Refuge

We’ve been learning quite a bit about hope recently; what hope is, what it looks like to maintain hope, what hope is able to accomplish for us, where our hope needs to be placed, how to hang onto hope through loss and betrayal, etc.  This week, God challenged me a bit, and I’m going to pass that challenge on to you.

Usually when I think of hope, it is due to circumstances beyond my control.  Something happened to me or someone let me down and I am left in need and hoping in the Lord to meet that need in some way.  Until now, I never really considered the need for hope when we act wrongly.

When I make a bad decision or act in rebellion, when I sin and am suffering the consequences, I have always just felt like basically, “Well, I’m getting what I deserve.”  Why would need or choose to have hope in that situation?  Why would I put my hope in God to undo the very same consequences that He chose put in place?  However, we can do so and we should do so!  In fact, God expects us to still put our hope in Him in the midst of His discipline.

God took me through much of the Old Testament as I was seeking after Him for the message today and I didn’t really understand at first what He was revealing to me.  Then in light of this, I understood.  God’s people have a long and consistent history that repeats itself over and over.

We sin against God, God brings about consequences for our sin, we pity ourselves for a while and don’t really accept the responsibility for it, we come to our senses and repent, God forgives and restores us.  This awful cycle happens several times over throughout the Old Testament and it unfortunately still continues today.  It’s not usually on a national scale today, but it very much so happens on a personal scale.

If we maintain the mindset that I had regarding the Lord’s discipline, then we completely miss the heart of God and His intent with discipline and we will never break this cycle!  Some have dismissed this cycle as an issue under the old covenant that was resolved when Jesus fulfilled it.  However, the God of the old covenant is the same God of the new covenant and He still disciplines His people because He still loves His people.  In fact, Paul writes:

Hebrews 12:7-13

7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

So as we choose to be trained through discipline, we can and should actually turn to God and put our hope in Him that our unpleasant and painful season of discipline will end in our healing.  The purpose of discipline is to turn our hearts back to God, not drive us away from Him.  The purpose of discipline is to strengthen us and not to break us.  The purpose of discipline is to produce righteousness and peace, not to prove our unrighteousness and produce chaos.

We’re learning again this morning how to put our hope in God, but when we have sinned.  We’re going to be encouraged in how to view God as our refuge and how to enter into that safe covering.

When God created everything, He created it with boundaries.  Those boundaries are a blessing and work together to provide for us a natural refuge.  He created the earth to spin at just the right speed so that gravity holds us down to the face of the earth without crushing us.  He created the earth to remain distant enough from the sun so that we don’t freeze nor burn up. 

He created atmosphere around the earth so that we have just the right balance of gases to breathe so that the vacuum of space doesn’t crush our lungs.  He set boundaries between the water and the ground so that we can drink when we are thirsty and not be drowned.  The list goes on and on and on with how God creates boundaries and how they are good.

Then, He created us and gave us moral boundaries to live by.  We see the goodness in all of the natural boundaries that God gave us, but we don’t often see God’s moral boundaries that way.  We see them as hindering us or limiting us in some way as if though we are missing out on something by not staying within them.

We get drunk every now and then, crossing the boundary of drinking.  We fantasize a little and maybe even experiment sexually crossing the boundary of marriage.  We tell that “white lie” so that we don’t get in trouble for what really happened crossing the boundary of honesty.  We do that job under the table so that we don’t have to pay taxes crossing the boundary of integrity. 

We share that secret out of concern and for prayer crossing the boundary of relationship.  We see that person’s need, but see that they got themselves into their mess, so we don’t help them and cross the boundary of love.  We feel the Holy Spirit’s lead to step out, but we excuse it away crossing the boundary of covenant.

To sin literally means to miss the target, to miss the mark.  God sets a boundary and we cross it.  If we’re shooting a bow and arrow and we hit the bullseye, we get rewarded.  If we’re shooting a bow and arrow and completely miss the target, well, that arrow is going to land somewhere it was not intended for and it could cost someone their life.

Sin is doing what we should not do and sin is also not doing what we should do (James 4:17).  Sin is crossing the boundaries that God has set and it never ends well, it always leads to death in some way.

To sin is to choose to walk away and out from under the refuge and covering and protection of God.

Why do we do this, though?  Why do we choose to walk away when we have it so good?  Sometimes we don’t realize that we are living in the good ole’ days until they are gone.  Sometimes we just don’t know what we have until it’s gone.  Temptation, from the enemy, draws us away from God and lures us outside of the boundaries of His refuge.

We’ve heard of temptation being described as the grass being greener on the other side of the fence.  However, we know that truth that the grass is greener where we feed the soil and sow the seed and water and nurture it’s growth and protect it from weeds and destructive bugs.

It’s easy to understand this, but it is hard when you are in a challenging relationship or when you’re not recognized at work for all you do or have a car that keeps breaking down or have a child bent on rebellion, etc.

Just like last week, God gave me a picture of what this looks like.  As I was driving to my appointment early one morning, I drove up onto this scene.

Here is this cow, outside of the fence and was initially standing on the road eating the grass right between the fence and road.  She was as content as could be just standing there swinging her tail and chewing away.  When I drove up onto the scene, she simply looked up at my car for a moment and went right back to grazing away.  She was completely unaware of the danger that she could have truly been in and had no idea why the fence was up to keep her away from the road.  She simply saw that the fence was keeping her away from that fresh, green grass.

