January 29, 2017 - Ezekiel 4:1-17
1st Corinthians 1:21-25
The summer before I went to college I got a job working for my neighbor, a masonry contractor. The first month I did nothing but mix mortar in a box with a hoe, bag after bag, mortar, sand, water, push, pull, push, pull, all day long. Minus half an hour for lunch.
I was starting to feel sorry for myself – I mean, I had classmates who were working at Dairy Queen and places like that – when I ran into a guy I knew who told me about his new job. He cleaned and serviced portable toilets. It took me about 30 seconds to decide that mixing mud wasn’t so bad after all, and I actually worked for the same company every summer until graduation.
No matter how bad you think your job is, it’s a safe bet that there’s something out there that’s far, far worse. Look at it this way: at least you’re not a prophet of the Lord.
If you don’t understand what I mean, go and read your Bible. Prophecy is a rough and unpleasant business. On top of the ordinary hardships – speaking for the Lord seems to have been a lonely business, it didn’t pay… I mean, at all… and there was the constant danger of getting your head cut off by the government – the things that the Lord commanded his spokesmen to do were often just plain weird, and sometimes kind of horrifying, all in the service of making a point.
I mean, think of Elijah, who had to live in the desert for months, maybe years on end, eating food brought to him by crows. Or Jeremiah, who was ordered by the Lord to buy a new pair of underwear, bury them in the mud on the riverbank, come back weeks later, dig them up, and wear them around town. (I am not making that up – it’s Jeremiah 13.) Or Hosea, who was commanded to marry a prostitute named Gomer, name his resulting children “not loved” and “not my people,” and after his wife cheated on him repeatedly, take her back, over and over – all to demonstrate how Israel had treated the Lord.
And then there’s poor Ezekiel here. We read last week how the Lord spoke to him, and commissioned him as a “watchman over Israel,” to warn the people about the consequences of their sin and disobedience. Immediately after, Ezekiel was commanded (3:22) to “arise, go out into the valley, and there I will speak with you.”
When he reached the valley, once again he saw the terrifying vision of the glory of God that first appeared to him over the Chebar canal a week earlier. But this time he recognized exactly what it was that he was seeing, and in any case, didn’t have time to be afraid, because, as he explains in verse 24, “the Spirit entered into me.”
Incidentally, this is the difference between a genuine prophet and a false one – when the true prophet speaks, he speaks not according to his own wisdom, but under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the power of his words – or her words, as there are Biblical examples of women prophets – comes not from personal charisma and fine public speaking skills, but from the fact that he speaks with the authority of the Word of God.
And guess what? That’s also what makes a true preacher, or a a true Sunday School teacher, or a true evangelist, or even simply a true Christian parent or grandparent or friend: if we’re going to be effective in the work of God, it’s not going to be by our own power, but because of the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit; and if we’re going to speak with any authority at all, it cannot be our own opinions about things, but with the authority of the Spirit-inspired Scriptures.
Now, for Ezekiel, this is where things got weird. Well, weirder, anyway. First, he was ordered to shut himself up in his house. Which is probably not what he expected, having been called to be a watchman and all, especially since the next instruction was that he would be unable to speak a single word. You might think that would be a bit of a handicap for a prophet. But instead of warning the people of Judah about the impending judgment of God upon Jerusalem – a warning that they had consistently ignored for 150 years – Ezekiel was commanded to act it out, almost as a game of charades. A very, very long, and deeply uncomfortable game of charades.
