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A New Spirit

For a long time now, my favorite Bible verse has been Ezekiel 11:19:

I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (NIV).

What's nice about having this as a favorite verse, is that it's a two-fer! It has a sister verse in Ezekiel 36:26:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (NIV).

As I've occasionally commented on before, I originally loved these verses because I saw myself in them so starkly. I saw the barrenness of my own heart and how I wasn't driven by love for others, like God is. I've been praying these verses over myself for the majority of my life, and have thankfully been able to see God's work in my own heart over time.

I have also been able to see where some of my self-judgment isn't of the Lord. Sometimes I'm my worst critic, and through greater self-knowledge was able to learn that what may seem like having a hard heart or callousness toward others was actually my own self-protection because I actually feel too much! Whether I'm a so-called empath (as some are writing about these days), I feel the emotions of others very acutely and sometimes it's all a little too much for me! The Lord is working in my heart so that He can appropriately guide and protect me so that I don't dive into missional activities that are not wise (isn't it so common for many of us to jump in to help without considering whether the helping is actually, well, helpful and whether it's part of what God is doing and wants us to do?) or refrain too much out of laziness or self-protection.

Anyway, there is so much to unpack in these verses, which God originally spoke to the remnant of Judah exiled in Babylon. Ezekiel is an interesting book for many reasons (I learned recently that it was a pretty controversial one in historic Jewish circles). One fascinating aspect is the narrative arc of the book---in some ways reminiscent of my own personal one. So much of the first part involves essentially breaking down the hubris of Judah. There's false prophets and people believing lies, and God sets it up so that Ezekiel (whom God calls "Mortal" throughout the book) can only say what God tells him to say. And, oh, he says it!

To those who are falsely proclaiming that everything is fine and there is nothing to worry about, Ezekiel gives these words of the Lord: "I, I myself will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places. Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense stands shall be broken; and I will throw down your slain in front of your idols. I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols; and altars. Wherever you live, your towns shall be waste and your high places ruined...The slain shall fall in your midst; then you shall know that I am the Lord" (Ezekiel 6: 3b-7; NRSV).

No mincing words.

What Judah displays corporately, we display individually. We have to be made aware of our hearts of stone. We can't stay in the delusion that we are better than others and are more or less OK. Just because we may actually look a little better than those around us doesn't change the fact that, like the Grinch, our hearts are two sizes too small!

Deep down, we know this in our tiny heart of hearts. Periodically, we see this come out in how we treat and respond to others.

Ezekiel is not the easiest book to read. Much of the middle is full of woes against various nations--judgment on Israel for being idolatrous. Judgment on other nations for gleefully wishing for and hastening Israel's downfall. It's not a pleasant read.

On the other side of it all, however, are beautiful blessings. And the theme of God's Spirit and our spirit continues and culminates in the return of God's spirit and glory to the temple.

Many are familiar with Ezekiel 37's description of the Valley of Dry Bones. It's a stunning image of new life. If God can breathe new life into skeletons, He can do it with anyone.

Ezekiel's words have worked. The exiled Israelites get the message about their sin--well, not just because Ezekiel said it, but because the remaining nation of Judah has now been destroyed (the northern kingdom of Israel had already been overrun by the Assyrians). The destruction of Solomon's temple was an unthinkable blow, one that even Solomon hadn't anticipated.

Speaking of, it breaks my heart to read Solomon's dedication prayer over the temple. He listened to God when He said that if the nation sinned, they could be punished and exiled. This was explained quite clearly by the prophets.

However, no one anticipated the catastrophic level of devastation that would result in the temple just being...gone. Solomon assumed that it would still stand, that in the case of exile, the people could pray toward the temple like other nationalities prayed toward their temples, and be saved:

When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to their enemies, who take them captive to their own lands, far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly’; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you toward the land you gave their ancestors, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their captors to show them mercy; for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace. (I Kings 8: 46-51, NIV).

