When the Holy God Arrives
When the Holy God Arrives
Counting down the days
I wonder if you’re one of those people who likes to count down the days to big events,
Or, perhaps if you’ve got kids, you count the sleeps, until something exciting is going to happen.
I remember we printed up a calendar once, where our kids ticked off the dates for about a month, as we looked forward to a family holiday. Maybe you’ve done that sort of thing.
And I think probably, the more excited you are about a particular event, the more significant it is, the further out you start counting down the days.
So if it’s just something little, like a public holiday coming up, maybe you start thinking about it a week before hand.
But if you’re just beside yourself with excitement at whatever monumental event is coming up, you start ticking off the days months beforehand!
Which is actually, how come I can tell you, that it’s 87 days, 23 hours / 21 hours, and 25 minutes, until our new Associate Pastor joins the staff team!
But who’s counting?!
This morning we come to the end of our time in Ezekiel, and we find ourselves, in the final section of the book chapters 40 to 48.
And in chapter 40 verse 1, Ezekiel tells us the date, on which he’s given this vision, The very first words of this whole long section, are, In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, on the tenth of the month
That is, God gives this vision to Ezekiel, 25 years after he, and hundreds, possibly thousands of other Israelites, were deported as captives to Babylon, in 597 BC.
At one level, that’s just like the date printed on top of the newspaper: On this day, these things happened.
But those of you who read through chapter 40 this week in your Bible Study Groups, will have noticed that this isn’t the only reference to the number 25 in this section.
Now, if we leave aside the time in the Bible when we’re told that this person or that person was 25 years old, the number 25 only occurs 4 other times in the whole Bible.
In chapter 40, Ezekiel talks about the number 25 8 times, double the number of occurrences in the whole rest of the Bible combined!
So it’s worth us trying to work out if he wants to tell us something!
Ezekiel is looking forward
And he is!
But to find out what he’s on about, we have to go back to Leviticus chapter 25, and that one just is a coincidence.
When God gave the law to Moses to govern the lives of the nation of Israel, he included a provision for what was called the year of jubilee.
Every 50 years, God’s people were to celebrate a year of liberty, a year of freedom.
And if an Israelite had been forced from the land on which they lived, in the jubilee year, they could return.
Or if they’d been sold into service, in a jubilee year, they were able to go free.
This year of liberty, came every 50 years, and it began, on the tenth day of the month.
Why does Ezekiel make such a big point about repeating all the 25s, and why does he tell us that this new year, which ordinarily began on the first day of the month, on this occasion, begins on the 10th day of the month?
It’s because from this moment, Ezekiel is now looking forward.
In chapter 46 he comes right out and talks about the Year of Jubilee, and says, “What we, here in exile, are waiting for, is the same kind of freedom and restoration promised in the Year of Jubilee.”
And with all these repeated 25s, he’s saying “Today is the turning point,
Today is the day we start counting down”,
From today, God’s goal, Ezekiel’s goal, is that Israel will look
forward to their day of liberty, and beyond, instead of looking back, to the day of their capture and exile.
From today, the Israelites can start crossing off days on their calendar.
So what does God want them to bear in mind, as they look forward to their freedom and restoration?
Well, flick over to Ezekiel 43 if you will.
Then the man, that’s the angelic figure who’s serving as Ezekiel’s guide in the vision, the man brought me to the gate facing east, 2 and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. Jump down to verse 4, 4 The glory of the Lord entered the temple through the gate facing east.
What is the glory of the Lord?
The word that is, in our Bibles, translated glory, means, at its most basic, “weight”, heaviness.
Someone’s glory then, was their weightiness, their worth, a reflection of who they are.
And to see God’s glory, in the Bible, is always to see his nature, and character, and his desire to be present among his people.
Those are the things that give us a sense of God’s weightiness, his worth.
You might know the account of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, where God’s glory leads the people, in a cloud; A visible manifestation of God’s presence with his people.
And notice in verse 3, Ezekiel says this vision of God’s glory, was just like the visions I had seen by the Kebar River, that is, that amazing vision of God’s chariot throne we saw in chapter 1.
And remember we saw there, that God wanted to communicate his presence with the exiles in Babylon;
There was no place on earth, where God couldn’t see, and where God’s presence couldn’t be found.
