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Renewing Hope in Hardship – Ezekiel 34

by Jake Roberts

(Message Preached in June in LeCompte and Turkey Creek)

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Intro: Christianity, as a manner of living, is nothing if not a life of hope. The Apostle Paul told this to Titus:

   Titus 2:11-13 ESV

11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,

   ILLUST: Back in the 1950’s, Curt Richter, a well-known Harvard graduate and scientist with Johns Hopkins University did a series of rather unorthodox experiments using water, buckets and rats that resulted in an amazing discovery. He wanted to see how long rats could swim before they drowned.

     On average, they’d give up and sink after 15 minutes. But right before they gave up due to exhaustion, the researchers would pluck them out, dry them off, let them rest for a few minutes – before putting them back in for a second round.

     In the second try, how long do you think they lasted? Remember – they had just swam until failure only a few short minutes ago…How do you think they lasted? Another 15 minutes? 10 minutes? 5 minutes? NO! 60 hours[i]. That’s not an error.

     The conclusion drawn was that since the rats believed that they would eventually be rescued, they could push their bodies way past what they previously thought impossible. A rat that was temporarily saved survived 240 times longer than one that was not given any intervention. Richter’s conclusion: that saving a rat from drowning – even temporarily, gave that rat hope.

     Now, I ask you, if hope can cause exhausted rats to swim for that long, what could a belief in our blessed hope do for you?

Let me invite you turn in your Bibles to Ezekiel 34; this morning there is something of the utmost importance we must discuss. And it is this: finding Renewing Hope in Hardship.

     Now, there is much to say when studying the Book of Ezekiel. Yet, first off this morning, I wish for you to see:

  1. A CONTEXT OF RELEVANCE

What’s funny is how Wednesday night I was telling Hilda that I’d not be preaching from Ezekiel any time soon.  Well, I suppose God had other ideas. What I was reminded of, as I prepared for this morning, is how similar the ways of our nation are to the ways of the nation of Judah, just before it fell.

     You see, Judah (like our country) was rebelling fiercely against God. For us, you must know that within the last 10-20 years of our nation’s history, the nation’s attitude about God get progressively worse. As Dr. Dave Reagan said, “Years ago we were giving God the ‘cold-shoulder,’ nowadays we’re giving God the finger!” We’ve seen much regression and rebellion in the hearts of our people. This, of course, tells us that we are living in the last days before Jesus’ rapturing of the church.

     As Dr. Vance Havner once put it, the last days would showcase, “Anarchy in the world, apostasy in the church, and apathy in the pew.” What Vance Havner said over 50 years ago looks infinitely more like a reality today. If you don’t believe me, consider the following:

When a nation gets to this point, the Apostle Paul tells us that God will step back, remove his hedge of protection, and let humanity have its way – and sin will multiply & abound: Romans 1:

     Yes, dear friends, our nation is giving, logic, liberty, and the LORD God himself, the middle finger. Yet, as doomy and gloomy as that may sound, I submit that there is more to be said this evening – hence why I asked you to turn to Ezekiel 34. There is a context of relevance.

     You see, the situation in Ezekiel’s day is not so unlike our own. You might summarize what I just told you in 3 ways: Our nation’s (1) Colleges, (2) Corporations, and (3) culture has been swept into the sin that is devoid of logic, destructive to our liberty, and damnable by God. The same could be said of the Jewish nation of Judah during the days of the prophet Ezekiel.

      Recall that after the reigns of King David and his son King Solomon, (the 2nd & 3rd kings of the Jewish people), he once united monarchy was divided into the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah. Though both kingdoms lasted for a while, eventually, the large neighboring empire of the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel.

     This left the small Southern kingdom of Judah vulnerable. A new, large empire, Babylon, invaded Judah and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, killing many in brutal warfare, and taking the leaders of the area into captivity.

This exile of these leaders in Babylon we call “the Babylonian exile” or put more simply “the exile.” Psalm 137 represents the pain of Babylonian exile

Psalm 137:1 ESV By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

As the Israelite people sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept when they remembered their home so far away, left in ruins.   Ezekiel bears witness to this trauma.

     Sometimes people struggle with reading Ezekiel, especially its beginning chapters. Unlike the book of Isaiah, which alternates between judgment and hope, the first 33 chapters of Ezekiel feel mostly like a deep dive into loss and violence. Ezekiel’s actions – cutting off his hair, laying on his side for months at a time, and eating food cooked over dung – can seem outrageous and irrational. But this is intentional.

     To help the people find God amid the mess of the exile, God asks Ezekiel to act out key scenes from Jerusalem’s destruction. The marks on Ezekiel’s body, the weird things he does, and the food he eats all tell the story of the Israelites’ sin, trauma, and loss. By telling this story, the Israelites can work through their trauma. They can face their horror and their shock and, in this way, start the process of healing.