Prayers of repentance are not a magical formula. It's interesting that God's response to Solomon's prayer is a gracious acknowledgement (in word and fire), yet God doesn't disabuse Solomon of his incorrect notion about the temple. There's no, "Well, Solomon, that's generally the right idea, but if you're putting your faith and trust in what you've just built and think you can count on it standing forever...that just isn't going to happen"). If God corrected every wrong-headed notion we had, we'd have no freedom at all. Our brains would constantly be buzzing and zapping with, "Zzzzzz. Nope. That's wrong. ZZZZ. Nope, that's not correct. Zzzzzz. You're thinking too highly of yourself..." And so on.

So, God just shows love and care and support to Solomon, but never, ever promises that the presence of a temple would protect Israel. The presence of the Ark of the Covenant didn't protect them either.

How easy it is for us to subtly shift our worship to the trappings rather than the Person of God.

Speaking of the Person of God, as you may be picking up on from my last few posts, I'm obsessed with studying the Trinity right now.

And, apparently, Ezekiel is a fantastic book for studying the Trinity!

Not that it's crystal clear (and we've established that Ezekiel is, quite simply, a hard book to read anyway), and so it is understandable that Jewish readers wouldn't pick up on a Trinitarian doctrine.

But, the theme of Spirit is impossible to miss. God's spirit and our spirits are mentioned 22 times in Ezekiel. The book even opens with the famous and fantastical image of the throne of God above a crystal-like dome that hovers above the four living creatures moving with the wheels within wheels beside them.

We're told in verse 12 that God's spirit directed the wheels and that the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

In the New Testament, we are told that God's Spirit also indwells within us, and this connects us to God the Trinity. As Jesus prays in John 17:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (verses 20-23, NIV).

The living creatures (cherubim) and wheels display what is becoming true and will be true for us. God's Spirit within us. God the Father in the Son. The Son in the Father. This brings us to complete unity with one another, just as God is One. The living creatures have God's Spirit in them, directing them, united with their own spirits.

It's the promise that Ezekiel gives to us, gave to me. That God will "put a new spirit" in me. The heart of flesh in Ezekiel 36 is a good deal as well. Flesh, in this case not meaning worldly but referring to being made fully human--in contrast to having a rock for a heart. Being made who we are meant to be in the Lord.

And the Lord we worship is God in three Persons. In Ezekiel 1 we see the glory of God the Father. And then, a gleaming, human form that is likely the Son, since He is the Image of God and the description is remarkably similar to the Apostle John's description of Jesus in the book of Revelation. Matthew Henry's commentary on Ezekiel very matter-of-factly identifies the human-like glowing figure as Christ and adds, "The second person sometimes tried the fashion of a man occasionally before he clothed himself with it for good and all" (Love it! See the reference here: Finally, in this chapter, we see the Spirit everywhere.

It's good to train ourselves to think in specifics when we consider God, especially when He reveals some of Who He is. Rather than thinking of God generically, we are literally handed a stunning image here of the complexity of the Trinity.

And, on top of that, we are introduced to the theme of God's Spirit indwelling in creatures, later to be expanded on further throughout the book of Ezekiel, especially in my favorite verses and culminating more corporately and globally in new heavens and new earth imagery.

This is the already-and-not-yet promise that we have. God can do this for us now--wants to do this for us, by removing our two-sizes-too-small rock of a heart and coming close to live inside us instead, which will connect us lovingly to others if we surrender and lean into it, and will then build us all into a beautiful kingdom someday.

Does this sound too pie-in-the sky? I like Eugene Peterson's description of "tinny optimists and cowardly pessimists" in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. We so easily fall into these two traps, sometimes simultaneously! Like disobedient Judah, we are optimistic about the wrong things, trusting in doomed objects and persons. And yet admittedly pessimistic about the great wonder and glory that God can and will bring about. We live in the dark and keep our minds in the gutter of complaint, envy, and deep pessimism, letting our speech be colored by such awful negativity that it's a wonder that anyone wants to talk with us at all (well, I suppose we attract similarly hopeless and negative others, which is a sad commentary right there). Should we not be more focused on the beauty and glory ahead? Should we not rejoice in what God has already rescued us from? Have we seen any growth in our lives and the lives of others? What would it look like to release ourselves to the great God who sits on the the throne of glory and offers to LIVE INSIDE OF US?!

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