Israel didn’t choose Yahweh to be their God. Instead, Yahweh created Israel. It was a matter of God’s grace – his unmerited favor. It was God who called Abraham, and promised to make him into a great nation. It was God who worked the miracle of giving a son, Isaac, to the aged and barren Sarah. It was God who worked through Joseph to bring Jacob and his family to the land of Egypt, where they prospered and turned into a numerous people. It was God who redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt in the Passover, and brought them through the Red Sea.
It was Yahweh who brought Israel into the covenant with him. As he was about to do so at Mt Sinai he said: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
God declared that Israel was his treasured possession. He had not chosen Israel because they were the biggest nation. Quite the opposite, they were a small and inconsequential people. But God demonstrated is power and grace by choosing them as his own – by making them his treasured possession among all the peoples.
What a blessing this was! Only Israel had the presence of the Creator in their midst as he dwelt at the tabernacle and then the temple. Only Israel had been given the Torah – the instructions for how they were to live in relationship to God. What other nations could only sense in a general way through the law written on their heart, Israel had in clear statements from God. As the apostle Paul told the Romans, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.”
Yet along with this great blessing of being God’s people – his treasured possession – came a great responsibility. Israel stood before the world as Yahweh’s people. God had put his name upon them. That’s how God had described the Aaronic Benediction, that we use at the conclusion of each service. Through Moses, Yahweh told Aaron and his sons to speak those words to Israel, and then he explained its meaning by saying: “So you shall you put my name upon the people of Israel and I will bless them.”
Yahweh had given Israel the Torah that told them how to live as the people who were in a covenant with him. In many ways, all of the Torah was about the First Commandment: “You shall have no other Gods.” If Israel lived according to the Torah and kept God’s Word, they would remain faithful to Yahweh as their only God.
But if they didn’t, then there were temptations to unfaithfulness all around them. Israel lived in a world that was filled with false gods. They lived in the midst of peoples who worshipped those gods. Yahweh warned Israel that if they intermarried with those peoples, they would be led away into idolatry. Yahweh told Israel that if they worshipped other gods, he would bring judgment upon them and that they would be taken into exile away from the promised land.
Israel had the Torah. But it didn’t keep them from disobeying God. In fact their history was one in which they constantly worshipped other gods. When the northern kingdom split away after the death of King Solomon they were always involved in idolatry. God brought judgment upon them in 721 B.C. when he used the Assyrians to conquer them and take them into exile.
The southern kingdom of Judah should have learned the lesson from this. But they did not. In fact, things got so bad that the leaders even brought paganism into the temple itself. And so in 587 B.C. God used the Babylonians to destroy the temple in Jerusalem, and to take people into exile.
The prophet Ezekiel was a priest who had already been taken into exile in 597 B.C. when the Babylonians took some of the middle social figures to Babylon. Through Ezekiel, Yahweh condemns Judah’s idolatry and tells them that judgment is coming. But then, once news that city of Jerusalem has fallen reaches Ezekiel, the rest of the book is a word of hope. Yahweh promises that he will return the people to their land, and promises blessings that go far beyond that.
In our text, Yahweh begins by declaring that he is not going to act because of Judah. Instead, he is going to act because of his name that they have profaned. Ezekiel writes: “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘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 to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.’”
Judah was God’s people who bore Yahweh’s name. The way the nation had acted, and the judgment it received because of it, had profaned God’s name. But that is not unique to Judah. It is true of you as well. You bear God’s name. He placed his name upon you in Holy Baptism when he made you his own. More than that as the baptized you are known by the title of God’s Son. He is the Christ, anointed with the Holy Spirit. You are Christians, those who belong to Christ because he has given his Spirit to you.
Yet, you too profane God’s name. You do it when you place something before God – such as when Sunday morning finds you doing something else rather than being present at church in the Divine Service to receive his gifts. You do it when you speak angry words to another person that are intended to hurt. You do it when you ignore your neighbor’s need because it might hinder what you want to do.
Judah had sinned. God had punished her with exile. But his steadfast love for her had not ceased. And so God says in our text, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.” Yahweh would show them mercy and be faithful to them. He promised to return them from exile. But in describing this action, God went far beyond the mere return to a land. And it is here that we see the return from exile was a type – an event in the Old Testament that pointed forward to the even greater salvation God would bring to Israel – and through Israel to all people.
In chapter thirty four God had promised, “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.” Yahweh promised that the Messiah descended from David would be their shepherd.
And he promised more – he promised to put his Spirit within them and change them. God says in our text, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
God fulfilled Ezekiel’s words when he sent his Son into the world as the son of David. Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, came to provide the answer to every way that we profane God’s name. Anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, he took on the role of the suffering Servant who would die for our sins. He was the sacrifice, as he died on the cross, that has won forgiveness before God.
Yet God’s action in Christ did not end there, for death could never provide the victory God intended. And so on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead through the work of the Spirit. Jesus is the first born from the dead. Because he has risen from the dead, you will too.
And the power that raised Christ from the dead is already at work in you. On Thursday we celebrated the ascension of our Lord as he was exalted to the right hand of God. Christ promised that he would send the Spirit, and next Sunday we will celebrate how he did that on the Day of Pentecost. It is the risen and ascended Lord who has fulfilled Ezekiel’s words. He has put his Spirit in us to cause us to walk in God’s statutes. He has given us a new heart. And he has done this by sprinkling us with water that cleanses us.
Through the water of baptism you have received forgiveness. Your sins have been washed away. And through that same water you have been born again by the work of the Spirit. You are a new creation in Christ. Paul told the Romans about baptism, “We were buried therefore with him into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
We are able to walk in newness of life because the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us. We are experiencing the end time promise that God made through Ezekiel. We live in the last days – the end of the ages has come upon us because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and he has given us the Spirit.
Now we know the Last Day has not yet arrived. And so while we are a new creation in Christ, the old Adam still wants us to live with a heart of stone. We face the conflict against the old Adam. And that is why we need to return daily to the water of our baptism. By contrition and repentance we drown the old Adam. We confess our sin and through faith receive the forgiveness that God has given us in baptism.
And then we daily emerge and go forth from our baptism to live by the power of the Spirit. Your baptism is the source of the Spirit’s continuing work in your life. And the Spirit then works through God’s Word to nourish and strengthen us in faith. The Spirit uses that Word to repress the old Adam, so that the new man who is led by the Spirit can direct what we actually do. This is why we need to be reading God’s Word. We need to be taking in those inspired words so that the Spirit can feed us and lead us to live in the ways that are true to God’s will. Do you want to grow in your life as a child of God? Think about your baptism in faith every day. Read God’s Word every day. For in this way you will find yourself cleansed of every sin and the Spirit of Christ will lead to you to walk in God’s ways, just as God promises through Ezekiel this morning.