A child who wants candy will ask her father for it if her mother has already said no. She’s looking for the answer she wants to hear.

Ezekiel 20

In the same way, the elders of the exiles come to Ezekiel again to “inquire of the Lord” to ask him what they should do–even though he’s already told them. They come as if they’re pious truth seekers, but God shakes his head, “Really? After all that I’ve already said that you haven’t done, you’re asking me again what I think? If you’re asking me–don’t! But Ezekiel, if you’re up for this, go ahead. Tell them this…,” 20:2-4, paraphrased. [I smile. God can’t pass up the chance to speak.]

In his prompt to Ezekiel, God reviews the facts. He recounts the story of his people since the days of Egypt, when he saved them from slavery and brought them to the promised land. I’m sure he’d rather tell a story of their great faith and trust in him, but he can’t. In every detail of the trip, from beginning to end and even up to the present day, their track record is clear: they’ve been idolatrous since the get-go.

They brought their Egyptian gods with them on the road trip through the wilderness, just like they’ve brought them to Babylon, “…they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt,” 20:6-8. “…you continue to defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. Am I to let you inquire of me, O house of Israel?” 20:30-31. No wonder God’s constant word to them is “Repent!”

The number of years from Egypt to Babylon is nearly 1,000. (http://(amazingbibletimeline.com/blog/exodus-moses-leads-the/) So for almost a thousand years, God has put up with what sounds to me like teenage-style rebellion and immaturity.

Why does he bother? This question rattles around in my head a lot when I read the history of God’s people. Just this year, our baby turned 20 and our eldest turned 37, and my 24 consecutive years of parenting teenagers came to an end. I can only imagine what God endured. The Israelites were hardheaded and hard of hearing. They don’t listen to what God says or take his words to heart. They make excuses. They whine. They blame others. They blame God. They deliberately disobey him and pretend like they’re loving him. They sneak around. Check, check, and check.

God traces their story in Ezekiel 20. He called them out of Egypt and their idolatry there, but they bring it along with them. He cares for them in the desert, but they rebel and complain. He brings them to the Promised Land, but they refuse to go in. He lets the parents die and makes a covenant with their children, but the children rebel, too. They finally go into the Promised Land anyway and quickly assimilate the idol worship there. Through it all, even when he’s fed up and lets Babylon completely destroy them, he says he’ll take them back. In fact, his discipline is designed to bring them back to him, not to say “Adios!”

Why does God let this relationship go on? And why does he record it in such detail in his sacred word? If the Bible is his manual for how to be strong and good, why aren’t his people strong or good? Isn’t he concerned about how his people make him look? Why does he tell so many stories of weakness and failure, even highlighting these stories (it seems to me) of the “greats of the faith” like Noah and David and Solomon?

In chapter 20, God says why. He says he puts up with them for two reasons: for the sake of his name among the Gentile nations, who are watching Israel’s story unfold, and to let his people experience life without him. He puts up with them so that all of them–pagan and chosen people alike–would know who he is, that he is God, which just happens to be the slogan of the book of Ezekiel, repeated 184 times (Holy Bible app), “Then you will know that I am the Lord your God,” 20:20. (I smile again when I see that Ezekiel 20:20 is the “sight line” for God’s message in this book of the Bible.)

He’s also concerned that his people get to the end of themselves, because it’s at the end of their rope that folks tend to grab hold of his hand. His language is surprising here, too. “I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by; I let them become defiled through their gifts–the sacrifice of every firstborn–that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the Lord.” He lets their enemies overtake them and subject them to their laws, and he wants to fill them with horror over their sin. God doesn’t hold back. He lets his people reap the consequences of their choices. He lets them experience life without him in order to prompt them to return, to “repent and live,” Ez 18:32; 20:25-26. [I’m wishing I’d been onto Ezekiel 24 years ago.]

God is concerned for his reputation among the pagan nations. This surprises me. He’s God, after all. What does it matter if the pagans know him? Why does he care what they think? “But for the sake of my name I did what would keep it from being profaned in the eyes of the nations they lived among,” 20:9, 14, 22. Evidently, it matters quite a lot. I’m guessing if God was only interested in being Israel’s God, then what Egypt and Edom and Ammon think of him is irrelevant. But if he’s interested in drawing all men to himself, then how his name is perceived by the world matters.

God says something else surprising, “As for you, O house of Israel, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Go and serve your idols, every one of you!” Here’s a strategy I didn’t think of with my teenagers. “Go drink underage! Go sleep around! Go wallow in sin!” Why does God say such a thing?

Because he knows they’ll be back. Sin will have its way with them and break them and when it does, God will be ready to welcome them home. “But afterward you will surely listen to me and no longer profane my holy name with your gifts and idols. For on my holy mountain, the high mountain of Israel…the entire house of Israel will serve me, and there I will accept them…and you will know that I am the Lord,” 20:39-42.

