Old Testament Lectionary July 5th Trinity 5 Ezekiel 2:1-5

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

For a while when I was young and stupid I genuinely believed in UFOs, space aliens and the like, and I devoured books about so-called encounters with extra-terrestrial beings. (I was also genuinely convinced that Jimi Hendrix had come from another planet, since no human could play that well.) Ezekiel chapter 1was a kind of proof text for UFO-freaks, since what was described there was clearly a visitation from another galaxy. But if that vision, whatever it was, was not scary enough for Ezekiel, the start of the next chapter should have had him genuinely quaking in his sandals. His prophetic call, God tells him, is to a ‘rebellious nation’ (a phrase particularly used in this book), who will refuse to hear his message, and be obstinate and stubborn instead. It is one thing to feel a sense of reluctance when called to an admiring audience, but when you know from the outset that your ministry is going to be rejected it must take quite a bit of courage to begin it in the first place. However God wants to leave the people no excuse: they will at the very least know that a prophet has been among them, even if his words fall on deaf ears. They can’t say he didn’t warn them.

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When we get to this passage church leaders and preachers automatically read it as though they are the prophets and their congregations, or at least some members of them, are the stubborn and rebellious ones who won’t do what they’re told. This may well be the case. I have a failed ministry under my belt, and it is easy for me to see myself as the prophet without honour, hounded out of town because my message was too uncomfortable. Sometimes as leaders we are called to speak hard words to stubborn people, although it goes without saying that being unpopular is not necessarily a sign that we are right and the others are rebellious. We might just be unpopular because we’re doing it wrongly! But to be able to confront as well as to comfort, to challenge as well as affirm, is an important tool in the leader’s toolbox.

But I wonder if there is another way of reading this passage which is less individual. As the church of Jesus Christ we are called to a prophetic role in wider society, and our voice is not always welcomed. As a townie working in a very rural diocese I’m struggling to understand rural spirituality, which appears to be very different from the urban version, although that does mean that I can look at the scene with new eyes and maybe see some blindspots more clearly. It seems to me that at its worst the rural church is all about joining in the ‘secular’ activities of the village (although I have been told off for using the term ‘secular’ because we’re all God’s children). As one priest put it ‘Of course we’re not here to evangelise the village’. Sadly many urban churches would agree with this sentiment.

The church often has a reputation for ‘ramming the Bible down people’s throats’ and the like, and we obviously can behave like that. But part of the calling of the whole people of God, surely, is to speak the unpopular, the challenging, the threatening word to a society which can be stubborn and rebellious with the best of them. They may not like us for it, but if we chicken out in favour of ‘niceness’ we are failing to be the church Christ calls us to be.

OT Lectionary September 7th Trinity 12 Ezekiel 33:7-11

There is an interesting dynamic of ‘tipping points’ in today’s passage from the prophet Ezekiel. Firstly, chapter 33 forms a kind of pivot point between 1 – 32, which are predominantly about judgement, and 34-48, which have much more to say about restoration. As though to emphasise this great pivot the news comes to Ezekiel in v 21 that ‘The City has fallen!’ We can’t really imagine the significance of this for the exiles, but the destruction of 9/11 doesn’t come close. It is as though we heard that Westminster, Canary Wharf and Canterbury Cathedral had all been blown to bits in a single act of warfare.

So this passage sets before the people the need for repentance, and the role that the prophet has in calling them to it. The image of the ‘watchman’, one which Ezekiel commonly uses, relates to those placed on city walls to give early warning of imminent attack. But the danger here is less about the physical destruction of their home capital, and more about the internal eating away of their society by the cancer of immorality and godlessness.

But there is a smaller, more subtle pivot in the centre of the passage for today. By the time we get to v 10 the people apparently need no further calls to repentance: they are only too well aware of their offences and sins, and the results of them. Ezekiel’s word to them must now be different. No longer is he to give a warning of judgement: now his message is one of hope and restoration, and repentance as the way to it.

