“The Unnatural Response”
October 5, 2014
When we don’t respond to hardship the way people expect, we get their attention.
I. A grievous loss un-grieved (Ezekiel 24:15-18)
II. The unnatural response rouses others. (Ezekiel 24:19-24)
III. God has plans for a message of hope. (Ezekiel 24:25-27)
This week we’ll see in Ezekiel that when we don’t respond to hardships the way people expect, we get their attention. I heard a recent, clear example of that when David Jackson spoke at his father’s memorial service. I asked David if I could use this clip, and he said I could as long as I could make him look thirty pounds lighter. So I’ve done that, but personally I think he looks better at his normal size, so I’ve taken the liberty of not editing the full clip.
“I loved his singing and I’ll miss that. When we were in the ICU we sang a lot to him and the whole ICU could hear it and a lot of people were touched. Several nurses came in and said ‘you know you’ve blessed the entire ICU.’ There was apparently one Muslim doctor that came up to one of the nurses and said ‘what are they doing in there?” She said ‘they're singing.’ He said ‘but they sound happy. Why are they happy?’ She ‘because he knows Jesus . . . It’s because of Jesus.’ And several others kept telling us what at testimony it was. One of the nurses came in as a new believer and said, ‘When I go I want to go like this. I want to go surrounded by a family that loves me like y’all love him.’ And she said that over and over again to us. And we got her name, because she's praying for her family to become Christians. She’s one of the first generation Christians in her world.” This is exactly the idea I want to try to communicate today. When we don’t respond to hardship the way people expect, whether believers or non-believers, we get their attention, we witness to them by our faith and obedience and by the presence of God in our lives.
The text this morning is Ezekiel 24:15-27, in which God commands Ezekiel to have a response to death that is un-natural, the opposite of the normal human response to suffering that we would expect and that we would want Ezekiel to be able to have. Let’s read about his loss in Ezekiel 24:15-18 The word of the Lord came to me: 16“Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. 17Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” 18So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.
Ezekiel is divided into three parts, and chapter 24 is the end of the first, where Ezekiel speaks against the evil heart condition of the people and rulers of Israel. Their wickedness, idolatry and seeking of human solutions has put them on a path toward the destruction of the city of Jerusalem.
But Ezekiel has repeatedly offered glimpses of hope, renewal and return from exile. Back in chapter 9 Ezekiel saw a vision in which the Lord instructed an angelic being to “pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” This group would be spared. In chapter 20, which we studied last week, we saw that God did promise restoration from exile, a restoration too big for B.C., in which those who loathed themselves for the evils they had committed would know He was the Lord because he would deal with them for his name’s sake, not according to their evil ways or corrupt deeds. Mercy and forgiveness was promised. So I believe God through Ezekiel is asking the ones among the exiles who sigh and groan, who loathe their sinfulness ‘How will you react when I destroy Jerusalem? How will you handle that grief?’
To get at this question, God gives Ezekiel grievous news. ‘Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke.’ We find out in verse 18 that the delight of his eyes is his wife, which itself is great. We would not have guessed that this fiery prophet was delightfully and tenderly married. But he was, and that one line provides as much marriage counsel as some whole books. Is your wife the delight of your eyes? That’s God’s design.
But she will be taken away at a stroke, probably by plague or disease, according to the normal usage of the phrase. But Ezekiel is not to mourn or weep or let his tears run down. He is to put on his turban and shoes, not cover his lips, not eat the bread of men. In the funeral rites of that day, the mourner normally would tear his garments and put on sackcloth. He would remove his shoes and headdress, and shave his head. The lower part of the face would be covered with a veil. The mourner would roll in dust and then sit in a heap of ashes. He would fast for a day, after which friends would bring "mourning bread." But the Lord instructed Ezekiel not to use these customs to mourn the loss of his wife. In fact, he was not to mourn at all, not even to shed a tear. He was only to groan silently. I love that our Lord knows that you can’t lose the delight of your eyes without at least that inward groan.
There is no doubt this seems hard. The prophets were often called to very hard things, especially in the last years of the divided kingdom. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, had heavy burdens placed on them. I was talking to Hannah Gronseth this week and she mentioned how struck she has been by Ezekiel’s consistent obedience to what God told him to do. I think the vision of God’s glory never left this prophet’s eyes. God’s greatness and purity and worthiness compelled him to obedience, just as Paul said the love of Christ compelled him. I believe the love and sacrifice and redemption of Christ, the glory and greatness and holiness of God should compel us as well, to obedience.
