I was tired of it. I’d had it! The social distancing. The inability to go anywhere or do anything fun. The masks. All of it! I had reached my breaking point. It wasn’t just the limitations that have come with COVID-19, it was that I had also moved across country in the middle of this world-wide pandemic. On this particular day my heart was aching. I was longing for what I had had just a few months prior: familiar faces and places, the comfort of friends and loved ones, the routine I had become accustom to, and connecting with people who actually knew me. The isolation had gotten the best of me.
I began to run through the litany of things that I had been regularly turning to to change my mood: unhealthy foods, binge watching TV, games on my phone, fantasizing about a time I could not go back to. These were the things I had been turning to for comfort. What constituted “joy” in my life was knowing that my next meal was going to be a cheeseburger, fries and a large soda. I suddenly realized the emptiness of my coping methods. Everything on that list was something that wasn’t healthy for me, things that were draining my spirit even more. This sudden realization was another blow. Now that I saw the truth of these bad habits, where could I turn?
As a believer, I knew the answer was the Lord. I knew He was with me. I knew that He was the one who had brought me across country and He hadn’t left me to fend for myself now that I was here. I did trust Him, but cheeseburgers just seemed to make me feel better. The truth was, after months of slowly and gradually practicing those unhealthy habits they became so easy. Trying now to turn the tide against them, I felt weak. I wasn’t sure I had the energy or ambition to turn in His direction, to seek Him alone for my comfort.
I was reading the book of Ezekiel. It was in Chapter 11, verse 16 when the words suddenly jumped off the page. God said to Ezekiel, “Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Although I have cast them far off among the Gentiles, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet I shall be a little sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’” (Ezekiel 11:16 NKJ) My heart began to warm with both conviction and gratitude as these words given to the exiles in Babylon spoke to me in my own situation.
The context of this verse in Ezekiel is as the Babylonians have taken over the City of Jerusalem. Ezekiel is among those who have been exiled to Babylon. They have left the comforts of their home, their land, their temple, their country. Life as they have known it for generations has suddenly changed. And according to the Lord, they will not be returning for many years.
Leaving their land meant that they were leaving the place where God dwelled among them. The Temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem was not just a beautiful place where they attended weekly services. It was much more. God’s presence settled on the Ark of the Covenant inside the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple. So the Temple was truly God’s “house” to the people of Israel and Judah. The Temple was a place of safety and refuge. It was a place of redemption, a place of mercy, a place where they communed with God and received revelations from Him. Not only were they being separated from the place where God dwelled, but their enemies were about to destroy it. The place that held God’s presence was going to be obliterated.
And why was all this happening? God was finally meeting out the punishment He had promised them over hundreds of years for their idolatry and repeated unfaithfulness to Him. This was the consequence for their rebellion, for their desire to turn to other gods. God was taking them out of the land He had promised their ancestors, leading them to the foreign land of Babylon, and allowing Nebuchadnezzar to destroy His “house.” Their hearts were far from God and He had reached His breaking point with them.
But, even in the midst of carrying out their punishment, God offers them hope. In verse 16 He tells Ezekiel to tell those being exiled, “Yet I shall be a little sanctuary for them.” God may have been moving His people away from their land. He may have allowed his “house” to be destroyed. But He wasn’t removing His presence from them. God Himself would be their sanctuary.
The exile to Babylon wasn’t just punishment for the sake of punishment. God was stripping away every idol that they had learned to cling to, even some that had entered their own religious practices. Ezekiel was shown in a vision (Ezekiel 8) that there was idolatry occurring even inside the Temple. If they would not turn to Him, He would then remove them from the environment of idols that they had created for themselves. His purpose in doing so was that they would turn to Him as their sanctuary. He was where they would find mercy and redemption. He was where they could worship Him, meet with Him and commune with Him. In Him they would find their sanctuary.
What leapt off the page to me as I read this was the pursuit of God’s love for His people. He stops at nothing, even allow His own “house” to be destroyed to turn our hearts towards Him. He wants us, our whole hearts to be stayed on Him. It’s what He has always and will always want from the people He has created. God indeed had shown me the emptiness of my bad habits and how I had been turning to “things” for my comfort. He reminded me in these verses that He could meet me in the midst of my seeking other things, pull me out of those pursuits and offer Himself as my sanctuary. There was emptiness in the “things” I was pursuing, but He alone is the Source of all comfort. He wanted to be my “little sanctuary.”
