by Justin Rossow
We often think of metaphor as using something we know to help us understand something we don’t know. While that may often be the case, it’s hardly a fast rule and has very little to do with identifying what a metaphor is or how it works.
Metaphor is talking about, experiencing, or reasoning through one thing in terms of something else. As far as metaphor is concerned, we can borrow inferences and logic from an unknown and apply it to a known just as easily as the other way around.
In the case of this sermon, I am using something my hearers don’t know a lot about—a vision from Ezekiel and geographic data about the Dead Sea—and using it to shape how they experience something they know well—their own sin and the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ.
The sermon itself is structured as a Four Page sermon, moving from (1) the Trouble in the Text to (2) the Trouble in the World, followed by (3) Grace in the Text and (4) Grace in the World. In this kind of sermon structure, the experience of Law and Gospel are divided fairly equally in the major sections of the sermon (unlike other structures, where Law and Gospel may be experienced from within each of the moves of the sermon).
In this case, Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life flowing from the Temple of God and transforming the Dead Sea is used as the central image of the text. And, even though the sermon progresses in the Four Pages structure, you can still identify the metaphor dynamics of Evoking the Source, Mapping to the Target, and Seeing through a New Lens.
Here, then, is the sermon.
Sermon Introduction: Evoke the Source
2,600 feet above sea level: that’s how high you would be if, at the time of Ezekiel, you were standing at the top of the broad staircase that led up to the Temple of God in Jerusalem.
From this height, you can go down, down the steps of the Temple, down Temple Mount, down through the city of Jerusalem, down the Kidron Valley, down through the hill Country of Judea, down through the desert region of the Arabah, down into the Jordan River Valley, down, down, down, down, down …
From 2,600 feet above the Mediterranean Sea at the Temple, to 1400 feet below sea level, you have gone down 4,000 feet. You have traveled about twenty miles East and South and three quarters of a mile straight down, to the lowest land elevation on the planet.
And there in the depths, at the lowest point on earth, you find a lake of salt we know as the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is over eight times saltier than the ocean, so full of salt that there are no fish. There are no frogs. There are no snakes. So full of salt, that there is no grass. There is no seaweed. There is no life.
The Dead Sea lives up to its name.
If you or anyone you know has ever been, you probably know it’s easy to float in the Dead Sea. The water is almost 1/3 salt, so even a bowling ball will float! (And by that I don’t mean a person shaped like a bowling ball; I man an actual bowling ball!)
It sounds fun, but if you go, keep your head above water. They say the salt fiercely burns your eyes, and the taste is not just salty, it’s terribly bitter!
The thing I find most startling about the Dead Sea is this: no matter how much fresh water flows into it from the Jordan River or one of its tributaries—no matter how much fresh water pours in, the Dead Sea remains DEAD.
Trouble in the Text: Map to the Target (1)
In our text for today, Ezekiel sees a vision of the Dead Sea. Ezekiel and his people knew about the Dead Sea. They had experience with the Dead Sea. Maybe they even floated in the Dead Sea! And they knew first hand how dead their own spiritual lives could be.
You see, Ezekiel is a priest who should have ministered in the Temple of God in Jerusalem, except that he was with the first wave of Israelites taken into exile in Babylon. Because these people had persistently and relentlessly turned away from the loving embrace of their God, finally, finally, finally, God’s judgment spilled over and washed them away.
Destruction. Captivity. Death. Ezekiel speaks God’s Word to God’s people stuck in the lowest point of their history as a nation. And his word of judgment on the people and their trust in external religiosity is harsh indeed.
According to God’s Word spoken through the prophet Ezekiel, this first wave of exile would not be the last. The city of Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed. And the Temple of God, the sign of the presence of the Living One in the midst of His people, even the Temple itself would be toppled to the ground.
Like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley filled with dry bones, like the view standing on the shore of a sea of salt brimming with poison, there is nothing on the horizon but death.
The righteous judgment of the Almighty burns their eyes and is bitter to the tongue. And nothing they do, no matter how hard they work or how many vows they take, no matter how much they try to change themselves, the Dead Sea remains dead.
Trouble in the World: See Through a New Lens (1)
Maybe you know something of what that feels like. Maybe you have experienced the bitter taste of a failed relationship, a relationship you swore would be different this time! And you worked so hard to be better and kinder and more loving. And you thought you did everything right. Yet the same old patterns of distrust and anger and lies cannot be so easily washed away.
And it’s bitter, O so bitter, when you pour yourself into a relationship and it’s not enough. No matter how much you try to change, you can feel the relationship beginning to wither, and even die.