So Ezekiel is called to this hard thing, to this grief un-grieved, and he does it. His wife dies in the evening, and the next day Ezekiel is out among the exiles in his shoes and turban, attracting attention by this obedience. Verses 19 to 24: And the people said to me, “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting thus?” 20Then I said to them, “The word of the Lord came to me: 21‘Say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and the yearning of your soul, and your sons and your daughters whom you left behind shall fall by the sword. 22And you shall do as I have done; you shall not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men. 23Your turbans shall be on your heads and your shoes on your feet; you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall rot away in your iniquities and groan to one another. 24Thus shall Ezekiel be to you a sign; according to all that he has done you shall do. When this comes, then you will know that I am the Lord God.’
I believe these exiled people sighed and groaned. They knew that most of the people of Jerusalem were still caught up in idol worship, looking to Egypt for rescue, bringing judgment on themselves. Even so the destruction of Jerusalem would be a huge blow to them. And so, knowing God had already led Ezekiel into several symbolic acts, they have the presence of mind to look at the upside down way he was mourning and ask ‘what do these things mean for us?’ That that’s a great question, a question we need to ask all the Scripture we read, study and hear preached. And God answers. “Just as Ezekiel has lost the delight of his eyes, but must not mourn, so you, in the destruction of the temple shall not mourn.” The temple was the center of Jewish faith and practice: ‘my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and the yearning of your soul.” It was unthinkable that it be destroyed. On a national level this would be and was as much of a tragedy as Ezekiel’s loss of his wife. And yet these people were not to mourn as those who have no hope. They were to acknowledge God’s justice, and, as we’ll see in a moment, hold on to hope. Even the human cost of this judgment, ‘your sons and your daughters whom you left behind’ was not to be their main focus.
Instead ‘You shall do as I have done.’ They are to respond to this suffering like Ezekiel, differently than the world. They are to trust God in the midst of this suffering. They are to recognize their own sin: “you shall rot away in your iniquities and groan to one another.” This is equivalent to Ezekiel’s inner groaning in the last section. But they are also to recognize and take hold of God as their Lord and as their king. Verse 24 “When this comes, then you will know that I am the Lord God.” We talked about this last week: God’s desire both in his mercy and judgment, is for his people to know him; not just know about him, but know that He is the Lord.
This is the thread of hope that runs through this passage: despite judgment, there will come a day when Israel is restored, redemption accomplished, when God makes it possible for everyone to know him.
But you might not know this is a thread of hope unless you had thought about the whole of Ezekiel, because, as we’ve said, God communicates by repetition and layering. So verses 25-27: “As for you, son of man, surely on the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and glory, the delight of their eyes and their soul’s desire, and also their sons and daughters, 26on that day a fugitive will come to you to report to you the news. 27On that day your mouth will be opened to the fugitive, and you shall speak and be no longer mute. So you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the Lord.
It may not appear so at first glance, but this is a major pivot point in Ezekiel, one that structurally speaks to the message of hope. In chapters 1-24 Ezekiel has focused on one message: the Jews who cling to idols or turn to the world for comfort will be destroyed with Jerusalem. But God will be with his remnant people in exile, those who hear his call, turn to him in repentance and live.
In chapter 25 the entire message changes. Now Ezekiel turns outward and prophesies against the nations around Israel, from Babylon to Sidon, and tells them they will not get away with harming God’s people. By their own free choice and out of the evil of their fallen hearts these nations and their rulers have attacked or are attacking God’s people. This was God’s plan but that doesn’t relieve them of the responsibility for wrongdoing. They are guilty, and will be judged. Nation after nation comes before Ezekiel’s prophetic gaze and is judged in specific prophetic terms with a judgment suited to their cultural characteristics and national sins. We will look at a couple of these in the coming weeks.
That section continues until chapter 33. There the message changes again. In Ezekiel 33:21 we read that “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has been struck down.” 22Now the hand of the Lord had been upon me the evening before the fugitive came; and he had opened my mouth by the time the man came to me in the morning, so my mouth was opened, and I was no longer mute.” This is a fulfillment of the prophecies of chapter 24. Ezekiel’s God-given predictions are coming true in his own person.
