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A WORD FOR TODAY, June 30, 2021
Scriptures for July 4, 2021, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Mark 6:1-13
“They, whether they will hear, or whether they will refuse, for they are a rebellious house, yet they will know that there has been a prophet among them.” Ezekiel 2:5, WEB
I have always been hesitant about telling others about some of my experiences with God. One of the reasons is because they sound strange and even unbelievable. They are beyond our experience and our comfort zone. I don’t want to sound crazy. But I also don’t want to sound boastful. I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to be more than I am. I don’t want to claim authority based on the stories of my personal experiences.
I have met people, however, that will use anything to gain acceptance and credibility even if they are grasping at straws. Years ago, when I was doing online ministry in Christian chat rooms, I met many self-proclaimed prophets. They spoke forth “words” and demanded belief from those who heard. Those “words” were accompanied by the proclamation, “Thus says the Lord,” as if this was supposed to give them credibility. Unfortunately, many of those “words” were not from God; they were often counter to what we read in the scriptures. They simply claimed it was a new revelation, but God does not contradict Himself. Some of these self-proclaimed prophets acted as if they were equal to God and demanded faith in their words as if they spoke for God.
When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he included twelve figures of prophets. Seven were biblical prophets and five were pre-Christian pagan prophetesses. These twelve characters are placed on thrones, representing their authority, but they are also painted with two small figures that are thought to represent messengers from God. All twelve also have books and scrolls within reach, reminding us that what they spoke lined up with God’s Word. The Delphic Sibyl is shown as if she’d just read a scroll and is about to pronounce the divine word. She is said to have predicted that the Messiah would be taunted with a crown of thorns. This portrayal of the true prophets shows their reliance not on self but on God’s Word.
Real prophets aren’t given any guarantees. In today’s passage, Ezekiel is warned that the people who hear the message will probably not even listen. When it comes to God’s prophets, however, it doesn’t matter whether they hear or refuse to hear: God will cause His Word to be known. It won’t take a person who is credible or accepted by the world. A true prophet won’t enjoy popularity or receive the respect of the hearers. As a matter of fact, the prophets of God learned that they’d more likely be spit upon, beaten, and threatened. It is God who makes His Word get through those hardened hearts and rebellious spirits.
We don’t think of parents or teachers as prophets, and yet what teacher or parent has never experienced a refusal to hear? We aren’t always right but we have valuable things to say. Over the years I realized how often my own mother was right. I used to call her on the phone to apologize and she’d ask, “What has Victoria done now?” It became a wonderful joke between us. Every parent as seen that glazed over look in the eyes of their teenager when trying to explain why they shouldn’t do something or why they should.
What Sunday school teacher hasn’t wondered whether any of the Bible stories they’ve read made an impact in the lives of their students. We can’t always tell whether the lessons we teach have been learned or whether they will be remembered later in life. One day when I was teaching preschool the children did not seem to be listening. We had been outside for play time and it was a beautiful day. They were wiggling in their seats and very inattentive. We constantly had to tell them to sit down and pay attention, to no avail. I continued the storytelling despite the fact that they didn’t seem to hear. A few days later, one of the students recounted that lesson. I wondered if that the student’s mom had told him the story, but she told me she had not. He must have heard something on that crazy day.
I often wondered whether my own kids ever listened to me, but they have shown in their lives that they have learned the lessons I taught them as they grew up. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes over the years, but it seem the things that matter were taken to heart and manifest in their lives.
That’s what happens to God’s word when spoken by those prophets whom God has chosen. It may seem like no one is listening, but those words will be remembered. Then the world will know the truth. The self-proclaimed prophets would do well to speak the word and let it go. They should not seek popularity or respect, but speak what God has given them and let Him do the work. If the “word” is true, God will make it heard. Though it isn’t easy to be ignored and rejected, it isn’t about us, anyway. It is about God. We speak not to build up ourselves, but to give the world a revelation from the One who changes rebelliousness into faith.
Imagine what it must have been like to be Paul. He was an incredible, specially chosen man called to do an extraordinary task. He would have been right to hold his leadership and authority over the members of the congregations he established. He could have demanded payment for the work he did. He could have insisted that the Christians do as he said. He had authority. It was obvious that he was chosen by God. He was gifted and God’s grace was manifest in his life and work. He even had some remarkable things happen to him that serve as proof of God’s hand in his life.
The conversion on the road to Damascus was more than enough to establish Paul as God’s helper, but in today’s passage Paul tells another story. This was probably an important moment in Paul’s ministry because in it he was given a vision of Paradise and given a personal message from God. Many modern day prophets would use this type of experience as the center of their ministry. They would demand respect, attention, and obedience because of this claim. They might even justify their boasting by pointing to Paul’s words in this text.
