Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

One cannot really help this situation but preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) often leaves the pastor in an awkward situation.

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July 8, 2018

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5

One cannot really help this situation but preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) often leaves the pastor in an awkward situation.

We bear some similarity to a person who has arrived late for a play. The passage we read may form part of a larger story or scene, but the RCL has us begin in the middle. The situation matters here because as the scene opens in Ezekiel 2, Ezekiel has fallen on his face. That posture bears some reflection. Few things in our lives cause us to fall on our face. Does Ezekiel fall on his face as an act of worship? Does he feel a sense of awe because of the great vision he has seen of God’s glory? How does the sense of awe, of feeling overwhelmed, relate to worship? How do we communicate in a sermon the overpowering sensation that would cause us to fall on our face? Do we ever experience God’s presence, power, and glory in such a way that we might fall on our face?

Even though we might not imagine the posture of falling on our face, we can imagine the need for God to invite us to stand on our feet. We might feel “fallen,” not because we have had an experience of God’s power and glory, but because of the enormity of the world’s suffering, violence, and conflict. Even if we have fallen only emotionally, we may need God to lift us up.

The availability of the spirit to Ezekiel fits with some of the understandings of a call to prophecy in the Old Testament. We might not assume that Ezekiel would identify the “Holy Spirit,” but a spirit enters the prophet, offering courage, energy, and access to the divine message. Numbers 11:24-29 relates the spirit inspiring prophecy among the elders of Israel in the wilderness.

Micah 3:8 bears much similarity to this passage from Ezekiel, in that Micah seems to feel isolated from the people to whom he must speak. Micah needs courage from the spirit to speak the truth to the people. In the New Testament, the scene in John 20, where Jesus comes to the disciples hold up in fear in a room, communicates much the same situation as Ezekiel. In the midst of fear, Jesus offers peace and “breathes” on the disciples, sending them into a dangerous world (John 20:21-22).

The speaker (Ezekiel 1:28) sends Ezekiel on a mission with no promise of success. Perhaps the people will listen, but perhaps they will not. Ezekiel has the task of speaking the truth without regard to the response. The speaker labels the people “impudent and stubborn.” The Hebrew terms in Ezekiel 2:4 convey concrete images. The people are “brazen of face” and “tough-hearted” (compare to Ezekiel 3:7). We may imagine both the crowd that awaits Ezekiel and the opposition to God’s word of justice today. The image of glowering faces and the reality of closed hearts sets the context for ministry more starkly than the abstractions impudent and stubborn.

Some of the implications for ministry and preaching from this passage seem obvious. The spirit enables ministry even in difficult situations. Authentic ministry speaks the truth regardless of response. God calls us to faithfulness and obedience, not success.

An important question arises, however, concerning the stance of the preacher in connection to this passage. One can imagine sitting in a study alone reading this passage as an interpretation of courageous, faithful ministry. What does it mean for the pulpit? One can imagine a preacher using this text to alert a congregation that preachers do not necessarily speak what the people want to hear. The preacher might promise to seek the truth to the best of one’s ability and speak it, even at the risk of anger and resistance. Such a word to a congregation may acknowledge the hard edge of prophetic speech.

Aside from that use, how should the preacher understand and identify with this important text? If the preacher communicates the stance that he/she stands with God’s word against the congregation, that runs the risk of self-righteousness.

To avoid the temptation to self-righteousness, the preacher can make two moves. First, the preacher should acknowledge that God’s word of judgment confronts the preacher as well as the congregation. The preacher can become brazen faced and tough hearted as easily as the congregation.

The second move involves putting the congregation in the position of the prophet. The congregation, along with the preacher, accepts the ministry of speaking to the world the word of repentance and justice. Admittedly, Ezekiel’s call came to speak to insiders, to those who already understood themselves as God’s people.

God’s people had broken the relationship that they had previously accepted. The world to which the church speaks might not identify that way. Nevertheless, the most helpful stance of the preacher likely involves inviting the congregation to hear the word from God that first judges and then heals as preparation for its ministry in the world.

The passage offers to the church an experience of the glory and presence of God. This presence overwhelms, but also empowers. The church can endure rejection and the apathy of the world if it accepts the inspiration of the spirit and leaves the results to God. The promise to Ezekiel was that the people would at least know that a prophet had spoken to them.

Perhaps the promise to the church is that the world will recognize an authentic community that offers ministry in faithfulness. The church offers the world an authentic word without compromise. The church might not breach the hard-heartedness of the world, but the church cannot back down from the brazen faced resistance of the world. The church does its ministry not under its own power or claim to righteousness, but with the power of God’s glory and the inspiration of the spirit.