And there, Ezekiel says, they’ll remember where they’ve come from and all their wandering away. And they’ll feel ashamed and sorry. “There you’ll remember your conduct and all the actions by which you have defiled yourselves, and you will loathe yourselves for all the evil you have done. You will know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my names’s sake and not according to your evil ways and your corrupt practices…” He won’t deal with them as their sins deserve, but for his name’s sake? Here’s another parenting skill that never occurred to me: the grace of letting stuff go.

God’s integrity runs deep. He doesn’t let the sin of his people keep him from being who he is or push him to break his covenant. He will keep his promise to be their God, even when they don’t keep theirs to love him back. It’s an extraordinary story of consistent rebellion and consistent love that refuses to let go. God always comes through. He says, “this is who you are and who you’ve always been, and this is who I am and who I’ve always been. I’m your God and you’re my people, and one day it will the the dearest truth you know,” 20:39-44, paraphrased. And if they’ve never seen it before they’ll see it on this day: the patient kindness of God, his gladness to see them, his never-letting-go, never-failing-love. And they’ll worship him. 20:43-44.

And then it hits me why God tells the backsliding stories he tells in his word. The Bible isn’t the story of God’s faithful people. It’s never been the story of their goodness. It’s the story of God and his goodness. It’s the story he tells of lost people who need him and of his plan to save them and make them his because he’s great. It’s the story of his faithfulness.

I’m thinking when the elders came to ask God what he thought, he had to do the “forehead smashing” emoji. And then the “eye roll.” And if he were talking in today’s lingo, he’d have told Ezekiel to say, “Let’s look at how long I’ve been hearing these very same words from you boys. Let’s start with Egypt. We could start with Eden, but Egypt’s as good a place as any. Let’s see how sincerely you’ve wanted to ‘inquire’ of me since Egypt…” And he’d have told them their story. Maybe at the end, he’d say, “Do you see a pattern here? Will you get it after all these years?”

I’m guessing that these men would have left Ezekiel with their tails between their legs. They’d have felt ashamed of their hard hearts that hadn’t listened for a thousand years since Egypt. So I check back in the text.

But the truth is, they’re the ones who smashed their foreheads and rolled their eyes. They turned it on Ezekiel. They got up to leave and muttered, “Isn’t he always-and-only, just telling parables? Who can understand anything he says?” 20:49, paraphrased. Shaking their heads, they say, “Ask the guy a simple question, and you get a history lesson.”

Nobody likes bad news. Nobody likes to be told they’re messing up, let alone living among a nation of people who’ve been messing up for hundreds of years. Honestly, it’s hard for me to sit down today and write about another story of stubborn people who keep pretending to follow God. I’m ready to get to Daniel (who’s coming up soon), who has integrity and courage and a do-or-die faith. Daniel’s inspiring.

But then I think how Daniel’s story shows God’s faithfulness to a man who pretty much deserved it. And while it’s inspiring to believe that a person can be faithful to God on this earth, it’s not my life. I’m not a Daniel. I’ve been a goody-goody and then a prodigal. The story that most touches my heart is the one here–the one where God’s people stand on his mountain, undone and overwhelmed by his goodness that they get to be there, the ones who didn’t follow and didn’t listen and kept falling flat and still, he kept his covenant to be their God and to bring them home.

And he did.

God’s love and mercy is deeper than the deepest part of the ocean. Pastor Corby told us yesterday that in its deepest part, the ocean is 7 miles deep. God’s love and mercy is immeasurable: who can actually measure the deepest ocean depth? Who can go down that far and not implode? There is no depth or length or height that God will not go to, to bring his people to himself, weak and wounded and full of stories of sin and praise for all that he’s done to woo them and win them and wow them with himself.

This is who God is.

The only response that I can think of that makes any sense is to worship.

A sticky note: Some commentators see this prophecy of God’s people worshipping on Mount Zion fulfilled when the exiles return to Jerusalem with Nehemiah and Ezra and begin to rebuild it around 500 BC. Some think it was fulfilled in the restoration of Israel to the Jews in 1948. Some think it refers to a far off day that is still to come, (Block, Clarke, and Guzik, enduringword.com/bible-commentary/ezekiel-20/) I’m guessing all of these are included in its fulfillment, since God’s idea of time is so far beyond time–that “one day is as a thousand years” thing comes to mind. No doubt it will ultimately be fulfilled when Jesus returns and his people stand together in white and say, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Rev 5:12.

Hebrews 9:11-28

The writer of Hebrews explains more of Jesus’ superior “once for all” blood sacrifice for sin, “How much more [than the blood of bulls and goats] will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” 9:14.

