ďFlood in the SanctuaryĒ
February 9, 2014 - Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
†††††††† We arrived for Sunday
evening worship and found a small flood in our sanctuary. I was maybe fourteen
years old. In preparation for a baptism that night, the baptistry had been
overfilled. Water ran under the platform, out below the communion table and
down the aisle of our little Baptist church, somewhat like Ezekiel pictures in
the temple in our text this morning.
†††††††† Our pastor really knew
his Bible, so that night was the first time I ever heard this part of Scripture.
While our deacons ran around with mops and buckets cleaning up, Pastor
McWhorter remembered and found the verses, then managed to preach a pretty good
extemporary sermon on Ezekiel 47. And whoever it was got baptized that night.
It all made an impression on me.
†††††††† Ezekielís flood in the
temple is part of a larger vision regarding a new, restored Temple. In 587
B.C., Jerusalem was destroyed and its youngest and brightest inhabitants
carried off to Babylon to live in exile. Psalm 137 shows them there, not beside Godís river as we heard last week, but by the waters of Babylon, weeping,
remembering Jerusalem and cursing their captors who destroyed their city.
†††††††† Still in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of a new temple rebuilt in Jerusalem. Chapters 40 to 46 tell us the plans. An angel guided Ezekiel around the
structure, measuring all its dimensions. It was a fantastic plan. It was never
†††††††† Yes, a second temple
was constructed when the Jews returned from Babylon seventy years after the
destruction and exile. You can read the story in the book of Ezra. But it was
not the temple Ezekiel describes. It was smaller and different in style and
furnishings. Ezra 3:12 and Haggai 2:3 suggest that it was poor replacement for
the first temple.
†††††††† 450 years later Herod
the Great did a major remodel of that poor little second temple, but still
nobody imagined that it was the temple Ezekiel saw. That was still bigger,
still more grand and glorious. And Ezekielís temple included plans for the
whole city, for the whole country. It was urban design to the max. And it
†††††††† You can Google and
find plenty of people telling you Ezekielís temple will be the third temple, or
maybe even the fourth temple, to be built just before Jesus comes back, or just
after, or something like that. Thereís even one guy who shows you
computer-generated images of what it will look like. He invites you to meet him
in third room by the northeast corner of the temple on the third day of the
third month of the third year after the kingdom is established.
†††††††† And you can find
fringe Jewish and evangelical Christian groups just waiting for the destruction
of the mosque which now stands where the temple stood, so construction on the
new temple can begin. Maybe Iíll be surprised one day after Jesus arrives, and
everyone is getting together on 3/3/3 of the new era, but my impression is that
itís all pretty silly. Ezekiel saw his new temple in a vision. Like much of
what you find in the visions of the second half of Daniel or the book of
Revelation, it is symbolism, not serious architecture.
†††††††† So when we come today
to Ezekiel 47 and find him telling us how a river will flow out east from the
threshold of the temple, south of the altar, running out eastward until it
reaches the Dead Sea, we are pretty surely talking symbol, not literal
†††††††† Our sanctuary has the
same orientation as the temple in Jerusalem had. Imagine a door at the back,
behind you toward the east. Water would flow from beneath the threshold of that
door, then turn slightly to the right to flow south of the altar out in the
temple courtyard, which would be where our oak grove sits.
†††††††† Talking about real geography
around Jerusalem, the stream would keep going southeast, down into the Kidron Valley, past the entrance of the Hinnom Valley and through a wadi onto the east to enter
the Dead Sea. Alternatively, some Bible students have tried to tie in Zechariah 14:4 which tells us the Messiah will touch down on the Mt. of Olives and split it in half. That would make it possible for Ezekielís river to flow directly
east, to enter the north end of the Dead Sea.
†††††††† All of that seems to
conveniently forget Revelation 21, which states that when Jesus comes and sets
up His kingdom, the New Jerusalem will come down from heaven and in verse 22
that there will be no temple in that City. So all this speculation about
architecture and geography in the final kingdom of God doesnít quite match up.
†††††††† What Ezekiel saw is
best understood as a vision of the fact that God will restore the blessings of Paradise to both human beings and the earth we live. You remember we saw a river flowing out
of Eden that spread out four branches to water the world and bring life.
Ezekiel heard Godís plan to once again pour life and hope out into our world
and heal both our souls and the environment in which we live.
†††††††† This river here in
Ezekiel comes from the source of life, from the presence of God, from God
Himself. Back in chapter 43, part of the story of measuring and viewing the
structure was a scene in which the ďglory of the Lord,Ē returns and fills that
temple. Itís a building which symbolically houses the living presence and
divine glory of God. So the river flowing out from there is carrying that
divine life, that glorious healing life which is Godís.
†††††††† Thatís why another
literally impossible thing happens in verses 3 to 6. What begins in a mere
trickle down the temple steps, starts growing fuller and deeper as it flows.