However, Paul was humble about it. He refused to be the center of the story, claiming it was about someone else. Then Paul reminded the congregation about his imperfections. He talked about his thorn, whatever that might be. We try to insert our favorite disability into this text, but the specific thorn does not matter. The point of this text is that Paul was not perfect. Though he was gifted and blessed, called by God and given the most incredible spiritual experiences, he insisted that his authority was not based on his mountain top experiences or his incredible gifts. His authority was based on God’s grace. And so it is with us. We might have had experiences or revelation that could prove that we are chosen and called by God, but it is our failures that we are humbled to remember that we are nothing without God’s grace.
I saw a friend in church the other day. She had not been in church for awhile because she has been sick. The pandemic made her recovery even longer; time and disease changed her appearance a little. I did not immediately recognize her. It was only after I put a few things together that I realized it was her. We all were happily surprised to see her face, to know that she is able to get out and about again.
I am planning a trip home to celebrate my fortieth class reunion. I posted a meme on our class Facebook page that said, “Don’t go to a class reunion. There’ll be a lot of old people there claiming to be your classmates.” It is certain that we will all look different than we did forty years ago. Based on Facebook pages, some are obviously older, but they still have the characteristics we remember. Others do not look anything like the people I knew forty years ago. Some of us have changed a great deal since we were together back then, so much so that we might not even recognize them in a crowd. Change is natural. We all change as we grow. We gain or lose weight; we change our hairstyles and grow wrinkles. Sometimes the changes brought on by our jobs or poor health are extreme. I’m sure I look much different than I did back in high school, too.
Change doesn’t only happen on the outside. We change inwardly, too. We grow in knowledge and wisdom. We realize our failings and we repent. We get through difficulties and learn new ways of living. Sometimes we learn new skills, things we might never have been able to do before. We take up new habits or give up the old. Those who knew us in the past remember us as we were. The changes might have been gradual for us and for those around us, but those we see after a period of time are often shocked by the changes. They often do not believe it to be true. Can a chain-smoking, beer guzzling person really kick those habits? We have a hard time seeing them as anything other than that chain-smoking, beer guzzling person.
Jesus was different to those who knew him best. His family and friends from his hometown knew Jesus. They knew the education he’d received. They knew the work he was skilled to do. They knew his strengths and weaknesses. He wasn’t brought up to be a priest or rabbi or teacher. He was the son of a carpenter; He should have been a carpenter. What could a carpenter’s son teach them about the scriptures? What could He know about God? How was this ordinary man who was “one of us” do the things He was claiming to do? They heard the stories about His miracles, but it didn’t seem possible that they were true. He could not, or would not, heal in that town because they had no faith. They remembered what he was and couldn’t see beyond the memories to what was standing in front of them.
It is possible to overcome this bias. After all, Jesus’ mother was there with Him in the end and His brother James followed in his footsteps. Others in the community eventually believed in Jesus. It takes time, but our friends can see and accept the changes in our lives as we live up to them. The purpose of this story is to give us comfort as Jesus is an example for the disciples and us who will also be questioned about the changes in our lives.
Jesus then sent the disciples out into the towns and villages to preach and heal. Jesus sent them out without wallet or food; they were expected to trust in God as they shared the message of the Kingdom. It might not have been as hard as we expect. They were probably visiting places where they had family and friends. They could easily knock on the door of a cousin and be received with open arms. Or would they? Would they find a welcome or would they be rejected just like Jesus? If Jesus was not accepted by those who knew and loved Him most, how could they expect anything better?
I’ve seen a meme that says, “If I said I will fix it, I will. You don’t have to remind me every six months.” This is a joke about the honey-do list every wife has given her husband. They promise to take care of it and then it doesn’t happen. This even manifested in my son’s life. It used to be his job to collect the garbage from around the house on the night before the garbage collectors. No matter how many times we reminded him about certain garbage cans, he always forgot one or more. I always hoped my nagging would help him remember the next time, but even as an adult he never completely accomplished any of the work we expected from him.
This is typical human behavior. We hear what we want to hear and remember what we want to remember. We hear when it will benefit our life as we want it to be and we do it when it is convenient for us. We all willingly jump into action when we will be rewarded for it.
We (believers) know that the Christian message is worth hearing and living. We know that it is freeing and that in it we find real peace and joy. However, those who do not believe find the message hard to accept. The idea of Christ on the cross, death for life, and sacrifice for mercy is ridiculous in the philosophies of this world. The Christian message is foolishness. God is a myth or He is dead. Spirituality is a delusion. What good is some far off heaven when people are suffering in this world? There are so many questions and doubts that can get in the way of hearing the grace of God.
One of the worst barriers, of course, is the human vessel sent to take the message. We are hypocrites because we talk of righteousness while we fail. Those who know us know that we aren’t saints. We are rejected, ridiculed, and ignored. It isn’t easy. Every young mother thinks her child will be perfect, that she’ll do everything right so that her child will not willfully forget to listen and be disobedient. Yet, every child goes through that period of time (it lasts longer for some than for others) when they reject, ignore and ridicule the authority figures in their life. We are by our nature rebellious. Even good kids manage to forget to do those things that they are expected to do.
