The Holy Spirit: God’s response to a people who can’t stop letting him down

Ezekiel 36:26-28

5 May 2013, 8.00am

You might have heard the story of the inflatable boy, who goes to an inflatable school with inflatable books, inflatable classrooms, and inflatable teachers. But one day he takes a pin into school with him. Before long he’s summoned to the headmaster’s study. “You’ve let me down,” says the head; “You’ve let yourself down; in fact you’ve let the whole school down!”

Well, today we’re going to see how God’s people just can’t stop letting him down; but we’ll also see God’s solution to that: a mind-blowing solution that involves a new heart, and the gift of his own Spirit.

Let’s pick up the story from Ezekiel 36:22, on p819, where God says:

It is not for your sake, O house of IsraeI, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.

Now if you were an Israelite at the time these words were written, around 600BC, you would be feeling at rock bottom, and probably wondering where on earth God was. You are supposed to be his chosen people, but you have been horribly crushed by a Babylonian army, and carried off into exile. Jerusalem, God’s holy city, lies in ruins. Total humiliation.

Now, out of the ashes of that desperate situation, God is about to bring something wonderful: restoration and renewal. But first God is going to tell them why. And we might expect that he’s going to talk about how much he loves them – which is true; about how they didn’t really deserve what happened to them – which is actually not true; about how he longs to have them feel good about things again – which is a dangerous half-truth. But no – it’s not about them at all! In v22 he says “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations.” You see, their being carted off to exile – even though God orchestrated it to bring them to their senses – has left God open to the charge that he’s too weak to look after his own. And, before that, their moral behaviour and worship of idols has set an appalling example to the nations around them. They have been chosen to display God’s holiness to the world – and they’ve utterly let him down.

Imagine you are running a branch of some global chain – let’s say it’s McDonald’s. But things are not going well. You serve the food cold; you never have any ketchup; and the burgers are only half-cooked.  Now you would get away with that for about a day and a half before you felt the full weight of the McDonald’s Corporation descending on you like a ton of bricks. They would be desperate to sort you out – and not just for your sake, or the sake of your little restaurant. Their main concern would be that, with every box of cold chips you served, the global name of McDonald’s was being dragged further through the mud. You are not just letting yourself down; not just letting your restaurant down; you are letting down the whole name of McDonald’s.

And in the same way, Ezekiel says that God’s great concern here is for his own name, his holy reputation. That phrase “then they shall know that I am the Lord” appears dozens of times through the book of Ezekiel. He is a God who jealously wants to be known – not to be misrepresented, but to be known as he is, in all his glory. And if that sounds tremendously arrogant to us, then that’s probably because we don’t fully appreciate just who God is, and who we are.

But did you see too in v23 the great purpose God has for his people?

“…the nations shall know that I am the Lord, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.”

If you were running a McDonald’s restaurant, you would have ingrained in you the McDonald’s corporate purpose (and I looked it up on the internet!): “to be our customers’ favourite place and way to eat and drink”. If you are part of McDonald’s, then that is why your restaurant exists. And in a similar way, God has a great purpose statement for his people: to display his holiness to the world. But the Old Testament story so far has proved that they cannot do it. God’s people can’t stop letting him down. The nature of their hearts means that they are unable properly to show people what he’s like.

It’s time for something radical. It’s time for heart surgery.

Let’s look on to v26 of ch36.

26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Here is God’s solution: to stop his people letting him down, he himself will change them from the inside. He’ll give them a new heart; and he’ll give them his own spirit. This came true ultimately on the day of Pentecost, 600 years later, with that great outpouring of God’s Spirit into the hearts of all who repent and believe in him. There is hope! There is power to follow him; in fact the language here is even stronger: God says he will make people follow him. We can’t even take the credit for the good things we do, because the work is all his. It’s as if the spirit of Ronald McDonald comes and lives in you, and you suddenly realise that you can fry perfect burgers and run a world-class fast-food joint!

And with it comes a new home – v28: “the land that I gave to your ancestors”. In the first place for them, that meant a return to the Promised Land from which they’d been driven. But what it’s really talking about is an eternal new home in heaven. And, most wonderful of all, still in v28, “you shall be my people, and I shall be your God.” The gift of the Spirit brings us close to God: into his family.

A few years ago some friends of ours gave birth to a lovely little boy; but within hours it was clear that he had a serious problem. His heart had been damaged and was not working properly. The word from the doctors was that without a new heart he would die. But wonderfully, a donor heart was found and, while still a tiny baby, he received a transplant. Incredible. That new heart brought him new life. Though it was a bitter-sweet moment because, of course, his new heart came as a result of another child’s death. And in a similar kind of way, someone died for us so that we could have a new heart. Jesus. He didn’t die in a tragic accident; he died deliberately to “save [us] from all [our] uncleanness”, as v29 says here. But he died so that we could share his good heart and receive God’s spirit.

So that is the gift of the Spirit; and that is the reason behind the gift: the Spirit is given to a people who can’t stop letting God down, to enable them to display his holiness to the world.

And this promise is fulfilled in us, today, as his church. It came true with Jesus; and if we have trusted in him, then we have received that new heart and a new spirit. That is what it means to be a Christian. We do inevitably still let God down – and we need to humbly acknowledge that – but we are no longer slaves to sin. We are re-created. His Spirit within us means we’re no longer destined to be a let-down to him. By his power we can fulfil that wonderful purpose he has for us. Remember v23: “The nations shall know that I am the Lord…when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.” What a calling! That is his purpose for his church today: to display his holiness to a sceptical, rebellious world. The Holy Spirit is given not for our glory, but for God’s glory, to enable us to witness for him. That theme runs right through the New Testament, doesn’t it? It’s our life’s mission: to display the holiness of God. It is your life’s mission, if you are a Christian.

So every time you refuse to get involved in gossip, for example, you are living out your life’s mission: to display the holiness of God. Every time you let the Holy Spirit work in you to display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so on; every time you share with the needy; and supremely every time you speak of the Good News about Jesus – you are living out your life’s mission: to display the holiness of God to his world, a world that he wants to bring into his family too. Let’s pray that his Spirit works within us more and more, and that we cooperate with him, with a soft heart of flesh, not a hard heart of stone, to bring that about right here.

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