So for Ezekiel, God’s glory is especially a picture of God’s presence.
God had removed his presence from the temple
But, 19 years earlier, in a vision recorded for us in chapter 10 and chapter 11, Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord leaving them temple.
And again, verse 3, Ezekiel says, “what I saw here, was the same as what I saw back then.” Last time God’s glory was leaving the temple in preparation for God’s judgment on the city and its destruction. This time, the glory of the Lord is coming back, from the east, from the direction in which it had left.
The departure of God’s glory, was the last stage of God handing over the city of Jerusalem for destruction.
Somebody was telling me this week, they were moving out of the house they were renting, and so were frantically trying to do that final clean-up that you have to do, before you move out.
Many of us have probably done that, I imagine, and after that final clean up, you don’t go back in and make yourself at home, do you?
Once you’ve done that, you hand it over to the other person, and it’s not your house any more.
You have wiped your hands of it.
Now, what God did in abandoning the temple, was much more serious, and catastrophic, than simply cleaning your house, but do you grasp the sense of finality?
God removes the visible manifestation of his presence from among the nation of Israel, and the Babylonians can come in, as instruments of his justice, and through their destruction of the city, God punishes Judah’s sin.
Judah had rejected God. The penalty for that is death and separation from God.
That’s always where sins.
And so this removal of the expression of God’s presence is a sign that God’s patience has run its course.
The glory of the Lord enters the temple 1 - 5
So now that the glory of God is coming back to the temple, what does that tell us about what’s going on more widely?
Well, if the departure was a sign of God withdrawing his presence, the return of God’s glory a promise of his presence in Jerusalem once more.
When we think of a temple, I imagine we tend to think of it primarily as a place of worship.
But in God’s mind, a temple is most especially a place for his presence to dwell, and it’s only because of that, that it can be, a place for people to come and worship.
But notice that the presence of God, although it comes to dwell in the temple, the effect of this is by no means limited to just that one building. Even as, verse 2, the glory of the Lord is moving towards the temple from the East, the land, Ezekiel says,
was radiant with his glory
There’s this sense that the whole land, is under the effect of God’s presence.
That language of radiance in the Bible carries with it a sense of blessing. You might be familiar with what’s sometimes called the Aaronic Blessing, named after Aaron, the high priest, Numbers 6:25, The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
Shine upon you, same word.
Receive the blessings of God,
If Aaron prayed that the Lord would make his face shine upon the people, as a means of blessing and relationship, and here the glory of the Lord shines on the land, this is good news for all Israel.
This is something worth counting down the days for!
With his glory dwelling in the temple, the blessings of God’s presence will flow to the whole land.
God gives the explanation v 6 - 7
Now, of course, we know what God is communicating here, because he gives Ezekiel the explanation.
If all of us this morning were to witness something like Ezekiel sees in verses 1 to 5, we would come up with a whole range of ideas as to what it means.
Some might say, “It’s the end of the world!”,
Someone else would say, “God’s obviously very pleased with us here at TMB”,
Others might says, “No, I’m afraid it means that God is quite displeased with us”,
And someone else might say, “I’m pretty sure it means that I took the wrong medication this morning!”
But if it’s God who’s given the vision, then it’s what he thinks it means, that matters.
And so God speaks, and really, the key point is at the beginning of verse 7, Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet. This is where I will live among the Israelites forever
Why does God need a house?
But it raises the question, why does God need a house?
Out the back of a shopping centre near where a friend of mine lives, there is a god, a little statue, one of the shopkeepers has put there.
But unfortunately, the neighbourhood dogs, would come along and relieve themselves, on god!
So they built a little fence around their god, to protect him from the neighbourhood dogs.
So that helped! But, when it rained, it rained on god, and so they built a little roof, over their god, to keep him dry.
But then they noticed that because there was now a nice little roof, all the birds would come and sit under the roof, and do their business, on god! And the people who owned the god, where forever scrubbing his head, to get the bird droppings off!
So they decided to build some walls to keep the birds out! And they wouldn’t have to scrub god so often,
And so by the end of it all, god had a little house, with a fence, and a roof, and walls, all to himself!
Is that why God dwells in a temple?
No, God only dwells in a temple, because the people need a temple.
Verse 7 echoes the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the temple he built in Jerusalem, the one that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
Solomon prays, 1 Kings 8:27, “will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less, this temple I have built!
