The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost July 4, 2010
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
44, 296, 292, 48
He said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak to you.” Then the Spirit entered me when He spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard Him who spoke to me. And He said to me: “Son of man, I am sending you to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. For they are impudent and stubborn children. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ As for them, whether they hear or whether they refuse—for they are a rebellious house—yet they will know that a prophet has been among them.
Dear fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus, who is God’s final Word on our salvation and life:
Have you noticed our society’s fascination with ‘experts’? Whether you happen to watch a talk show, pick up a newspaper, or listen to a congressional hearing, you are bound to be treated to the opinions and judgments of so-called experts. These are people who are supposedly highly trained and thoroughly qualified to discuss the issue at hand, whether it be climate change, criminal psychology, family issues, or spiritual improvement.
To be an “expert” implies that one has extensive knowledge and ability in a particular field—enough so that other people believe the person in question is worth listening to. But who can have absolute knowledge in anything? True expertise is pretty hard to come by.
Or is it? I believe that if you came here looking for wisdom and guidance in the crucial things of life—in the things that matter—you have come to the right place.
That is a bold statement and even bolder coming from me. I’m not an expert on anything. I’m just a pastor, a shepherd, called to guide the Master’s sheep here in this earth. As a pastor, I’m not trained or qualified to repair your computer, your car, or your knee. I don’t know any more about global warming or oil futures than most of you do.
I’m not even an expert in the Bible or in Christian theology—I have some specialized training, but we all could wish I was a little better at using it. I am no expert. God, the Lord is. So why am I here? I am here as one who has been given a message much like Ezekiel, the prophet in our text. It is a simple message prefaced with “thus says the Lord God.” Wherever that can be said of a message, we all can sit up and take notice at the words of a real Expert. This message from God I. Gives life to the pastor among others, II. Is aimed at rebellious hearts, and III. Shall be the pastor’s trademark.
Thus says the Lord—here is a message that, first of all, gives life to the pastor among others.
Every book needs a good introduction and few books in the Bible have as riveting an introduction as does Ezekiel. After a few words about time and place we learn that Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry began in 593 BC, five years after the first wave of captives were taken from Jerusalem to Babylon. We also learn that Ezekiel was among the captives as a priest.
The prophet describes himself going into a sort of trance and he sees a strange, vivid, and colorful vision of living creatures and fiery wheels traversing the earth. This is followed by the sight of a heavenly throne and someone who had “the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel 1:28). It was pretty fantastic for Ezekiel and as the first chapter closes, we find him falling to his face in awe.
The Lord tells Ezekiel to stand up so that He can talk to him. This is an interesting command, when you look at Psalm 130, where David says “If you Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). It is our iniquity, our unwillingness to obey God, that produces that helpless terror when we are faced with some manifestation of God. In the face of God’s holiness we all must admit “there is none who does good, no not one” (Psalm 14.3).
That is why what happens next is so significant: Then the Spirit entered me when He spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard Him who spoke to me.” [v.2] What Ezekiel found he could not do—stand before God as a righteous man—the Lord did for him. It is a lot like Isaiah’s call, when he says “woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips” and an angel takes a coal from the altar and touches his lips with it. (Isaiah 6:1ff). This is the justifying power of the Lord God who takes the guilty sinner and declares him “not guilty.”
That’s pretty much how it works for your pastor as well as for the people he serves. If any of us are experts in anything, it is likely to be in sinning. We know that better than tying our shoes or breathing. But the message of the Gospel—God’s justifying grace for all people—is such a wonderful message to sinners that, when we believe it we want to explore it, to learn it, to become practiced in its ways. We don’t call that expertise, we call it discipleship—the effort to learn and grow in God’s kindness day after day in spite of our constant sins and weaknesses.
Ezekiel was already a priest in the Levitical order, but God was going to add to his duties, and He wanted to impress on this mere “son of man” that he was first and foremost a lost and condemned soul whom the Lord God of Israel had redeemed. Only if he kept that truth in mind would he be serviceable to God’s kingdom.
That’s true of the modern-day preacher as well. He is very much a sinner, worthy only of the wrath of a just God. Only by God’s kindness does he find any salvation and peace. Only if he remembers that he is a sinful creature will he be any good to his calling.
The other thing that comes up is the prophet’s or preacher’s call. In Ezekiel’s case we see what we call an “immediate” call—the Lord came in some manner and directly called the prophet into some specific vocation. In the New Testament era we have a called public ministry, one which we speak of as a “mediate” calling. The pastor, preacher, teacher is called by a group of people to serve them, but Scripture teaches that the call is still truly the work of the Holy Spirit thus creating a three-way relationship between the congregation, the servant, and the Lord. Paul told the pastors of Ephesus: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
This is important. A man can desire the ministry, he can prepare for the ministry, but he doesn’t become a minister in the church unless he is called. A minister’s call is extended by the congregation and outlines his responsibilities, but he is still accountable the Lord in that calling; and the congregation is answerable to the Lord for how receptive they are to His servant.
