Since the beginning of the year I have joined with my church in an effort to read through the entire Bible over two years. I typically do my reading in the dark hours of the morning before I leave for work. I don’t know what came over me yesterday morning, but I felt like reading the passages aloud. Me alone in a room with Ezekiel 36. And though it was my voice, God was speaking.
To review, at this point in Ezekiel we have covered the sin of Israel and Judah and their subsequent removal from power (think killing, capturing, and destruction), followed by many chapters highlighting the sins of the nations that surround Israel. Now we are back to God’s chosen people. At this point in the scope of the entire book I expected God’s promised restoration – He loves his people and is going to rescue them and bring it all back. Of course He will – Israel has learned her lesson and God is ultimately good.
You know how sometimes you don’t notice the obvious thing right in front of you? I believe it is a by-product of a hardened heart – that ubiquitous state where, by your condition, you are blind. And I would continue to be blind if it were not for God’s intervention.
As I read this passage I heard over and over – the Sovereign LORD says. The first couple of times I thought it was quaint, even slightly poetic and rhythmic. The next time I just read right through it. Blah, blahg, blah, the Sovereign LORD says. Blah, blah, blah, the Sovereign LORD says. Okay, I get it. You are sovereign. Sure. King. Yep. Totally understand this one. Check. When do we get back to the story?
“20 And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the LORD’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ 21 I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone. 22 “Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.”
They profaned His holy name.
The reading voice became louder. Israel, I am going to bless you. But not not for your sake, nope. For my name’s sake. Repeat. For my name’s sake. For my name’s sake. For my name’s sake.
I didn’t care much about ‘the Sovereign LORD says” until it hit me – this is all about the name of God.
So what? Names don’t really mean that much to us here in contemporary America, unless they are bad names. They are more like labels you see in the grocery store, a technique to categorize the mass amounts of information into digestible bits. And isn’t that what the various names of God are for – to help us gain insight into the infinite with terms we understand? I get it – sovereign and Lord, like a king or a ruler. Like in the fairy tales.
But the Holy Spirit wanted to have a fight. I was being thick-headed, hard hearted, blind, and deaf.
So the double edged sword came out – “Derek, you have it wrong.”
“What do I have wrong? I get the Bible, and this is clear. Israel was in sin, that led to their punishment, and now God is saying that He will restore them.”
At that point I was lucky God is gracious, because I probably deserved a resounding “Idiot!”
Instead I heard this:
“Blessings flow for the glory of God.”
The richness of these words took a few moments to seep through the cracks in my hard heart. I thought that blessings flowed because of me, because God loves me, because I am so wonderful in His eyes. Right? And when I sin I just repent and it is all better and it is back to the overflow of God’s abundant blessings. For me!
There is some truth to that. No doubt, God is loving. But God is making a far greater point, and it has to do with that little ugly word we Americans like to hide away, but always feel; entitlement. The nation of Israel had received its licks; the punishment was horrible and well deserved. God made it clear that they had done abominable things, from worshiping idols and making unholy sacrifices to committing adultery and despising the poor. When God’s prophecy turns to the even more wicked nations used to humble Israel, there was a period of relief for Israel. In fact, they could turn to those same nations and agree with God – yes they are wicked – so punish them! This soon turned to self-justification; they are wicked, but we are chosen, and that leads to self-righteousness; God will bless us because He loves us – we are his people!
And God indeed turned back to blessing Israel. He promises to heal the land and erase its sins. He will restore their wealth, their kingdom, he will bring them justice and stability. I can hear the listeners cheering on this news.
But God says the nation should be ashamed. He makes His point clear – the only reason He will bless is for the glory of His name, that the testimony of His name in the nations would shine.
So what does this matter to me? It is Biblical history.
No, it is modern history; it is my history. We contemporary Christians do it all the time. Once we receive the abundance and restoration brought about by Jesus, we also feel entitled to it. That is why we often expect that nothing bad will happen to a faithful Christian. We (though we don’t always say it out loud) know that we are better than the heathen in the world immediately around us. Our ways are the right ways, and we will show them all. And God will bless us because we are amazing. Nary an American Christian would confess this – but we often all think and live it.
What if God were to get in our face and say, “No, it is not because of you, American church, that I bless you. It is for my name!” Would it humble us? Would it shame us? I wonder. I actually don’t think we would get it. For so long we haven’t been bearers of his name as often as we are bearers of our own self-images.
I encourage everyone to take a moment out of your day and read this passage out loud. Let the words yell out at you. And praise God for the majesty of who He is, for His name’s sake.