Or maybe you know what it’s like when the salt of your own tears fiercely burns your eyes. When the diagnosis that seemed so promising has turned grey and hopeless. And after you have tried every medical solution, and explored homeopathic remedies, and prayed and prayed and prayed, and your church prayed, and all your Facebook friends prayed, but nothing you do can change the harsh reality of a terminal diagnosis. You once had hope, but now all you can see is destruction, captivity, death.
Or maybe you know what it’s like to turn your back on God. To make vow after vow to change your attitude or behavior only to break every one. Maybe you’ve gotten caught up in a religion of externals that trusts more in the worship service you perform than the God who wants to meet you there. Perhaps faith has again become stale and salty–turgid, brackish–and your faith feels like it’s about to die.
And no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to feel refreshed and renewed, no matter how many Bible study helps you use or spirituality books you buy, you just can’t escape the reality of your own sin. You used to think sin was just your bad habits, and now you suspect it’s your way of life.
And when you reach that low point, when you have gone down, down, down, away from God’s Temple, away from God’s presence, away from God’s promise, you find yourself looking at a horizon of hopelessness, a sea of death.
Grace in the Text: Map to the Target (2)
Ezekiel preached to a people who knew the burn of tears in their eyes and the bitter taste of judgment on their lips. Ezekiel’s vision was expressly given to people who were experiencing death—spiritual, physical, relational death—in their lives and in their bodies.
For the sake of these people who were experiencing death, God takes Ezekiel in the Spirit back home from exile, into a future where the Temple has already been restored, where judgment has already been reversed.
There, Ezekiel himself sees a vision of pure, fresh water, at first just a trickle, coming out from under the threshold of the Temple, from the very dwelling place of the LORD Most High.
As that trickle works it’s way down the Temple steps and through the streets of Jerusalem, the trickle begins to deepen. By the time Ezekiel leaves the city, it swirls around his ankles. By the time he crosses the Kidron Valley, it’s around his knees. As he walks through the Hill Country of Judea, it’s up to his waist.
Down, down, down, the grace of God flows, until by the time it reaches the banks of the Dead Sea, the water from the throne of God is a rushing torrent, a powerful flood that Ezekiel cannot hope to cross.
And unlike anything else in the history of the Dead Sea, this time, this time the fresh water wins! This time the flood of grace makes the change no human effort could effect! This time the living water from the presence of God transforms the lowest place on earth.
Where there was only salt, the fishermen now cast their nets; where there was only death, now trees on both sides of the river bear fruit for life and leaves for healing. Where there was only a valley of dry, dead bones, where poison and barren emptiness had dominated the landscape, now God Himself brings forth renewal, refreshment, life!
Grace in the World: See Through a New Lens (2)
Do you see? Do you understand? That’s not just a vision for ancient Israel. That’s you! That’s your story! That’s the depth of your sin and the barren landscape of your life! And no matter how hard you try, you can’t make yourself better, you can’t dilute the poison, you can’t bring life from the waters of death.
But Ezekiel has a vision to share with you today, even as your eyes burn from the salt of your tears, even with the bitter taste of judgment still on your lips.
Ezekiel looks up and sees water, life-giving water, trickling down from the very presence of the Almighty God. Down it flows from the steps of the Temple, into the Temple court where Jesus is teaching: “The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Down the water runs, down to the edge of the Kidron Valley, around the base of Skull Hill, where Jesus is raised by a cross in death. As the Savior is lanced with a Roman spear, blood and life-giving water flows.
Down, down, it courses,
through the Hill Country of Judea, where Jesus was born in a Bethlehem stall,
down through the desert region of the Arabah, where Jesus went toe to toe with the Tempter for you and won,
down into the Jordan River Valley, where Jesus joins the waters of your baptism to His own saving mission,
down, down, down the grace of God flows until it is a relentless river, an overwhelming current, a powerful flood.
And when the water of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ gushes into the lowest part of your life and the deadest corner of your soul, an amazing thing happens: life.
Life! Full and abundant and teaming and free. What you could not by your own effort effect for yourself, the grace of God washes over you in a torrent of tender love.
Gone the judgment. Gone the pain. Gone the separation. Gone the death. A vision of a promise so powerful, that even though it will not bet finally and completely fulfilled until death is washed away forever, already now we experience the shock wave of this eternal transformation.
Already now, relationships begin to heal. Already now, tears are wiped from faces. Already now, sins are fully and freely washed away.
By the waters of your baptism, the eternal river of life determines your reality already now far more than any sea of death ever could.
Already now, you have been buried with Christ by baptism into death and raised with Him to newness of life. Already now, you have received the sign of the cross on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified. Already now, you have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
So that just as much as the vision of the prophet Ezekiel is meant for your present, so also the vision of the apostle John defines YOUR future:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”
“Look, I am coming soon!”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.