JUDGMENT IS NO JOKE
Dear Friends in Christ,
These words from Ezekiel - hard on the ears, aren’t they? “As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.” As I looked at the three readings chosen for Last Judgment Sunday (today), I didn’t want to preach on Ezekiel. This doesn’t sound very comforting at all, does it? In fact, I even thought that first time visitors might not return since we read sections like this from the Bible. But it is in the Bible so we need to understand it.
There are many who say that the God who reveals himself in the Old Testament seems so different from the God of the New Testament. Maybe you have heard that or even said it. I had a discussion with a woman who said she believed that there were two Gods – the one in the Old Testament and the one in the New Testament. The Old Testament God is harsh and bloody; the one in the New seems so loving. I had to wonder where the God of the Old Testament went since we are living in the New.
God is eternal – from forever and to forever. He doesn’t change. In fact, the Bible makes that clear, “I am the Lord and I change not,” and “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.” He is the God of Law and Gospel, of sin and grace. He wounds but also heals. He hates sin and forgives sin. He is the God of love. That’s the way he has always been; that’s the way he will always be. He is also the judge and he is coming again. Today we consider that aspect of God. “God’s Judgment is No Joke.” 1) It is no joke with God; 2) It is no joke for us either.
Do you remember when Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free?” Real truth comes from Jesus about Jesus. He sets people free. No guilt to carry around, no fear of death and hell. Jesus came to forgive and save. But those who were listening to Jesus didn’t believe him. In fact, they hated him. They replied, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
I scratch my head when I read those words. These were Jewish leaders who were supposed to be pretty intelligent people, but did they revise history. The Jews were slaves - to the Egyptians, to the Babylonians. Ezekiel lived during the Babylonian Captivity. While history might not be your favorite subject, we need a little history to understand what Ezekiel is talking about.
Babylonwas the world power. The only nation that semi – stood in their way wasEgypt. Babylonwhooped up on them at a place calledCarchemish. “Whoop up” on someone is not a military term, but it gets the point across. Carchemishwas inSyria, a hop, skip and a jump fromJudah, the postage stamp country that was home to God’s people. Since they were so close toJudah,Babylon’s tentacles reached down and brought them into subservience.
BabylonbulliedJudah. They took 10,000 choice citizens fromJudahintoBabylon. Daniel - lion’s den Daniel – was deported toBabylon. A few years later, in 596 BCJudahrebelled againstBabylon. Nebuchadnezzar crushed them like a fly under a swatter. This timeJudahbecame more than a mere source of irritation. Most of the real movers and shakers fromJudahwere exiled. Ezekiel was one of them. God had a purpose for Ezekiel. He wanted Ezekiel to minister to his people inBabylon.
Ezekiel was tough on them. They were being chastised for departing from God’s ways. The Jewish people needed to understand why they were no longer living comfortably behind the walls ofJerusalem. An often used picture that God used was that he was faithful bridegroom butJudahwas an unfaithful bride.Judahwas like an addict that couldn’t give up her addiction to follow other gods. Judahhad chosen to ignore and separate themselves from the God who called them his people. Ezekiel was chosen by God to continue to teach them the error of their ways. Ezekiel 8 and 9 are part of a vision to demonstrate how far they had fallen. Unfortunately they weren’t done falling.
This vision was given to Ezekiel in Babylonbut pictured the people in Jerusalem. It begins in chapter 8. “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” The scene is in the great temple David had planned and Solomon built, butJudah had turned it into a pagan temple. Idols were everywhere.
Ezekiel was told to dig into the walls to go to the inner recesses. “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising.” He saw people worshipping creeping and crawling things. Look who was doing it. The seventy elders! This was the same body centuries later called the Sanhedrin. Remember how they pushed for Jesus to die. There is more crud going on in the LORD’s temple. He sees women worshipping an idol called Tammuz. He sees twenty five men facing the east and worshipping the sun. Many like to think that God should never get righteously angry. Many think God is some pushover who is spineless to do anything about someone’s misconduct. Would you be angry if this were happening in your house? God had every right to be righteously angry…and he was.
Remember when Moses received the Ten Commandments the Lord warned clearly, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”
Our Lord says he is a jealous God. Jealousy is an ugly word. Shakespeare called it “the green-eyed monster.” It has overtones of selfishness, suspicion, and distrust. It is possessive and overbearing. It destroys friendships and marriages. We view jealousy as a horrible trait and we hate it, so why is God saying he is a jealous God?
The root idea of the word in Hebrew is to become intensely red. It seems to refer to the changing color of the face or the rising heat of the emotions which are associated with intense zeal or fervor over something dear to us. In fact, both the Old and New Testament words for jealousy are also translated “zeal.” Being jealous and zealous are essentially the same thing in the Bible. God is zealous—eager about protecting what is precious to Him.
Think about this: No man with any moral fiber wants to share his wife with another man, and neither does God. He expects exclusive devotion from her. He says that about his church. When she goes after other lovers, that is, when members of his church worship other gods or loves other things or people more than they love him, that member commits spiritual adultery. He is rightly jealous. Wouldn’t you be like that if your spouse committed adultery on you? Would you simply shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, well?”
While he is forgiving and loving, and wants his people back, he punishes those who never return. That’s what chapter nine is about. “Then I heard him (that’s God) call out in a loud voice, “Bring near those who are appointed to execute judgment on the city, each with a weapon in his hand.” There were six men all armed and dangerous. God is calling out the temple guards. “And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand.” They were going to punish those who remained spiritual adulterers.
The other one was dressed differently. He “was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar.” He had a writing kit. More about that in a minute! Do you remember how God showed himself present to Israel in the wilderness? A cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. That was the Kavod Adonai – the glory of the Lord. That glory was present here. “Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” The man dressed in linen sought out those who lamented and grieved over their own sins and the sins of the nation. While the numbers were small, the Lord did not forget about them. He spared them.
The others who chose to thumb their noses at God faced the consequences of their rebellion. As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.” What God was telling Ezekiel was that all inBabylon were to know thatJerusalem would be destroyed. That happened just four years later. Yes, the temple was destroyed and all the people who lived there.
Ezekiel was intensely bothered, perhaps just like you are. “While they were killing and I was left alone, I fell facedown, crying out, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel in this outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?” He answered me, “The sin of the people of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of injustice. They say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land; the Lord does not see.’ So I will not look on them with pity or spare them, but I will bring down on their own heads what they have done.” In 586 BC, about four years after Ezekiel saw this vision,Judah continued to rebel against the Lord andBabylon. Everything that Ezekiel saw in the vision was true. Jerusalem was utterly destroyed.
What do we learn? We learn some serious things about God. He is a jealous and zealous God. He does not share his majesty or honor with anything or anyone. No, it’s not true that any God will do.
We learn that he is a God who means what he says and says what he means. Don’t go around doubting whether he is real. Don’t go around putting words into his mouth that might sound more pleasant to you or to others. Don’t go around wondering if he will really come back to judge the heavens and the earth. When people start to think about big mistakes made in a lifetime, to not take the Lord seriously would top the list.
Remember from the vision how the man in the linen with the writing box was told, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” Take seriously sin. Take seriously how evil it is to cause such a separation from God. But also take seriously how Jesus wore the crown of thorns for you and how the blood that dripped over his forehead was shed for you. Remember the waters of baptism when you were made the child of God that you are. With the promises of God’s forgiveness we can face the judgment of God, cleansed from every one of our sins. Yes, there are serious warnings, but there is also some serious news – great news – of God’s grace.