This is the audio (48:16, 35.8 MB) of a sermon preached at our Lithuania home church, Klaipėda Free Christian Church, on July 18, 2021. The main text is Ezekiel 20:1-11; we also read Joshua 4:19-24 and 5:2-9; Psalm 106:1-12; John 8:1-11; and 1 Cor 6:9-11.
Each of us still lives with the scars and the effects of sin in our life: the sins that we have committed, and the sins committed against us. That is a reality of life in this fallen world. But the good news is that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, for those who believe and turn to God in repentance, we are no longer defined by our past sins.
Enjoy hearing the sermon in both English and Lithuanian (back-and-forth)! You can also watch the service on Facebook, or read it below.
It’s a great joy to be worshipping with you this morning, and to be sharing with you from God’s Word. It’s amazing to see so many here, and I know that others are on vacation, and watching online. I’m so grateful to be part of a spiritual community that has taught me so much over the last few years.
And speaking of which, we have been attending this church for nearly four years, and then briefly during our first time at LCC, two years before that. Some of you know me well; others, I don’t know you as well, or at all. But I know that each of us carries spiritual and emotional baggage, wherever we go, from our past. Some of our burdens that we carry with us are things that we’ve done; some of our burdens are things done to us. Some of us don’t even recognize the burdens that our family and our culture and our society lay on us; we just accept those burdens as natural and normal. Some of you are very young; others of us are not as young, and so have been through a lot more in our lives—and more time to pick up spiritual baggage. Some of us have baggage that is mostly small; some is large and heavy.
Today I believe that God has a message for us from Ezekiel 20; it’s a passage that has been on my heart for nearly two years now, and I’ve been studying it quite a lot during that time. It’s a message mainly about the burdens that are placed on us by where we are born, how we are raised, and the societies in which we live. Our natural tendency is to simply accept these burdens as normal, and then to place them on others. But the gospel is a message of freedom: freedom to resist and overcome the spirit of our age, and the spirits that haunt us—and the freedom of a life that is animated by the Spirit of God.
Ezekiel 20 is a rather long chapter, and we will only focus on a small portion of it today. Ezekiel is a priest and a prophet, and he is living at the twilight (or last days) of his country’s independence. Judah has been attacked by the powerful empire of Babylon, and some of its people have been deported to Babylon, hundreds of miles to the East, across the desert. But the temple of YHWH, the God of Israel, has not yet been destroyed; and the king still rules in Jerusalem—but only at the pleasure of the king of Babylon. Ezekiel was one of these exiles as a young adult in his 20s. Some false prophets have been telling the king of Judah or the exiles in Babylon that the exile is not a punishment for their sin and rebellion, and that it will end soon. But true prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel know that this is not the case, and they continue giving the harsh-sounding message that the people of Judah will undergo punishment under the Babylonians for an extended period of time—only after that time will YHWH God forgive them and rescue them.
At the start of the passage, Ezekiel 20, some of the elders of the people who are in Babylon with Ezekiel, come to the prophet to ask for a word of guidance and hope from YHWH God. What he gives them instead is ultimately hopeful, but doesn’t sound like it at first! What he does, is he recounts the history of the nation of Israel from hundreds of years before, when YHWH God rescued them out of the land of Egypt, to the present. And it is a very negative picture of their ancestors—in fact, in comparison with the stories we find in Exodus and Numbers, scholars have said that it seems too negative to be true. I don’t think Ezekiel’s telling of the story is too negative, but for today we will focus in on one unique feature of his version of the story. So let’s now read the first eleven verses of Ezekiel 20.