Solomon knew that there was no way God could be contained in a building!
But it was a place, where God had, condescended if you like, to dwell.
God who dwells in the highest heaven, is by his very nature, out of reach of sinful humanity.
He can’t be reached, simply by human effort.
Religious activity, can’t bring you into the presence of God.
Great music can’t bring you to God.
If you want to have access to God, then God himself has to come, and make himself available.
So God has a special dwelling place on earth, that is his focus for his relationship with his people.
And when Ezekiel sees God’s glory arriving in the temple, we’re reminded of the same kinds of descriptions of the arrival of his glory in the old temple, and the tabernacle before that.
The arrival of God’s glory is a sign that God has taken up residence among his people.
We’ve seen the throne imagery all through the book, symbolising rule and authority. When God says this is the place of my throne, he’s saying this is the place from which I will rule my people.
A temple is not so that God can have somewhere to live, it’s not to keep the rain off him, and the birds away!
It is a sign of the compassion of a great holy God, who longs to dwell with his people, and rule them, not from afar, but from amongst them.
This temple demonstrates God’s holiness 7 - 12
And so now we’re able to make a bit more sense of the wider context, chapters 40 to 43.
The reason we have paragraph after paragraph of detail about how this temple is built, and Ezekiel’s guide pointing out the various features of this construction, carrying around his measuring tape like some sort of angelic Bob the Builder.
The point of all of this, is to demonstrate for Ezekiel, and for his original hearers, how well this building, suits its one tenant; The holy God of Israel.
The word “holy” just means “separate.”
To speak of God’s holiness, is to speak of God’s separateness, His necessary separation from anything else, anything that isn’t perfect, and pure.
For someone sinful, a rebel against God, to come into the presence of God, it would be like us trying to touch the surface of the sun! We would just be consumed!
This picture of the new restored temple, with Israel’s covenant God present, ruling his people, was intended to remind the people of God’s holiness, and their own sinfulness.
I’m sure you’ve come across those explanations that translate the language used in Real Estate advertisements into real English
You know, the difference between what they say, and what they mean.
So the ad says “Close to transport links”, which means, there’s a railway line right outside the window.
“Secluded setting”, means none of your friends are ever going to find their way to your house.
“Combined bathroom and laundry” means, you have to just wear your clothes into the shower.
I know that our real estate agents here are more straight forward than that, but we do need to translate this real estate description in chapters 40 – 42.
And here’s the translation.
Here is a house, suitable, for a holy God, that has absolutely no place, for anything unholy.
And the idea of looking forward comes into play again here.
The way things were is left behind, and now we’re looking forward to what is much better.
See the problem previously, was that the people of Israel, look at the second half of verse 7, they have defiled God’s holy name, by their prostitution and the funeral offerings for their kings at their death
Under some of the kings of Judah, temple prostitution had been introduced. Provision was even made in the temple precincts, for those prostitutes to be accommodated, and to ply their trade.
And we know that numbers of the ancient kings had been buried or had monuments erected to them in the palace precinct, which was also, as it happens, the temple precincts.
The distinction between what was holy and what was unholy had been lost. And that was problematic for a people who, you may remember, where supposed to be reflecting a holy God to the world!
When the temple of God doesn’t look any different from either the brothel or the marketplace down the road, something’s gone wrong!
Well that lack of separation is solved in this new building!
“Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins. Let them consider its perfection, 11 and if they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the design of the temple—its arrangement, its exits and entrances—its whole design and all its regulations and laws
God anticipates that when the people of Israel hear of this new temple, and its rituals and laws, they will be convicted of their sin, and they’ll realise how their sin and rebellion stands in such stark contrast to God’s holiness.
So, for example, chapter 40 verse 5, this new temple has a solid wall completely surrounding the temple area. It separates the holy space inside the temple, from the unholy space outside.
Or the repeated language in these chapters of the steps, leading up to each successive level, approaching closer and closer to the Most Holy Place.
This architecture teaches theology!
This temple is intended to remind people of God’s holiness, and their sinfulness.
Some years ago I visited my sister in the UK, and visited pretty much every cathedral in England, while we were there! And they all look exactly the same! Says he who, goes to church in a school gym!
