Ezekiel 2:8-3:11 – Use the Head-Butt

Rufus R. Jones (1933-1993)

Son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not join them in their rebellion. Open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

Then I looked and saw a hand reaching out to me. It held a scroll, which he unrolled. And I saw that both sides were covered with funeral songs, words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom.

The voice said to me, “Son of man, eat what I am giving you—eat this scroll! Then go and give its message to the people of Israel.” So, I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. “Fill your stomach with this,” he said. And when I ate it, it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.

Then he said, “Son of man, go to the people of Israel and give them my messages. I am not sending you to a foreign people whose language you cannot understand. No, I am not sending you to people with strange and difficult speech. If I did, they would listen! But the people of Israel won’t listen to you any more than they listen to me! For the whole lot of them are hard-hearted and stubborn. But look, I have made you as obstinate and hard-hearted as they are. I have made your forehead as hard as the hardest rock! So don’t be afraid of them or fear their angry looks, even though they are rebels.”

Then he added, “Son of man, let all my words sink deep into your own heart first. Listen to them carefully for yourself. Then go to your people in exile and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’ Do this whether they listen to you or not.” (New Living Translation)

When I was a kid, my brother and I watched “All-Star Wrestling” on television every Saturday. One of our favorite wrestlers was Rufus R. Jones. Like all wrestlers, he had a signature move, a lights-out-nobody-is-getting-up maneuver that always ended the match. 

Rufus’ move was the head-butt. Slamming his hard forehead into the head of his opponent always brought raucous behavior from me and my brother. Then, as the boys we were, we acted out the head-butt scene over and over. The hardest head always won…. I usually lost…. That probably explains a lot.

God gave a message to the prophet Ezekiel concerning the stubborn hearts and hard heads of the Israelites. The Lord was looking for repentance, for the people to turn their hearts and minds back to true worship and an authentic humble relationship with their God. 

The prospect of facing such a task, such an opponent, seemed daunting to Ezekiel. So, the Lord assured the prophet that his forehead would be harder than that of Rufus R. Jones. So, there is no need to be afraid of the opponent. They may be hard, but they’re no match for the rock-hard head of the prophet.

In essence, God told Ezekiel to pull-out the signature wrestling move and do the lights-out head-butt maneuver. And the promise from God that backed up Ezekiel was this: There’s absolutely no way you’re going to lose the match with the kind of head I’m giving you.

Like Ezekiel, we are to speak the Word of God with the promise of not losing. Prideful ungodly stubbornness will get us knocked-out. But conversely, gracious bold stubbornness, which determines to do the will of God, shall always win the day.

The only catch is: The Word needs to sink down deeply into our own hearts through listening well – before we can effectively speak to others.

God provides us with spiritual giftedness. Yet, that doesn’t mean we never need to develop that gift or engage in any spiritual practices to make it better. We are to use that which God gives us, no matter the response from others.

There is often a fine line between sinful obstinate stubbornness and godly persevering tenacity. We are never to use our abilities to slam people, obnoxiously and persistently, upside the head with an oversized King James Version of the Bible – in the wrongheaded notion that the Word doesn’t come back without effect.

That kind of effect, however, is harmful spiritual bruising that is devoid of grace. It’s really nothing more than an individual working out their own anger and frustration on somebody else.

Rather, we are to carefully, deliberately, consistently, and daily internalize God’s Word so that what comes out of us is helpful, not harmful. Only by a constant use of solitude and silence, in truly listening well for the voice of God, can we effect the sort of positive ministry which is needed for the present moment.

Put another way, whenever we head-butt an opponent, the grace and mercy ought to be uncompromising. It’s not our job to be the judge; our task is to communicate effectively and humbly without giving in or giving up. The message may be hard, but it should always be sweet.

Almighty and ever-living God, we pray that you would give us the Spirit of wisdom and discernment so that we may know you better and love you more. Give us an understanding heart so that we may be open in hearing your voice of grace and guidance.