How often us, God’s very own people who He wants to protect and provide for, act just like that cow!

We turn now to Ezekiel.  Ezekiel was a priest who was taken into exile in Babylon along with many others that we read about such as Daniel when he was around 30 years old.  Ezekiel was sent to be a prophet through street preaching.  His message wasn’t evangelism to people who didn’t know God, he was sent to God’s people to tell them a message that they didn’t want to hear. 

God warned Ezekiel that he was being sent to a rebellious and obstinate and stubborn, not to a foreign people who don’t speak the same language, but to his very own people and that they would not likely listen to him.  He was to ignore their threats against his life and share God’s word with them regardless of whether they responded to it or not.

God’s people sinned against God, but they didn’t believe it.  They were just like that cow who saw nothing wrong with what it was doing.  Ezekiel was sent to them to set the record straight, to remind them that they were allowed to be taken as slaves by their enemy because they intentionally chose to walk out from under the refuge of the Lord. 

His initial message was doom and gloom that contradicted the false prophecies floating around that peace was coming and that Jerusalem’s walls were being rebuilt.  He told them the truth that Jerusalem would fall and it certainly did.  It would be like telling that cow that a huge truck is going to come along that road and kill it – it wouldn’t believe me at all.

He was calling God’s people to repent, which means to turn.  They were being called to repent by acknowledging their sin and to stop denying it.  They were being called to repent, to turn to God and back to His refuge and away from their rebellion.  I got out of the car and tried to lead the cow back into the safety of its pasture inside of the fence, it wasn’t too thrilled about the idea, either.  It took some yelling and threats to get it to repent and move back inside of its boundaries and it was going to take some wrath of God to get God’s people’s attention.

When that happened, they said that God wasn’t being fair.  God said:

Ezekiel 33:14-20

14 …if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right— 15 if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil—that person will surely live; they will not die. 16 None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live.

17 “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ But it is their way that is not just. 18 If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, they will die for it. 19 And if a wicked person turns away from their wickedness and does what is just and right, they will live by doing so. 20 Yet you Israelites say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ But I will judge each of you according to your own ways.”

God is just and administering justice is holding each person accountable for their own choices.  If anyone chooses to admit their wrongdoing and repent; to right their wrongs and to begin doing right, they will truly live.  If someone lives a righteous life for decades and chooses to turn away from it and being doing wrong, they are choosing death.  All sin leads to death in some way.

That cow that I came across was fenced into an area covering many acres with a fresh stream, plenty of shade, and lots of tall, green grass to graze on.  However, that just wasn’t enough for her.  In her mind, the grass was greener on the other side of that fence and she saw no problem with wandering outside of the fence that provided refuge for her.  God’s people felt the same way.  God said:

Ezekiel 34:18-19

18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

When God brings us into a season of discipline, that’s right, when God does this for He will certainly do so to us if we are truly His children…  When God does this, it is only for a season to break up the hardness of our hearts.  When the season of tearing us up and breaking us down is over, IF we choose to repent, God will bring us into a season of building us up; healing and restoring us.  In fact, God promised many times in Ezekiel to remove our heard hearts and to give us a soft heart of flesh and His Holy Spirit.

Ezekiel 36:9

 9 I am concerned for you and will look on you with favor; you will be plowed and sown

Not only out of concern for us and compassion toward us, but also because we are called by His name, we represent Him, He will restore us!

Ezekiel 36:22

22 …‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.

God may discipline us, but He will also rebuild and restore us.  IF we choose to repent and come running back under His covering and allow Him to be our refuge.  IF we do so, this is what people will say:

Ezekiel 36:35

35 They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.

Ezekiel started out with a message of doom and gloom to bring God’s people to repentance.  However, that’s not the whole message for God’s people and that is certainly not His message for us.  Yes, He calls us to repent, but that’s the bad news.  The good news, the gospel message, is the hope that God always ends on!  God spoke through Ezekiel to promise this same rebellious people:

Ezekiel 34:26-28

26 I will make them and the places surrounding my hill a blessing. I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing. 27 The trees will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land. They will know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them. 28 They will no longer be plundered by the nations, nor will wild animals devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid.

There is hope!  God will forgive our stubbornness and rebellion and restore us!  Discipline may last for a season, but the quicker that we repent, the quicker that God will end that season and bring us into a season of healing and restoration!  God is our refuge, run back to Him and the hope that He offers even in the midst of your sin and rebellion!

Ezekiel started with a message of the destruction of Jerusalem, but ended with the glorious rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.  Whatever God has permitted to be destroyed or stolen in your life, even if it is the result of your own poor choices, it’s time to hope again!

At one point, God showed Ezekiel this vast valley full of dry bones.  God told Ezekiel to prophecy to them and they not only came back to life with flesh and muscles and tendons on them, they rose up to become a vast army!  God said:

Ezekiel 37:11-14

11 …“Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

It’s time to turn back to God, our refuge!  It’s time to step away from our graves, from our lamenting and whining and complaining and excusing, and come alive!  It’s time to get filled with the Spirit and truly live again!  The pity party’s over, it’s time to repent and start speaking to these dry, rattling bones to live again!