God As the Jealous Husband

. . .for you shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Exodus 34:14

God is jealous. So much so, in fact, that according to the verse above He even has the name “Jealous.” Isn’t that a problem? Isn’t jealousy a bad thing, a sinful thing? While preparing for a sermon on Ezekiel chapter 16 it struck me how this passage helps us understand the jealous love of God. It compresses the history of the people of Jerusalem into a story, an allegory. Let me compress that even further and give you the “Coles notes” version of the story which we can divide into the following chapters:

Chapter One: Rescued (verses 3-6)

In ancient times there was a form of birth control called “exposure.” Basically an unwanted baby, all too often a girl, was left out in an open field to die. This story begins with such a baby being rescued having been found covered in blood and still attached to the placenta given the details. Remembering that this is an allegory, God’s people in Ezekiel’s day were to understand that they were in a relationship with God, not because there was anything special about them, but because of God’s love. The same can be said of the Christian today. To sum up chapter one: Rescued instead of dead.

Chapter Two: Married (verses 7-9)

Once the child in the story grows, the rescuer marries the child. At first glance we might think this is gross, but when we remember the context of ancient times and how marriage was different then than now, we learn that this was a very loving move on the part of the rescuer. This child, once old enough, could have been forced into slavery instead, or worse. Marriage was a promise of continuing nurture and care. Remembering that this is allegory, God’s people in Ezekiel’s day were to remember that being in a covenant relationship with God was a sign of God’s amazing love and grace. The Christian today enjoys the covenant love of God. To sum up chapter two: Married instead of enslaved, sold, or worse.

Chapter Three: Blessed (verses 10-14)

Here we learn about how blessed this woman really is. She is not married and then provided with the mere essentials. She is, in fact, the queen, and treated as such. God’s people in Ezekiel’s day were to realize just how blessed they were to be in relationship with God. As Christians do we realize just how blessed we are? To sum up chapter three: A queen, instead of a mere dependant.

Chapter Four: Betrayed (verses 15-34)

Here there is a shift in the story:

But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by. Ezekiel 16:15 (emphasis mine)

There is a lengthy and quite graphic description of the betrayal. Though rescued instead of dead, though married instead of enslaved or sold, though a queen instead of a mere dependant, though all of this was because of the love and grace of the rescuer, the groom, the king, she betrays him with her unfaithfulness. She is described as acting like a prostitute, only worse, for a prostitute has enough sense to get paid. Remembering that this is allegory, God’s people in Ezekiel’s day were to get the point that they have been unfaithful to the Lord. As Christians are we faithful? To sum up chapter four: Promiscuous and stupid, instead of grateful and faithful.

Chapter Five: Consequences (verses 35-59)

Following the betrayal come the consequences of a living a promiscuous and unfaithful life.

You must bear the penalty of your lewdness and your abominations, says the Lord. Yes, thus says the Lord God: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath, breaking the covenant; Ezekiel 16:58-59

There is a lot to read and digest here, but let’s just say it does not go well. Remembering this is allegory, God’s people in Ezekiel’s day were to understand that the exile and the coming fall of Jerusalem to Babylon is a consequence of their unfaithfulness. As Christians today we are not automatically saved from the consequences of our decisions. “You reap what you sow” is a Biblical affirmation, taught in both the Old and New Testaments.To sum up chapter five: Suffering the consequences instead of getting away with murder.

Chapter Six: Forgiven (verses 60-63)

Next in this story comes a pleasant surprise.

. . . yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant. . . I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God. Ezekiel 16:60,62,63

God remains faithful to His people! He will forgive! He still does. To sum up chapter six: Forgiven instead of cast away.

Do you get a sense of the jealous love of God from this story? The jealousy we tend to think of arises out of insecurity. It doesn’t just arise from a man thinking his wife is looking at another man, it arises from a man thinking there is a better man. God knows better and knows there is no better. The Lord is not insecure. God is jealous, meaning God is passionate. If God were not jealous for us He would be apathetic. God is jealous, meaning God is caring. If God were not jealous, He would be uncaring. God is jealous, meaning God is faithful. His love does not cease at the first sign of betrayal. He is faithful in His love, in His keeping of covenant promises. He knows what is best for the people He loves, and He is the best for the people He loves!

Spiritually speaking, we may be more like the woman in the story than we care to admit. We do not deserve the rescue, the marriage, the blessing. We betray. We experience the consequences of our decisions. But God remains faithful. Got sin in your life? You can depend upon God to forgive it. He is jealous for you. Storm clouds are brewing? You can depend on God to walk you through the storm. He is jealous for you. Got a sense that you do not deserve heaven? Me too. Though in this age we will still often experience the consequence of our sin, in the age to come we experience the consequence of His goodness and grace in Jesus Christ. Rescued, married, and blessed; not because we are good people, but because God is a jealous God.