Use us, your people, not to be unthinking and unfeeling tools of bludgeoning others, but to be your hands and feet – your voice and heart so that we may be a channel through which you pour out your grace to help others – may we decrease to nothing so that only Christ is seen in our lives – we ask this in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Ezekiel 11:1-25 – A New Heart

Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the gate of the house of the Lord that faces east. There at the entrance of the gate were twenty-five men, and I saw among them Jaazaniah son of Azzur and Pelatiah son of Benaiah, leaders of the people. The Lord said to me, “Son of man, these are the men who are plotting evil and giving wicked advice in this city. They say, ‘Haven’t our houses been recently rebuilt? This city is a pot, and we are the meat in it.’ Therefore, prophesy against them; prophesy, son of man.”

Then the Spirit of the Lord came on me, and he told me to say: “This is what the Lord says: That is what you are saying, you leaders in Israel, but I know what is going through your mind. You have killed many people in this city and filled its streets with the dead.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: The bodies you have thrown there are the meat, and this city is the pot, but I will drive you out of it. You fear the sword, and the sword is what I will bring against you, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will drive you out of the city and deliver you into the hands of foreigners and inflict punishment on you. You will fall by the sword, and I will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord. This city will not be a pot for you, nor will you be the meat in it; I will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel. And you will know that I am the Lord, for you have not followed my decrees or kept my laws but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you.”

Now as I was prophesying, Pelatiah son of Benaiah died. Then I fell face down and cried out in a loud voice, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?”

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, the people of Jerusalem have said of your fellow exiles and all the other Israelites, ‘They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.’

“Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’

“Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.’

“They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. 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. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.

Then the vision I had seen went up from me, and I told the exiles everything the Lord had shown me. (New International Version)

God’s heart is a heart of justice. The Lord abhors unrighteousness, injustice, and oppression. Thankfully, God will not sit idle and put up with systemic evil for long.

Ezekiel is one of those Old Testament prophets that thoroughly uncovered the true state things, especially of the human heart. Through a series of visions given to Ezekiel for the Israelite exiles, one of the main messages of the prophet is that God would give them a new heart. 

There is hope for the exile, for the one in captivity because of sin’s destructive, demeaning, and deluding power. Conversely, for those conforming to such ways, for the ones who caused the exile of others, the high Judge of the universe will deal with them according to their errant and rascally ways.

Dark shadows exist within the human heart. Although humanity has a great potential for altruistic good, people also have a large capacity for evil. Arrogant pride, self-centered behavior, and sheer ignorance can take such root within a person’s heart, as well as the heart of an organization or institution, that oppression becomes the norm, with fat cats ruling over an indigent people.

At best, the heart apart from God contains a miniscule vestige of its ancient Creator’s image; at worst, the heart is desperately wicked and on a highway to hell. 

The issue, then, is whether the heart only needs to be modified, or whether there is needed a complete heart transplant. The prophet makes it quite clear which option must be done.

Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross so that we could be transformed into new people. He did not come to tweak a few things in life and improve upon it – he came to bring wholesale change and transform the heart. 

If all we needed was a motivational speaker who would inspire our hearts to live better and reach our personal goals, then we would have not needed an incarnation, a crucifixion, a resurrection and ascension. Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior who replaces our hard stubborn hearts with a soft new heart of flesh. 

We need transformation of life, not life modification.

Awesome God, you have graciously and surgically removed my old heart, which was bound for destruction, and replaced it with a new heart, oriented toward living and loving like the Lord Jesus. May my heart always be inclined to the doing of your will, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ezekiel 1:1-2:1 – A Vision of Glory

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was on him there.

As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings, on their four sides, they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle;such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel.When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. Their rims were tall and awesome, for the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

Over the heads of the living creatures there was something like a dome, shining like crystal, spread out above their heads. Under the dome their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another; and each of the creatures had two wings covering its body. When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the thunder of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army; when they stopped, they let down their wings. And there came a voice from above the dome over their heads; when they stopped, they let down their wings.