The angel takes Ezekiel a thousand cubits downstream, thatís 500 yards, then
leads him into the water. Itís ankle-deep. Another 500 yards on, its knee-deep.
Then 500 yards farther down Ezekiel wades in with the water reaching his waist.
†††††††† No tributaries to this
river are mentioned. The only water source is whatís coming out of the temple,
yet itís growing fuller and deeper along its length. The hymn we sang a few
weeks ago, ďLike a river glorious, is Godís perfect peace,Ē has lines which
say, ďPerfect yet it floweth fuller every day; Perfect yet it groweth deeper
all the way.Ē That hymn writer caught the spirit of what Ezekiel experienced.
The river of God streams out from His presence and is not diminished, but
instead increases and grows as it flows.
†††††††† Ezekiel saw what Iíve
been repeating from Psalm 65 verse 9 each week, ďThe river of God is full of water.Ē God has enough for us. Whether itís love or forgiveness or peace or joy
or whatever good thing you care to name, there is an abundance flowing out from
God. His river can only increase, never diminish.
†††††††† In an ad hoc
discussion group in graduate school, we sat down to analyze what it means to
say God is good, whether He must be good, whether His goodness is part
of Godís nature or whether He could choose to be evil if He wanted. We never
finished the discussion, though I know it sparked a number of published papers
for some participants. What I carried away was the idea proposed by one member,
that Godís goodness overflows. God is so full of goodness and love that
like one of reservoirs filled with runoff in the spring, His love just
overflows out into His creation.
†††††††† Of course, God is
different from a reservoir. His overflow is no accident, no natural consequence
of some divine dam breaking or being overrun. God chose to create a world into
which His abundance of love could flow. He didnít have to do it, but wanted to
do it, wanted to share the fullness of His love with people like you and me.
Thatís why there is a divine river flowing from God out into the world bringing
life and love.
†††††††† As we will see next week
in a reading from John 7, ultimately that river flows to us through the grace
of Jesus Christ. Since the river flows from the temple, from the presence of
God in this world, God chose to be present in the fullest and best way
possible. God became human, became one of us, became a living and present
source of goodness and love and life flowing out into our world through His
death and resurrection.
†††††††† The river of God flowing to us is always full, no matter how far it flows or how much is drawn from
it. It is totally unlike the rivers around us. Here in Oregon we are used to
thinking we have plenty of water, especially after a week of precipitation like
weíve just experienced. But check figures and you will see we have rain deficit
that even all this snow and rain will not erase.
†††††††† Oregonís water seems
abundant, but itís a finite resource. On several of our rivers, hydro-electric
power generators compete with fish habitat which competes with farmers who need
water to irrigate which competes with our larger cities that need clean, safe
drinking water. Interest groups arise around all these water needs and
lobbyists and politicians scuffle over how our water will be used.
†††††††† Yet Godís river flows
ever fuller, ever deeper. Itís not going to run out. Draw from it all you like
and His love will still be there, ready to forgive, to heal, to create new
life, both in us and in the world around us. Our human water economy and all
our economies have to deal with scarcity. Godís river, Godís economy, flows
†††††††† So in the last part of
our passage, verses 7 to 12, we get a vision of how Godís abundant water supply
brings life where it flows. The image is that river from the temple flowing on
east until it runs into that body of water we call the Dead Sea.
†††††††† The surface of the
Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, lower than Death Valley in California, 1,400 feet below sea level. Water from the Jordan River Valley, the Arabah as
Ezekiel calls it, runs in, but nothing runs out. The Dead Sea is nearly ten
times as salty as ocean water, so nothing can live in it, no fish or plants,
nothing except a few bacteria and fungi. Thatís why itís called ďdead.Ē
†††††††† Occasionally, when
there are winter rains and floods, the Dead Sea comes a little more to life.
With fresh water rushing in, the salinity drops. During such a rainy winter in 1980,
the sea which is normally dark blue turned red with an algae that temporarily
blossomed in the less salty water. But thatís it. No fish, no other plants, no
birds or animals grazing along the shore, finding water to drink. Itís dead.
†††††††† So Ezekielís vision
pictures a miracle. Water from the temple pours down through the desolate
valley leading into the Dead Sea and transforms both the lake and the land
around it. Trees grow up on either side of the river in verse 7. Animals and
fish begin to thrive in and around that water in verse 9. AndóI especially like
thisóin verse 10 the Dead Sea becomes a fishing paradise.
†††††††† Crowds line the banks
of popular rivers and lakes on the opening day of fishing season here in Oregon, like at one of my favorite destinations, South Twin Lake. Verse 10 imagines it
happening all along the bank of the Dead Sea, from En-gedi on the west bank
near Masada to En-glaim, which may be further up on the northwest bank near Qumran. They will catch a huge variety of fish, like the variety of the Great Sea, the Mediterranean.
†††††††† You might imagine that
sort of environmental change to have some negative impact, maybe on economics built
around the salt traditionally mined in the area. But Ezekiel says even that
resource will remain, with salty swamps and marshes being preserved while the
larger lake becomes fresh water.
