"Heart Transplants" - Rev. Andrew Scott, Pastor
About twenty years ago, I stopped at a gas station to get a cup of coffee on my way to work. While I was looking for the half-and-half, some guy bolted past me holding a fire extinguisher, and rushed out the door. I asked the woman at the counter what was going on, and she told me that a car was on fire in the parking lot. Now, there wasn’t much I could do about it myself, and the guy with the extinguisher looked like he had it covered, so I went ahead and paid for my coffee.
By the time I got to the door, there was a little gaggle of spectators watching the clerk desperately shooting through the grill of a smoke-shrouded car. A smoke-shrouded car, it occurred to me, slowly, that oddly enough was parked right where I parked my car… oh.
The good news is that after I replaced a few hoses, it was back up and running, and apart from being a little scorched, was none the worse for wear. But for a couple of minutes, I had that horrible sinking feeling, the feeling you get watching something you care about, or at least something you need, from a distance as it goes up in flames and there’s basically nothing you can do about it.
Multiply that by a million and I don’t think you’ll yet approach the sense of horror and helplessness felt by the prophet Ezekiel and the other Jews who were living in Babylon as the Lord revealed to them what was about to happen to Jerusalem.
Remember that Jerusalem wasn’t just home to them – a home from which they had been forcibly abducted and dragged hundreds of miles to a strange country filled with strange people eating strange foods and speaking a strange language and generally behaving, as far as the Jews were concerned, like monsters. Yes, of course they wanted to go home, and of course they would be upset by Ezekiel’s visions of Jerusalem’s impending destruction. But Jerusalem was far more than that. For those Jewish exiles in Babylon, Jerusalem was the living embodiment of their identity as the chosen people of God. Jerusalem – really, the whole of the land of Israel, but Jerusalem in particular – was the tangible inheritance promised by the Lord to Abraham and his descendants. The land was so integral to their status as the people of God that the Law of Moses allotted a certain portion to each tribe and each family, and decreed that it could never permanently be sold, only leased for a certain period of time; furthermore, if a man or woman were forced to sell by poverty or other hardship, it was the responsibility of the nearest male relative to buy it back – to redeem it for the family. That’s pretty much the entire plot of the book of Ruth.
In the Jewish mind, the Lord’s blessing was connected directly to two things: first, as I said, the land, which was their inheritance from God; and second, the Temple on Mt. Zion, at the very heart of Jerusalem, in which he had promised his glory would dwell among his people.
Now, even before the Babylonian armies marched against Jerusalem (that was still about seven years off), both those things were in imminent danger. As far as the land went, people back in Judah went on being born and dying, and property passed from hand to hand as it does, only these exiles in Jerusalem were being denied their share in the inheritance of Israel. Why? The Lord tells Ezekiel in verse 15: “your brothers, even your brothers, your kinsmen, the whole house of Israel, all of them [and by this he means the exiles], are those of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said, ‘Go far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession.” In other words, we don’t care if you’re named in the will, you’re in Babylon, and we’re here, so it’s ours.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Throughout chapter 10 and the first half of chapter 11, Ezekiel witnessed in a vision as the glory of the Lord slowly but surely withdrew, first from the Holy of Holies, then from the Sanctuary, then from the inner courts of the Temple, and then stood poised at the east gate, ready to depart. As far as Ezekiel was concerned, God was leaving Jerusalem. He was abandoning Israel. That was it. It was a good run, and now it was over.
But just there, at the low point, the Lord spoke to Ezekiel and made three incredible promises, promises that he introduces by declaring coh amar Adonai, “Thus says the Lord.” Now, obviously anything God says is worth listening to, and believing, but throughout the Old Testament “thus says the Lord” is a kind signal that what follows is especially important or serious – sort the equivalent of your mother addressing you by your full name. What’s coming may be bad, or it may be good, but it’s in your best interest to pay attention.
First, in verse 16, he promises that yes, his sanctuary in Jerusalem, the inner part of the Temple, where the priests went to stand in the presence of God – yes, that sanctuary was hundreds of miles away, and in any case would soon be destroyed. But, he says, “though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.”
