August 16, 2020
I remember when my children were young and they would be ill or get hurt somehow. Since I was an RN I could manage all but the serious injuries like broken bones and the like. I would give them advice about the illness or injury. Then they would go to school and see the school nurse. They would come home and say the school nurse told me such and such; like it was info that should be on the news. I would just shake my head and think to myself, “That is exactly what I said to them.” So this mornings story reminds me of those times when prophets are without honor among their kin and in their own homes.
In this morning’s lectionary we hear about prophets, prophets power, and prophets inability to persuade their audience. The history of biblical prophets goes back to Moses, who was the prototype for the prophets that followed. Ezekiel is being called by God to be the conversational intermediary between God and God’s people. If God wants to speak to us, God must use a human being who speaks our language to accomplish the task. Are there problems in that process? How can we be sure a prophet is a true prophet speaking for God? How do we know today whether or not our modern day prophets are true prophets? How can they be sure we have received the message? In other words, are we being stubborn and impudent as our passage states.
If we look to Jeremiah, we might find an answer to the question of identifying a true prophet called by God. Jeremiah speaks of false prophets in ch. 23-24. False prophets are those who preach hope and security without exacting a change in hearts and minds of the people. False prophets speak comfort for the sake of their own popularity and acceptance. Think about some of the false prophets of today. What about the Prosperity Gospel preachers like Joell Osteen or Joyce Meyer who pray on the desperation of the poor and support the greed of the rich. Money will make you happy and bring blessings from God.
The bible says in Timothy 6:6-9:
“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
It would seem such prophets preach words of false hope in order to gain acceptance and popularity, and worse yet personal financial gain. Ezekiel was called as God’s prophet during the time of exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in the sixth century. The exiles were overwhelmed with doubts. Had God abandoned them? Did the Babylonian gods overpower God? What was to become of the exiles? How will God locate them or answer their ardent prayers? Ezekiel’s commission was to alert the Israelites to end their rebelliousness and return to obedient, faithful living.
Once again water provides the setting for a powerful image. Ezekiel was with the exiles by the River Chebar when the heavens opened up and he saw a vision of God. The River Chebar may serve as a reminder of the times in our own lives when we find ourselves in exile; times when we are consumed by doubts, fear disappointment. We have been in a kind of exile with the Covid-19 pandemic. In despair we feel God has abandoned us, question God’s power, and fear God has gone away forever. Ezekiel’s call is a beacon of hope for those in the depths of hopelessness. It comes as the assurance that no matter where we are God can find us. God remembers us and comes to us even in our moments of exile. HOW AWESOME IS THAT MESSAGE. It is God’s voice that gives strength and spirit to Ezekiel to receive this difficult commission and carry it out. So it is with us as individuals and with the church today, it is God’s voice that strengthens and undergirds the call and response.
We compulsively measure success these days in terms of numbers and statistics. Children are measured for growth in terms of physical growth by height and weight, and educational growth by test scores. Adults are measured by our weight and test scores of cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, hearing, eyes and whatever else the doctor deems necessary. We track bank accounts, investments, bills, gas prices, the number of friends on Facebook and so on. Almost every aspect of our lives involves some type of measurement of success or lack of it. We want to know if what we are doing makes a difference.
Ezekiel was called to faithfulness. God, you see, seems to have a different notion of success. Ezekiel was to deliver the message and not be concerned with the response of his people. The number of people who believe or repent will not be a measurement of his success. Instead Ezekiel is to deliver God’s message regardless of the outcome. Faithfulness to God’s call is what will determine Ezekiel’s success. Ezekiel plants the seed and the harvest is up to God. Here we are urged to remember who’s in the boat with us—who is ultimately in charge. Each of us has been called to a particular purpose and it is our faithfulness to that call that is important. God is in control and will determine the harvest of the seeds we plant.
The church is not immune to tracking numbers to monitor its success. We count the number of people who attend worship and church school. We track our financial gifts and expenses. While some of that information is of value, how we use it may move us away from the real measure of our success—our faithfulness to God’s call.
What is God calling the church to do? Is the church faithful to that call?
The Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC has been called to be a prophetic voice. The church has faithfully accepted that calling. The church found itself on the banks of the river Chebar as they experienced fear, doubt, and deep grief. God has not abandoned them. God’s voice provided the spirit and strength for the church to be able to receive this difficult call and respond with faith. They have become a prophetic voice for conversations regarding race relations. The church has become a prophetic voice for fighting hatred with forgiveness and love. Out of unspeakable tragedy the church has become a beacon of what it means to be faithful to our Christian beliefs. The church’s call is not an easy one. Jesus’ way is not easy. God has not left them. The church has planted seeds and now God is in control of the harvest. Has God’s message fallen on deaf ears and rebellious hearts? The church asks, “Can you hear me?” Certainly there will be some whose hearts and minds are closed but that does not mean we abandon the call. We must be faithful in delivering the message despite the consequences.
Ezekiel encountered God and that is what we long for in our lives too, especially in worship, no matter where worship takes place. There are Christians who have a hard time rolling out of bed on a Sunday mornings to show up for that encounter. For those who do decide not to sleep in, there is a host of other activities competing for time and energy. For many, worship has becomes another scheduled event on an already full calendar, The heart of our church life should center on an encounter with the holy.
Our faithfulness to God’s call is what matters. Rather that despairing over numbers let us rejoice in each other, encounter the holy, find strength for the journey in God and each other, and just revel in our being faithful community.
As we move forward in the future of our worship together there will be many changes. Worship was we once knew it will not return. But that doesn’t mean that our encounter with God will be any less holy and praising of God. We have an amazing faith community here. God communicates with us in a way that we understand. Ezekiel understood visions and heavens being opened. We hear God’s call in different ways: a new sense of passion, a gentle inner push, a shared enthusiasm about future possibilities. Let us be open to the words of the prophets both past and present. Don’t let God ask of us, “Can you hear me?”