†††††††† The last verse of our
text turns back to those trees mentioned first in verse 7, growing along the
banks river. They are miracle trees, which do not lose their leaves and which
bear fruit every month. Their fruit is food and their leaves are medicine for
healing. Ezekiel says the reason is the water these trees absorb, the water
which flows from the sanctuary, the water which flows from the abundance of
Godís love. In a couple weeks we will see again this river and those trees,
which are the Tree of Life, growing along the river of God in Revelation 22. As I will say then, itís the same river. Ezekielís vision will be completed in
the new heaven, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem God will create.
†††††††† For now, though,
please see what Ezekiel is telling us. The river starts in the sanctuary.
Originally it started in Eden. It starts wherever people come together and meet
God and discover that His love and life is flowing out to them. This sanctuary
right here can be a place like that.
†††††††† Last week men and
women who slept in this sanctuary during cold, snowy weather looked up and saw
the Cross hanging over them, looked at our banner and saw the river flowing out
from the Cross. I pray that they felt and will continue to feel the abundance
of God flowing toward them. Itís a flow which can transform their lives, like
Ezekielís river transformed the Dead Sea.
†††††††† If you feel dead,
whether itís weariness from work, or from guilt, or from pain, or from sorrow
and loss, there is abundant life flowing out from Godís presence in this
sanctuary to you. May that new life come to you, give you new hope, some new
friends, a new start, because you met God in prayer and worship today.
†††††††† New life in Christ is
possible for anyone. Thatís the abundance of Godís river. A few months ago, an
acquaintance at Court Sports pressed a book on me that he wanted me to read. As
itís been since I was in school, the best way to get me not to read a
book is to ask me to read it, so I took it, but set it aside. But then I saw
him again a couple months ago and he asked what I thought of the book. So I
picked it up and started to read. Itís entitled Tattoos on the Heart: The Power
of Boundless Compassion by Father Greg Boyle. Itís about his twenty years
of ministry among Hispanic gang members in Los Angeles.
†††††††† I donít agree with all
the theology, but as I read I discovered that Father Greg had an enormous
confidence in the boundless love and compassion of God which can find something
good, something worth saving in every person. I read how one boyís life was
changed simply because Father Greg remembered and called him by his name. Another
young man became himself a channel of compassion when he kept fellow gang
members from killing an enemy from a rival gang.
†††††††† If God can change and
bless and send life-giving water flowing to hardened gang members, He can
change and bless and fill you and me with His life. He has all the love we need
and more. And that ďmoreĒ is the thought Iíd like to conclude with.
†††††††† In a little bit we are
going to get up and leave this sanctuary, flow out from here back into the
channels of our daily lives, back into the world we live in. God wants His
abundant love to flow with us, to flow through us. Right now, thatís where the river of God is running, through you and me to the people around us.
†††††††† I talked with someone
this past week who spent the last few years trying to make a business survive
in the recession. He focused all his energy and time on his work and left out
things like church and helping others. He kept thinking he was going to finally
arrive at a point where he was comfortable. Then he would have time and
resources to relax and maybe start giving something back as they say. But it
hasnít happened, and it doesnít look like it will happen anytime soon.
†††††††† Godís river grows full
and deeper, but itís possible to stop that flow, to resist it. The Dead Sea in reality is dead because, as I said before, it has no outlet. All the water that
runs into it carries salt and other minerals and none of it goes anywhere. The
water just evaporates in the desert sun and the lake grows saltier and more
poisonous to life.
†††††††† You and I most truly
receive and enjoy the abundant life our Lord gives in Jesus Christ when it not
only flows into us, but flows out of us, as we will read next week in John 7. Donít wait until later to give something back out of all that God has given you.
You may find your own heart has grown hard, even toxic, like the water of the Dead Sea. Instead, let it flow into you and through you and out to someone else.
†††††††† Let there be a flood
in the sanctuary. Let there be one in this sanctuary. Let there be a
great flood of people who have received life in Jesus Christ and now send that
life flowing like a river to dry land, like streams into a dead sea. There are
children whoíve been abused. There are teenagers who contemplate suicide and
killing. There are husbands and wives who find no life in their marriages. There
are folks all around us who feel their lives are at a dead end. We have the
life, we have the water to refresh those lives. Let there be a flood of life in
this place that does not stop here because it is Godís life, Godís abundant
†††††††† Jesus poured His life
out on the Cross so the river of God could reach us. May we receive and wade in
that river so that it can reach everyone else. You can be a flood in the
sanctuary, a flood streaming out from this sanctuary. You can be a stream of
Godís love that will only grow deeper and wider and stronger because it flows
from the sanctuary of His presence in Jesus Christ.
†††††††† As the song says,
ďFlow river, flow. Flood the nations with grace and mercy.Ē And may it flood
our lives and the lives of all those we know, because the river of God is full of water.
†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj