From Exiled to Home in God's Presence
Passage: Ezekiel 36:21–36:38
Why and how does God act to bring us home?
When we were staying in Sheboygan, WI after Hudson’s birth, our car needed an oil change so I found a place and took it there. It was one of those places where you drive the car in over an oil change pit and they work on it while you wait inside. They drained my oil from below then someone working under the hood of the car asked me to turn the car on. I turned it on then all these warning lights began flashing. I asked the employee, “Did oil get put back in the car?” With a gasp of sudden realization, they said, “No.” Then I turned the car off.
Katie and I have been back in Sheboygan after that experience and whenever I drive past that place, I don’t feel a whole lot of positive, warm fuzzies toward it. I will not go back to that place and I will never bring my car to any of their other locations. That experience ruined their reputation - their name is not one I trust.
A business’ name can be ruined without us even going there. We can hear from someone that a restaurant has bad service or that a dentist is unfriendly. Just this past week we needed someone to repair our washing machine and we read reviews online before we picked a business. We wanted to know if they had a good reputation. Should we trust this place?
Today, we are going to hear our second message in a two week series called God’s Christmas Presence. Even though we may know all sorts of details about Jesus’ birth, we might not actually know why he was born. What’s the point of it all? Why did the Son of God became a human being? Why is it good news? These two weeks and on Christmas Eve, we are going to see that Jesus was born to bring us into God’s presence.
This evening we are going to be spending time in the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a man who lived about 2,600 years ago. He served as a priest in the temple in the city of Jerusalem in Israel. This made him an important part of Israel’s spiritual life. But when he was still a young man, Ezekiel and the rest of the nation experienced a national tragedy: the nation of Babylon invaded their country, took over, and destroyed their temple. The center of their life with God, the temple where his presence dwelt, was gone. How could this happen? Where was God in all of this?
When Babylon came to town, it took a bit of time to fully conquer Israel. One of their strategies was to remove leaders and officials from the nation they invaded to take away the core influences for their way of life. Jerusalem didn’t fall until 586 BC but eleven years before that in 597 BC, Ezekiel as a priest was hauled off into exile along with several other thousand leading citizens.
The book of Ezekiel was written while Ezekiel was in exile in Babylon. Other Israelites still remained in the land as Babylon took over. While in Babylon, something happened to Ezekiel that must have surprised him: God started giving him visions and talking to him. God made this priest into a prophet. The role of a prophet was to speak God’s messages to God’s people. As Ezekiel sits among other leading citizens and government officials in Babylon and they are asking, “How could this happen? Where is God?”, God has a clear message for them that he speaks through Ezekiel: “I have done this because you have been unfaithful to me.” The people broke their commitment to God through their sin and worship of false gods. They committed spiritual adultery against God and now God has given them the consequences he always warned about.
And yet, God does not leave them where they are. Through Ezekiel, God speaks a message that makes clear why they are in this situation but he also says that he will bring them back home and restore them.
The big question this passage answers is: Why and how does God act to bring us home? Why and how does God act to bring us home?
First, let’s begin with why God acts to bring us home in verses 16 through 23.
Why does God act to bring us home? (Ezekiel 36:16-23)
In these verses, God tells Ezekiel the problem that needs to be solved: the people have defiled the land by their deeds and ways. Their shedding of blood and their worshiping of false gods has brought God’s righteous judgment on them. From the beginning, God told them that the land of Canaan and his presence with them was a privilege, not a right. They would forfeit that privilege if they broke their commitment to God. He would remove his presence and remove them from the land to scatter them among the nations. Now, that has happened.
The result of all this, God says, is that they have profaned his holy name. They have given him a bad reputation. He quotes what people are saying in verse 20.
20 But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ 21 But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came. (Ezekiel 36:20-21)
God makes clear that one of his big concerns is his reputation - his holy name has been profaned. In other words, when people hear his name, they are not going to have the sort of reaction that they should because it has been tarnished. God’s concern is that people will think less than what is actually true of him. God gives several ways that his name can be profaned and his reputation damaged.
First, his reputation is damaged by his people’s failure to keep their commitment to him. When his people are unfaithful to him and treat him as unimportant, God’s name is profaned. God portrays Israel as an unfaithful bride sleeping around with other gods. His people are making him look bad. They aren’t treating him with the honor, respect, and reverence that they should. In order to make his true nature known, God responds with justice to cleanse his people of their sin and idolatry. If he didn’t, he would look like he doesn’t take sin, idolatry, and rebellion seriously. God is not a doormat or a pushover.
