“A New River”

Ezekiel 47:1-12


            There are parts of the United States that some people refer to as “fly over country.” This area is pretty much anything between the Ohio River Valley and the Rocky Mountains. And it’s labeled this because some people don’t see these areas as being very exciting. Some have the impression that there is nothing there to look besides flat ground and corn fields. So, you have to fly over them to get to the more, quote, unquote, “exotic places”. Places like New York or LA.

            When it comes to the Bible, the book of Ezekiel is on the top of the fly over list. Not a lot of people spend time in Ezekiel. We know about the Valley of Dry Bones, but that’s pretty much it. A member told me the other day that they started to read through the book and had to put it down. It was just hard to read and understand.

            And I get it. At one point in his book, Ezekiel lying on his left side for 390 days and then on his right side for 40 days. Then he almost cooks his food using human dung as fuel. Then at the end of the book, Ezekiel gives us nine chapters describing the New Jerusalem and the rebuilt temple. The collective response to Ezekiel is to fly over.

            Yet, even as we fly over Ezekiel at 35,000 feet, we can’t help but glance out the window from time to time. And when we look out the window, what do we see? A river! Ezekiel says, “Wherever the river flows everything lives!” (47:9). Ezekiel, he needs this river. We need this river.

            Ezekiel needs this river because of all the pain of living in Babylon, all the torment of exile, and of all the heavy sighs and sleepless nights are captured in Ezekiel’s fly over land called the valley of dry bones. The dry bones symbolize exiles. They express their despair in Ezekiel 37, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are clean cut off” (37:11).

            “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone: we are clean cut off.” That’s what our world is doing to us. Social and economic disasters are enacting a huge emotional toll on us all. For us adults, trying to make sure financial ends are met. For our youth, dealing with the pressures of social acceptance, identity, and the constant pressure of school, sports, and other activities. All this creating anxiety, depression fear, anger and irritability. “We are clean cut off!” Two words can be used to describe our lives right now … burn out.

            Burn out can be defined as “feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring.” Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” That’s what it is, but what are the signs of burn out?

            Physical exhaustion. We’re tired. We’re tired so much of the time. We just want a relaxing evening at a restaurant, a shopping trip, a major league baseball game. But instead, vacations, date nights, recreation activities are almost non-existent.

            Emotional exhaustion. We know that if we have one more family feud, one more financial surprise, one more crisis with aging parents, one more thing go wrong, we’re going to break. We just can’t take it anymore.

            There’s cynicism. Even worse than physical and emotional exhaustion is the feeling that things will never change. We don’t just wake up one morning and suddenly find ourselves cynical. It creeps up on us and, before we know it, we’re negative, sarcastic, jaded, and bitter.

            There’s also self-loathing. Victims of burnout often turn inward. We blame ourselves for what has gone so terribly wrong. Rather than seeing out burnout systemically, we take it personally and get lost in the self-loathing.

            But into our individual valley of dry bones, there runs a river. Ezekiel’s vision here begins with a small trickle of water under the altar of the temple. The prophet responds with the Hebrew word wehinneh, which when translated means, “I was struck by the sight.” In other words, Ezekiel is shocked to see water coming out of the temple.

            In Ezekiel 47:2, the prophet again exclaims, wehinneh! He’s struck by the sight again. This time he describes it as mepakkim. Mepakkim appears only here in the Old Testament. The word comes from the word pak. Pak in Hebrew means a small bottle so mepakkim means a drop, a trickle, a super small amount of water.

            It’s just like God to do something big by beginning with something really, really small, with something that is mepakkim. Sarah was barren, but she gave birth to Isaac, the son of promise. Moses led Hebrew slaves out of Egypt to inherit the Promised Land. A shepherd runt of David became a giant slayer. And the stone builders rejected, that being Jesus, has become the cornerstone and it is marvelous in our eyes.

            Several verses later in Ezekiel’s vision, the small trickle of water becomes a surging river of life. The water moves from a drop, a trickle to being up to Ezekiel’s neck. By the time the prophet reaches the mile marker, he can’t find the bottom of the river.

            Ezekiel then sees trees covering both banks of the river. The trees miraculously bear fruit ever month and always have leaves to heal. Ezekiel’s guide takes him no further, but points eastward and tells the prophet that the river flows into the Dead Sea. The river transforms the Dead Sea into a freshwater lake rich in fish, just like the Mediterranean See. “Wherever the river flows everything lives!”

            Here’s some things to know about the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is about 1,400 feet below sea level. Its 34% salt. By comparison, The Great Salt Lake in Utah varies between 5 and 27% salt and the ocean is only 4% salt. And ever since divine fire torched Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities at the southern end of the Dead Sea, the entire area has been the ultimate symbol of death.

            Fly over lands are like that. They are desolate, dry, and dead. Fly over lands are filled with tumbleweeds and blowing sand. Desert demons live there. And we know them all too well. Physical exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, cynicism and self-loathing. When we come face-to-face with burn out, what’s the temptation? Live in denial. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Drink more. Veg out more. Work more. Fly over! Whatever it is, don’t go into denial. Instead, go into John’s gospel.

            Ezekiel’s river flows all the way into John’s Gospel. It begins with just a trickle, a mepakkim. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of the water and the Spirit.” In John 4, Christ tells the Samaritan woman, “I give you living water.” Then the surge comes in chapter 7. Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me streams of living water will flow from within him.”

            Then, in the greatest ironic twists of all time, the raging river of life is reduced to just a drop, to a mepakkim, until it completely dries up. John 19:28, Jesus says, “I thirst.” Talk about being burned out. Jesus knows it all too well. Here is Jesus, crushed and cursed by the sin and selfishness of your and my life.

            Yet, just as the glory of the LORD returned to Ezekiel’s temple, that same glory returned to Jesus. Jesus swallowed up death forever. Jesus is alive forevermore! Now Jesus lives it direct His river of life into the hopelessness of our hearts.

            And how does Jesus do that? One mepakkim at a time. No surging spring, no flash flooding, just three splashes of water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Water, when connected with God’s Word, is a baptismal river of life. It forgives sin, quenches thirst, and defeats our death.

            And our response? Wehinneh … we are struck by the sight of God’s cleansing, renewing, and refreshing mercy in Jesus Christ! Ezekiel says, “Wherever the river flows everything lives” (47:9).

            The water of this life giving river, it flows in and through you nine. It makes you dead to sin and alive to Christ. As you stand here before and with your brothers and sisters in Christ, you will affirm the faith given to you in the life saving waters of your baptism. I want you to know, not just in your head but in the very depths of your heart, that the river of God’s love for you will never run dry. You are not a fly over, but a dearly loved child of God. As a child of God, Jesus went to the cross and grave for you so that you will be with Him. As He anoints you with His Spirit, the cup of your life overflows with His blessings. God’s goodness and His unfailing love will pursue after you all the days of your life, so that you will live in the house of the Lord forever. “Wherever the river flows everything lives.” That river … it’s here! Amen.

            The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.


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