Beginning in chapter 33 Ezekiel pours out new, hopeful, promise-filled prophecies culminating the promise of a new heart and a new spirit in Chapter 36 and the imagery of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37. After that Ezekiel simply looks forward, not to the return from exile but to the thousand year reign of Christ in Jerusalem, and his eternal reign in the new heavens and new Earth.
So he prophecies against the people of God and then against the nations, but beginning in 33 he prophecies for the people of God and ultimately for the nations, the long term vindication of God’s plan and of his promises to Abraham. And Ezekiel’s muteness marks these turning points. In chapter 3, after Ezekiel had seen the vision of the glory of God, he was told “And I will make your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be mute and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. 27But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.” From that time until this Ezekiel has only said what God told him to say. He has, apparently, had no freedom for conversation of his own, no small talk, no relational talk. Here in chapter 24 we realize that he is still mute in this sense. Not that he hasn’t been bringing God’s words, but he has been allowed only those words, no words of his own, possibly because what he would have said would have gone beyond what God was saying.
But in chapter 33, as God frees him to talk about the hope laid before Israel, so also he frees him to use his own words to convey that hope. Chapter 33, ‘my mouth was opened and I was no longer mute.’ Just as his suffering was a witness, so now his healing is a witness. The suffering and healing were used to get the people’s attention. Verse 27: On that day your mouth will be opened to the fugitive, and you shall speak and be no longer mute. So you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the Lord.” You will be a sign to them, a witness, you will get their attention, and they will know that I am the Lord.
So what have we seen? When we don’t respond to hardship the way people expect, we get their attention. We’ve also seen that God is ultimately a God of hope and rescue, and he will redeem his people from the pit. He destroys Jerusalem for a time, to purge his people of idolatry. But he does not destroy the remnant, and he will never do so. He will work their ultimate redemption in Jesus.
But the application, I think, is in the way we handle suffering. The Bible promises that we will suffer. Jesus says ‘in this world you will have tribulation.” The Apostle Peter states the principle of suffering as a witness to the world over and over. He says, for example, 20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
He suffered that we might be righteous. And Peter says this is a witness. 1st Peter 3:13-17 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
1 Peter 4:1 “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” There will be suffering, but how we suffer is a witness to the will and the word and the works of God.
Now not all suffering is like Ezekiel’s, though in fact we are called in Scripture not to mourn as others do who have no hope. But I think the principle applies much more widely: there should be a noticeable difference between how Christians go through the difficulties of life and how the rest of the world does it. We need to ask ourselves ‘how can my response to the events of this world and my life show the difference a walk with God makes?’ The world around us is going crazy, deteriorating rapidly, in many ways worse off than I’ve ever seen it. But we don’t have to panic about all this, because God has not panicked, and ultimately all these events, all these evil choices, will weave together into the good fulfillment of his plan and purposes.
In our own lives the pains and sorrows, injuries and evils, conflicts, tragedies, losses and setbacks are God’s way of assuring our dependence on Him, thus gaining the attention of a world that desperately needs him. C.S. Lewis famously said that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. It’s true that our pain rouses us, and gets our attention. The pain of others rouses them. But they are also watching how we handle pain, and if we take it to the foot of the cross, casting our cares on him because he cares for us, if we have joy in the midst of sorrow and hope in the midst of despair, the eyes of the world will see this.
The stories I told a couple weeks ago about the medical missionaries cheerfully trusting God while fighting Ebola are only one example of this. I’ve always appreciated the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada. Not too many years ago she spoke about a theology of Suffering at Dallas Theological Seminary. Some of what she said is directly on point as we consider these truths and move toward communion. Let me play a few minutes of her conclusion:
Because maybe when my accident happened, maybe the devil’s motive was to shipwreck the faith of that young seventeen year old girl. Maybe it was to use her to make a mockery out of God’s goodness. Maybe it was to defame His sweet character, but remember God is in the business of aborting devilish schemes, always to serve his own ends and his own purposes. And God’s motive in my accident was to abort that devilish scheme and turn a headstrong, stubborn, rebellious teenager into a young woman, oh my goodness, young woman, I’m going to be 60 this year, I can’t believe it. Into a woman who can reflect something of His patience, something of His perseverance, something of endurance, something of His character.
And after 40 years in a wheelchair, I can say that my own suffering has lifted me up out of my spiritual slumber, it’s gotten me seriously thinking about the Lordship of Christ in my life. Its helped convinced the skeptical, cynical world that my God is worth trusting. I am loyal to him despite my affliction and infirmity.”