And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking.

He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. (New Revised Standard Version)

Stained glass window of Ezekiel’s vision, c.1246–48, Sainte-Chapelle, Paris (Bridgeman Images)

If anyone ever spouted these words on the behavioral health unit on which I work, they’d likely get diagnosed with psychosis. But the prophet Ezekiel was far from psychotic. Patients experiencing a psychotic break rarely talk about visions resembling Ezekiel’s. They’re more inclined to speak about their past trauma in very detached ways, or say things like, “Please pass the ketchup. I’d like to fly a kite and catch some of those butterflies.”

Ezekiel’s vision is also not some contrived experience due to imbibing hallucinogenic substances. The entire prophecy of Ezekiel, spanning a hefty forty-eight chapters, certainly evidences a unique person – yet one that is in control of his full faculties and has keen self-awareness.

If anyone ever tells you they are certain about everything in the book of Ezekiel, don’t believe them. Today’s Old Testament lesson of Ezekiel’s vision of God is an incredible view. It almost defies description. In fact, it does. It’s as if Ezekiel was trying to somehow to communicate with the limitation of words of what he saw. 

Even though we might not understand or comprehend everything in this vision, does not mean we can lose sight of the big picture of what was happening. 

Ezekiel got a glimpse of God’s glory. That, in and of itself, would explain why it is such a mysterious and incredible vision. 

Slowly reading Ezekiel’s vision, one gains the sense of immensity, hugeness, grandeur, and awesome glory. The Hebrew word “glory” literally means “heavy.”  In other words, God is large, bright, holy, carrying a great deal of weight. As we used to say back in the ‘70’s, “Heavy, man, heavy!”

This was much more than a unique experience for Ezekiel. It completely had him undone. Ezekiel fell on his face because that is about all one can do when encountering such an incredible appearance.  Sneaking a peek of God in glorious heavenly splendor is an awesome sight. So, when God speaks from the place of such awsome glory, there is nothing to do but listen and obey.

Meeting God, this same God whom Ezekiel encountered, is no small thing. Whenever we truly catch a glimpse of this holy God, it will forever change us – and this is a good thing, even if it seems to others that we must be smoking something. 

If we want to hear the call of God upon our lives, we need to see God’s glory. Otherwise, we can too quickly forget and neglect the Lord. 

May God be gracious in allowing you a glimpse into the Divine throne room – and may you never be the same again because of it.

Glorious God, you carry such great weight that all creation bows to your every word and each move. I, too, bow before you, and I will stand up so that I might hear what you have to say to me. Speak, Lord, for I am listening to you. Amen.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – Speak to the Dry Bones

Sometime later, I felt the Lord’s power take control of me, and his Spirit carried me to a valley full of bones. The Lord showed me all around, and everywhere I looked I saw bones that were dried out. He said, “Ezekiel, son of man, can these bones come back to life?”

I replied, “Lord God, only you can answer that.”

He then told me to say:

Dry bones, listen to what the Lord is saying to you, “I, the Lord God, will put breath in you, and once again you will live. I will wrap you with muscles and skin and breathe life into you. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”

I did what the Lord said, but before I finished speaking, I heard a rattling noise. The bones were coming together! I saw muscles and skin cover the bones, but they had no life in them.

The Lord said:

Ezekiel, now say to the wind, “The Lord God commands you to blow from every direction and to breathe life into these dead bodies, so they can live again.”

As soon as I said this, the wind blew among the bodies, and they came back to life! They all stood up, and there were enough to make a large army.

The Lord said:

Ezekiel, the people of Israel are like dead bones. They complain that they are dried up and that they have no hope for the future. So, tell them, “I, the Lord God, promise to open your graves and set you free. I will bring you back to Israel, and when that happens, you will realize that I am the Lord. My Spirit will give you breath, and you will live again. I will bring you home, and you will know that I have kept my promise. I, the Lord, have spoken.” (Contemporary English Version)

Dry. It might be good for humor or a martini. Dry, however, doesn’t feel good when it is a time of spiritual dryness. In many ways, this past year has been very dry. Quarantine. Masking. Social distance. Lost jobs and businesses. Some churches already dry from withering attendance simply folded and died.

