There he sat... with his people in the land of exile. It had been years now since he'd gone there. Ezekiel wasn't the first. He also wasn't the last. He knew now that God was with them in Babylon – that's what the vision of the throne chariot, the rolling throne, was all about. And God had given him many oracles of judgment against the sin that led the people there in wave after wave after wave. Now it was finished. All but a few stragglers were in exile. The former temple, abandoned by its God when it became too polluted to tolerate, had been burned and broken. The city of God was demolished. Up until then, it had been possible, through contorted reasoning, for the people of Jerusalem to still claim that it was only a temporary setback. But now it was painfully obvious that the judgment of God had come. And why was it so difficult for them to see it? “Because,” the prophet said to himself, “their hearts were so hard.”
It had been the story of the people for a long time. They once thought it was only for Pharaoh, whose heart was made hard, tough, resolute against God's call (Exodus 7:13). They thought it was only for pagan kings like Sihon of Heshbon, whose heart was likewise hardened against God and set up for a fall (Deuteronomy 2:30). But it proved to be the story of Israel, too. It was a perennial temptation for Israel to harden their hearts in the face of poverty and need (Deuteronomy 15:7), to harden their hearts in the desert as opponents of God and Moses (Psalm 95:8), to harden their hearts time and time again and resist God's way of life (Isaiah 63:17).
Isn't that heart-breaking? And I mean that almost literally – because that's exactly what Israel needed: for their hearts to be broken. Because their hearts had, as it were, turned to stone. Which is just so far from what God had ever intended for them! Israel had been created for the sake of God's holy name. Their purpose was to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, marked out as God's special project, an example of what society could look like under his supervision and guidance. It's like they were God's commercial, God's marketing campaign, to the rest of the world: “Turn to me and be blessed like this!” So they were specially designed to bear his holy name; there was a space reserved just for him on their hearts. And inevitably, in the world they lived in, other nations would look at them and associate their conduct and their welfare with the God whose name their hearts were designed to bear.
And if their hearts had been soft and pliable to God's instruction, if their hearts had glowed warm in the light of God's love, if their hearts had been obedient and clean, that would have been great! God would have blessed them as he did in the days of David and Solomon, and the nations would have been drawn to them and inspired by them and maybe, over time, would have surrendered to the beauty of their quiet witness and been converted.
But that wasn't how the story went. Israel's heart turned out to be nothing special, nothing above the ordinary. Israel's heart wasn't soft and pliable. Israel's heart didn't glow warm. Israel's heart wasn't, in fact, even alive at all. Through neglect, through little acts of resistance, through a studied campaign of stubborn rebellion, their heart had “died within [them], and [it] became as a stone” (1 Samuel 25:37). Their heart was hard – a heart of stone. And that heart of stone betrayed their very reason for existing – it made them a total marketing failure, an advertising flop, a mockery.
Nothing less than exile from the land would make them even start to get a grip on that. Israel was so defiled that they couldn't stay; their blood and their idols were a pollution (Ezekiel 36:17-18). So God sent them away from their land, piece by piece; he scattered them throughout the nations, and the provinces of Babylon (Ezekiel 36:19). That was what had to happen. There was no other way, because God couldn't tolerate their abominations in the promised land forever. But when other nations looked at Israel's behavior, they asked, “Oh, so is that what your God wants? Is that the example he wants to set? Some God you have!” And when they looked at the consequences of that behavior, they scoffed, “Oh, your God can't even protect you! He can't save you from us! He can't bless you – he's too weak! These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land – what a joke!” (cf. Ezekiel 36:20). And so Israel's heart of stone brought the God of Israel into public disrepute.
And it would be easy to judge them, in light of all the prophets rightly say. But the problem with that is that the truth Israel belatedly discovered about themselves is a truth bigger than themselves. Israel's heart of stone isn't unique to them. It's not as though they were worse than all the other people. They were a case study. Their heart of stone is common to all the sons and daughters of Adam, common to every human community, every project we undertake. You ever see the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's character gets stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over and over? It's like that, only the day we're repeating is the Tower of Babel. Inexcusably, our light-deprived “foolish hearts” were no less stony than theirs (Romans 1:21). And what else can you call that but “an evil and unbelieving heart” (Hebrews 3:12)? John Calvin was right about this – yes, you heard me – John Calvin was right when he called the stony human heart or mind “a perpetual forge of idols.” Look within at the rocky, craggy landscape you've seen there, and you've scoped out an idol factory, a veritable idol assembly line, deaf and dumb and dead to God's call.