(All scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

How Idols Take Us Out of the Race

What is the harm in a few idols? As long as you keeping coming back to do “the God thing” from time to time, right? Some church attendance, some Bible reading, some prayer, some sort of religious something. As long as we do that a little idol worship in our lives is not a bad thing, right? In Ezekiel chapter 14 we learn of some idol worshipping leaders who come to Ezekiel to “do the God thing.” We can paraphrase God’s response with one word: “really?” Said with a very sarcastic tone of course. Idolatry  is a ridiculous thing to do and in Ezekiel chapters 14 and 15 we learn of three reasons why God’s people in Ezekiel’s day should commit themselves fully to the Lord. These three reasons still hold true for us today. So what are they?

First, idolatry creates distance in our relationship with God. Consider:

Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any of those of the house of Israel who take their idols into their hearts and place their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to the prophet—I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols.
6 Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 7 For any of those of the house of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who separate themselves from me, taking their idols into their hearts. . .  (Ezekiel 14:4-7 emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that as Christians we are under a covenant of grace, and so no matter what kind of distance we may put between ourselves and the Lord, we can no more change our child-of-God status any more than a spat with my Dad would make my Dad no longer my father. Through Jesus God has given us the right to become children of God. But estranged children we can surely become through idolatry.

Distance between ourselves and the Lord is most unfortunate. The way many Christians treat their relationship with God is like an athlete, a runner, who goes to a newly assigned coach and says “can you give me money for new running shoes please? That is all I want from you.” We do this when we have an attitude of “Lord, just get me to heaven please, Oh, and make life perfect until then too.” The coach responds with “I have something far greater for you: my time, my attention, my attentiveness to how you are running, my expertise in training and running, my wisdom, indeed I offer you me. I offer you a  relationship with me.” The Lord offers us a relationship and all the while we cry out “just get us the shoes.” Idolatry makes us content with the hope of heaven as we miss the fact that we are missing out on God.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (John 15:9)

Second, idolatry leads us down a path of evil. Consider:

Mortal, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and placed their iniquity as a stumbling block before them; shall I let myself be consulted by them? 4 Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any of those of the house of Israel who take their idols into their hearts and place their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to the prophet—I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols.
6 Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 7 For any of those of the house of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who separate themselves from me, taking their idols into their hearts and placing their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to a prophet to inquire of me by him, I the Lord will answer them myself. (Ezekiel 14:3-7 emphasis mine)

Idolatry makes us comfortable with the abominable. It makes what is awfully wrong seem ok, or even good. Like, an athlete that cheats. Cheating through drugs seems ok, good even, if winning is the only thing. But if winning with integrity is important, then that is a different story. Idols kill our perspective on sin. Consider how the idol of Social Darwinism makes the elimination of a particular race seem ok, good even if you are Hitler. People become comfortable with the abominable. Consider how the idolatry of sex makes some comfortable with adultery or even rape. Consider how the idolatry of people can make a person comfortable with stalking. Though we need sensitivity here, consider how the idolatry of personal rights makes people comfortable with terminating life in the womb.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . . (Hebrews 12:1)

Third, idolatry makes us useless. Consider:

The word of the Lord came to me:
2 O mortal, how does the wood of the vine surpass all other wood—
the vine branch that is among the trees of the forest?
3 Is wood taken from it to make anything?
Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?
4 It is put in the fire for fuel;
when the fire has consumed both ends of it
and the middle of it is charred,
is it useful for anything?
5 When it was whole it was used for nothing;
how much less—when the fire has consumed it,
and it is charred—
can it ever be used for anything! (Ezekiel 15:1-5)

While I am enjoying the pre-teen and teen stages my boys are in I must admit to missing certain things from their younger years, like Thomas the Tank Engine. I do not, however, miss the Telletubbies. Thomas was not a fast engine, or a big engine, or even a pretty engine, but he was a useful engine. Practically every episode had some reference to Thomas being or becoming “a very useful engine.” As Christians we are called to be useful, to be fruitful:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4,5)

Idolatry keeps us from fully abiding in the vine, in Christ. Idolatry makes us fruitless, and useless. Idolatry would be like Usain Bolt running his competition in dress shoes, or Michael Phelps competing with water wings. It does not help get the job done.

So what if we find ourselves more like spiritual couch potatoes than spiritual Olympians? Is there any hope for us when idolatry has sidelined us form the race? Yes, there is opportunity to get back on track. God wants us on track:

I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel (Ezekiel 14:4-5 emphasis mine)

When we are on the wrong track the opportunity is given to “turn around”, a Hebrew word in the Old Testament often translated as “repent”. Consider:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. (Ezekiel 14:6 emphasis mine)

When some people hear that word “repent” they automatically  respond with something like “how dare you tell me I need to repent! How dare you not accept me as I am!” In fact the call to repentance has nothing to do here with acceptance of who you are. It has to do with you not accepting the horrible situation you are in, not accepting that you are estranged form God, not accepting that idolatry has led you down a path of evil, and not accepting that being useless has become your status quo. Repentance is a very positive opportunity to re-evaluate and make positive changes. Athletes do it all the time as a matter of getting back on track. When idolatry takes hold, perhaps you and I should listen to God’s Holy Spirit and do likewise?

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. (1 Cor 9:24)

All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV

Out of Their Own Imaginations and Out of Their Minds. Foolish Prophets Then and Now.