     Ezekiel, by our place in chapter 34, is sitting among the exiles in Babylon. Judah has been sieged and defeated. Its inhabitants were carried off into exile, including Ezekiel. Ezekiel then is given an awesome view of God’s temple presence, but it appeared to him IN Babylon. Then, Ezekiel learns why. It is because of Judah’s idolatry & injustice that compelled God to forsake his own temple and let the Babylonians conquer.

    Early on the book, there is hope for the future. However, what develops between chapters 12-32 is God’s divine judgment. 12-24 showcases judgment of Israel, 25-32 shows the judgment on the nations around Israel. Then, a key moment happens in chapter 33; Ezekiel hears word that the Babylonians siege of Jerusalem was over because the city has completely fallen, and the temple was destroyed.

     The exile was a horrific judgment on God’s people, many could easily wonder if God was done with them at that point. Yet, again, Ezekiel’s message shows that there would be a future for God’s people after exile. The rest of the book, chapters 34-48 deal with Ezekiel’s message of hope for the future.

     Praise God, brethren, just as much as Ezekiel was in an extreme situation, but had hope, so too can we. God shows Ezekiel messages of hope for Israel (34-37), for their national neighbors (38-39), and for all creation (40-48).

     After nearly 33 chapters that show and tell these experiences of trauma, Ezekiel 34 marks a turning point. Ezekiel 34 begins with judgment, but then turns to hope. This is why we turn here for the focus of our study today. As one commentary explained the Book of Ezekiel, “it is important to remember that Ezekiel is not a leisured work of systematic theology but rather an example of crisis literature written in an extreme situation[ii]

     Folks, the USA is in an extreme situation. The church in America is in an extreme situation. In surveying what the church has done in face of all the anarchy, apostasy, and apathy, we see that she has gotten into bed with the world. Churches now use Ibram X. Kendy’s and Robyn Deangelo’s works in their classes. These authors are some of the rock stars of Critical Race Theory, the dogma that decries the US as the most evil, racist nation in history.

    It should be noted that the sin, sedition, and satanic underpinnings that comprise critical race theory cannot be discussed here – there’s a lot to it. But, as Dr. Voddie Baucham summarized it, “To critical race theorists…EVERYTHING is racist.” Everything from working hard, getting to work on time, paying your bills, and following the law are all instances of white supremacy and systemic racism.

     SURELY, you don’t have to be a college professor our intellectual giant to see that their logic is quite simply hypocritical. They would that American is racist and discriminatory. So, to solve the issue, the heighten division between races and use reverse discrimination. You cannot fight discrimination with more discrimination.

     Getting to the point here, there is a relevant application in the book of Ezekiel. As the nation of Judah was swept into the idolatry, injustice, and insolence brought on by sin, so too is the US of A. In that relevant context, we also see:

  1. A CONDEMNATION OF WRONG

It pains me to believe that there ARE people out there who do not believe in objective truth. Truth like: water is wet, the sky is blue, and grass is green. They probably concede that those are universally true; however, some do not see right and wrong as black and white – they do not always see objective, plain truth.

     ILLUST: WAY BACK, in 2002 (that’s almost 20 years ago) the Barna Group polled Americans to see if they believed in objective, moral truth – right & wrong. In two national surveys conducted by Barna Research, one among adults and one among teenagers, people were asked if they believe that there are moral absolutes that are unchanging or that moral truth is relative to the circumstances. By a 3-to-1 margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to the person and their situation. The perspective was even more lopsided among teenagers, 83% of whom said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% of whom said moral truth is absolute.

That was in 2002! Folks, this is why (in our day, today) people use phrases like “Your truth” and “My truth.” Well, I hope this truth doesn’t offend your truth, but the truth is, there IS such a thing as objective truth! Put another way, THERE IS such a thing as always right and always wrong. It’s always right to care for your child. Its always wrong to murder someone.

      However, in both our world & the prophet Ezekiel’s, there is a degradation of truth. People don’t see their wrongdoings. People today are gloriously proud of their wrong doing. They are so wrapped up in sin, they’ve lost sight of their own sin. The same could be said of the people of Judah during the days of Ezekiel.

     In example, by way of the Prophet Jeremiah (who prophesied to the same people Ezekiel would, only years before) said that the Judeans were so enveloped in their sin, they were proud of it:

Jeremiah 6:15 ESV Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,” says the LORD.

Both then and now, God clearly condemns this type of sin that allows the evil we see to flourish. As you survey the trappings of our time, corruption, crime, calamity, and catastrophe on the rise, see also that God condemns those who orchestrate and facilitate such sin – even in the high places of the world. You’ve seen the context of relevance, look now, if you would, and see the condemnation of wrong:

    Ezekiel 34:1-6, 10 ESV

1The word of the LORD came to me: 2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

    10Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.

