HEED THE PROPHET

Ezekiel 2:1-5, Mark 6:1-13

Bryan Hanger

The idea and role of the prophet has always been a fascinating thing to me. When I think of prophets I often think of images of charismatic preachers speaking powerfully and emotionally and sometimes quite strangely. And I don’t know about y’all but when I read the stories about Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Ezekiel, and so many others, I am captivated. The language and imagery is stunningly beautiful and sometimes terrifying, but I think I mostly like the prophets because how unlikely some of them are, and how so many of them make mistakes but still do so many great things through faithful obedience. Their stories are stories of unusual but fruitful journeys.

Abraham left his city, his family and homeland, simply because Yahweh promised that he would make a great nation of him. Abraham took a giant leap of faith to follow Yahweh and join him in his journey, but he did not do this without doubts or mistakes. In Genesis 17 and 18 both Abraham and Sarah laugh at God’s promise, and not only that, but they try to pretend that they didn’t laugh at him. Yet Abraham is still the father of Israel and God did deliver on his promise.

There are countless other examples of unlikely heroes. We heard the other week of the story of Samuel choosing Israel’s next King, and he chose the most unlikely candidate in David. To which God said, “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

While not necessarily considered a prophet, another unlikely instrument of God’s will was Rahab, the prostitute that helped Joshua and the Israelites take Jericho. Rahab’s actions help fulfill the promise of Yahweh to give the promised land to the Israelites, and later in the New Testament we see Rahab is listed as part of Jesus’ genealogy. A very unlikely hero, especially for a society that often oppressed and ostracized women.

These are just a few examples, but they show us a couple things we should keep in mind. First, the prophet is a person that can come from anywhere, look like anybody, and act in unusual and unexpected ways. But, also we must remember what always gives the prophet power. And that is that God speaks through them to speak a word of liberation, judgment, power, or perhaps all 3. God chooses the prophet, the power of the prophet only comes from God, and the people can only be redeemed if they heed the prophet.

Keeping that in mind, let’s turn to our story from the book of Ezekiel today. Now Ezekiel, unlike some of the prophets I just mentioned, is not an incredibly unlikely messenger of God’s word. In fact, Ezekiel was born into and belonged to the priestly class, but he lived during arguably the most tumultuous period in Israel’s history. Born just before the great exile of Jews to Babylon began, Ezekiel, along with Jeremiah, becomes a prophet at a crossroads of Israel’s history.

The time before the exile was an incredibly formative period for the life and faith of the Jewish people. The fledgling tribes settled into the region, were loosely governed by judges until the people finally demanded Samuel to choose a king to govern over them. We’ve probably all heard a bit about King Saul and he was the first king to govern over a united Israel. But a united Israel did not last very long. It lasted under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, and then split in two to create Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel lasted until 722 BCE when the Assyrians conquered them, and Judah lasted until 587 BCE when the Babylonians came, destroyed Jerusalem, and created the context of the Book of Ezekiel.

So essentially, Ezekiel’s time to preach to the people of Israel is when their entire universe and faith is physically collapsing around them. King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians have not only occupied their land, but have destroyed the Temple.

But crucially for our context, we must also keep in mind that during the entire time before Ezekiel and the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, there was great wrestling between the people of Israel and Yahweh. Things were not always wonderful and theologian Walter Brueggemann even goes so far as to say, “The whole history of Israel until 587 had been one long tantrum by Israel. Israel never obeyed, not even from the very beginning.” [1]

Historically, as the Israelites became more organized and religion became more institutionalized, the temple was of the utmost importance. Solomon’s temple centralized religious life in Jerusalem and kings like Josiah instituted religious reforms that centralized it even more by destroying local sanctuaries that dotted the surrounding areas.

But as Ezekiel details throughout his book, the House of Israel had been a “rebellious house”. Just because the religious worship and rites had been centralized in the land the Lord promised and gave them, did not mean that they had been faithfully living in covenant with Yahweh.

Even though the temple of Jerusalem had become the focal point of religious life, Yahweh was not always the focal point of the worship that was happening inside the temple. As I mentioned previously, the relationship between Yahweh and his people had always been a bit strained, and the ways of Yahweh often confounded the people. Thus, they often challenged God or disobeyed him because they wanted him to act in a particular way that he wouldn’t. This led to the mixing of other idols and other modes of worship into their religious life. Theologian James Luther Mays puts it this way,

“The offense was more serious than dabbling in other religions. In the place where he was present they found it necessary and desirable to devote themselves to other gods who promised to bestow the security and prosperity the Lord denied them. They took that denial, not for divine discipline and not as a dialogue with them, but as the weakness and absence of God.”[2]

Quite simply, Yahweh was not useful enough for the Israelites. Even after centuries of being obstinate and ornery with God, they still couldn’t figure out how to create a working covenant that satisfied what they thought they needed in a God. So instead of putting their faith fully in Yahweh, they instead take the temple Solomon built to worship and house the presence of Yahweh and defile it with the shrines and worship of other Gods. The idolatry becomes so offensive and appalling that Yahweh says to Ezekiel

“Son of man, do you see what they are doing–the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.”

