(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.