Sermons That Work

The Prophet Ezekiel Was Active…, Proper 9 (B) – 2006

July 09, 2006

The prophet Ezekiel was active, scholars think, from about 593 BCE to 571 BCE. This period encompasses the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon in 587 BCE. It was a time of great turmoil for Israel. The reading for today comes from the second chapter of the book of Ezekiel, and tells the story of God’s commission to Ezekiel as prophet to the people of Israel.

Ezekiel has an amazing vision of fire, winged creatures, and a chariot, and something that seemed like a human form seated on a throne. When he saw this, which he said was “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord,” he fell on his face. And then he heard the voice of the Lord.

The voice said it was sending him to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels. “You shall speak my words to them,” the Lord said, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.” And then the Lord told Ezekiel not to be afraid or dismayed.

This is pretty standard stuff, in terms of what we know of the Old Testament prophets: they are sent by God to the people of Israel to call them back to the covenant, they are ignored, forgotten, berated, mistreated, tortured, killed. And nobody listens to them. This plays out over and over again.

Then we move forward 400 years or so to Jesus. As Christians, we have a different view of Jesus; it’s hard for us to understand that to most of the people of his time he was just another prophet. And his experience was no different. In today’s Gospel reading he is in his hometown, teaching in the synagogue, and no one is very happy with what he has to say. These are the people he grew up with, who know him and his family. And how do they respond? They are scandalized. “Hey, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy? What does he know? Who does he think he is?”

“Who do you think you are?” is one of the most enduring phrases from childhood. We use it to put people down, to rein people in when we think they are starting to think to highly of themselves, when they start getting “too big for their britches.” Everyone thought Ezekiel and the other prophets had a lot of nerve saying they spoke for God. And the people of Jesus’ hometown knew for certain that he was getting too big for his britches, coming home and preaching to them that way.

We have not changed much over the centuries. Human nature being what it is, we don’t care much for people who think they have a corner on the truth, or that they know “God’s will.” Very often our suspicion and skepticism is important. There are just too many instances of people being led astray by self-proclaimed experts and zealots, usually with very bad results. We’re right to be careful, to be skeptical. It can be dangerous not to be.

But then how do we determine who is speaking the truth? How do we discern the real prophets from the fakes? It can be very difficult. We let our prejudices get in the way; we expect people to fit a certain mold, to look and sound a certain way, to be of a certain social status. But all through the Bible we read of God using the least expected people to do His work, and very often the people involved weren’t too happy about it. Moses said he was not eloquent, that he was slow of speech: “Oh My Lord, please send someone else.” Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Nobody with any sense wants this job! But God says again and again, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll tell you what to say.”

So who is telling us what we want to hear, or what they want us to hear, and who is telling us the truth? In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says he will not boast of what he has seen and heard “so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me.” Paul wants people to see and hear Christ in him, not Paul. This is one way of determining if someone is telling the truth: if it is for self-aggrandizement, for gathering power and attention, for promoting personal beliefs, then it is best to be skeptical.

Very often the truth comes from the sources we least expect. Very often the truth is inconvenient. In our culture, the truth has become less important than what sells, than sound bites and twisted rhetoric used to push a certain point of view. We are not certain who to believe. Remember the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes? Something was happening, and the truth was not part of it — and the least likely person saw through the scam.

The truth disrupts our carefully design constructs, our carefully guarded prejudices, our convenient belief systems. No wonder we cry, “Who do you think you are?” The truth can threaten the very foundations upon which we have built our assumptions about other people, about systems of governance, about everything. We all have prejudices and assumptions that get us through the day. Look at our world: here we are in the twenty-first century, and human beings are still fighting wars and practicing genocide across the world, and allowing corporations to make billions of dollars in profits by keeping people in economic slavery.

But life in Christ is life in truth. Who is speaking the truth to you today? And how are you called to speak the truth? When and what do we hear or refuse to hear, speak or refuse to speak? We often confuse speaking the truth with judging others — Paul’s phrase “speak the truth in love” has been sadly misused over the centuries, used by people to say anything they want under the guise of “truth.” But what if speaking the truth starts with telling the truth to ourselves, with heeding the still, small voice in our own hearts? We may not all be called as prophets to the nations, but we are called to discern the truth, to listen to the truth, to speak the truth. It starts with deconstructing our own carefully built walls of convenient assumptions and half-truths. Once we begin to tell the truth to ourselves, we will be better able to hear the word of the Lord all around us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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