Second, his reputation would be damaged if he failed to keep his commitment to them. Ezekiel expresses this situation in chapter 20. When God was bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt, time and time again they rebelled against him even as he was saving them. But he says that he did not pour out his wrath on them because this would have profaned his name in the sight of the watching nations. In order to make his true nature known, God responds with grace and patience by sticking with them even though they don’t deserve it. If he didn’t, he would look like he is unfaithful to his people and can’t deliver on his promises.
Third, his reputation is damaged when other nations interpret his people’s punishment as weakness on his part. This is the main concern in the chapter we are looking at today. In those days, people believed that every nation had its own god. The question is: whose god is stronger? For everyone watching, it looks like Babylon’s god is stronger than Israel’s God because Babylon just conquered Israel. People’s conclusion would be, “I guess Israel’s God isn’t that powerful. He couldn’t protect them from another nation and he let them be taken out of their land.” In order to make his true nature known, God responds with power to bring his people back to their homeland.
In verses 22 through 23, God makes clear why he is going to bring them home.
22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:22-23)
The big question this passage answers is: Why and how does God act to bring us home? The answer to the why question is this: To make the truth about him known. To make the truth about him known.
At the end of our passage in verse 38, God says he is acting so that Israel also will know that he is the LORD. In all of this, God’s concern is that people know the truth about him. Truly knowing God is what we were made for and God does not want that knowledge lost because of his people’s sin or the misinterpretation of the other nations. God makes clear that he sees something in his people that motivates him to act. What he is going to do is motivated by his desire to make the truth about him known.
That’s why God acts to bring us home. Next we must see how God acts to bring us home. What does he do?
How does God act to bring us home? (Ezekiel 36:24-38)
This passage was originally addressed to the nation of Israel who were in physical exile. But their physical exile from their land was a picture of their spiritual condition: they were spiritually exiled from God. Israel’s story is a reflection of humanity’s story. We saw in Genesis how our home was supposed to be with God in his presence. He created the garden of Eden where he dwelled with Adam and Eve. But their choice to reject God’s authority over them led to their exile from the garden of Eden and God’s presence. Now our problem is that we need to be brought back home to God.
The big question this passage answers is: Why and how does God act to bring us home? In verses 24 through 38 God tells us four actions he takes that answer how he acts to bring us home.
First, to make the truth about him known, God rescues us. To make the truth about him known, God rescues us. Look at verse 24:
24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. (Ezekiel 36:24)
We are all in exile from God because of our sin. Sin’s penalty is separation, alienation, and exile from God. To be under God’s wrath and under God’s judgment is to be exiled from him. That’s the just and fair penalty. And actually, it’s what we wanted. We resist and reject God’s authority over us because we want to be on the throne. We want to be king. We want a life out from under God’s control. We want a life free of God’s influence. We don’t want him telling us what to do.
But we do want the privileges of God. We want him to give us what we want. We want the goodies. We want the blessings. We want the healing. We want him to be available when we need him. We want a God who is more like a genie than a king. That’s what Israel wanted. They didn’t want to follow his ways but they certainly wanted him to protect them from invaders. So when he didn’t, they are asking, “What’s up, God? Why don’t you have our back?” But God finally gave them what they wanted: life without him. Life without him means exile. And it’s not like he didn’t warn them. He told them from the beginning that rejecting him as their King would lead to exile and he sent prophets over and over again to warn them but they didn’t turn from their ways.
We need to be rescued from the penalty of our disobedience to God. We need to be rescued from the penalty of making ourselves king of our lives. We don’t deserve it at all but to make the truth about him known - to make his grace and his power known - God rescues us from it.
Second, to make the truth about him known, God reconciles us. To make the truth about him known, God reconciles us. Look at verse 24:
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. (Ezekiel 36:25)
Our sin problem needs to be dealt with. Our relationship with God is broken not from anything he has done but from what we have done. Sin kills our relationship with God and we are soaked in that death. We need to be made clean. Reconciliation is how a broken relationship is fixed.
For God to make us clean means he wipes the record of sin from us. He forgives us for what we have done. Forgiveness is given to the person who has done the wronging and it has to come from the person who has been wronged. That’s why God has to be the one to cleanse us. We cannot cleanse ourselves. God brings us home from exile and he releases us from the penalty of our sin. We don’t have to pay him back for it. He has cleansed us of it.