Commentators and translators disagree about the word “little” in verse 16. Some translate it as “for a little while” God would be their sanctuary, since He later promises them that the Temple will be rebuilt. But others translate it as “little sanctuary.” It’s the idea that God is willing to make Himself small for His children. Although I think both translations ring true, I love the idea of God making Himself small for us. The magnificence, opulence, and grandeur of Solomon’s Temple could not begin to hold a fraction of the unimaginable, fear-inspiring majesty of God. Solomon himself said that (2 Chronicles 6:18). How much smaller must God make Himself to be the sanctuary for each of His children? What a reminder of His awesome greatness especially in comparison to the “things” I had been turning to instead.
There is another application of these words to the exiles that I believe speaks to the whole Church.
In these same words to Ezekiel, God continues to instruct him in what he is to tell the exiles. “‘I, the Sovereign LORD, will gather you back from the nations where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel once again.’ When the people return to their homeland, they will remove every trace of their vile images and detestable idols. And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those who long for vile images and detestable idols, I will repay them fully for their sins. I, the Sovereign LORD, have spoken!” (Ezekiel 11:17-21 NLT)
This time in the history of God’s people was a critical one. They were being forced to leave the land that had been their country. This could have been the end of them as a people had they not been the chosen people of God. But God promised to return them to the promised land in 70 years. That meant that this time in captivity had to be a time for them to return to the roots of what made them God’s people and to preserve those roots for future generations. They had to reject the foreign influences and the idolatry that they had allowed to creep in to their culture. Their children and their children’s children had to understand and practice the customs that God had given them generations before.
It was after this Babylonian captivity when God’s people are first referred to as “Jews.” Would that have happened if they had not returned to God and His decrees and regulations, if they had not preserved the traditions He commanded of them?
I believe that what we are facing right now is a critical time in the history of God’s people, His Church. Like the people of Judah, He is in the process of removing us from the idols we have been clinging to so that we will return to Him with a “singleness of heart.” During this pandemic, we have had some idols and potential idols stripped from us – health, financial security, entertainment, social interaction, connection with family members, gathering for worship, etc. Instead of pining for these things that have been limited or taken away we need to examine what role they are playing in our hearts. Are we longing for them because it’s just the habit we’ve developed? Are we turning to these things instead of seeking Him with the wholeness of our hearts? God’s love for us is relentless. He wants to remove the hardened heart of His Church and replace it with an obedient, responsive heart of flesh.
This is also a time for us to return to the Word that He has given us, to be obedient to His commands, and to preserve the roots of what make us unique as His people. Our culture has changed. We may feel as though we are in a foreign land, barely recognizing our surroundings as what we once called “home.” But this is not a time for us to become more like the culture around us. It’s a time for the Church, and that is every individual believer, to return to God’s Word and be obedient to His commands. When the world tires of the idols they are pursuing we need to be ready to offer them what makes us different. If we have let ourselves slip into the ease of our culture’s values and traditions we will have nothing different to offer them.
We always have a choice. We see in these words to Ezekiel that when the people could return again to Jerusalem after the exile they could still choose to cling to idols, but they would be met with the same consequence there had always been. So too can we as believers choose to cling to our idols. How we come out of this “pandemic exile” is up to us. But know this, God’s passion for the hearts of His people is relentless. He will take drastic steps, including destroying His own “house” to get us to see it is our hearts that He is after. He is pursuing our whole-hearted devotion and obedience to Him. Will you let go of the idols you are turning to? Will you make Him your little sanctuary instead? And will you return to and preserve the uniqueness of what it means to be a child of God?
Father, thank you for your relentless, loving pursuit of our hearts. Father, we pray for an end to this pandemic, an end to the loss of life that has come as a result of it. But Lord I pray that we are forever changed because of it. I pray that those who didn’t know you before it, come to know you now. I pray that those of us who have allowed our hearts to be divided between you and other idols in our life will choose you alone. I pray that you will unite your Church by your Spirit with a single heart; that we would be one Body – your Body – with Jesus as our head. That under His leadership we will carry out your will in total surrender and obedience. Thank you Father for stripping us of the idols we have clung to too tightly. Turn our hearts, mind, soul and strength to you alone. In Jesus’ precious name we pray, amen.