This week we heard call stories about people who were warned that the people to whom they were sent would not listen. Ezekiel faced stubborn and impudent Israel. The Corinthians were interested in those who were successful, thinking they must be right because they were powerful and charismatic. Paul reminded them that God’s grace is more powerful than human power, especially in the weakness of His chosen. Even Jesus faced rejection from His own people. Why should we expect to do any better? Yet we can live in the words of the psalmist, looking to God for our strength because while the world holds us in contempt, God has mercy on us.
My son plays golf, although he was never a good tournament player. One time he was matched with a great friend who was much better than him. My son held his own and though he lost, he did not need to be ashamed. He didn’t win that day but his play showed that there was growth in his golf skills that year. He was getting better, and that was what mattered.
The other boy’s mom told me she was concerned that playing against one another might hurt the relationship between the boys. It didn’t. As a matter of fact, after their round the boys talked about their games. They highlighted each other’s best shots and commended each other for those that were well played. They laughed over the stupid shots, the ones that could not possibly work but they tried anyway. They commiserated together over their failed shots, the ones that might have turned the matches around. It was fun to listen as they proved what good sportsmen they were.
It could have been much different. These tournaments can be very competitive. Though golf is supposed to be a gentlemen’s sport, there are those who take it so seriously that they will do anything to win. One favorite tactic, used in many sports, is to try to psych out the competitor. Taunting words are used to discourage the other players, to make them think that they cannot succeed. If you convince someone they will fail, and they can’t get over it in their own mind, they usually fail.
That’s what was happening to the Jews. They’d returned to Jerusalem after the exile and under Nehemiah’s leadership tried to rebuild the city walls. They faced a very difficult situation. Many of the rocks had been burned so badly that they were broken and crumbling. It was discouraging. Even more so, the leaders from other nations wanted the Jews to feel defeated so that they could not grow strong again. According to Nehemiah 4:1-3, Sanballat said, “What are these feeble Jews doing?” and Tobiah the Ammonite asked, “What they are building, if a fox climbed up it, he would break down their stone wall.” They wanted the Jews to think that the work they were doing was useless, so they insulted the work of their hands.
The singer of today’s psalm must have known what it was like to be treated with such derision. The scorners were proud and arrogant, wanting the Jews to fail because then they would have more power. However, the singer knew that their derision did not matter. He or she looked to the God who sits in the heavens. The singer is not humbled by the taunts of the enemy but by the graciousness of God who provides for His people like a master to a servant.
We may face similar taunts in our life, when we are trying to do work that others do not want us to accomplish or that others think we are incapable of doing. It will happen when we are trying to share God’s Word with the world. We do not need to worry about their point of view. We may want to be accepted and respected by the world, but we need only keep our eyes on the Lord our God who provides us with all we need. It may seem like the tasks are impossible to accomplish, but we can live at ease knowing that God will have mercy on us and is with us through it all.
This world has always been counter to that which God intends. This world will always battle against Christian faith. He warned us that we would be hated as He was hated. He encouraged us not to be afraid, for He has overcome the world. Even when we are overwhelmed by what is happening in our world, we must always have hope. God is in control; He won the war even though we are still fighting the battles. What we need to do is learn how to fight that battle with grace and mercy. We have been called to take God’s Word to our family, friends, neighbors, enemies and the strangers in our midst. It might seem like it is an impossible task, but God promises that He will put His Word in our mouths and that His Word never comes back void.
Sadly, even when we do speak for God, many will not hear. The people didn’t hear Ezekiel. They didn’t believe the message because it wasn’t the message they wanted to hear. They wanted acceptance, peace and love, not a call to repentance. They wanted to do things their own way. The self-proclaimed prophets promised them good things; Ezekiel warned them what would happen if they continued to reject God. Which message would you rather hear? False prophets give the people what they want, that’s how they are successful, and they use their success as proof of their credibility. Yet, we learn over and over again in the scriptures that the true prophets of God will face difficulty and that God will prove them true when His Word comes to fulfillment.
We are called to keep our eyes on the Lord our God who provides us with all we need, and though the tasks seem impossible to accomplish we can be obedient knowing that God is faithful. He has a purpose for each of our lives and it will be accomplished no matter what difficulties we face, for it is in our weakness, pain, need, persecution and distress for Christ’s sake that God does His best work. As Paul writes, “For when I am weak, then am I strong.” God’s grace is indeed sufficient, and we can trust that He will be glorified by the lives we live for Him.
Our power to preach the Gospel comes from God, not from our own abilities, experiences or even our own desire to do so. God’s word is best shared by those who are humble before God, by those who trust in His grace. As we rejoice in our weaknesses God’s strength shines. People will reject, despise, persecute, insult and threaten us. They will believe the message that sounds better. They’ll chase after the warm fuzzies and ignore the calls to repentance. We can only hope that that one day they will know they have heard God’s Word. Until then, we’ll climb the steps of the Temple with our eyes on God, praising Him even in the midst of our suffering, for we know God’s strength will shine in our weakness and His Gospel will truly change the world.
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