So…when we look at the sad state of things in the world, where seemingly evil is triumphing, God is not idle or ignorant. He sees those wicked persons in power and other places. He’ll not stand for it forever. There is a coming day of rescue and recompense. God condemns several vices and villainies we see everywhere. Of all the wrong he condemns, there is:

a.) Condemnation of selfishness (vs. 2)

Ezekiel 34:2 ESV “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?

The selfishness of the world is one of the clearest indicators that we’re living in the last days before Jesus’ return.

             II Timothy 3:1-2 ESV 1But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of    

                        difficulty. 2For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive,

           disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy

         Through Ezekiel, God condemned the leaders of ancient Judah for taking all for themselves and not helping their people:

Ezekiel 34:3 ESV You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.

     Furthermore, the selfishness in the world that produces and perpetuates sin has also infiltrated and infested the church.

ILLUST: To mention Dr. Havner again, he once told the story of a church with a sign out front that read: “Jesus Only.” One night, he says, a storm blew and knocked off the first three letters, leaving the sign to say, “us Only.” Far too many churches have become that way Havner said. I agree.

      Yet, God condemns selfish abuses. In the previous chapter, notice what God says about the people of Judah:

Ezekiel 33:30-31 ESV

30“As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ 31And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain

 

b.) Condemnation for Shedding Blood (Ezek. 22:1-3)

Turn back a few chapters, to Ezekiel 22, and notice another reason God allow Judah to fall.

Ezekiel 22:1-3 ESV

1And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 2“And you, son of man, will you judge, will you judge the bloody city? Then declare to her all her abominations. 3You shall say, Thus says the Lord GOD: A city that sheds blood in her midst, so that her time may come, and that makes idols to defile herself! 

        God condemns, then and now, the shedding of innocent blood. When Cain killed his brother Abel, (the first murder in human history) God said that Abel’s blood was crying out to him. In the Book of Proverbs, the wise King Solomon tells us many things that God hates, including this one.

Proverbs 6:17-17 ESV 16There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood

    Murder is on the rise in America; abortion is on the rise in America. The same blood guiltiness on Judah and Jerusalem is on our United States folks. God would have us be preservers and protectors of life, not destroyers! In the OT Law, God made such commands for all of his people:

Deuteronomy 22:8 ESV “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.”

    The shedding of innocent blood should be as abominable to the people of God as it is to God himself. If we learn anything from Cain & Abel, it is that we ARE our brothers’ keepers. We ARE to be preservers and protectors – but that’s not what was happening in Judah and that’s NOT what is happening in America.

ILLUST: As we spoke about Wednesday night before service, there was a story that made national headlines a couple of weeks ago. A young policeman unfortunately had to gun down a woman with a knife. This woman was in the process of attempting to STAB another woman. In shooting her, this policeman saved another woman’s life – yet the world has condemned him for it.

In both Ezekiel’s world and ours, people condemn those who seek to preserve life, while they themselves take it. God condemns such abuse. But not only is there a condemnation of selfishness and shedding blood, there is also:

c.) Condemnation of Sedition (Idolatry) (Ezek. 22:4)

When preparing to preach, my best efforts, I deliberately choose the words I do. The word sedition refers to treason, revolt, or trying to subvert and overthrow those who are in power over you. See again in chapter 22:

Ezekiel 22:4 ESV

4You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made, and you have brought your days near, the appointed time of your years has come. Therefore I have made you a reproach to the nations, and a mockery to all the countries.

 God condemned Judah for its sin, but especially sinful in their nation was the practice of idolatry. Do you need me to make comparison there? We are sol on idolatry in America. And I won’t waste your time reploughing that ground; you know this to be true: America’s struggle with materialism and idolatry has grown continuously for the last century.

     In the applicable context of the Book of Ezekiel, folks, we see an overarching condemnation of sinful abuses. God condemns the sins of selfishness, shedding innocent blood, and seditious idolatry. These things brought the nation of Judah to its knees; and, in my humble opinion, these are doing the same to America right before our very eyes.

     Turn back, if you don’t mind, to our original passage Ezekiel 34. There is a reason I believe God led us to this chapter today. As Dr. Rogers used to say, all of what we’ve discussed thus far is simply the front porch of the house we must enter. We’ve a big porch and a small house.

     In other words, I tell you ALL of that, to tell you this. In Ezekiel we see contextualization that is relevant. We see wrongdoings condemned. But, most importantly, we see:

III. A KING RETURNING

There is a depth beyond description in this passage. Yet, sufficient it is to say, this passage speaks of a true and better shepherd to God’s people. The leaders (shepherds) of the Jews during the days of Ezekiel had turned their thoughts inwards, and only cared for themselves rather than their people. They sought the insolent idolatry of the world rather than worshipping and serving the true God of Heaven.

