August 16, 2020

Ezekiel – Coming Alongside Others

A child about five anxiously watches her father as he takes the training wheels off her bicycle. 

She fears skinned knees and the thoughts of failure. “What if I can’t ride it?” she thinks to herself.

In her mind, she thinks she is going to have to ride the bicycle all by herself. After all, there is room for only one.  

She does not realize that when the training wheels come off, her father will walk alongside her as she peddles.  

He will encourage her whenever she gets off balance and be there to catch her if she falls.  

It is true, sometimes he will allow her to softly fall, but he then places her back on the bike, and then he walks alongside her again.

This process continues until the father is running beside the child as she gains speed and confidence. 

Had she been left alone to figure out how to ride the bicycle on her own, she would have given up. She would have lamented that at least with her training wheels she could ride, but with them off, her bicycle was useless.

But, then she would never have known the freedom and joy of riding that comes with no training wheels. 

All it took was a father who knew that coming alongside his daughter was the key to discovering the potential inside her and the joy she could have with just a little faith and courage. 

There have been many people in your life who have come alongside you to provide guidance, mentoring, or direction at crucial moments in your life.  

Many of you have been used by God and placed in the paths of others at the right time to help them carry their load and burdens. You moved alongside them, befriending them, and sharing God’s love with them.

Ezekiel was such a person. 

Today, in our journey through the Bible, we have come to the book named after this prophet.    

When Ezekiel was born, Josiah was the King of Israel. The land was stable. By the time his grandson Jehoiachin became 

king, all of that had changed.   

Jehoiachin was only 18 when he came into power, and he had only reigned three months before he surrendered to 

Nebuchadnezzar II and was taken to Babylon along with 10,000 others.

Ezekiel, who was the son of a priest, was one of these 10,000 carried away into exile.  

Imagine living your life and seeing your nation go from being stable to being ripped apart by a dominating dictator. What a change of circumstances!  

Now imagine being thirty years old and living as a refugee on the outskirts of Babylon in the ruins of an ancient city.

For Ezekiel, this should have been one to the best times of his life, but instead, it had turned out to be a nightmare.  

One day, Ezekiel decided to take a walk alongside the Kebar River to clear his mind and contemplate his situation. While he was praying, he had a vision. He saw God in all His radiance, holiness, and glory.  

In this vision, God called Ezekiel to be a prophet to his people.  

While prophets are ordinary people called to do work that’s not, the way Ezekiel went about doing his work made him different, even as a prophet.  

You might say that Ezekiel was a walking/talking Geico Commercial for God.  He came alongside the exiles with some creative add campaigns to get their attention so they would pay attention to God.

The first thought many may have had about Ezekiel might have been, “This man has got to be crazy.” But upon closer look, they realized he wasn’t crazy, just passionate about getting them to know God. 

For example, Ezekiel laid on his left side for 390 days and then on his right side for 40 days with his face set toward Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s movement was restricted to some degree during this time. 

Each day he laid on his side, symbolized the number of years Israel and Judah would be subjected to suffering.  

Imagine walking by him every day and seeing this man lying on his side. When asked why he was doing that, Ezekiel would tell them that he was suffering to remind them of their nation’s sufferings for not following God’s laws. In this way, he was coming alongside the people to identify with them in their sufferings.

When I bait my fishhook with a worm, I don’t identify with the suffering of that worm because a suffering worm is not of much concern to me. I’m not even sure the worm feels pain.  Besides, it seems to me that the worm is fulfilling its God-ordained duty, which is to attract a fish for me. 

Some people have as little empathy for humanity as I have for that worm. 

People are suffering all around us. We cannot attend to every suffering person’s needs, but the Lord commands us to enter into the suffering of others and help them share their burdens. 

Ezekiel took empathy to a different level. He voluntarily suffered to identify with the suffering of God’s people.  

He got creative in showing them that he was thinking about their immediate suffering and about the suffering that was to come.  

When we come alongside others and enter into their sufferings, we have a real chance of communicating that we love them and care about them.

In Roman days, it was not uncommon for the Romans to make Jewish people carry their load.  

When Jesus was teaching the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). 

When you go a mile because you have to, few people notice. But when you go a mile for someone when you are not compelled to do it, that gets people’s attention.

Ezekiel was an expert at getting people’s attention. 

For example, even in Isaiah’s day, a bad haircut would get someone’s attention. I don’t imagine that people cut their hair very often in those days.  Some priests never cut their hair.  So when Ezekiel cut his hair, it was a shock. 

Isaiah cut a third of his hair with a sharp sword, burned a third of it, and scattered a third of it to the wind.  

Imagine walking around with a haircut like that. Ezekiel would have fit right in with the punk rockers of our day, but he did not fit in among his people, especially since priests typically had strict rules about cutting their hair.  

When Ezekiel cut his, that got people’s attention. When people asked him about his hair, he had a message.  

It was a message of lament that his nation had been scattered to the wind. Jerusalem had been set ablaze, and those that opposed the King of Babylon had met their fate with the sword. 

While these antics were creative, they did little to answer the basic underlying questions of the exiles: 

“Why are we here? 

What is going to happen to our loved ones we left behind in Jerusalem?

Does God care about it?

Where is God?

Is God here, or is God in Jerusalem?

What is God doing?

What does the future hold?”

These were all excellent questions. I bet you have had questions like these before, too. 

We live in uncertain times. Parents are concerned about their children going back to school. Teachers are worried about their own health as well as the children’s. We wonder when a vaccine will come and if it will allow life to return to normal. 

Some churches will not survive, just as many businesses have closed forever. We are looking for God to intervene.