In the seventh year, in the fifth month on the tenth day, some of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the LORD, and they sat down in front of me.Ezekiel 20:1-11
2 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 3 “Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Have you come to inquire of me? As surely as I live, I will not let you inquire of me, declares the Sovereign LORD. ’
4 “Will you judge them? Will you judge them, son of man? Then confront them with the detestable practices of their ancestors 5 and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: On the day I chose Israel, I swore with uplifted hand to the descendants of Jacob and revealed myself to them in Egypt. With uplifted hand I said to them, “I am the LORD your God. ” 6 On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of Egypt into a land I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful of all lands. 7 And I said to them, “Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the LORD your God. ”
8 “‘But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. So I said I would pour out my wrath on them and spend my anger against them in Egypt. 9 But for the sake of my name, I brought them out of Egypt. I did it to keep my name from being profaned in the eyes of the nations among whom they lived and in whose sight I had revealed myself to the Israelites. 10 Therefore I led them out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. 11 I gave them my decrees and made known to them my laws, by which the person who obeys them will live.
So as we see, this story of YHWH God’s special relationship with Israel begins when they were slaves in Egypt. As we know from other scriptures, YHWH God already had a special relationship with their ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But when we read Exodus 6, we find a new piece of this relationship. God says to Moses that he did not reveal his special name, YHWH, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They knew him as “El-Shaddai,” “God Almighty.” So YHWH God returning to his people to rescue them from slavery is a new revelation, a new stage in their relationship with him. And it is an amazing revelation! At the end of his life, Moses marvels at what YHWH God has done in rescuing Israel from slavery. In Deuteronomy 4, he says, “Has this ever been done before, that a God spoke to a people out of the fire like this? That this God went and rescued an entire people for himself, from a powerful nation and its gods?! This has never happened before!!”
But here is the problem in Israel’s story: YHWH God can take the people out of slavery, but it’s much harder to take the slavery out of the people. Back to Ezekiel 20, scholars have puzzled over verse 7: Get rid of the images of other gods that you have been worshiping, and stop serving those gods that have made you unclean. Where does it say in Exodus that the Israelites were worshiping and serving other gods in Egypt?
Enslaved to gods
Here’s where we have to think like an ancient person—even though maybe we will see that our way of thinking as modern persons is not so different. Ancient people believed that spiritual forces governed everything in life, and the Egyptians had gods for many things. There were gods for fathers who led households; there were gods who helped women conceive children. There were gods that made the Nile River flood each year at the right time, to water and feed the crops and make them grow. There was a god of the sun, Ra, and the Pharaoh was thought to be the human presence of Ra on earth. And, on and on.
And, there was no “religious freedom” in most societies, and religion was not a private matter of belief in your mind and heart. Serving the gods of the household, the gods of the city, the gods of the nation, and the high gods—this was absolutely necessary for everyone. If you were from another place and came to a different place, as a traveler or as a slave, you could probably still honor and serve the gods of your home—as long as you also served the gods of the place where you were living.
For slaves especially, they had no choice in what gods they served—their masters worshiped the gods of Egypt, so the slaves did, too. Practically, this affected every area of their lives. Imagine coming into the house, or going out of the house, and there were little images of the gods on a small shrine in the corner—and every time, you had to bow, or gesture to the gods, or take a pinch of incense and burn it. This was how you went out, and came in. At special times of day, or days of the week, or months of the year, the entire household would honor the gods with prayers or sacrifices. If you were a child, or a servant, or a slave, you could not choose to excuse yourself from these actions.
Our Rituals, Our gods
Just bowing or burning incense to these idols doesn’t sound so bad or so oppressive, especially if it is meaningless in your heart. But this misses two important features of human living. First of all, the rituals that we do every hour, every day, every week—they shape over time what we believe, and they also come to reflect what we believe. Let’s think about some examples. I say that I care about being physically healthy—so then I prove that by making a daily habit of exercise, and spending more time on making healthy food. I tell my wife that I love her, with my words—and I also wash the dishes, and take care of the finances, and show her physical affection, and support her in her vocation and the things that she cares about. The more I practice these rituals, the easier they become, and they communicate what I actually believe.
