Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ezekiel's Call (part 2)

Ezekiel 3:12-21

February 13, 2011

The third chapter of Ezekiel is a continuation of the prophet’s call. Last week, we explored the second chapter, where Ezekiel is called to take a message to the Hebrew people living in exile. He’s told that they may not listen, but he is to remain faithful to God’s call and deliver the message so that they will know that a prophet has been in their midst.[1] The call continues on into the third chapter, where the prophet is told to eat a scroll and then told he’d be given a hard face to confront the people of Israel. Over and over again, Ezekiel is given the message that regardless of whether or not they listen, he’s to speak! There is some confusion in the text here. When Ezekiel has this vision, we’re never told that he left the river Kebar. But in our passage today, we find that he returns to the river to speak, although he’s left speechless for seven days. I’m reading the passage today from The Message translation.[2] Read Ezekiel 3:12-15


One of the stories that Ralph, a friend of mine from Utah who died this past year, loved to tell was from his time with the Army Air Corps. Ralph was a part of a B-29 crew that got to the South Pacific in the summer of 1945. The war was about over and they had only one bombing run and it was on a small island that housed a few Japanese soldiers. The run was primarily a live-fire practice, as they dropped tons of bombs on a few soldiers who, according to Ralph, weren’t bothering anyone. But it got him and his General a combat medal. The next flights were over Japan, after their surrender, dropping supplies into former POW camps, knowing that they could get the aid there quicker than those moving in on land. After that, you had all these airmen sitting around on the beach, drinking beer and working on their tans. They had to find something for them to do, so they all had to pull guard duty. They’d assign an airman to a airplane. Standing guard duty all night by an airplane when you have no enemies isn’t the most exciting thing to do. Ralph got great joy telling how he’d sit next to a wheel and lean back, his weapon resting on his shoulder, as he waited for the dawn and to be relieved. One morning he woke, curled up on the tarmac, his weapon lying next to him. The plane was gone; it had been moved overnight. Ralph thought it was best not to ask questions. Ralph was not Ezekiel; he was not cut out to be a night watchman.

Our reading starts out with the newly called prophet being in the presence of God. The creatures and whirling wheels were all a part of Ezekiel’s original vision found in Chapter 1. Ezekiel is privileged with a view of God’s throne and the glory that surrounds it, but it is only temporary. Although the prophet wants to stay there, in God’s visible presence, that’s not why he has been called. We’re told the Spirit has to lift him up and take him back to his people. He is angry and reluctant, but when you are in God’s grip, resistance is futile. God takes him back to his people on the Kebar River and there he sits for seven days, in stunned silence. Interestingly, he’s called as a prophet and then, at the beginning of his career, is given not message![3]

When the word first comes to Ezekiel, it’s a word to the prophet, not to the people. As in Chapter 2, where he learns that he is to carry the message to the people, no matter what, we now see the life and death implications. Ezekiel is a watchman… His purpose is to sound the alarm. He’s like a soldier on guard duty. By himself, he can’t protect the city or the people (and he didn’t have to worry about protecting airplanes). That’s not even his job. His job is to sound the warning, to let folks know of the dangers ahead so that they might prepare themselves. At this point in Israel’s history, people are aware of the need for diligent watchmen. They’ve been at war for sometime and knowing when an enemy is approaching is a lot better than getting caught unprepared.

Like a soldier on guard duty, Ezekiel has a role to play. If he does his job and warns the people, he will be judged faithful regardless of what people decide to do with his message. However, if he fails to deliver the message and the people are not warned, then their blood will be on his hands. Interestingly, Ezekiel is to warn both the wicked (those who need to clean up their acts) and the righteous (those who may go down the wicked path). He has double duty.

One of the subtle messages of this passage is that God wants life for Israel! Ezekiel is called for that purpose, to offer a second chance for Israel to change her ways. There is good news here; it’s still not too late. There is still hope! Yes, Jerusalem will fall, but the people will live on. As the watchman, Ezekiel is to do his duty and leave the results to God and the Hebrew people.

Now, what do we make of this passage today? How could it apply to us? First of all, we need to understand that few are called to be like Ezekiel. His was a special calling that applied only to him and to the time that he lived. Yet, too often people think they have the same calling as he did… I’m sure you’ve experienced it. Just the other day, someone in their Facebook feed had a warning about how many people are dying a day and suggested many of them are going to hell and that it is our duty to confront them before it’s too late. I shook my head.

I’ve also received emails that carry the same message and before the internet, there were folks handing out tracts. Do you remember them? They’d open with questions about where you are to spend eternity… I’m not sure that these “warnings” are helpful or that they bring God glory. In researching this, I happened upon a blog in which the author was expressing thoughts about this form of evangelism. She talked about how, in the restaurant business, it is common for a waitress to receive a tract along with a tip. I thought her advice to Christians was perfect: “if you're going to attempt to represent Christ by leaving a tract for your server, you better make sure your tip correctly represents Christ's generosity.”[4]

If Ezekiel’s call is not for everyone, as I suggest, we can still learn from it. First of all, there are still individuals and groups of people whom God calls to sound a warning. Most likely it’s not to a nation. More likely, it may be at our work place where we see dishonesty, or even in local politics if there is corruption, or even in the church where things are not always a pure as we’d like. If we see something in need of correction, we should ask God if we’re to speak out. In prayer, we should ask, “What’s the best way to address the situation.” If we feel we are called out of our righteousness or find ourselves happy that we get to be the messenger of doom, we should recheck our motives. If God wants us to correct someone, we should be both humbled and do it discretely. In case any of you have an itching to correct others, please read the 18th chapter of Matthew. Jesus gives us some advice on how to do this.[5]

We may not always be called to the role of an Ezekiel, but all of us are called to help out one another. An Old Testament professor of mine, in a commentary on this book notes the “pastoral emphasis” in Ezekiel. The watchman was not a policeman as much as a pastor. His call is to help people see and understand. And it’s that pastoral call of Ezekiel, he’s to care for others, which is a call we all share.[6]

In the Book of Genesis, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”[7] At some point or another, we’ve all probably asked this question. Hopefully it was in jest. As appealing as a libertarian philosophy may be in politics, it has no place in the Christian life. Within the faithful family, it’s not an “everyone for his-or-herself” game. Although with Cain, God goes straight to the point of the matter and doesn’t answer the question, it’s implied that “Yes, he is his brother’s keeper.” In fact, we’re all our brother’s keepers (that goes for sisters, too). We have a responsibility for one another. That’s the first point that we should understand from this passage. Do we seriously take our responsibility for others? (By the way, this requires a lot more of us than warning others about their bad behaviors!) For those who are being installed as officers in our church today, you have a responsibility to insure that the church remains committed to those purposes God has given us—which includes the well-being of others. How do we show this? How do we fulfill our calling? It’s a part of our seeking to be godly. God is gracious and loves us and we, who have experienced God’s grace and love, should be gracious and loving to others. Sometimes this does mean we need to encourage others to live a more godly life, in other words, to warn them of their ways. But such gentle correction should be done in love and we’re a lot more effective if we’ve proven to be a friend and to help them in other ways. Look how God has Ezekiel to stay with the people. Others should not fear us or our message. Instead, they should, as the old song goes, “know we are Christians by our love.”

Notice that Ezekiel’s call, which seems to have lifted him before God’s throne, takes him back to earth. This is a second point from our passage for today. Ezekiel’s not called to escape what will the face the people; he’s called to experience it. Like the disciples that Jesus took with him on the Mountain of Transfiguration, it’s not yet time for us to stay there.[8] We have work to do on earth. The disciples came down from the mountain and helped establish the church. Ezekiel is led from his vision back to those waiting along the river; to those lost people who were wondering what was going to happen to them and to their families back in Jerusalem. You know, there is a danger of being called by God. If you don’t believe me, read scripture. Look at what Ezekiel had to undergo! Think about Jeremiah or the disciples. The glory that comes from being called by God isn’t for the here and now. There can be a lot of pain before we get to heaven!

Finally, Ezekiel is called by God but he has to wait for God to give him the words that he is to speak to the people. The words and Ezekiel’s actions all come later. At this stage, Ezekiel sits in stunned silence, waiting for God to speak. And, in our verses today, God’s word is to the prophet. Too often, we want to jump the gun. We want to get started. But Ezekiel had to wait. And maybe we also have to wait. I remember in my own call to the ministry, how I questioned if I would ever have enough to say. The idea of being in the pulpit, week after week, scared the daylights out of me. I was also worried about selling a house and pulling up stakes as I went back to school. But in a dream, I was told not to worry, that when the time came, I would know what to do. My final point, sometimes we have to trust and to wait for God’s time. If God is not ready for us to rush things, we shouldn’t be over eager. Wait for God.

There are three things that I want you to ponder: You are your brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. God call is never for us to escape; He always sends us where we are needed. And finally, God works on his own time. We should wait on the Lord. Amen.

©2011 Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI

[1] Ezekiel 2:5

[2] Note: The Message uses “Son of Man” instead of “mortal”, Kebar for Chebar, Tel Aviv for Tel-abib, and “watchman” instead of sentinel (alternatives all found in NRSV)

[3] Notice that this silence continues on (see verses 22ff). Also see Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel (Philadelphia: Westminster-Old Testament Library,1970), 75.

[5] Matthew 18:15-20

[6] Donald E. Gowan, Ezekiel: Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 24.

[7] Genesis 4:9

[8] Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-8 Luke 9:28-36