BE A WINNER
Dear friends in Christ,
I attempted to read the Bible twice in elementary school. The first time I got to the book of Leviticus. The second time I made it to the book of Ezekiel. Some of my problem was using the King James Version of the Bible. That was English written in the early 1600’s. We don’t talk that way any more. Leviticus was hard to understand as a grade schooler because of all the Old Testament laws. I didn’t understand them. With Ezekiel one really needs to know the background and the symbolism.
Let’s do a little history lesson on Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesied during Judah’s Babylonian Captivity. It started in 605 BC. Babylon seized the land of Judah and King Nebuchadnezzar took some talented Jews back to Babylon with him. Daniel, the Daniel of lion’s den fame, was taken to Babylon at that time.
Eight years later, King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah again. Judah rebelled; Judah was crushed. This time Nebuchadnezzar took more of the upper crusters, the elite from the fabric of Judah’s society. Ezekiel was among them. God wanted him to minister to his fellow Jews in captivity in Babylon.
His responsibility was twofold. He urged Judah to accept their punishment for their wayward ways and wait out the seventy years in captivity. Don’t rebel. Don’t fight. What the Lord has decreed the Lord has decreed. Judah didn’t listen. In 586 BC there was another rebellion in Judah. The results were disastrous. Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple turned into a pile of charred rubble.
But then Ezekiel’s message changed. The exiles despaired. God’s people needed encouragement. He gave them that. Ezekiel’s message today is an example of that encouragement. “Be a Winner!” It applied then and it applies now.
First of all, be a winner by being on the winning team. Ezekiel was a prophet who used drama. He often acted out his message to his fellow Jews. Prior to his exile to Babylon while living in Jerusalem, he was to take all his possessions from his house and pack them up as if he were leaving for a life of exile. Can you imagine a person spreading everything he owned over his lawn? “Hey, Ezekiel! Where you going? Is God giving you a transfer? “Yeah, he is. God is sending us to the enemy and you know what? You are going too.”
In fact, God also told him to dig through the walls of the city and take his possessions through it. The day was coming when people would be that desperate to leave because Babylon’s siege was going to be that awful.
That drama was in chapter 12. Chapter 37, our sermon text, has even more. “The word of the Lord came to me:“Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.” This is not hard to understand. Take two pieces of wood and write on each. On the first write, “Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.” On the other write, “Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.” Then Ezekiel was to simply put the two pieces of wood together so they would be one. Seems easy enough to understand, don’t you think?
But hold everything! First the nation of Judah was captive in Babylon. Secondly, the nation of Joseph or Ephraim no longer existed. Let’s have a little more history. Four hundred years before the one nation of Israel experienced a civil war and split in two. Israel was the original the North versus the South. They existed separately for a couple of centuries. 130 years before Ezekiel came along, Assyria destroyed Ephraim and capital of Samaria. The nation was dispersed. Did you ever hear of “the Lost Ten Tribes.” That’s Ephraim or Joseph that Ezekiel is referring to. I hope you followed that. If you didn’t, the simple question is really this: How could Judah and Ephraim be united when Ephraim no longer existed and wouldn’t exist ever again and Judah was in Captivity in Babylon?
The solution is this. There are many times in the Bible when God refers to his church as Israel or Jerusalem or Zion, the hill on which the temple is built. When he talks about Israel he is referring to, as Peter says, “the holy nation, the people belonging to God, the people whom God called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” He says later on here, “They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.” This nation is the forever nation. Nothing in this world is forever. Forever can only be applied to heaven, not to an earthly country. In other words this has nothing to do with borders and buildings and banks. This is the church here which will one day be the church only there because there will no longer be an earth.
What is the church? We often refer to the word church in two ways. We talk about the visible church and the invisible church. There is a visible church and I don’t mean it is a building. You don’t need a building to be a church, you need people. What is visible is that people gather. But we could say that about a restaurant or a gym or a school. What makes a visible church is why they gather. God’s word is preached. Baptisms take place. The Lord’s Supper is distributed.
