'Prophets may be thin on the ground these days, but God speaks to us through His word and through the exposition of His word.'
Read Ezekiel 2:3-8
I'm afraid the temptation was too great not to take the reading from Ezekiel as my text today. Just listen again to those powerful and emotional words as the prophet is told in no uncertain terms just what and how hard his task is going to be.
You know, it's interesting being the other side of the lectern, when it comes to that point in the service when the sermon is going to be preached. In my lifetime I must have listened to a lot of sermons given by a wide variety of preachers and ministers - at a rough guess somewhere between 1500 and 2000 - and if they average out at around 15 minutes a piece that's up to 500 hours of sermons. I tried to think of really memorable ones, ones where I was challenged, convicted - ones where I can remember the exact words that the preacher used to inspire his or her congregation . and I'm embarrassed to say that I can only remember a couple that really stand out, and one of those was preached by someone who might be classified as a "famous" preacher.
Which begs the question "What was I doing for the other 489 hours?"
Was I listening? Was I asleep? Did it seem relevant or irrelevant?
Was I challenged and failed to notice? Out of tune with the preacher?
It's actually quite worrying.
I mean, look at it from my point of view. I have a large folder at home with sermons that I've preached in the last three years - that could be somewhere in the region of 50 sermons, each around 2000 words long. We're talking the equivalent of a rather long novel in total length. A minister preaching every Sunday will obviously be delivering considerably more. A service including a sermon of 15 minutes in length can take up to four hours to prepare, sometimes longer. And yet I have no idea whether a congregation are any more attentive to my words, as I have been in the past to others who have stood where I am now.
Now don't take this personally, because I'm sure you're far better than I am when it comes to attention span, but it does enable me to look at this passage from Ezekiel and at least feel that I can empathise with the prophet when God gives him this rather blunt message.
"Give it to them straight," says the Lord to Ezekiel. "Don't mince your words, don't water down the message, don't worry if they don't seem to be listening or if you spot one or two of them falling asleep. Don't even be worried if you start getting heckled (now that would be interesting ) Give it to them straight as I tell you what to say."
Do you see what the Lord is telling Ezekiel?
"You are my prophet, my mouthpiece, it's through you that the people will hear what I want to say to them. If they choose to listen then their lives will be changed, if they choose to ignore you then well, read the book and find out.
"But two things are important. Firstly you are the one I have chosen to deliver this message, and I have given you my Spirit to strengthen you for this task. Secondly, the people might choose to ignore what you say to them, but they will have to acknowledge that here, standing among them is my prophet speaking my words."
Do you see how the onus is now shifting from the one delivering the message to those receiving (or not) the message. In those 489 hours of sermons where I was either asleep or operating on another wavelength, what did I miss?
There must have been solid teaching, challenging messages to both congregation and me as an individual. is my attention span so short that I missed all of that? Admittedly, I've endured some dreadful - and I mean dreadful - sermons. Some just boring, others so comfortable that there was nothing to challenge me or even inspire me, some even vaguely heretical (yes, I remember those strangely enough).
But what of those inspired by the Holy Spirit and meant to speak directly to my heart? Why doesn't God give me a nudge when the message is particularly relevant to us as individuals - I mean we can all tell when the message is relevant to someone else, can't we ?
When it comes to the preaching of God's word then Ezekiel shows us that there is a challenge both to preacher and to listener.
Firstly the one giving the message must be attuned to what God wants to say to his people. "Open your mouth," says God to Ezekiel. "and eat what I give you."
What a wonderful expression, and what a great picture of what god's word is to us. Elsewhere in the bible we hear of the word of God being food for our spiritual lives. "Don't just open your ears," God tells the prophet. "Inwardly digest the words that I'm giving you for the people."
To those who are to listen to these words, God seems to be saying "You've got free will, I'm certainly not going to compel you to listen. But be warned, because if you don't then you're the loser."
Of course I've read all this into Ezekiel's words without really looking at the context in which they were written, which is I suppose a little remiss of me.