A clean conscience is no small possession. People do a lot of good and bad things to try to feel better and find peace. The list of what we can spend time and energy and money on is endless. When I was in the middle of my hog wallow in sin, I was sick all the time and my hair fell out. I’m pretty sure my guilty conscience was making me sick, because when I repented, I got well almost overnight and my hair grew back. I can still feel the emptiness of those days when I see the pictures. A sickened conscience is a heavy load.

But here, the writer says in verse 13 that while bull blood cleaned a person ceremonially on the outside, Jesus’ blood cleans us up inside–in our consciences–from the things we’ve done. And the outcome? We can serve God.

Oh, wow. “This is what else you get” is where I thought this thing was heading. Jesus’ blood cleans me up so I can put on my apron and grab a mop? Serving isn’t really something I think of as a perk of Jesus’ blood for me. I was thinking more along the lines of that mansion in heaven one day. Or the restored relationship with my enemy.

You know, stuff for me.

But then I remember how desolate I was back in the pig pen, and how I couldn’t think or talk or feel anything but what concerned me, me, and only me. And how very miserable I was. Hair loss at any age is hard, but a balding 50-year-old female is especially sad to be.

And I realize what a priceless gift this is, to be given a clean conscience so that I’m freed from my guilt (and myself) and enabled to serve God. Serving me brought misery, but serving God moves me outside myself and focuses my heart on a bigger world and a bigger life and more to do and experience with him than I’ll ever get done before I die. “Oh the places you’ll go!”

Being freed from a guilty conscience enables us to give ourselves away in a way that feeds our souls like nothing else on earth. And there’s joy. This verse doesn’t say it, but joy is a by-product of serving God. Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. If he could find joy in the cross, I’m guessing there’s joy to be found in pouring myself out, too, Heb 12:2; Pr 10:28.

Thanks, God, for this peek into Jesus’ powerful blood. Thank you for how it cleans me up and frees me to serve you. Help me find where I can plug into joy, too.

Psalm 107

This psalm is full of stories about the people God rescues. It could be the resource for an entire post in-and-of itself. It comes along after we’ve seen the rescued folks who praise God on his mountain in Ezekiel. And it’s right here, just after we read about our rescued consciences in Hebrews. God is all about the rescue.

There are a lot of reasons why people need rescuing here, and there’s praise after each one for the God who rescues:

–those who are lost, homeless, without access to resources like those in a city, 107:4-9.
“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.”

–those who are imprisoned, in darkness and chains, because of their rebellion against God, 107:10-15.
“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he breaks down gates of bronze
and cuts through bars of iron.”

–those who are sick and self harmed, addicts, the mentally unstable and deluded, 107:17-22.
“He sent forth his word and healed them;
he rescued them from the grave.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.”

–those in storms, battling forces beyond their ability to control, the abused, the innocent, 107:23-32.
“He stilled the storm to a whisper,
the waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.”

This pretty much sums up everyone I know. I don’t actually know anyone in prison, but I know a few folks in chains, locked up in their sin, who are as much like prisoners as the ones who wear stripes. I’ve been there. Heck, I’ve still got some chains that rattle. I also don’t know anyone on the high seas, but battling storms is a pretty much everyday thing here. In every case, the psalmist describes how God hears their cry and delivers them because of his “great love.”

“The lesson? The love of God is not earned; it’s a gift of grace. You connect to it not by your merits or the quality of your life, but through dependent prayer. Everyone who cried out to God was heard. Behold how he loves us,” Timothy Keller, The Songs of Jesus, p. 283.

The psalmist rejoins with the last verse,
“Whoever is wise, let them heed these things
and consider the great love of the Lord.”

My take away today is your patient love. From Ezekiel, I see how you father us. You don’t force anyone to follow you. You let our circumstances teach us. You don’t control us. You’re faithful even when you let us go. You give us years upon years if that’s what we need to figure it out and find our way to you.

And when we do, you accept us. You put a pig on the spit. You call us “fragrant incense.” This teaches me. I tend to be the “watch dog” parent, or the “who cares?” parent when I’ve had it, but neither are your style. I’m glad to see another way. Ez 20:40-41; Luke 15.

Maybe one of the reasons you’re patient is because you’re not looking to us to fix ourselves. You’re not thinking we’ve got work to do to shape up. Hebrews tells me that the work’s been done. Jesus’ blood was not only better than goat and bull blood, it’s also better than my blood. I couldn’t do what was needed to find my way to you, but Jesus could–and did. Maybe that’s why you’re chill. You know it’s finished. The only “work” left to do is for us to get a clue and ask for your help.

And boom. It’s done, and we’re in.

And Psalms shows me to what lengths you go to for each person–regardless of their situation, regardless of their stupidity–to bring them help and healing. Why you pursue each of us, and patiently wait for us, and rejoice with us when we turn to you is hard to fathom, but I know you do.

You did it for me.

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