Third, to make the truth about him known, God renews us. To make the truth about him known, God renews us. Look at verses 26 through 27:
26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Sin is the surface level problem. Sin means “missing the mark” and we miss the mark when we don’t live with love for God and others. But that is only the symptom of a deeper problem. Last week, we heard God call the people of Israel “stiff-necked” which meant they were resistant to his leading. They were resistant to his authority and lordship over them. The reason we don’t do what God says is because at the core of our being, we are resisting him as King of our lives. Our heart is hard like stone. No matter how hard you squeeze a rock, you aren’t going to make an impression on it. You aren’t going to influence it. That’s what our hearts are like.
When the word for “spirit” isn’t being used in a spiritual sense, it often gets translated as “wind.” When wind blows, it is invisible but you see it move leaves and branches. In a similar way, our spirit is what moves and animates our being. Sometimes we say that someone has a bitter spirit or a joyful spirit. The problem with our spirit is that it is a selfish one resistant to God. The spirit in us moves and animates us to act for ourselves and in our own interest. But God says he will change that. He will put his very own Spirit inside us so that we are moved to live for him.
The truth is, we need more than a sin management strategy. We need more than three steps to stop sinning. We need to be transformed from the inside out. We need a new heart and a new spirit that aren’t resistant to God’s leadership of us. If the root problem isn’t cured, nothing will change. So God doesn’t just give us a new paint job. He gives us a new engine!
Fourth, to make the truth about him known, God re-creates. To make the truth about him known, God re-creates. In verses 28-38, God describes what their land will be like when they return. God is going to cleanse it and make it new. The land that was desolate will be like the garden of Eden. The vision is that life will be like God intended it at the beginning. Not only is God going to make his people into a new creation, he is going to make their land into a new creation.
When the Israelites do return, things never quite felt even like they were before they left. They rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the temple, but the people who had seen the previous temple wept because it was a sad second edition. And God’s glory never came back to dwell in it. But God’s glory would return when Jesus came. God’s presence would come back. And Jesus promises that when he comes again in glory, he will make all things new and his people will inherit a new creation free from sin and its destructive effects.
Today, you can walk out with this truth: Know that Jesus is the perfect picture of what’s true about God. Jesus is the perfect picture of what’s true about God. God says he will do all of this to make the truth about him known. He will rescue his people from exile, he will cleanse them of their sin, he will renew them from the inside out, and he will cleanse all of creation from sins defilement.
Jesus came as God in the flesh to fulfill all of what God says here. Jesus came as the best representation of God’s name - his character, his will, his desires. When Jesus died on the cross, he showed God’s justice. On the cross, Jesus took the penalty for our sin. He was forsaken by God - exiled and separated. Jesus’ death shows the death of sin. The consequences of resisting and rejecting God are serious and Jesus’ death on the cross is a picture of how seriously God takes it. Selfishness and idolatry are literally killing us. Jesus died to satisfy the demands of God’s justice.
When Jesus was raised from the dead, he showed God’s power. To all those watching, Jesus looked weak. “This guy claims to be a King who is going to save us all? He can’t even save himself.” But God reversed that verdict in showing his power by bringing Jesus back from the dead and seating him on the throne above every throne.
What we read in Ezekiel 36 describes nothing less than a resurrection from the dead. We are dead in our sins and worship of false Gods. Living for ourselves kills us. But Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to live inside of us - to bring us from death to live. We die to sin so we can live for God.
All of this shows God’s grace. Jesus was born, suffered, died to make God’s name known. Jesus shows us the lengths God has gone to rescue people whom he has absolutely no reason to rescue. The only reason he has is because that is the kind of God he is. He’s the kind of God who rescues the most dirty and the least deserving.
Even though God has done all of this, we still have a hard time making him the most important thing in our lives. We have a hard time making him more important to us than we are to us. We have a hard time making his desires, will, plans, and purposes more important than ours. We have a hard time making his kingdom more important to us than our own. Instead of God’s will be done, we want our will done and are upset when he doesn’t do it or others don’t do it. We want our kingdom to come not his.
Even though God went to unimaginable lengths to save us from our sin, we still have a hard time letting go of it. But unless we are willing to let go of sin and of all the false gods we worship, we will never get more of God. Sometimes to get us to let go of them, God will let us have them so we can see how empty they are.
So how do we let go of sin and idols to get more of God? First, we need to get good at saying, “It’s not about me.” Let’s try saying it together. One, two, three: “It’s not about me.” Turn to your neighbor and say, “It’s not about you.” We need to live for God not for ourselves. God does not exist for you. You exist for him. You are not the most important. Other people do not exist for you, they exist for him. It’s not about us. It’s about him therefore we are to live for him and lead others to live for him.
All of God’s actions show nothing about how important we are to God. It shows how important he should be to us. God does it to show his greatness, his worthiness to be worshiped, how amazing he is, how important he is to us. It’s to make the truth about him known. It isn’t to make the truth about how great we are, how worthy we are to be saved, how amazing we are, and how important we are to him. He acts not for our sake but for the purpose of making himself known to us. God didn’t save you to reveal how great you are. He saved you to reveal how great he is.
Second, we need to hate sin and the false gods we worship. As long as we think they aren’t that bad, we won’t be motivated to let go of them. Look at what God says in verses 31 and 32:
31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. (Ezekiel 36:31-32)
God’s actions on our behalf should lead us to loathe ourselves and be ashamed of what we have done. We were unfaithful to God and for what? It only led to defilement, desolation, and death. We need to see the emptiness of sin and idolatry.
But how do we do that? One helpful strategy I have found is writing out what it costs me. What’s the price tag on this? What am I paying to keep living this way? Let me give an example. I am working on breaking the bad habit of sleeping until Hudson wakes up rather than waking up earlier than him. I wrote a list of what it costs me to do this - what do I lose or pay out in order to sleep that extra 30 minutes? It’s giving me less time in the Bible. I don’t have time to work out. It makes it harder to start work on time so I am more stressed or start a little later. Then I feel like I’m starting the day behind and at the end of the week I feel stressed because I don’t feel like I got enough done. Because of that, I feel like I have to work more so then I have less time with Katie and Hudson. When I don’t think I’m getting everything done I am supposed to be getting done, I feel like a fraud not earning his paycheck.
I am taking that out of my wallet to pay for hitting snooze. Seeing all of that written out made me really not like hitting snooze. The root of the problem is that I am valuing sleep above getting up to start my day with God by reading his Word and praying.
We are worshiping an idol anytime we elevate something higher than God in importance, value, and priority. Anytime we place our trust and hope in something other than God to give us only what God can give us, we are worshiping an idol. We can identify false gods in our lives by using the 4Gs. All of these help us turn to believe what is true about God. But as we do so, we are turning from a false god: control, approval, worldly satisfaction, respect and affirmation. Take a moment to write those down: control, approval, comfort, respect and affirmation.
So how do we look to these things? We look to each of them for love, joy and peace. When it comes to control, we say, “If only my kids did as I said, then I’d have peace. If only my spouse did what I want, then I’d feel loved. If only everything went as I wanted it to go, then I’d have joy.” What is it costing you to live this way? Trust that God is great so you don’t have to be in control.
When it comes to approval, we want others to be pleased with us. We say, “If this person is happy with me, I’ll feel loved, at peace, and joyful.” That is living for other people. What’s it costing you to make your boss, your spouse, your parent, your friends, your coworkers, or your teachers the person’s whose approval is most important to you? Trust that God is glorious so you don’t have to fear others.
When it comes to worldly satisfaction, we look to created things to satisfy a hunger only God can satisfy. We the satisfaction of love, joy, and peace so we look to food or sex or TV or sports or video games or work to fill a hole only God can fill. What’s it costing you to look to these? Do they ever really satisfy? Trust that God is good so you don’t have to look for satisfaction elsewhere.
When it comes to respect and affirmation, we want to be good enough and to be recognized as good enough. We work really hard to prove ourselves as good enough and if someone will recognize it by giving us their respect or affirming us, then we will be at peace, filled with joy, and feel loved. What’s it costing you to constantly try to be good enough on your own strength? Trust that God is gracious so you don’t have to prove yourself.
Circle the one that you need to work on this week. None of these things actually delivers love, joy, and peace. Only God can.
God’s reputation is spread through us. People go on yelp or google to find reviews of business but people look at us, God’s church, to read reviews of God. We can either give him a good or a bad reputation. The only way we will be good representatives of God is if we are soaked in the truth about who he is. That’s why in everything we do, we are focused on the good news about God - the good news about who he is and what he has done.
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