so please bear with me for a few minutes. I bet we can still find some common ground in the meaning, if not in the exact interpretation.
As I said last week and have said before, one of the ways we have to read the Old Testament is as a description of how God deals with us individually. We all are creations of God. We all face our version of giants and Philistines. And we all go through exile and need restoration.
I read the Book of Ezekiel personally, as an essay on our personal exile caused by sin and about what God does for us when we are restored. When we read the book on this side of the resurrection, we recognize the end of the Book of Ezekiel as a description of what Jesus Christ does for us.
Jesus makes all things new. If anyone is in Christ, behold, they are new creatures. We need a new wineskin – if we try to capture Jesus in all of the old forms, it just does not work. The old is gone; the new has come!
That is the gospel according to Ezekiel.
Let’s start with the significance of the symbolism of the temple. The temple was more to the Jews – and is more to many Jews today – than simply a geographical place or a architectural structure. Grand as it was as an edifice, the temple was much more: a representation of the presence of God. The temple housed the Shakina, the glory of God’s presence. The temple is where God was found. To worship, they went to the temple. To seek remission of sins, they took their animal sacrifices to the temple. To ask God’s blessing, or forgiveness, or mercy, they spoke to a priest at the temple, and then the priest went into the inner holy place, and for the most important prayers, the high priest went into the most inner holy of holies, for that is where God was. Orthodox Jews today still await the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, praying for the Third Temple and the resumption of the Korban worship there.
The destruction of the First and then Second Temple was thus a blow of monumental proportions, and the thought of rebuilding the temple was critical. That is why Ezekiel’s prophecy about the glory of God leaving the temple that we studied last week carried such weight.
We are not Jewish, but we are Christians, and we are followers of God. We do not have a temple – indeed we believe with Stephen that the Most High does not dwell in any building built by human hands [Acts 7:48] – so for us as followers of Jesus, there is a deeper meaning to be found in Ezekiel’s prophecy than simply a rebuilt building. Biblical authors from Moses at the beginning to John at the end, writing on the isle of Patmos, give pictures of an incomplete temple, the locus of the presence of God.
The point here is not a building that will someday be erected but instead something new that God will do.
Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? [1 Corinthians 6:19] We are the temple, and when we come out of exile, when we face the fact that we have driven away the glory of God, then God promises us that a new temple is coming, and as we read last week from Haggai, the glory of the new temple will outshine anything that existed before.
This is the gospel according to Ezekiel.
Exile means separation from home, separation from God’s plan. Remember the sad passage from last week from Ezekiel 10 – the glory of God has left. When we disobey and repeatedly turn our back on God, we face exile. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23], and the wages of sin is death [Romans 6:23a]. The people of God are taken off into exile, captured and enslaved and kept away from the Promised Land. Get past the literal history of that for an ancient people and focus on what that means for you, on the literal history of how you have spent time in your life separated from the glory of God, exiled by your sin. Think of those friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family members who are exiled right now.
There is a new temple waiting, and as we just read from Chapter 43, the glory of God is ready to come back in. Jesus makes all things new.
The outline for this week is even simpler than usual. Only two points.
1. Jesus will make things new eternally.
The temple vision of Ezekiel is a picture of heaven, better yet a picture of eternity with Jesus. We students of the New Testament find familiar strains when we read Ezekiel, for this book’s key themes and images are reflected in the Book of Revelation. The new temple – the place where we will dwell with God permanently – is a picture of what it means that Jesus makes all things new. Revelation describes a new Jerusalem [Revelation 21:2] – it is the same idea: a new representation of where we celebrate the presence of the Lord and our eternal relationship with Him.
We have read about every tear being dried. Henri Nouwen says it this way:
Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our lives. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness .... But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us. [Henri J. M. Nouwen, Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life, 2010]
We will leave exile. We will be restored. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Romans 6:23] You know it is true, and you may be tuning me out even now because it sounds so fundamental, so elementary. Please don’t: this is the gospel. Jesus saves. When we are lost, He comes and offers something new and better. He builds us a new temple. God will be with us, and it will be glorious.
When I say that we have to read the Old Testament as an explication of God’s relation to us, think about these stories in the context of what I have just said:
- Cain commits egregious sin but receives a mark of protection. [Genesis 4:8-15]
- Jacob swindles his brother, his father, and his uncle, and God meets him at Bethel, changes his name, and sends him forth as the patriarch of a new people. [Genesis 25-37]
- God uses Moses to lead His people out of slavery into the Promised Land. [Exodus 3 – Deuteronomy 34]
- Job loses everything but is restored to twice what he had before. [Job 42:10]
- Daniel is saved through the lions’ den to a position of prominence. [Daniel 6]
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walk out of the fiery furnace because of the presence of a fourth person in the furnace with them, and Nebuchadnezzar himself recognizes and honors Yahweh. [Daniel 3:8-30]
- The Hebrew people reject God – who speaks to them through cloud and fire, tablets inscribed by His own finger, prophet, song, and physical manifestation – and find themselves in exile, weeping by the waters of Babylon; but they are not left there, and they are led joyously back to Jerusalem, where they can rebuild.