Except, when we got to Canterbury Cathedral, where some of what you can see today, dates from the 11th century.
And I remember getting not very far inside the door, and looking up at the ceiling, the vault I think they call it in a cathedral, looking up 80 metres to the ceiling, and wondering what on earth, must some 11th century farmer, who has never seen anything taller than his cottage, what must he think of this?
What must he feel when he walks inside?
And I know those buildings were built at enormous expense, and actually, some of what they communicate to us about God and people is not helpful, but I did have the sense that the architect of that building, was trying to communicate something about God through his architecture.
He wanted that farmer, to grasp something of the enormity and majesty of God; The greatness of God compared to the smallness of humanity.
This architecture, and the language in verse 10 is of rolling out the blueprints, this building communicates the holiness of God, and the unholiness of the people.
This architecture, says to those in Babylon, the breakdown in relationship between you and God, it’s not God’s fault. That’s your responsibility.
This architecture says, God’s presence was taken from you, not arbitrarily, not without reason, but because of your sin.
But, this architecture says you’re sinful people, among whom God is residing, and you are welcomed into his presence, solely at his gracious invitation, and through his equally gracious provision.
God’s people need a means of access to God (v 13 – 27)
But, it’s one thing for Ezekiel to have this vision of a temple, that prefigures the end of the Exile, and the arrival of God, once more, dwelling among his people.
But there’s a problem.
The temple highlights God’s holiness,
And highlights the people’s sinfulness,
It highlights the necessary separation of people from God
How then, can people have access to God?
Well, that’s where this long description of the altar, and its sacrifices, and its purification, comes in, saying access to God is only through the means that God himself provides.
I’m sure you noticed as we read through, the long and involved process of dedicating the altar.
It’s not until the very last verse, that a regular offering can be offered here. Everything that comes before it is about setting the altar apart and, that word again, separating it, from anything secular, or ordinary.
I read this week, that it takes nearly 2 years, to prepare a guide dog, to serve a visually impaired person.
You don’t take a playful, excitable puppy, that chases anything that moves, and give it to a blind person and say, “Here! This little guy will help you cross the road!”
That would be a disaster!
Well, look at the energy that’s invested in preparing this altar, for the sacrifices and offerings of God’s people. Clearly God, though holy,
Though necessarily separated from his people because of their sin, clearly he delights in the worship of his people.
Clearly he longs for a way to be opened, for them to come to him.
God longs for relationship
If all God wanted was just to kind of exert his influence over the world. This temple wouldn’t even be necessary.
Ezekiel 40 – 43 wouldn’t even be in the Bible! God doesn’t need a temple if all he’s interested in is giving stage directions to his creation;, answering a prayer here, sending rain there. That’s how some people view God. Just kind of like The Force in Star Wars. Impersonal, but powerful, and gets involved every now and then.
Similarly, some people think that all God wants to do, is watch us, so he can catch out when we do something wrong.
Someone who’s just waiting there, hoping to catch you breaking the rules, so he can stick you in the corner for eternity!
But if that’s what God was like, well, maybe a temple would be handy, but he’d have no need for an altar.
But the altar is a massive feature, of this final, climactic section of God’s message through Ezekiel.
It takes 8 days, and if my count is right, 22 different animals, just to get this altar operational.
If you wondered, as we read the second half of this chapter, “Why on earth do we need to know all this?”
Here’s your answer.
Here is where we find the assurance, that God longs for relationship with his people.
Here is the proof that God isn’t interested in standing far off, while his people struggle on, far from him, and burdened by the weight of their sin.
Here is the evidence, that God is not content for people to be excluded from his presence and blessing, with no way open for them to be welcomed in.
But this temple was never built
And sure enough, just as God promised, the long-anticipated day arrived, and the exiles return to Jerusalem.
But when they rebuild the temple, this isn’t the design they follow. Although maybe you noticed, nowhere does God actually command the Israelites to build this.
This isn’t a set of instructions for how to build a temple.
It’s a promise that a temple will be built.
But even more than that, it’s a picture of a holy God, and the relationship that he wants with his people, even despite, their ongoing sinfulness.
The point of this picture is to make Israel ask, “How many sleeps?”
“When will it be possible for a real, lasting relationship with God?”
See, God doesn’t want the sacrifices.
God wants them to be counting down the days.
