For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 5 – Ezekiel 2:1-5
40 years ago this weekend I was ordained as a Deacon in the Church of God. On the Sunday evening I was to preach my first sermon in my new church, where I would serve for four years. Nobody knew me from Adam, apart from the Vicar who had appointed me, so this was a chance to make a good first impression. Imagine my delight when this passage from Ezekiel came up as the set lesson, especially the bit about God sending me to obstinate and stubborn people. I can remember saying with a big smile ‘I’m sure that won’t apply here!’ How wrong could I be?
Today’s readings are about new commissions and sendings, with Ezekiel being commissioned here, and the 12 disciples being sent out in the Gospel reading. In both cases God’s words to Ezekiel proved to be highly applicable, not least to those of Jesus’ disciples who ended up giving their lives for the message of the Gospel. Many of us who have been in church leadership for more than six months will also know something of the pain of rejection and personal spite: it has been a poignant thing this weekend to see all those photos on facebook of the hopefuls, many of whom I have helped train, excitedly parading with their bishops after ordination services. What could possibly go wrong?
The passage itself gives us a couple of interesting insights into the prophetic ministry which should always form a part of the work of any church leaders, which are worth exploring, not least if we are those who are the recipients of ordained ministry. Here are five of them, including, as always, something from beyond the verses set for us.
The need for the Spirit. We shall return to v.2 at the end, but for now one interpretation of it is the complete powerlessness of Ezekiel even to stand up without the Spirit’s help. Ordination services include prayer and waiting for the Spirit to come upon candidates to equip them for ministry, and my own memory is of feeling completely inadequate for the task, and desperately in need of God’s help. What a great way to enter ministry! Much more healthy than ‘Great! I’m ready – let me at it!’ How do you pray for your church leaders? Maybe to pray for more of God’s Spirit for them would be a great thing to do.
The need for a specific calling. God is very clear about what exactly Ezekiel has to do, and among whom. The Israelites are to be his subjects, not anyone else. And what are those Israelites like? God spares no details in telling the prophet just how hard this is going to be (v.3-4). I have known times when the specific calling of God to me has kept me there in the firing line. That sense of God’s call has been my anchor in times of doubt and desperation, when all I wanted to do was run.
The need for realism. I can remember hearing an ordination sermon, preached not from the Bible, as is customary, but from a Greek vase. It had images carved on it of young animals being released from cages, and leaping with exaltation at their freedom, but unaware that they had been released so that the hunters behind them could begin their sport. The preacher likened the sense of freedom that finally training was over and the candidates were being let loose to the ignorance of the animals that they were soon going to be shot at! The preacher (who did also say some positive things) was warning the new ministers that life was not always going to be smooth of joyful. He was doing them a favour!
The need for determination. Here we move beyond the set passage to v.6, where God exhorts Ezekiel to make sure that he says what he is given to say, even when people don’t like it. Prophetic ministry should be more afraid of disobeying God than it is of upsetting other people. Again and again in my various diocesan jobs I have met clergy paralysed by fear of ‘what people would say’ if they actually led their churches forward in mission. I am aware, as a trainer of leaders, that nowadays its all about collaboration and shared ministry, but there must come times when a leader says ‘This is where we’re going – If you don’t want to come along, that isn’t going to stop the rest of us.’ I’m not advocating dictatorial leadership, but I am advocating determined leadership. One day I’m going to write a book about it!
The need for wisdom. I promised you a different take on v.2, and it’s based on these words: ‘As he spoke, the Spirit came into me.’ It is a hallmark of OT prophetic thought that words matter: the words themselves have the power to bring about what they say. Wittgenstein was the first of many philosophers to explore ‘speech act’ theory. If someone says to me ‘You’re fired!’ those words are not just statements of information, but they actually cause my employment to come to an end. In the same way we can talk about forgiveness, but when we say ‘You’re forgiven’ something real changes. That’s why the absolution in services is so important, and to miss it out such a big mistake. God’s words ‘stand up on your feet’ enable the prophet to do so, as the Spirit works through those very words. The other side of this is the power of words to harm, abuse or undermine; to curse, in fact. Those filled with God’s Spirit and called to his ministry have a huge responsibility in what they say – it might just actually come to pass! One church leader used to pray daily ‘Lord, give me a character strong enough to carry the anointing you have given me.’ A wise prayer indeed.
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