By creating idols, they prove that they no longer feel Yahweh is enough to sustain them, and Yahweh is prepared to depart from them. Walter Brueggemann says

“Such idolatries are attempts, misguided attempts, to secure the city by trust in other gods because the terms of security from Yahweh are too costly.”[3]

But what are these terms of security that Brueggemann speaks of? He doesn’t list them out but the fundamental thing that Israel cannot grapple with when it comes to God is his absolute holiness and absolute sovereignty. I mentioned earlier that Yahweh was not useful enough for the Israelites, and I think that the idea of an instrumental God or a God we can control is at the center of Ezekiel’s narrative and remains something we must contend with today.

Thus, it is into this situation that Yahweh calls Ezekiel. The Israelites are defiling the temple and yet the temple means everything to the people. The temple shall be destroyed and the people shall be expelled, so how can Ezekiel and the rest of the people of Israel continue to function religiously? How can God salvage new life for his people out of the wreckage of idolatry and disobedience?

This conundrum is what makes Ezekiel so crucial to the people of Israel, but also incredibly relevant for all who read and hear his words today. His words bring up serious questions like: How does one move on when they have deeply wronged a person who’s given them so much? Or how can one continue to live a life of faith when everything you held so dear is seemingly destroyed? And perhaps more importantly…After the wreckage, how can we be open to the movement of the spirit and the possibility of a new way forward? These are the things that Ezekiel is seeking to open us up towards.

But we must remember, Prophets are not always with honor, and we do not always heed their warnings and words. If we return to our scripture, we see that:

“He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

I love that last bit from God. “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

We see this sentiment echoed throughout the New Testament in regards to Jesus. People can see, hear, and even touch the miracles around them, but even then it is not enough for them to heed Jesus and his works.  In our scripture from the Book of Mark we see Jesus is in his hometown and nobody is heeding a word he says because the people are like, “Hey isn’t that Mary and Joseph’s boy, Jesus? What’s he doing talking about miracles? What does he know about that kind of stuff?”

Even though the scripture says he healed a few sick people, they weren’t heeding what Jesus had to say, and thus were missing out on the new thing God was doing. And the Israelites before them did not hear what Ezekiel, and for that matter Jeremiah, Elijah or others had said before him. But regardless of who’s preaching the word of God’s judgment, the people did not heed the words they heard. Perhaps some could say they did not hear, but many heard and were threatened by the power of the word or were too afraid to change.

I cannot help but think in terms of our present society and religious life and imagine what idolatries seek our devotion today and how we as a church have either strayed or tried to co-opt our God who refuses to be boxed in or used in a way not of his own doing. Or perhaps how we have focused our energies on certain tasks at the neglect of our brothers and sisters in need. My mind immediately drifts to the recent re-energized civil rights movement that sprung up after the deadly killings of young black Americans like Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray. We saw a few weeks ago the racist murders at Emanuel AME Church and over the past couple weeks a string of church burnings.

Truly despicable acts that reveal a moral challenge that the church must reckon with. These racist acts, as shocking as they are, are nothing new. The history of America, and yes, many American churches as well, is filled with all manner of racist violence and ideology. But, speaking for myself, I am only just beginning to learn about a lot of it and reckon with any of it.  But in the wake of these awful events, the chorus of black voices that have spoken out against the injustice and inhumanity have caught my attention. It made me think of that part of the scripture, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear”.

I know black men and women have been speaking out on these issues and about God for a long time. Had I been refusing to hear these stories all along? What of my church tradition? Were we listening to the countless black Americans facing violence and injustice? Was our theology and spirituality taking these experiences into account? And did we feel compelled to be faithful keepers of our brothers and sisters?

These questions raced through my head as I was thinking about this sermon, and I just kept returning to Ezekiel. Like much of Christian spirituality, the arc of the Book of Ezekiel is about bringing new life out of death of the old ways of life. The people of Israel lose what they had always known but are sent Ezekiel to give them the words of the Lord. Words of judgment, power, but ultimately liberation. It may sound silly and a bit trivial to personalize this, but as I have started to learn more and reflect more about this, I wondered who were the prophets in my world and in my life that I had not heard or simply heard and not heeded?