We're talking of a message delivered about 600 BC to a people in exile in Babylon. Ezekiel was seemingly destined to be a priest, but at the age of thirty when he would have started his official priestly duties, he had the most amazing vision which you can read about in chapter one. A vision of God as awesome, powerful - his language is apocalyptic in style, full of symbolism. And with this vision came the call to be not a priest but a prophet. And a prophet with a most unpopular message.
Of course to us looking at a book like this in hindsight, it's a fairly familiar story - Israel getting fed up with their lot in life and blaming God and his prophets for their downfall - but at the time it was all too relevant, and for Ezekiel probably a fairly awe-inspiring task. One which he could not have accepted had not, as we read in verse 2, " the Spirit come into me and raised me to my feet"
A job that couldn't be done without God's help, beyond the capacity of a single man to accomplish on his own. So we read that Ezekiel was filled with the Spirit before he gave his message. And that wasn't a once in a lifetime experience either. In the next chapter he says, somewhat poetically, "Then the Spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me a loud rushing sound the Spirit then lifted me up and took me away."
God equips his messengers to deliver his word.
And the message that Ezekiel gave? Well, in some ways it was very similar to that given by other prophets in the Old Testament. Israel had sinned - big-time - and had started to think yet again that as they were the promised people then they could literally get away with murder, and still expect their God to turn up and save them when things got too tough. Rather like someone might cling to a lucky mascot.
I'm not like that, says God. You can't treat me like that. You don't control me in so far as I'll be at your beck and call when you cry out. Just because I led you from exile, that's not something to get all excited and boastful about, it's not a cause for pride. The time in exile was a time for re-examination, a time to consider all that had gone wrong with God's chosen people. A chance to realise just who God was; his holiness, his righteousness, his total sovereignty. Without such an understanding of the true nature of God, worship would be less than pointless, it would turn to idolatry.
Listen to these words from Ezekiel 36: 22-23, 32.
Do you hear God saying to the people that although he will save them, it's not for their sake, they've done absolutely nothing to deserve it. 'Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel!' are not the words addressed to a people who deserve the very best from their God.
God will save them because of who He is, not because of who they are.
And how does all this relate to us, 2600 years later?
As a people, as listeners to His word to us, are we any better than the people of Israel?
What do we understand of God's holiness, his righteousness, his sovereignty? What is our understanding of the very nature of God?
Because our understanding of His nature will underpin every part of our lives, every word spoken, every action taken. Where does God feature in our daily lives? Do we compartmentalise him to one hour or less on a Sunday? I must confess that for a lot of my life I have done just that. And if we reduce Him to that, to 1/168 of our week, then weak must describe our relationship with Him.
Yet we still as a nation call ourselves Christian and expect to call on God to save us in times of war or crisis. Does that make us any better than the people of Ezekiel's day?
As individuals, are we open to being called to do something for God which might seem at first sight to be rather exciting, proclaiming His Word, but which upon reflection actually seems a rather awesome task, given our own experience of being a listener (or not).
God saved His people then, and in later days through Jesus offered salvation to all people, not just his Chosen nation. Not because mankind as a whole were so righteous that they deserved it, not because if mankind sinks low enough God will always pop up in the nick of time, like the superhero in a comic book. But because of Who He is.
We have a choice when God speaks to us. We can listen, or we can switch off. We can argue or dismiss the message as not relevant to us. God does not force his message upon us, he has given us free will.
And this is part of our commitment to him, a measure of our faith if you like. For those of us who are actively seeking to know more of God, to understand more of his nature, his holiness, his love for mankind - then listening must play a part. When we gather for worship is it all one-sided? Is it all about singing hymns and letting the preacher say all the relevant prayers? Or is there more, is this time together all about giving and receiving? We give God our praise and worship, we join with the preacher in praying for the world and ourselves .. but we also receive. We open our ears and our hearts to what God is saying to us at this moment in time.
Prophets may be thin on the ground these days, but God speaks to us through His word and through the exposition of His word.
Just like Ezekiel, the preacher needs the strength of the Holy Spirit to stand behind the lectern and deliver the sermon, and having prepared and possibly written down what he or she feels is the message, the preacher has to look at those words from Ezekiel as very relevant. In a sense it doesn't matter if the congregation are all ears, or if a few have lost the plot. What matters is that the word of the Lord is preached, and those who listen act upon it.