There are lots of rituals, though, that reflect and shape my heart’s desires in other directions. When I go out of the house, instead of bowing to a statue of a god, or taking a small image of the god with me on a necklace, or saying a quick prayer—I grab these things: *hold up phone, keys, wallet* . These are signs of my power and ability, and my involvement in the world and the economy: I can drive places, I can take the bus, I can communicate with people, and I can buy things. If I don’t have them with me, I feel naked! When I come home, I set them in a basket by the door. When I am at home, a lot of my attention is directed to particular objects. When I was growing up there was a shrine in the corner of our living room, and all of the chairs and the sofa were facing towards it. We spent a lot of time looking at it, listening to what it said to us. I’m talking about the TV, of course! But now we have little TVs with endless possibilities in our pockets. We have all felt the draw of pulling our phone out when we are bored, or when we’re fearful of missing out, or not knowing something, or not noticing the affirming “likes” on Facebook. The point is that the hourly and daily and weekly rituals of our lives show us what forces we actually serve, and what we really believe. The gods of our age—commerce, politics, entertainment, attention, sexual pleasure—their stories are very powerful, and we tend to live our lives according to those stories, rather than God’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and re-creation.
The second thing that we are blind to, when we think about ancient people with their gods shaping their lives, is that the gods we serve rule over us, abuse us, and then we tend to use them to rule over others. If you were an Israelite slave in Egypt, and your parents and grandparents before you had been slaves—all of you serving Egyptian masters, and being forced to serve Egyptian gods—you come to accept, that, well, this is just the way it is: the gods have given these people power over us, and they can make us do whatever they want. They can beat us, they can sexually abuse us, they can even kill us if they want—and the gods allow it to happen. Therefore, the gods must want it this way.
AND, very important, when I am in a position to domineer someone else, to harm them, to make them submit to me, I do it!—because it makes me feel like I have power, and because the gods must want it to be this way. If you think about it too much, then you become angry at the gods—at God—for allowing things to be this way. Or, you can just become numb to the pain that you feel, and the pain that you inflict upon others.
Our Shame, Our Guilt
I know it might be difficult, but I want us each to think about the slavery, the shame, and the guilt that we have internalized from our family, and our culture of origins. Ezekiel 20 verse 7 tells us that YHWH God said to the Israelites, “Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the gods of Egypt. I am YHWH, your God!” What are the gods that we serve, because we’ve always served them, and can’t seem to get away from the shame? What are the lies that they tell us? Maybe your slavery is physical or sexual abuse, from your childhood, or from your past relationship—and you just can’t seem to escape the feeling that you are worthless. Maybe your slavery is the culture of materialism, money, and success: you were told by your parents or your friends that your worth is based on how successful you are in a good job, and how much money you make—and that story of human worth has enslaved you ever since.
Maybe there is a specific moment in your life, where you made a choice, or you felt like you had no other choice—and the memory of that moment has held you captive ever since. Maybe it was a choice to abandon someone you loved, or to give in to someone who said they loved you—but really wanted to use you.
Some of our sins that enslave us are outward and obvious; we carry the shame before others. Some are private, and internal—and those can be more pernicious and life-sucking. Earlier we read from the book of John, chapter 8: There was a woman who was caught in the act of adultery and dragged before Jesus for judgment (not according to the Law of Moses, we should point out, because the man should have been condemned as well). Her sin was obvious: she had committed sexual sin, broken up at least one family—maybe two families—and she had no excuse or defense to offer: she was guilty. But the religious leaders who brought her before Jesus had guilt and shame as well. Jesus stooped to write in the dirt, apparently listing their secret sins that he knew were stewing in their hearts, enslaving them, and causing them to lash out against others (Jesus, and this woman). Maybe some of them had committed adultery, or lusted after women other than their wives. Maybe one had betrayed a friend. Maybe one had secretly stolen money. Maybe one was consumed with kissing-up to others in power, to gain power for himself. The older ones left before the younger ones, because they evidently had a longer history of these inward sins. Jesus was not saying that the woman had not sinned; but that the inward sins are just as destructive as the outward sins.
Good News: God Removes our Shame
BUT, there is good news! The God who created us all, YHWH, the God of Israel, the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—he sees our shame that we carry from our slavery and abuse, and the ways that we enslave and abuse others in response. And he wants to take away our shame and our guilt. He wants to redeem our lives that have been ruled by these gods that enslave us.
