Ezekiel 23:39-41 and The Difficulty of Holiness

The prophets in the Bible have a lot of very disappointing news and depressing situations they have to confront in their ministries. Reading through the Bible on a schedule for the year brings to light how sinful the Jewish people were, which led to their exile. This passage in Ezekiel shows yet one more dimension of the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people:

39 When they slaughtered their children for their idols, they came into my sanctuary and made it impure on that very same day. They actually did this inside my temple. 40 They even sent for men who came from a great distance. No sooner than a messenger was sent, they arrived! For these men you bathed, you painted your eyes, and you put on your jewelry. 41 You took your place on a splendid couch with a richly set table in front of it, and you set my incense and my oil on it.

The people made horrible, detestable sacrifices in the Temple of the Lord. They had pagan worship and child sacrifice to false gods in the very Temple to the Lord. And they used the incense and oil that were specifically for the worship of the Lord, forbidden to be used for any other purpose, and used them for whatever they wanted.

There was no distinction in the minds of the people of what was holy and what was not holy. Everything was equal. Nothing was set apart for the Lord, whether space or items for worship.

The difficulty here is that we have the same problem today in much of Protestantism. We have no sense of the sacred or the holy. Everything is on the same level. Of course, this reflects the spiritual truth that everything is holy because it all belongs to the Lord, yet the reality is that when everything is holy, we tend to see nothing as holy because it has lost its distinctiveness.

Many of our churches today are created to look like every other building with a large gathering room, or the ones that have an actual sanctuary treat that room like any other room in any other building. Our preachers either dress like every other Gen-X/Millennial in jeans or business people in suits. Except for the subject material, a worship service could be any rally for any reason or cause (and even the subject material in much of our churches could pass off for a self-help session instead of worship).

The reason God called his people to set apart certain spaces and certain items for worship as holy was to remind us that  he is holy, we are called to be holy, and there is a difference between being holy in this world and not being holy. The few things that were set apart as holy were to remind us that ultimately everything ought to be holy and is in a process of redemption. But when we make the leap to say that, since it is all holy and therefore everything is equal in the eyes of God, practically nothing becomes holy to us. The Church begins to look like the rest of the world.

We have even celebrated this fact by saying that people shouldn’t have a “stumbling block” that would separate them from Christ, so we should make everything in church look identical to the rest of the world. Then people will not feel uncomfortable in church. Jesus made people feel uncomfortable all the time! He made them so uncomfortable they killed him. And this is true of virtually all of the earliest apostles. The early Church intentionally set itself apart from the society around it though different worship and prayers. They did not mirror the culture; they transformed it.

A very good friend of mine, Dr. Robert Tuttle, is fond of saying, “We remember and we forget; we remember and we forget. But mostly we forget.” This is why the sacredness of worship is important. It helps us remember that God is holy, calls us to be holy, and we are to be distinct from the culture around us–so much so that the power of the holy God among us can transform the culture to reflect him. Think about this in your own life and see if it is true.

Which of these two images conveys more a sense of difference from the rest of the world? For full disclosure, the one on the right is Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois and the one on the left is St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.




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