This corrects two common caricatures we may have unconsciously slipped into regarding prophets and their God. So often we think of those with prophetic giftings as miserable people who can only speak of gloom and destruction: indeed many modern-day prophets only serve to reinforce this caricature. This in turn can lead us to the belief that God himself is a miserable punisher. One of my bosses used to say that the job of the Holy Spirit is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’, and we have something of that here. To presumptuous and self-satisfied sinners God’s word is a harsh one, but to those who realise their own need of repentance he speaks mercy and restoration. This of course can’t help but raise the question ‘Where am I?’ and ‘What would God want to say to me?’ Clearly to speak words of peace to sinners who are completely unrepentant is as useless and counter-productive as calling to repentance those who are already broken-hearted. But so often all we want is to hear God saying to us that everything is just dandy.

There is also an interesting question here about how this passage might relate to evangelism. In the past it was thought to be all about calling sinners to repentance: indeed that is the thrust of most of the preaching recorded in Acts. But now the fashion has changed, and in a society which doesn’t really ‘do’ sin our call is more likely to be about comfort than confrontation. Maybe we need to rethink what the call of God on our generation really is.


OT Lectionary April 6th Lent 5 Ezekiel 37:1-14

As I write I’m busily mugging up on church growth theory for a job interview, and I can remember a time in the past when God spoke to me powerfully through this well-known passage about the Valley of Dry Bones. In particular my attention was drawn to the process by which a pile of dead skeletons became a mighty army. The parallels to the church today are only too obvious, but the passage may speak to us more personally too. Where there is dryness and deadness it is God’s will to bring life and flourishing, whether in the church today with all its dryness or in the lives of Lent-weary Christians.

Stage 1: First of all Ezekiel is invited to take stock. That walking to and fro in the graveyard allowed him to see clearly the true state of affairs. I can remember one staff meeting in one of the churches I served when I made us all go for a walk around the church buildings, really concentrating on what we could see, and trying to see it through the eyes of someone who was visiting for the first time. It was a most depressing morning as we noticed broken windows, peeling paint, piles of junk everywhere, broken bits of equipment which no-one had felt it was their job to throw away – you get the idea. But that miserable perambulation began a process of change and refurbishment of our buildings. So that’s the first question, which God doesn’t actually ask here, although he does in other places: ‘What do you see?’

Stage 2: Then comes the supplementary: ‘Can these bones live?’ After inviting him to face the reality, God brings hope, followed by action: ‘Prophesy to these bones!’ I think there’s a difference between praying about a situation and prophesying over it, but the prophesying can only come at the Lord’s command. It is not something we take upon ourselves to do. But Ezekiel has heard God, and so in obedience he proclaims the purposes of the Lord over the bones, and they begin to stir.


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Stage 3: So far so good. The dead bones are now bodies. But they’re only zombies. They haven’t got the breath (or ‘spirit’) of life in them. So a third stage is needed, as Ezekiel, again, note, at God’s command, prophesies to the breath/spirit/wind – it’s all the same word – and life enters the bodies.

This story always reminds me of that famous verse from Psalm 127: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ We can build structures, but unless God breathes his Spirit into them, we’re wasting our time. We can do all the right stuff to get our churches to grow, but if the Lord doesn’t sovereignly start revealing his truth to people, what’s the point? We can fast and pray and all the rest through Lent, but if Jesus doesn’t meet us it’s all empty. So much of what we do in the Christian life and in the Church seems only to be half the job, with little in terms of life-bringing or life-changing results. We can’t make God act; we can’t prophesy with our own breath, but we can cry out to God with all that is within us for him to act. In my experience he usually acts on the raw material which we have prepared: he breathes his life into the skeletons we have put together, so this is not an excuse for passivity. But this story does remind us, I believe, of our desperate need for God’s Spirit who alone can bring new life.