But our hearts were not made for that. They were not made to die and be fossilized. They were meant to live! No less than Israel's, all our hearts were made for God's name, for God's word to be written there, for God's love and mercy and holiness to shine brightly there. Our hearts were all made to be a perpetual advertisement to one another, to the heavenly host above and to all creatures here below, of the beauty of loving the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, our triune God from whom all blessings flow. That's what they were made for.
But dead hearts of stone, hearts claimed and twisted and petrified by sin, don't do that. Sin isn't merely a mistake, isn't merely a moral failure. Sin is every dark infectious power, every demonic whisper, that scars and deadens the heart, that leads to a fundamental mismatch between God's holiness and the hearts he made to bear his name. And no less than Israel, we've all experienced that. Every nation, every people, every person, has experience with the fundamentally calloused heart within, the heart that's hopelessly mismatched with the name divine for which it was made. And so without radical grace, we are hopeless, and our hearts will always betray God's name. Now that is a sobering thought. Especially since a “hard and impenitent heart” is doing nothing else but “storing up wrath for [itself] on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).
But here's the good news: Jesus Christ is risen! And is there any act of grace more radical than resurrection? Is there any word that better encapsulates the essence of hope than that? Because if resurrection is a reality, then there's hope of life for the dead... even what's dead in us. Earlier, when Ezekiel saw God on a rolling throne by the banks of the canal, and when he glimpsed God's rolling throne flying away from the Jerusalem temple to go into Babylonian exile with his people, God told him that the rolling throne meant that he was like a portable sanctuary to them out where they had been taken (Ezekiel 11:16). And he said it was like a downpayment on a future reality – a promise that exile was not forever (Ezekiel 11:17). And neither, he said, was Israel's dirtiness or their heart of stone (Ezekiel 11:18-19).
And in this morning's passage, taken from later in Ezekiel's ministry, God picks up that theme yet again. In the face of Israel's relentless hard-heartedness, in the face of the hard-hearted nations' persistence in mocking God for what Israel's hard-hearted exile seems to suggest about his lack of goodness and power, in the face of the way Israel and the nations have all treated God's holy name and the hearts that were made to bear it, God is here determined to “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” (Ezekiel 36:23). That means Israel's return to the land, which vindicated God and his people in the face of exile (Ezekiel 36:24). It also means the resurrection of Jesus to the land of the living, which vindicated God and his Messiah in the face of death. And it portends the resurrection of the whole body of Christ, which will vindicate God, God's Son, and God's Son's Bride in the face of death and sin and all else that stains the good world God had made.
But as Ezekiel hears this prophecy, here's what God promises. First, God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25). It's like in Numbers 19, where the rare ashes of a red heifer were kept by the priest, but they were taken with water to be sprinkled on the congregation of Israel to cleanse them from impurity (Numbers 19:9). God had told them to use that kind of supercharged water for the priests to sprinkle on Israel to cleanse them from anything that made them dirty; and here God promises, just like that, to wash away everything their idol factory has produced. And “if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14) – a truth we come to experience in baptism, the supercharged water that connects us with Christ's cleanness. The leprosy of our souls is in desperate need of nothing less.
But, in fact, we're in need of a great deal more. See, as long as our heart is stone, as long as our heart is dead, as long as the idol assembly-line keeps chugging along, we'll end up right back where we were. We'll continue, in our conduct and in its consequences, to communicate to the world, to each other, to ourselves a misbranded, misconstrued portrait of God. We'll continue to drag his name through the mud... as long as our heart is a heart of stone. And all along, the prophet had been exhorting the people to turn away from death, to turn away from sin, to get the stony layers circumcised off of their heart, to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” and live (Ezekiel 18:31).
But what should be painfully obvious is that self-surgery of the heart is not exactly in the human repertoire. And so through Moses long ago, God had foretold a day when “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring” (Deuteronomy 30:6). And through Ezekiel, God now takes the initiative for a heart transplant: “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” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Israel was in desperate need of nothing less! Not only did they have to return to their land, not only did they have to be made clean from their idolatry, but they needed a real change of heart. Instead of having a stone-like heart that resists God's will, that's stubborn and recalcitrant to his hands and immovable to his voice, what they need – what God promises to give them – is a tender heart, clipped of any callouses, that's soft to his hands and responsive to his voice, tender in his presence and ready to do his will. That's the purpose of the circumcised heart, the new heart, just like Moses said: “so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live … and you shall again obey the voice of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 30:6-8).