God called Ezekiel to walk alongside the exiles to give them answers to their questions and provide them with hope and encouragement.  

But Ezekiel didn’t mince words with the exiles. He shared with them what he had seen in his visions. He said the temple was destroyed because God had been forsaken, and unnamed abominations had been carried out in the temple. He said the land was filled with violence, which provoked God to “act in wrath.”  

Ezekiel 8:18 says, “Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them” (NIV).

The people were in exile because they had not listened to God.

However, the exiles were prone to listen to Ezekiel because he was in exile with them. He did not act as if he were above them. He was one of them, but as God’s prophet, he was compelled to share the visions God gave to him.

While he was at times eccentric in his methods, he could also be straight as an arrow with what he said. 

Sometimes when people come alongside us, we don’t like it when they have things to say to us that are hard to hear.  

But it’s good to have some straight-shooting people in our lives, people who will also temper their bluntness with encouraging and hopeful words that help us keep our balance. This balance keeps us moving toward our goal, so don’t give up. If all we heard was judgment, we might just give up.  

When you think about it, the only people we usually listen to in times of suffering and difficulty are those who have earned the right to speak.

As a prophet, Ezekiel was one of these people.  

As an exile himself, he had credibility. He delivered a message of judgment, but it was coupled with a message of hope.   

The exiles listened to Ezekiel because he had traveled the same road they had gone. He had suffered along with them.   

He told the exiles that despite being scattered, God had not left them. Despite their rebellion, God still loved them. Even though Babylon had conquered Israel, God still reigned, and He had a future in mind for them.  

We need to hear that word, too. We have all rebelled against God. We have all gone our own way.  

Acknowledging our proneness to follow our desires and a desire instead to follow Jesus is a significant step to establishing a relationship with the Lord. 

God will give us over to our rebellion. It’s sort of like allowing nature to take its course. That’s what happened to Israel.

But God still loves us has a future in mind for us, just as God did for the exiles. 

For every person going their own way, God wants them to wake up and listen. 

One of the great themes of Ezekiel is that God wanted the exiles to know Him.  

“So that you will know that I am God” is a phrase used over 50 times. 

Why does God bother to judge us? Why does God invite us to repentance? Why does God offer restoration? Why does God promise resurrection? God wants us to know him.

How was God going to get the Israelites to know him? 

By putting his Spirit into their hearts.

Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. 18 When they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. 19 I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 11) 

Many years ago, I wrote a story about a teenager who didn’t think he needed any more boundaries set by his father. He thought it through, and he thought he’d reached the age that he shouldn’t have to be accountable to his parents anymore. 

When he expressed this to his father, his father told him he’d consider it.  

The next morning the father asked his son how long they’d had their dog. 

His son said four years. 

His dad said, “Well, that’s the late twenties in human years. I’ve decided to take the fence down in the yard and let your dog have free run of the yard.  He should not be inside a fence anymore—no more boundaries for Duke.”

The family lived on a busy street, so the son protested that Duke might venture into the road. He told his father that the fence was necessary, and he asked him not to take it down.

The father then explained to his son that if boundaries were necessary for a dog, they were even more important for a teenager who was still developing an understanding between right and wrong.  

The father told ask his son that if he loved his dog enough to establish boundaries for him, why should he, as his father, not love him enough to do the same thing?

I ask you, “Would God love us if God did not establish boundaries for us?”

Sometimes boundaries are like training wheels, and other times they are like a wall, but either way, if God has given them to us, it’s one way that we come to know of God’s love for us.  

Staying within the boundaries God has set for us is not an easy task. This is the reason God has asked us to call upon Him for assistance.  

Through Jesus, God has blazed the trail. Jesus knows how we feel and what we need. 

In 1 Corinthians 1:4, Paul wrote these words to the Church of Corinth: 

“He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”

When you read about Jesus, you see that Jesus “Comes Alongside” the brokenhearted. We must have that same compassion.

Choosing to “Come Alongside” the brokenhearted requires that we sacrificially join in a person’s suffering. That takes time and effort.

Coming alongside the brokenhearted means you need to share the weight of their burden.  

Coming alongside the brokenhearted means that you will have empathy for the pain and suffering they are in.

Coming alongside the brokenhearted means that you will be an encourager and remind them that there is joy on the other side of the brokenness. 

These are some of the great messages Ezekiel shared with the exiles.  

In one of the Bible’s most magnificent visions called the Valley of the Bones, Ezekiel saw a valley of bones, and God asked him if these bones could live again.  

Ezekiel said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” (Ezekiel 37:3)

Ezekiel learned in his vision that when the Spirit of God or the breath of God is given to us, new creation occurs.  

When all hope is lost, what we need is the breath of God, the “ruah” of God.

When we are in the valley, we need the breath of God.

When all we feel is despair, we need the breath of God.  

When death surrounds us, we need the breath of God.

When we feel like dried up bones, we need the breath of God.  

God commanded Ezekiel to preach, prophesy, and He would put his breath into him, and the exiles would come back to life, just like the bones did in the vision he received.

This morning, God wants to breathe into you His Spirit, His “ruah,” and give you His life, the gift of Himself through His Son, Jesus, the one who came alongside us, suffering with us to demonstrate God’s love for us.

It’s the gift of breath that came upon the church at Pentecost in Acts 2 when God’s Spirit was poured out on His people.

You can have this same Spirit guiding you, running alongside you, living within you, giving you the assurance that God loves you.  

When that Spirit is in you, you can run alongside others, sharing God’s love and empathy, entering into their sufferings, and sharing the love of God with them. That is the joy and privilege of being a disciple of Jesus.