I won’t repeat all the details here, only to remind you a little bit: in verse 1, Ezekiel is ordered to carve a picture of Jerusalem on a brick. Then he’s told to build a tiny, scale-model siege wall around it, with tiny little camps, and little battering rams. Then (v.3) he’s instructed to take an iron griddle, set it between himself and the wall, and make faces at it. He’s commanded to lie there, on his left side, for 390 days “equal to the number of the years of their punishment” or possibly, of their guilt, and thus “bear the punishment of the house of Israel.” Afterwards, he’s supposed to flip over, and repeat the whole business for another 390 days on his right side, “and bear the punishment of the house of Judah.” (v.6) He’s told to prophecy against the model city – basically, to yell at a brick – for 40 days. And all the while, he’s supposed to eat a limited diet of lentils and bread, cooked over dried poop. Initially, it was to be human dung, but that was too much even for Ezekiel, so the Lord made a concession and allowed him to cook over a fire of dried cow dung. (v.15)
The whole strange drama was supposed to make a few points: first, because the prophet represented God, with his face set against Jerusalem, onlookers – and honestly, after a few days Ezekiel’s house must have become a tourist attraction – onlookers were supposed to understand that these things happening hundreds of miles away to Jerusalem weren’t happening because the Lord was weak and unable to save, or because he didn’t care, but because he had ordained the punishment of Jerusalem. For her sins. This was not an accident. This was justice.
Second, because the prophet, representing God, was ordered to “bear the punishment of Israel,” onlookers were expected to understand that God himself was prepared to take on the punishment that he had ordained – that yes, the wages of sin was death, but that ultimately, that death would be borne by God in the person of Jesus Christ, his Son. This may have been justice, but it was also mercy, and grace. And consequently that while there may not have been any hope for the city of Jerusalem to avoid catastrophe, it didn’t mean that God had abandoned his people, and it didn’t mean that there was no hope for them, if they repented and trusted in the promise.
We didn’t read it, but more follows in chapter 5. The prophet is commanded to shave his head and his beard, to burn some of the hair, scatter some to the wind, and strike some with a sword – representing what would happen to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Then, finally, Ezekiel was allowed to speak again, to explain the whole allegory to his audience, which by then must have been fairly considerable.
So what does any of this have to do with us? Why should Ezekiel’s travails on behalf of Jerusalem matter to you?
Only this: that just as he did in at the turn of the sixth century BC with Ezekiel, God continues to ask – to command – his servants to do things that are foolish or incomprehensible in the eyes of the world, but which in his eyes, and which viewed through the eyes of faith, are beautiful and incomprehensibly wise and important.
You want examples? Just look at the beatitudes – those things Jesus calls blessed in the sermon on the mount, in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” by which Jesus means the humble and lowly, who know full well that they can’t stand on their own two feet, and depend completely on the grace and strength of God. In the world’s eyes, they’re weak, losers, fools who are going to get trampled on. You’ve got to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and grab what’s yours, right? But Jesus says, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Or, “blessed are those who mourn…” In the world’s eyes, that’s just stupid. Those who mourn might be pitied, but considered blessed? When they’ve lost something, or someone, dear to them? But Jesus says, “they shall be comforted.” Because they’ve heard the promise of life beyond life, of a world infinitely greater and higher than the one before our eyes, and counted this life as nothing that they might somehow inherit that life eternal promised in Christ.
Or, “blessed are the meek…” I mean, come on. The meek? They get the short end of the stick every time. If you’re not giving it, you’re taking it, am I right? That’s the way the world feels, anyway. But Jesus says, “they shall inherit the earth.”
Likewise the merciful, who to the world are suckers; the pure in heart, who to the world are puritanical killjoys; the peacemakers, who to the world are probably just getting abused; and those who are persecuted, who to the world have simply chosen the wrong horse to ride. Jesus calls them all “blessed” in the eyes of God.
We could go on and on. How about tithing? The Biblical discipline of giving the first tenth of everything you have for the purposes of the Kingdom of God. Is there anything more foolish in the eyes of the world than willingly submitting to a 10 percent tax? And yet the Lord actually invites his people to “test” him with it, and see if he’s faithful. (Malachi 3:10)
The truth is that the whole of the Christian life is a kind of play – an acted-out witness to the grace of God. And in the eyes of the world, almost everything we do, or at least, everything we’re commanded to do, is going to look and sound unrealistic at best, and foolish or even stupid at worst. But when you actually live the life, you discover in it incredible beauty and goodness and truth that you wouldn’t trade for anything.
And it’s not like we’re not warned: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,” the apostle Paul wrote (1st Corinthians 1:22-25), “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
So: are you prepared to be fools for Christ, in the eyes of the world? Because that way lies blessing, and grace, and peace. Amen.