Toward the end of the Old Testament and beyond, though, we see that Israel wasn't exactly there. They'd been returned to the land, but they remained under foreign domination; there was a sense that they were almost exiles even in their own home. They'd been freed from the obvious idolatry of pagan gods, but managed to snare themselves in subtler idols like power, money, and even their own traditions in the way they handled God's Law. They hadn't yet received the new Spirit. Nor, for that matter, had their hearts really been softened. They still displayed hardness of heart, still were stubborn and resistant to God's mercy, still unbelieving and immovable to his voice (cf. Mark 3:5; 8:17). There was more to be done. And because Jesus Christ is risen, it has been!
Through the risen Christ, God has performed a heart transplant for every believer, and for his people as a whole. And the New Testament tells us a lot about this heart of flesh, this new heart we've been given. Where the old heart was calloused and tough, always putting up guards and roadblocks and walls, the new heart isn't like that. It's described by Peter as a “tender heart,” one that goes along with love, sympathy, and humility (1 Peter 3:8). It's described by John as open – “if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother [or sister] in need, yet closes his heart against him,” that's not the way the new heart behaves. The new heart isn't closed; it's open (1 John 3:17).
Where the old heart was defiled, unclean, “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9), the new heart isn't like that. The author of Hebrews speaks of “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience,” leading to “a true heart [with] full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22). That's what the new heart is like. That's the heart God has given you. It's full of truth. It's clean. Paul calls it “a pure heart” (1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:22). Peter does, too: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
What's more, where the old heart was a purely human – really, subhuman – sort of thing, the new heart isn't like that, either. The new heart is radically open to God. The author to the Hebrews speaks of the new heart being “strengthened by grace” (Hebrews 13:9), and grace comes from God. God is the source of the heart's strength. Not only that, the new heart is a receptacle of God's love. Paul tells us that “hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts” (Romans 5:5). God is the source of the new heart's love. And not only that, the new heart is under the dominion of the Prince of Peace. Paul writes that, too. He urges believers to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body, and be thankful” (Colossians 3:15). God, in the person of his Son, is the source of the new heart's strength, love, and peace. The new heart is open to God because it's fueled by God.
What's more, the new heart belongs to Christ. It's his for worship. Peter tells us that. Drawing on a passage from Isaiah about the Lord GOD, Peter writes, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,” or “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15). That's what the new heart is for: it's a shrine, a sanctuary, where Jesus Christ reigns as God alone. It's a chamber of his vast temple.
And the walls are inscribed with his words. That's why Paul can call his converts “a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of fleshly hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3). And it's why the author of Hebrews twice quotes the prophecy of Jeremiah, where God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33; cf. Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). The new heart is Christ's for worship and for witness: he reigns there as God and declares his word there as the Wise King of Glory.
And because of that, whereas the old heart was hard and unyielding, stubborn and resistant to God's will, the new heart isn't like that. The new heart is soft and pliable in his hands and responsive to his voice. Paul says it best when he talks about the new possibility of “doing the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6). This new heart is able to practice the will of God, and even to trust God like putty in his hands: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The new heart is the organ of salvation; it's the organ of Christian life and Christian living. It's essential – there can be no church, no Christian, without it!
But now the sad truth is, sometimes our heart ages. Sometimes it toughens up too much. Sometimes it gets too calloused, and the callouses calcify, and it gets a stony outer layer. That's a common truth among Christians, we who bear God's holy name. Too often, we're lacking in mercy. Too often, we're lacking in purity. Too often, we're lacking in love. And when that happens, it's a problem. Because the nations will look at us, and just like Israel in ages past, we bring God's holy name into disrepute. You see it all the time – people rejecting God, rejecting Jesus, rejecting the fellowship of the saints, because they trip over the stony bumps and lumps on our hearts.
And so we need God to vindicate his holy name again in us. What we need is heart surgery. God is still in the business of heart transplants for his creatures and heart surgery for his wayward, calcified children... even if it be with a hammer and chisel. That's no light thing. Probably some of you here this morning have had heart surgery. Was it an enjoyable process? Was it fun? Was it an easy and painless recovery? I'd venture to say not. And the same is true when God carries out spiritual heart surgery on us. It may not be enjoyable, it may not be fun, it may not be easy and painless. As a general rule, it won't be.
But for all that, it's no less necessary, often – sorry to say – on a regular basis. We can thank God that the Good Shepherd is also the Good Physician, the Surgeon of our Hearts. So once again our heart can be freshly healthy and lively, clean and true and pure, strengthened with the grace and peace and love of God, soft and tender and ready to do God's will. And because of that, hope does not disappoint. So may God carry out heart surgery on us as needed, to renew in us a new heart, a heart like the heart of our risen Lord. Amen.