      As the wise adage says, “If you want something done right do it yourself,” says, God will shepherd his people, himself. We see a King returning:

Ezekiel 34:10-13 ESV

10Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.

      11“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.

Here, dear listener, is why I believe God brought us to this chapter today. When see corruption and criminality on the rise everywhere in this nation, from the government to the gutter, there is an answer God would give.

     To those wicked leaders that would forsake God, there is King coming. To those who would endorse evil and eradicate good, there is a King coming to settle that.

     This was the message of hope God gave to the Jewish people in exile – there is a King coming. God’s way of orchestrating and carrying out this divine plan was a mystery, for thousands of years. In many ways, it still is. However, history has taught us much in what God was doing and will do when he says he would seek his sheep out and rescue them! Notice his word here:

Ezekiel 34:13 ESV And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.

That’s much like the prophecy God would give Ezekiel in chapter 36:

Ezekiel 36:24, 27-28 ESV

24I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.

     27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 

    God would firstly place the Jewish people back into their own land and they would become their own nation again, following their exile. Though it took the inner workings and machinations of God through history, praise His name, in April 1948 Israel became a state again – following WWII and the vicious holocaust committed by the Nazis. You get that? Send them back to the land – one.

     THEN, he’s going to send a King…first in the air to rapture his church, then on the ground (approximately 7 years later), to eradicate God’s enemies and the enemies of Israel. Then, this king will reign for a full 1,000 years, giving real peace and prosperity to the world. A fact perhaps alluded to here:

Ezekiel 34:14-16 ESV

14I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

See, here, is why Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.

John 10:14-16 ESV

14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd

There is a great message of hope, dear brethren. Despite the hardship that you and I are facing, help is on the way, and the King is coming. This too shall pass and is not the end of things.

     I’m sure Ezekiel and his fellow Jews only saw darkness when their surveyed their surroundings and imagined their future. Yet, God in his infinite grace and mercy, opened Ezekiel’s eyes to the hope God is and offers.

ILLUST: C.S. Lewis once said, “It seems to me impossible to retain in any recognizable form our belief in the divinity of Christ and the truth of the Christian revelation while abandoning, or even persistently neglecting, the promised, and threatened, return of Christ.”

Conclusion

Yes, brethren, this are crazy times. Much like the days before Judah’s fall, our nation is making some very poor choices. As Dave Reagan said, we’re no longer giving God the cold shoulder, we’re giving him the finger. We see Jesus’ words frighteningly fulfilled with every passing day:

Matthew 24:9-14 ESV

9“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.

     Yet, never forget, Jesus also said:  13But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 

These are crazy times indeed, yet we can have hope that our King is coming. We too will be rescued from sin, both spiritually and literally. Think back to where our conversation began…

     Dr. Richter’s rats, when they believed they would be rescued, worked much harder and saw far more success. Before such a realization, they’d tread water for a few minutes and give up, or they would outright drown. But, with the belief that help was coming and they’d be saved, they continued swimming for days.

     Curt Richter demonstrated that hope is a powerful factor in perseverance. There are obviously many differences between humans and rats. But one similarity stands out: We all need a reason to keep swimming.

     How are you doing? Are you continuing to tread water, dear Christian? Do you know that you’ll be rescued as well? Benjamin Franklin once remarked, “Hope is an essential constituent of human life.

     Realize, we Christians, have more reason to hope than any other people on the planet. Which, again, is why we say our faith is nothing if not if not a life of hope.

Titus 2:11-13 ESV

11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…

     Do you have the blessed hope who is Christ? Do you sleep soundly at night, even though the world is slipping fast and faster into ruin? I pray so; for we know that while all the sin we see being committed is condemnable and wrong, we have come to know that the King is coming! Hope gives us reason to, as Brother Baber would say, “Keep on Keepin on!”

ILLUST: At the height of WWII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for taking a stand against Hitler. Yet, he continued to urge his fellow German believers to resist Nazi tyranny.

     A group of Christians, believing Hitler to be the antichrist, asked Bonhoeffer, “Why do you expose yourself to all this danger? Jesus will return any day, and all your work and suffering will be for nothing.” Bonhoeffer replied, “If Jesus returns tomorrow, then tomorrow I’ll rest from my labor. But today I have work to do. I must continue the struggle until it is finished.”

HOPE can give a man the gumption to do that. It can give you the strength to do the same. Jesus’ return is imminent. As Martin Luther said, “There are only two important days, today and that day.” It is the impending fact of that day that gives us a hope and future for today.

 

[i] https://www.heartbeatservices.org/hope-floats

[ii] Joyce, Paul M. 2009. Ezekiel: A Commentary, 2nd ed. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 482. New York: T&T Clark

 

Jake Roberts is minister of the LeCompte Church of Christ, LeCompte, LA.




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That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10