Longing for a lasting relationship, and a permanent solution to the problem of sin.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with “Planned Obsolescence”. It’s a design theory adopted by technology manufacturers for example, and it recognises that at some point in the future, the thing they’re making is going to stop working, and so you’ll buy the new model!
It’s why your mobile phone stops working the week after your warranty expires!
Planned obsolescence is why this temple never needed to be built.
Sure God provided a temple in Jerusalem so he could dwell among his people, and so they could come to him, and have their sin dealt with,
But this temple isn’t about that.
God didn’t fail because this temple was never built!
This temple was a vision for God’s people, to make them long for a day, when they could enjoy God’s presence,
And enjoy the blessings of being God’s people,
And have the assurance of being welcomed and accepted by God, knowing that their sin, which keeps them from God in his holiness, could be done away with, once and for all.
Ezekiel and his countrymen in exile didn’t know the day, they didn’t know how long they’d have to wait.
Of course, we who stand in history after Jesus, the one, true sacrifice for sin, we know exactly when this happened.
We know exactly how the sin that keeps us from a holy God can be taken away, without daily sacrifices.
We know exactly what it means for God to dwell with his people.
The gospel accounts of Jesus’ life tell us of the very thing that God promises here, God with his people. God with us.
We know that in the cross of Christ God himself has made a way for relationship, and welcome, and blessing forever.
We know that for someone to be accepted and welcomed by God, they simply need to trust that Jesus’ once and for all self-sacrifice is sufficient, for the stain and separation of their sin to be taken away.
And if we thought the detail of the altar said a lot about God’s great desire to create access to himself, well, sending his one and only Son to die on a Roman cross, says a whole lot more doesn’t it.
We must take sin and holiness seriously
And it says a whole lot more about the seriousness of sin.
If that’s what it took, to give us access to a holy God, we must take sin seriously, and we must take the holiness, the separateness of God seriously.
Yes, if you’re a Christian, you’re loved by God, and accepted by God, but don’t let that make you think less, of God’s holiness.
And don’t let that make you think less seriously, of sin. Your own sin, or the sin of others.
Many of you, Bible Study Group leaders, GiG leaders, and others, will have sat in training with me, where we’ve worked through the Preaching Pyramid, which is a tool for people who are teaching the Bible, to help them understand what a passage is saying.
In that process, when we talk about application, we talk about the impossible application. That is, what can we absolutely not do,
Or not think,
Or not believe, as a result of reading and understanding God’s Word?
So let me ask you, not just those of you who have done the training, but all of us, what is the impossible application of this passage? You don’t have to yell it out, just think about it for yourself. What behaviour,
What course of action would be a grave error, based on what we’ve heard God say to us in his Word this morning?
Isn’t it to think, sin doesn’t matter?
God can overlook my sin?
Or we open it up a bit further,
The sin and rebellion evidenced in the lives of my friends, isn’t a big deal, isn’t enough to keep them out of the presence of God.
These chapters of Ezekiel tell us that sin matters.
Sin has a cost,
Sin leads to separation from God,
I wonder if sometimes, we just don’t believe that.
We have some other picture of God, some other picture of sin and holiness, that doesn’t match this.
A friend of ours is studying architecture, and some days he takes his 4 year old son in to university with him. And because everyone else in the architecture department spends the day drawing pictures, this little guy draws pictures in there too! And when he’s finished, he sticks his pictures up on the wall among all the designs of the final year architecture students!
But I just hope that his pictures never get collected up, and sent off to the builders, to be turned into some office block or something!
I don’t imagine, the scribbles of a 4 year old are going to be structurally sound!
We don’t meet in a temple,
We don’t have priests who mediate for us,
We don’t need to offer sacrifices, day after day, to take away our sin.
Jesus offered himself, once for all, as the one true sacrifice for sin.
So our lesson from these chapters, is not learning the right way to sacrifice a goat or a bull,
It’s not about figuring out how to arrange the furniture in our building,
And it’s definitely not about thinking that God lives in this place.
But I worry, that perhaps our picture of God and his holiness, sits against this picture of God and his holiness, in much the same way as the scribbles of my little 4 year old friend, compare to the designs of the graduating class.
What a mistake that would be, to seek to build your life and your relationship with God, on the wrong picture.