What makes the Word and Sacrament that special? Where the Word and Sacrament are present, the Holy Spirit is present! He touches hearts. He convicts hearts of sin. He convinces hearts that Jesus forgives sin. He changes heart so people who are convicted and convinced that Jesus saves change their lives. Where people are convicted and convinced is the invisible church. Because the convicting and convincing and changing takes place inside, it is called the invisible church. Ezekiel is talking about believers. Yes, he is even talking about you – living on earth but also bound for heaven.
There is more to the church. It has no bounds. Members come from all over the world. That’s what Ezekiel means when he says, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land.” The church is where people who might not have anything in common except their faith in Jesus.
God’s church consists of people who speak different languages, come from different cultures and have different customs. They have different skin colors, different genders, different ages, different talents and skills and yet are united by the weakness of our sins, but most importantly know those sins are forgiven. That’s you! That’s the team. That team is you and me. You are a winner!
We have the Captain. Ezekiel speaks about him. “There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” Someone wrote down different ideas about the purpose of the Old Testament. He wrote that the Old Testament told the story that Jesus was coming. He wrote that Old Testament is a history of God’s people Israel. He wrote that the Old Testament was the history of God’s faithfulness versus man’s unfaithfulness. The more you study the Old Testament the more you see how true that last answer is.
Think of all the different examples. Israel had miraculously escaped Egypt but in a matter of weeks they were falling on their knees before a Golden Calf. The reason Israel divided was because the northern kingdom worshipped different gods. Yet even the southern kingdom had anything but a perfect record.
God’s team has one captain - not some generic god who fits every description. Our Captain says he is a jealous or zealous God who will not give his glory to another. He is the one and only. He is one and yet is three persons. He creates and preserves; he redeems; He sanctifies and calls people onto his team. There is nothing more that he would like to do than to call his people to repent and be saved eternally.
His team even acts differently for the captain. When it comes to acknowledging God, there is no such thing as political correctness. Ezekiel says, “They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses.” No other God will do. When his people fail, our God “will save them from all their sinful backsliding” by forgiving us as we repent.
He says about his team, “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” Isn’t that comforting to hear? It is so good to hear parents say they will do anything for the well being of their children. Human limitations won’t allow us to do that at times. Our God promises to make everything we face work for our well-being. He says we are his children. He assures us, “You are mine." What makes us winners is that the Lord is our Captain.
Thirdly, while we are winners on the team of our captain, we are in line for the trophy. “They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees.They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived.” When God says he will give his people the land that Jacob had, many people get confused. Lots of people think Jesus is coming back to reign on this earth and his church will receive the land that Jacob lived in – the land of Israel. A friend wrote this week and asked me about the movie and series of books called Left Behind. It is based on that false teaching.
The Bible often compares heaven to the good things we experience in life to teach us the truth that heaven is going to be good like the good things we experience on earth.
The people of Judah were suffering because of their sin. They were prisoners in Babylon. They would return to Jerusalem when the seventy years was complete. But what Ezekiel says here goes so much farther. There is something greater. “They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.” That wasn’t going to happen in Jerusalem. That happens in the heavenly Jerusalem where David God’s servant will be prince forever and we will see him face to face. Only there can we speak in terms of “forever.” “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever.My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.”
We are at peace with God here. He forgives, but there no one will be fighting. No one will be sinning. There will be no locked doors. No pills for anxiety and depression we suffer from turmoil in life. No bad moods and no guilt to foul up lives. Democrats won’t be fighting with Republicans; Republicans won’t be fighting Democrats. In fact, the book of Revelation says, “God will sit on the heavenly throne andwill shelter them (his church) with his presence. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Jesus spoke seven times from the cross when he died. The last words he said were, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He died and his soul went to the Father. That’s a preview of what happens to us. Everyone who dies in Christ goes to the Father - from the Church here to the Church there - from being a saint here to be a saint in the fullest sense of the word - from winners here to souls that have fully won.