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Worship Theme: Why should we speak?
Sermon Theme: The Mess, the Messenger, and the Message
“Pastor, I’m not comfortable talking to others about spiritual stuff.” “What makes you uncomfortable?” “Oh, I could give you quite a list, like I’m not sure what to say, and what if I say something wrong. But if I had to rank my biggest fear, it would have to be what if the people I talk to could care less about God and blow off what I have to say, or, worse yet, what if they reject me?” Truth be told, I’ve had that fear, too.
Let’s say that your cousins were abducted, whisked from their homes and taken to a country in central Asia but while there learned the native language, landed better jobs than they had here, and prospered by using newly acquired tech skills to start a company that made money hand over fist. One evening you had a chance to speak to them via Zoom, and you asked, “Do you think you will return to America soon, apply your new-found skills, and prosper even more than before?” They jumped in, “Sure! That’s the plan.” Then you told them that a report had just come out stating that Milwaukee would be attacked and bombed by the country they now lived in. They said, “No way! That will never happen. We’re coming home soon, and all will be well.” But you had to tell them, “You’re wrong. There was an alert on my phone just minutes ago that secret codes were cracked, and Milwaukee will be bombed. Not only that, but you won’t have time to get back here to save any belongings, not your house, not your pictures, your Waterford crystal, your TV, nothing. You are stuck where you are till it happens, and the dust settles.”
That was Ezekiel’s job. Because the people of Judah had rebelled against God, he used Babylon’s army to attack and deport people over a span of twenty years. But the people of Judah who were living in Babylon for a couple decades were not slaves, nor peering through the bars of a jail, nor sweating in fields digging weeds in one-hundred-degree heat. Many found jobs, prospered, and built new homes. Some did very well and planned to bring their new-found wealth back to Jerusalem. But God told Ezekiel to tell them, “Jerusalem will be destroyed, and you’re staying in Babylon till the dust settles.” “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.” Whether they cared about spiritual matters or not, a close connection with God is the deal breaker to avoid an eternity in hell. It may not have looked like the lives of the people of Judah living in Babylon were a mess, but they had made a mess of their relationship with God, and it needed repair, or they would be messed up forever.
It’s not hard to convince people whose marriage is falling apart that their lives are a mess. It’s not hard to convince people who are floundering in a sea of credit card debt and going down for the third time that their lives are a mess. It’s not hard to convince people who have meds piled in little cups labeled with each day of the week or who have chemo treatments and therapy sessions on their weekly schedule that their lives are a mess. But try to tell that to folks who seem to be living on Easy Street, who have a job they like, friends who party hardy with them, and plenty for retirement. Many folks like that don’t want to hear about spiritual matters and that aren’t thinking about their relationship with God and what a mess it is. But that’s why God sometimes intervenes and injects a wake-up call for those folks, to alert them to the fact that their sinfulness has created a mess in their relationship with God. Sometimes he might ask us to be an Ezekiel to those folks to point out the truth. But he’ll have us do that only when we first take on the role of the people of Judah living in Babylon and listen to the Ezekiels he brings into our lives who are honest enough to look us in the eye and remind us that our own sinfulness has made our lives a mess.
Moses didn’t want to do it. Elijah didn’t want to do it. Jonah didn’t want to do it. Isaiah was afraid to do it. Jeremiah was hesitant to do it. What about Ezekiel? Given the words the Lord spoke to him, “And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people,” Ezekiel probably didn’t want to do it either. Who were those guys? Superheroes of the Bible? People up on a pedestal whose spiritual insights and witnessing skills were honed to perfection so that they could draw the sword of God’s word and slice up any argument, who could wield the hammer of God’s word and knock sense into any skeptic with their rhetorical and oratorical skills, who could charm a conversion out of the most stubborn and rebellious people? No! They were ordinary folks, frail, afraid, human, hesitant, weak, weary. The LORD addressed Ezekiel as “son of man” not once but three times in these verses, drilling home, “Ezekiel, you did not become a child of God on your own. You were born like all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. You’re a sinner.” Ezekiel was nothing special. He was just like me and just like you.