The hard circumstances of our world, stress in our families, and challenging personal lives may easily create anxiety, and, so, parch our souls and leave our spirits bone dry. There is, however, a God who can breathe new life into us and move us from old-worn ruts in our thinking, feeling, and behaving, to renewed ways of being in the world. 

The prophet Ezekiel’s vision is a promise and a hope of resurrection, revival, and new life. Regardless of who we are and the situations in front of us, we are all displaced people – cast out of Eden and in need of restoration.  We, along with the ancient Israelites, are in exile and long to return to our true home with God. Along with St. Augustine we declare:

“Our hearts are forever restless until they find their rest in God.”

St. Augustine

There are dry bones lying around – parched places in need of being reinvigorated. Maybe you are experiencing the dry bones of hopelessness and despondency. Perhaps you are in a dark night of the soul where all of life seems like one huge rut. It could be you are wondering if God is really listening, or is even there at all, because of the dry bones surrounding you.

I do a lot of work as a chaplain on a behavioral health unit with folks who are, ironically, bone dry from too much drinking. Their alcoholism is like a massive desert littered with thousands of dry bones. Attempting to reanimate themselves while dulling the pain of incredibly hard dry circumstances, they drink liter after liter of “spirits” to replace the dead spirit inside them. Many become so dry and dead, inside their immaterial selves, that they seek to end their material lives through suicide.

But it need not be this way. We might believe we will be able to live life and pursue God better without danger or hardship – that somehow difficulty is not to be part of life. The dry bones exist, however, as an opportunity for God to give life. That’s why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s reaction to his exile in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia was to bless it, because it was there that, he said:

“I discovered that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

God not only gives life; God restores life. And this is an important truth to know and remember in the inevitable dry times of our lives. God is not only a helper; the Lord reanimates us from spiritual rigor mortis to lively resurrection through breathing on us. And this is done for a reason. Jesus came to his disciples after his resurrection and said:

“Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:20-21, NIV

God resuscitates us for a purpose, so that we might be a blessing to the world. Faith is not only a possession to keep, but a gift to give. We glorify God in loving one another and loving the world as Jesus did.  God could have resurrected the bones without Ezekiel. Instead, the Lord used Ezekiel and had him participate in the revival by speaking to the bones. 

Such a challenge to speak to the dry bones can seem overwhelming to us. What do you do when your life is upended, even shattered – when such a profound change comes to you that it is impossible for your life to be as it was? 

The questions and commands of God seemed totally absurd to Ezekiel, speaking to dead dry bones. Maybe we ought to operate more in the realm of the absurd than in the realm of the safe routine. Perhaps we ought to expect our faith to be exercised and look for God to breathe new life into the dead and decaying. To believe that something, someone, or even myself can change is to have internalized this amazing story of dry bones living again. 

Our self-imposed graves cannot hold us because God is among us. We need a genuine heaven-sent, Spirit-breathed, glorious reanimation in which God sends reviving grace and raises the dead. 

God Almighty, Lord of Resurrection, be attentive to our prayers. For those whose hope is lost, who feel dried up and cut off from you, open their graves; bring them back to the land of the living. For those who are spiritually oppressed and held captive by the enemy of our souls, release them from their chains; unbind them and let them go! For those who weep, lost and lifeless in a tomb of fear and shame, give them the peace of your presence, and show them what your love can do.

And for those who are complacent, withering on the vine, and living a dull dry existence without any spiritual vigor – awaken them God! Breathe into them new life! Pour out your Spirit gracious God and awaken your people to a revival of obedience, love, and courage. May your people be so full of your Spirit that life comes rolling off our tongues and the strength of life empowers our hands for service. Amen.