I know that I am hearing some now, and I pray our church is hearing them as well, but if we are we need to be aware that heeding the prophet, whether it be Ezekiel or Martin Luther King Jr., can lead you into unknown territory. And with this unknown territory comes uncertainty, redefinition, but ultimately new life. In terms of the church, I imagine what it would be like to question some of our most basic ideas and seeing what comes of it.

For instance, the Church of the Brethren is a peace church through and through, but what that means in today’s society is anybody’s guess. If I were to ask 10 different people at annual conference next week what it meant, I firmly believe I’d get 10 different answers.

So when I hear black Anabaptists like speaker and writer Drew Hart say things like:

“Pacifists that don’t resist white supremacy & patriarchy don’t truly understand the full vision of shalom or the peacemaking of Christ.” [4]

I have to pause and think of how I can faithfully respond to that. That’s not a word I have heard preached in many, if any, Brethren churches before, but it now rings true to me. But how can these new words challenge and change us in beautifully transformative ways? Must we, as the Israelites did, hold on to our ways of thinking, living and believing without regard to the movement of God’s spirit or the words of our brothers and sisters? Will we cling on to them and hold on for dear life until our own temples and idols have to be swept away because we will not heed the words of the prophet? I sincerely hope and pray not.

But regardless of our immediate response to the words we just heard, we must always keep in mind that we do still have hope, because God remains holy and sovereign, as Ezekiel consistently reminds us. Even after the city has fallen, hope remains, if we seek to rightly discern the spirit and the holiness of God.

This last part is important, because we see the destruction of Jerusalem in Ezekiel and we can imagine the continued dwindling of our churches, and neither is a happy thing to contemplate. But the full story of the people involved is not simply negative if they are willing and ready to commit to a new journey with God.

It is true that God’s holiness may offend or be received as judgment, as it is in much of the book of Ezekiel. The city of Jerusalem after all was taken over and destroyed. And if we, today, in this church, proclaim a gospel that doesn’t heed the prophets and apostles of old and the prophets of today, then reproach and challenge will come to us. But if and when we navigate these issues we would do well to remember Ezekiel, because God’s holiness is not only experienced when we are in the wrong or when we disobey. Sure, God will let us know when we are not following the right path, but when we are grounded in God’s holiness and are open to where that holiness leads us, it then becomes a tremendous source of hope.

In Ezekiel it is God’s holiness that finds the corruption, disobedience and uncleanness in Jerusalem intolerable. In addition to these conditions, today we may add that racism, sexism, militarism, greed, and violence also offend the holiness of God. As Brueggemann puts it:

“This is the first stage of God’s holiness, an inability to compromise with worship or life that is incongruous with God’s own holy person. In such contexts, justice must come.”

But the holiness of God is also a ground for hope. Later in the book of Ezekiel in chapter 36 we see Yahweh telling Ezekiel

24 I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

But if we are to get to this point, we must remember and surrender to the fact that, it will not be of our own doing. It will not be by telling God to get us there faster. It will not be by co-opting God, and it certainly won’t be done by continued disobedience. Because real newness is only possible because of God’s holiness, which is given in power after the judgment. And this new heart and new mind will allow us to obey God, and our new life given to us by God will not be a life of self-indulgence, closed off from the prophets speaking around us, but instead will be a life where faithful and fruitful obedience to God is possible.

I’d like to close us with a short poem echoing what I’ve said today, that I hope you’ll take with you and reflect upon.

Again.

Again
you send
your wise ones
to mellow our souls,
to warm our cold hearts.

Please,
look beyond our rebellions
and show us your
prophets in
our lives.[5]

We must not be a community who is more concerned with our own preconceptions of who is bearing God’s invitation to new life than with the invitation itself. We must open our eyes and ears to catch the spirit at work, and I pray that the church, locally; ourselves, individually; and the body of Christ, globally; will be able to heed these words, come together and listen to the voices of one another as the spirit of God continues its work and the prophets continue to speak. May we heed them.

Amen

————————————————————————————————————————————————————

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986. Print. 77

[2] Mays, James Luther. Ezekiel, Second Isaiah. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978. Print. 34

[3] Brueggemann. 56

[4] https://twitter.com/DruHart/status/604660396855820290

[5] “Prayer Path | Saint Louis University Sunday Web Site.” Prayer Path | Saint Louis University Sunday Web Site. Saint Louis University, n.d. Web. 07 July 2015.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s