Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Preachers may “understand” this text too quickly — as in, Yes, I get it: The preacher is called, like Ezekiel, to proclaim a hard word of God to a recalcitrant people.

July 8, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5

Preachers may “understand” this text too quickly — as in, Yes, I get it: The preacher is called, like Ezekiel, to proclaim a hard word of God to a recalcitrant people.

True, the people will resist, but the preacher is called not to be popular but to be faithful.

There is truth in such a reading, to be sure, but we probably need to go deeper. First, of course, we should quickly dismiss the conclusion that we are proved faithful precisely by our unpopularity. Maybe we are merely ineffective or inattentive or just plain lazy. The text calls not only the congregation to examine itself, but also the preacher.

Still, that is not the main message of the text. To determine that message will require us to ask, first, to whom the text is addressed and for whom it is meant. As it stands, the text is a word for a particular prophet during the hard days leading up to the Babylonian exile of Israel, but, since this text has now become Holy Scripture, its message can be read or overheard not only by the prophet but also by those to whom the prophet once spoke and to whom he still speaks. It was probably meant that way from the beginning. The prophet is warned to be faithful, but we (every “we” in every age), overhearing the call to the prophet, are warned to pay attention, because the message is one of life and death.

The text first addresses ancient Israel. But what will happen when it finds its way into a Christian pulpit? Is the preacher automatically the “prophet” of the text? Have we not claimed post-Pentecost that the spirit of prophecy has been poured out on all believers? More, Ezekiel was a priest. Have we not similarly claimed that in Christ we now belong to a priesthood of all believers? So, now who is the proclaimer and who are the hearers of this Ezekiel text?

Moreover, though the office of Christian pastor retains elements of the office of Old Testament prophet, the two are not identical. So, no, we preachers don’t want to hear this text too quickly and apply it only to ourselves. The task of sentinel is an essential but not sufficient description of the pastoral office. The occasional hard word of accusation, whether from the pulpit or in the face-to-face encounter, must be joined by the gentle word of the pastoral caregiver and the absolving word of the liturgist.

There is certainly a word here for preachers: faithfully proclaim the word of God — even though, as was true for Ezekiel, this may have bad consequences for the preacher. God never promised us a rose garden! (Well, God might have, actually, but we don’t seem to be there yet.)

But there is a word here for parishioners as well: faithfully bear witness to the word of God — even though, for them too, there may be hard consequences. But we don’t want to jump to that latter conclusion too quickly either. The text need not promote paranoid preachers or paranoid parishioners, as though “we” are the righteous, and “they” are the “rebels.” (We have quite enough of that kind of religion around.) We (pastors and parishioners) are both the righteous and the rebels, and the word that comes from us must be the word for us as well.

Yes, Ezekiel proclaims a hard word, and he does so dramatically. He uses both words and what we might call “performance art” to name and denounce the idolatry of his generation. No doubt, he got their attention! (Might we figure out how to employ symbolic acts or “performance art” in our own proclamation and worship services to name the idolatries within and around us today? For us, too, that might get people’s attention. Would we survive it?)

Yes, Ezekiel’s word is hard, because the word of God is always a two-edged sword. Perhaps the only way for us to proclaim God’s word with equal effect is by making it part of ourselves, by immersing ourselves in it, even by eating it, as Ezekiel does (2:8-3:3 — a section that we should include in our proclamation, since, curiously, this extended text never gets picked up elsewhere in the lectionary). When that happens — when we “eat” the text — even the hard word becomes, for Ezekiel and for us, “as sweet as honey” (3:3), since God’s word, law and gospel, always seeks to promote life. That and only that — the sweet life in God and in Christ — should be the goal of our proclamation, not a condemnatory rejoicing in the destruction of others and in our own hardheaded righteousness.

True, the prophet, the preacher, the faithful Christian is called to be a sentinel like Ezekiel (3:17-21; 33:1-9), and the sentinel’s job is precisely to be alarming, because disaster is coming over the horizon. That may require hard, disruptive, and unpopular words, but once the disaster is perceived, the one saved from death by the sentinel’s alarm will say, “Praise the Lord!” and recognize that the hard word was, in fact, sweet.

None of this will happen unless the word we proclaim is true and applies to all. The line of our text, “they shall know that there has been a prophet among them,” is repeated in Ezekiel 33:33, where people will recognize the validity of the prophet’s words because they have become self-evidently true. Thus, our task as preachers and Christians is not to rant about this and that or to rage against the “others” and the rebels, but to point to the one whom we confess in faith to be self-evidently “true” — Jesus Christ.

Jesus fulfilled Ezekiel’s vision completely. He “ate the scroll” fully, hard words and sweet words, so that in him the word became flesh; then, everything he said and did bore witness to God’s insistent determination to save us and the world from whatever disaster is coming (from outside ourselves or inside ourselves), so that all might live. That is the role of Christian sentinels today — pastors and parishioners: to bear the word so that others might live.