Now that the Lord had Ezekiel’s attention, He tells him the nature of his calling: His message is aimed at rebellious hearts.
That Ezekiel was called to preach to the Jews in captivity might have seemed rather obvious. Imagine, by contrast, Jonah’s surprise when the Lord told him to go to the stronghold of the Assyrians—Nineveh. Besides, Ezekiel’s compatriots were on pretty hard times just then—hauled into captivity; vassal state of Babylon, and so forth. But that didn’t mean that his preaching would be well received by a grateful people. “Son of man, I am sending you to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day.” [v.3]
Students of the Bible are quick to observe that the Israelites’ track record for faithfulness to God was nothing to boast about. They didn’t improve with age. Later in Ezekiel, the Lord complains that they had sinned worse than all the pagan nations around them (Ezekiel 5:6ff). They practiced idolatry and they often acted religious while cheating and lying to their neighbors.
The modern-day pastor might hope for a congregation that is a little more compliant and faithful to the Lord than what Ezekiel encountered, but sin has its way of creeping into everyone’s life and impacting our fellowship in any number of ways. We have to remember that my calling is not only to those of you who are regularly here, but also to those who claim to be with us but find excuses not to be with us, as well as those who claim their faith is fine even while they are drifting out into storm-tossed seas.
Now, here’s the really difficult part: Ezekiel, along with all the prophets and today’s faithful ministers, was not given impressive tools to work with. Ezekiel, who had a vision of flaming wheels was not given a flame-thrower to purge the wicked out of Israel. He was not given miracles that could make the Jews strong and mighty to overthrow Babylon. He was given only this, the calling to go to the people with God’s own message. “You shall say to them “thus says the Lord God.” [v.4] Like Jesus going about the country telling parables that very few could understand, Ezekiel was going to speak to people, not in terms with which they would agree, but on God’s terms. “Thus says the Lord” was the two-edged sword (cf. Hebrews 4:12) that cut to the heart of every situation. It exposed man’s sin and guilt, but it presented God’s healing Word of forgiveness. Isaiah’s prophecy starts out with “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18-19).
This doesn’t sound like the sort of fire-and-brimstone tent meeting that people think will turn around the wickedness of others, but that is the approach God takes with His Gospel-preachers. Sure, we preach God’s Law and expose man’s sins, we proclaim the judgment and seek to unsettle the secure and proud heart. But we also preach a sweet and free forgiveness to the distressed heart. We are to employ the Word of God as He has given it, learning to apply it carefully with a goal of reaching the heart, but we have no promise of seeing the Spirit-intended results. Someone described the Gospel ministry as using a plastic toy hammer to drive railroad spikes. It doesn’t seem like it would work, but that is what we are sent to do. That is how we are to build God’s kingdom.
The last thing the Lord tells Ezekiel is that the message, “thus says the Lord” shall be the pastor’s trademark. “As for them, whether they hear or whether they refuse…yet they will know that a prophet has been among them.” [v.5]
One might think of the prophet, Elijah, who did mighty and amazing things during his ministry and was the sort of prophet that left little doubt. But we never hear that Ezekiel did any miracles. He just related the Word of God which often enough might have seemed like the ravings of a madman. Jeremiah never did any miracles. He just kept on preaching one lone voice of repentance over against a sea of feel-good theologians beguiling the people into complacency and worldliness. Paul was persecuted regularly and suffered some unspecified personal affliction (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7ff). But all these men left their mark—their trade mark—by faithfully preaching the Word of the Lord.
Some preachers receive various recognitions and honors. I saw an interview with the Baptist preacher who gave the invocation at Michael Jackson’s funeral. Other preacher are household names, their books fill the shelves of the Bible bookstore or even Barnes and Noble. It is tempting to seek it, but nowhere in our call does it require that the preacher be popular or famous.
Some pastors have a way with people, others may not. Just because he leaves you smiling doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a saint or a heretic. Just because he says something that stings once in a while doesn’t mean he’s a heartless old curmudgeon. The measure of the man is that he is able to survey the situation, turn to the Word of God, and say “thus says the Lord.” Beyond that, things are pretty much out of his control. Still, that sort of ministry requires a skill that challenges one for a lifetime. Luther said that the preacher who can rightly divide Law and Gospel deserves the doctor’s (scholar’s) gown.
If you want a real servant of God, pray for one thing: that when your preacher’s time with you is done, it can be said of him that his only desire was to confidently say “thus says the Lord.” For then you have found yourself in the hands of a real expert. Amen.
Editor’s Note: This is Pastor Reim’s last sermon as a writer for Ministry by Mail. Later this summer, Pastor Reim will resign from the parish ministry to pursue another calling. We thank Pastor Reim for his years of service to Ministry by Mail and wish him the Lord’s blessings in his new endeavors. Pastor Reim’s sermons will still be available in the Ministry by Mail archive online.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.