When the woman is left alone before Jesus, with all her accusers walking away in shame, Jesus says to the woman, “I don’t condemn you either. Now, go and leave your life of sin!” (John 8:11) The punishment in the Law for adultery was death by stoning! But Jesus, God incarnate, sees this woman’s guilt and her shame before him—she can’t hide it—and he shows her mercy instead of judgment. And the mercy is not a cheap grace that allows her to go back to the enslaving sins that were destroying her, her family, and others around her: this is mercy that transforms and sets her free.
Each of us here today still lives with the scars and the effects of sin in our life: the sins that we have committed, and the sins committed against us. That is a reality of life in this fallen world. But the good news is that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, for those who believe and turn to God in repentance, we are no longer defined by our past sins. Listen to how the Apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11:
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Do you hear that? You were a thief. You were a worshiper of other gods. You were a drunkard. You were an abuser. You were an adulterer. But you were washed and made clean; these things no longer define you anymore. And the “name of the Lord Jesus Christ” is upon you! God himself places his name upon you.
Coming back to Ezekiel 20, the way the chapter concludes (spoiler alert!) is that YHWH God will not ultimately allow his people to wallow in shame of serving other gods, of having those gods’ names and rituals and habits define his people. YHWH God will drag his people away from slavery to these forces, whether they like it or not! The God of Israel is a God of true freedom, who gives statutes and laws by which his people can do them and live! (That’s a little preview of another sermon on this chapter.)
What Must We Do?
I hope you are starting to understand why I am so blown away by Ezekiel 20, by God’s radical love for his people! What must we do about it, in response?
If you have never called upon the God revealed in the Bible: do it right now! Don’t wallow any longer in your shame and your guilt. There is no sin that is so grievous that he will not forgive it. There is no shame so great that Jesus’s honor does not take it away. Colossians 2:13–15 says that at the cross he has put to shame the spiritual forces that brought shame upon us when we followed them!
So, if you have never called on God to take away your shame and your guilt, confess it to him today, and be free!
The next thing to do—and this applies to all of us—is to recognize the gods of our age, and to reject the hold that these gods still have on our lives. Before, we talked about the rituals of our lives: how we spend our time, how we focus our lives each day on certain things. It’s sobering, but important to consider whether your rituals reflect the claim of YHWH God upon your life—or whether your life in reality belongs to the gods of our age: money, power, sex, entertainment, attention, politics. These are all things that God has created, but they belong in their proper place. But it is not enough simply to name those rituals, and the gods that we continue to serve. What rituals do you need to engage in, to replace those bad rituals? This means everything from our day-to-day habits, up to and including the purposes and motivations for our work, going to university, who we choose to be friends with and to love, and what we do with our money.
What we worship is what we become. We find our truest purpose when we worship and become like the God who created us, in his image. And the process of learning to live without our shame and our guilt is difficult, but the life of freedom according to God’s will is not difficult. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light (Matt 11:28–30)!
Audio and text: ©2021 by Benjamin D. Giffone. Reproduction and distribution are permitted, providing that the author is properly credited and that no fee is charged.
 Earlier we also read some verses from the book of Joshua, chapters 4 and 5. After YHWH had saved his people out of Egypt, and brought them through the wilderness, he brought them across the Jordan River, and was giving them the land he had promised to them. But this second generation, their parents had not given them the sign of YHWH’s covenant, which is circumcision. So on this special occasion of the river crossing, they take 12 rounded stones from the bottom of the river, and set up a monument. And all the males are circumcised, showing their faith in YHWH’s promise. And what does YHWH say to them, when they’ve crossed the river and made this monument, and been circumcised? He says, “Today I have rolled away the shame of Egypt from you” (5:9), and the name of that place, Gilgal, means something like “rolling”: the round river-stones, and the shame of slavery. All of the sins that had been committed against Israelites when they were slaves, and all of the shame and disgrace that they brought upon themselves by living as slaves to these other gods—that is rolled away, washed away in the waters, and they have a fresh start.