The Temple in Jerusalem meant a couple of things: the protection of the Lord’s presence, and access to him. Like the other exiles, Ezekiel thought he had lost that. But here the Lord was telling him that he himself had always been a sanctuary to them. In short, they only felt abandoned by God and far off. In reality he was still with his people, wherever they were. The promise of the 121st Psalm, that “he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” but that “he will keep your life; the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” – that promise wasn’t somehow canceled by distance or by circumstance or even by the sin of the exiles. The Lord himself had always been Israel’s true sanctuary.
The second promise is sort of tucked into the end of verse 16 and verse 17: that the current state of affairs was only temporary, and that they would, in the end, once again be gathered into the land of Israel. As bad as it is, this too shall pass.
And the third promise is here in verse 18: that when he does once again gather his people together, it won’t be like before. Before, Jerusalem had been full of idolatry and violence and sin; that’s why it was about to be destroyed. But “when they come there,” he says, “they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations.” When finally the Lord restores his kingdom, it won’t be only to fall apart again.
But that raises the obvious question: how? I mean, over and over and over again – this is pretty much the whole history of Israel – the Lord had rescued them, sending a king or a prophet or a judge who saved them from their enemies, who tore down the idols, injected a little basic morality, and things went great for a few years. But then they slid back into their old sins, and he had to send somebody else.
Why did this happen? Because of this little thing called human nature. If you don’t believe me, try going on a diet, or quitting smoking, or getting serious about working out. And in spiritual terms it’s even worse. Having had some kind of wakeup call, whether a brush with disaster, or just somebody who was kind enough to tell you how far you had fallen from the Lord, you’re determined never to do that again. Never. And then, you know. You do. Unless something really fundamental changes. It’s worth saying over and over again until I’m blue in the face that contrary to the old afterschool specials or to online activism, the basic problem humanity faces isn’t a lack of awareness, or a lack of information, or even a lack of willpower. It’s sin. By nature our hearts are sinful and broken, and unless something profound and supernatural occurs to change our hearts, any change in our lives is going to be modest and temporary.
But that’s exactly what the Lord promised Ezekiel in verse 19: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes…”
And this is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. That is, of course, exactly what Jesus promises to those who have put their trust in him and not in themselves. Not only forgiveness for the sins that we have committed – not that that’s a small thing, but if that’s where it ended, with a clean slate, we’d probably be worse off than we were before. That’s what Jesus meant in Luke 11 when he talked about an evil spirit being driven out of a person, wandering in the wilderness for a bit, then returning, only to find “the house swept and put into order,” at which point it invites seven other evil spirits to come, and – Jesus says – “the last state of that person is worse than the first.” There has to be something to fill the house – in order to render the change meaningful and lasting, the person’s heart has to be changed, and that void filled, as Ezekiel was told, by “a new spirit.” A Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit.
People don’t need a little encouragement and information. They need – we need – heart transplants. A new heart, and a new Spirit. That’s what Jesus promises, and that’s absolutely crucial to remember when we’re trying to make a difference in the world around us.
It’s easy sometimes to look at the world the way Ezekiel and the exiles did, and decide that it’s a wreck. Because in a lot of ways it is. It’s easy to feel like God is far off or even that he’s abandoned us, either because of misfortune, or because of our own sin. And be warned: he does, sometimes, remove his lampstand, to borrow language from the third chapter of Revelation, or withdraw his glory from a particular city or nation or society. Were he to do so to America, or even to parts of the American church, I’m not sure any of us could say in good conscience that we didn’t have it coming. But even when nations are crumbling about their heads, God himself is a sanctuary to his people, to those he has chosen and redeemed and sealed at the cost of the blood of Jesus. And what we see – this is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. One way or another this will pass. And when at last Christians find themselves in their true country, the true Kingdom, we have no fear that it too may fall apart. Because its people will have hearts of flesh, and a Spirit from God within them.
Having heard those promises, Ezekiel finally saw the glory of God depart from Jerusalem before being carried in his vision back to Babylon. What before would have been terrifying, now he could bear. As we can, having heard the same promises in Jesus Christ. Amen.