But God did something to make Ezekiel and all those others special. Actually, he did two things. He did for them what he did for old Abraham and King David. Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them (Psalm 32:1-2). That’s the first thing God did. He declared them to be special by covering them with the rightness of the promised Savior. Then the LORD stood behind Ezekiel and braced up his backbone. “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. He said: “Son of man, I am sending you … They will know that a prophet has been among them.” God called Ezekiel to be his messenger, which means the Lord is standing behind and beside him.
God did those two special things for you and me, too. He called us to faith and called us to be his messengers in this world, which means he is standing behind and beside us. You do not have to hang your head in shame. You do not have to run and hide. You do not have to worry that about your weaknesses or cower in fear. You are God’s messengers with the clean slate of forgiveness and confidence from his call.
If the boss called you in and said, “I am sending you,” and then fell silent, you’d have questions, “Where? To whom? To do what?” Moses didn’t want to do it. Elijah didn’t want to do it. Jonah didn’t want to do it. Isaiah was afraid to do it. Jeremiah was hesitant to do it, and Ezekiel was probably afraid to do it, not just because each looked in the mirror and saw a fault-ridden sinner but because they didn’t want to be a messenger without something to say. God supplied for each of them what he supplied for Ezekiel. “You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen.” Read the book of Ezekiel, and you’ll discover that God called on him to do some rather unusual things, sort of play-acting so that the people of Judah living in Babylon would not only hear God’s message but see it. For example, God commanded Ezekiel to munch on the scroll that had the words of God printed on it. That sounds like it would need more than a beer chaser. But if we’re thinking only of chewing and swallowing, we’re missing the point. As food is assimilated by the body, so the words of God need to be assimilated, taken in, internalized, eaten, devoured by every messenger of God. Those words form the message which the messenger named Ezekiel was to proclaim. The first part of his message included lament and mourning and woe, especially for those who were indifferent or who refused to acknowledge the mess they created in their relationship with God. But the message didn’t end there. For those who recognized their mess and longed for relief, Ezekiel had a message as sweet as honey, “God loves all sinners, even sinners like you, and he can clean up the mess you’ve made, sweep the road to heaven, and usher you in.”
One of the greatest joys for those God calls to be his messengers – and by baptism he has called us into that role – is that we don’t have to worry what to say, we don’t have to make things up, we don’t have to guess at what people need to hear. All people need to hear the same thing. All people need to hear about the mess their lives are in without God, and all people need to hear the sweet, honey-tasting message of the Savior’s life and death so that they won’t ever be without God. The challenge comes in knowing what part of that two-part message to start with.
God gave Ezekiel directions to start with the announcement of the mess before announcing the Savior’s clean-up work. That’s the typical way we messengers start, too, especially if we are speaking to someone who says, “I don’t really care.” But there are times when we need to start with the good news. She was a worship visitor from the neighborhood. She asked to come to my office to tell her story. “Of course!” It was a tragic tale of abuse of the worst imaginable kind by her father. She ended up marrying at a young age to escape but found that man to be just as bad. After some time, he died. Years of loneliness and wrongly blaming herself followed. Now she was with a man who was kind and caring but like the Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well, they were not married. Which of the two messages of Scripture would I start with? Pointing out the wrong of her current living choice or comforting her with the guilt-erasing news of God’s complete forgiving love? I think you know.
Like Ezekiel, God is not calling us to produce the result. He simply wants us to be his messengers, proclaiming his message. If people don’t want to listen, that’s not his fault or our fault. That’s on them.
Next spring a farmer is not going to say, “Two-thousand-twenty-two is supposed to be an extremely dry summer, so I’m not going to plant anything,” nor is he going to say, “Two-thousand-twenty-two is supposed to be an extremely wet summer, so I’m not going to plant anything,” No! He’s going to plant seeds whether it’s cool or dry or hot or wet. That’s what Ezekiel did, and that’s what we will do, too. Amen.
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1209 N. Broadway
Milwaukee, WI 53202