Spirituality seems to now be what you want it to be. This has many implications, both obvious and subtle. Let me give an example. As a pastor I do not receive as many phone calls from people looking for a wedding officiant anymore and just this summer it dawned on me as to why. Google. I am old enough to remember the days when an unchurched couple looking for a wedding officiant would phone around the churches. Now they just Google it. So I tried Googling “wedding Cobourg” and must admit that it was somewhat of a reality check. There is no lack of officiants in the area willing to marry you, or fulfill some of the other celebrations that we clergy once almost exclusively took care of. What dismayed me most was that in the typical “hire me to marry you” blurb, there were no offers of pre-marriage guidance, no promises of talking with and walking with the couple through what the Bible has to say about love and marriage. Instead there were offers to individualize and personalize the wedding, so that the wedding could be exactly as you want and so that you will be happy at the end of the day. It seems that the means has become the end. The “perfect” wedding ceremony has become the goal when a wedding ceremony ought to point beyond itself, indeed beyond even the happy couple, to God’s gift of, and plan for marriage. It is fascinating and sad that “personalize” and “individualize” are words, but “Godize” isn’t. Many a wedding, not to mention a marriage, needs “Godized.” Many a spiritual or religious leader needs to take a lead in this.

In the prophet Ezekiel’s day there was a tendency for prophets to individualize and personalize their messages, rather than “Godize” them:

1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are prophesying; say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: “Hear the word of the Lord!” 3 Thus says the Lord God, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! Ezekiel 13:1-3 (NRSV)

The “prophets” were prone to saying what they thought the people wanted to hear rather than what God had to say. So they went about telling people to relax, that there was no danger. Ezekiel on the other hand heard God’s message, and then delivered it. Judgement is coming. Tough times are ahead. Not a message people wanted to hear, but it was true.

Ezekiel chapter 13 has much to teach a prophet, one who would presume to speak on God’s behalf. Let us consider some points. You may want a Bible handy (or click on the link above):

  • In verse 2 Ezekiel is to say to the prophets “Hear the word of the Lord.” This is not something you would normally say to a fellow prophet, who should be dependable in speaking the word of the Lord. We would hope that all teachers of religion are hearing and understanding the Word of God before teaching it.
  • In verse 4 the foolish prophets are likened to “jackals among the ruins”. In other words they are opportunistic just like the wild animals that would enter a city once it has been destroyed by an enemy. We would hope that religious teachers are leading from a place of servanthood rather than opportunism.
  • In verse 5 the foolish prophets are said to have left breaks in the walls. That is, they do not help people defend against evil. We would hope that religious teachers are part of how God answers the prayers of the people “deliver us from evil.”
  • In verses 6 and 7 the prophets are straight-up called liars. We would hope that religious teachers are honest and seeking, speaking truth.
  • In verse 8 God tells the prophets “I am against you”. We would hope that all who are religious teachers never get into such a sorry place of having God against them. Therefore they should avoid being against Him like the plague.
  • In verses 10 and following the prophets are said to be using “whitewash” to hide problems with the walls. I have come to learn that you can hide a multitude of renovation sins under a “whitewash” of drywall mud. However, a solid frame underneath is far more important than a good looking wall. We would hope that religious teachers are involved in some solid framing work.
  • In verse 18 the prophetesses are spoken of as magicians and they are likened to those hunting for birds with nets. They trap people. We would hope that religious teachers are in the ministry of freedom, not entrapment.
  • In verse 19 the prophetesses are spoken of as acting purely out of self interest, and worse they pervert the justice of God. We would hope that religious teachers are not in it for themselves, and point to the wonderful justice of God.
  • In verse s22 and 23 the prophetesses accomplish the opposite of what God wants. We would hope that religious teachers are serving the will of God.
  • In verse 23 it is assured that false prophecy and divination will come to an end. We would hope that religious teachers understand that anything false will not last, but the Word of God will stand forever.
  • Also in verse 23, people need saved from the prophets. We would hope that people do not need to be rescued from religious teachers.

As we contemplate the above let us keep in mind that anyone who speaks their mind on spirituality and religion in effect becomes a “religious teacher” no matter their claimed religion or lack thereof. So this includes me, but probably also you. However, Ezekiel 13 pertains especially to prophets who claim to speak on behalf of the God of Israel. God has spoken in Christ and the Christian Church is called to a prophetic role in speaking on His behalf to the world. We want to be sure we are being consistent with what God has said, not what we might want God to say, or what people might want to hear. We run the risk of becoming foolish prophets when we try to make Christianity palatable. I forget who said it, but we are called to be salt, not sugar. We are called to shine a light, when people who have something to hide would prefer the dark. Light is not welcome everywhere by everyone.

But as we consider the trap of making Christianity palatable, let us remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is beyond palatable. God’s expression of love, justice and grace through Jesus is a most wonderful truth. It is the admission of sin that is the unpalatable part. No amount of whitewash, drywall mud, sugar, or darkness can make that part go away. And thankfully, in God’s faithfulness, nothing can make His grace in Christ go away either. With the wonderful truth of God’s love we would be out of our minds to speak out of our own imaginations.