- Restoration is preached again and again by prophet after prophet, assuring God’s people that He has an eternal joy stored up for His people.
The idea of eternal restoration is not new. No matter what we have done, no matter how far we have wandered, no matter what kind of exile we have created for ourselves, if we know Jesus, all of that stuff will be wiped away. We shall be with God forever. Revelation tells us that those of us whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will reside with God in the new city, the city with sure foundations. [Revelation 21:27] Not surprisingly, the Book of Ezekiel ends with the disclosure of the name of the city where the new temple will be. The name of the city is The Lord Is There. [Ezekiel 48:35]
Eternity with God. We call that salvation. We call that restoration. When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
2. Jesus makes everything new right now.
Eternal salvation is not the only gift we receive as a disciple of Jesus Christ. We are new creatures. The old is gone; the new has come!
We talked last week about how our dry bones can be reknit, how God will call the four winds into us to re-create us into what He has called us to be. That has eternal meaning, to be sure, but it is not only eternal in its meaning. The new temple represents what God is in the business of rebuilding right now; reconstructing us into His dwelling place, His image, His disciple presently, as we speak.
William Law, an eighteenth century priest in the Church of England, famously encouraged all of us to: “receive every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with such sentiments of God's goodness, as if you had seen it, and all things, new - created upon your account: and under the sense of so great a blessing.” 
This is the message of the miracles of the New Testament. What was water becomes wine. Who was blind can now see. Lameness becomes nimbleness. Storms are ancient history as a new peace falls. When Jesus is there, we never know what new mercies are just around the riverbend.
The gospel for today, then, from the bearded prophet, is that the glory of God returns. The wonderful verses we read from Chapter 43 are focused on just that point. God is building a new temple, and the glory of God will fill it. But don’t miss verse 5 – the Spirit brings us into the inner court. This is not the Old Testament temple of the huge curtain, the temple governed by rules that allow only the priests to enter the inner court. No, we are there. We commune with God. The presence of God is with us, and our presence is with God.
That is why there is no holy of holies. We no longer need to construct a separate place where only the high priest can go. We no longer need an ark of the covenant, a golden box that carries the presence of God. God has filled the whole temple. We are indwelt by God – we are His temple, and He lives within us. There is no requirement for an ark for us to follow or for a high priest to represent us before God. Jesus is our great high priest. [Hebrews 4:14-15]
The new temple is why Paul says he can do all things. He is not talking about his own power. The verse is “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” [Philippians 4:13] The strength comes from the presence of God, who lives in us. The glory of God has returned. This is Jesus making all things new, taking our weakness and making it His strength.
What in your life needs to be made new?
Depression is a serious mental condition, and I don’t mean to suggest that all medical conditions are subject to being prayed away, for I believe that God works through doctors and medicine and hospitals and therapy. But I also believe that many of us are trapped not in a diagnosable mental illness but rather in an overwhelming sense of sadness, of purposelessness, of loss. You feel abandoned, useless, set aside, ignored. You have outlived your usefulness, or you never found your place. Jesus makes all things new. This is not just a matter of Jesus telling you “it’s all right because you are going to heaven someday.” This is a story of what can happen right now, of what God is building right now.
Let me suggest that many might look at Trinity River Church and say that we are now all we are ever going to be. We don’t have a cadre of twenty-somethings with young children to be our growth center. We are not using light shows and electric guitars to attract the masses. Jim and I don’t wear jeans and don’t have visible tattoos. I am not knocking churches who worship that way, at all; I am simply saying that because we have chosen a different, traditional approach and have started with folks who are, shall we say, no longer in our twenties as our core group, many would tell us that there is nothing that God can do with us. I don’t believe that. I believe that a new temple is being built, that the glory of God is coming in.
Do you need Jesus to make your relationships new? Whether we are talking about a marriage or a relationship with your child, whether it is a friendship or a job relationship or a sibling, are you at the end of your rope? Are you ready for Jesus to make all things new?
I am sure it was not new when I first heard it, but because I was hearing it for the first time, it was profound to me. My college pastor Ron Durham preached a sermon called “Behind the Eight Ball,” and somewhere in the middle, he told us that the old saying that “God helps those who help themselves” is not scriptural. Ron raised his voice a pitch or two, as he was wont to do, and said that the point of scripture is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.
That is what building the new temple is all about. We tend to busy ourselves with fixing up and painting up and cleaning up the old temple. We focus on what we can see, what is in front of us. God is so far past all of that. Jesus says that He is making all things new. We focus on trying to make our hearts better, but the Psalmist asks for a new, clean heart. [Psalm 51:10] Lamentations says:
My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” [Lamentations 3:17-24]
The Book of Revelation ends with Jesus’s invitation to come. The new temple awaits. It is not a physical place for you. It is what God through Jesus will make of you.
If you have just discovered and accepted this remaking, this promise that God is waiting to fulfill in you, come down and tell me as we sing.
If you have long ago accepted His gift, I challenge you today to commit in 2019 to explore your new temple, to ask yourself – and ask God in prayer – what new thing He has made of you, and what new thing He will do in you and through you. I challenge you to seek earnestly what God has for you, just around the riverbend.