The Art of Prophecy. The Art of Evangelism.

People don’t want to hear about it. And no, I am not referring to the American election. People don’t want to hear about, or talk about, religion; “Don’t force that down my throat!” Some will say that religion is a personal matter, or even further, a private matter. So it ought not be brought up. Some are overly optimistic and say that all religions are equally true and good. So why bother talking about it? Some are overly pessimistic and say that all religions are equally in error and bad. So why bother talking about it? Many will say that talking religion is so unCanadian, for someone might just get offended, so stick to the weather, hockey, and perhaps American politics thank you. Since the Church has a prophetic role in speaking a message on behalf of God to the world, namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how can we proceed when conversation seems stifled from the start?

Ezekiel may well have been facing a people that did not want to hear the message he was to bring. There would be the overly optimistic, “don’t bother us with a message of judgement, the Lord will rescue us any day now.” There would be the overly pessimistic, “Where was God when the Babylonians arrived? So much for him, I don’t want to hear anything more.” How is Ezekiel to proceed?

Ezekiel’s first message which we hear about in Ezekiel chapter 4 is not a spoken message. It is acted out. Ezekiel is called by God to grab people’s attention through art. Some have called it “street theatre.” Let’s look at what he was to do:

1 And you, O mortal, take a brick and set it before you. On it portray a city, Jerusalem; 2 and put siegeworks against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a ramp against it; set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all around.

He was to make a map of Jerusalem, and, just as I loved to play with small plastic “army guys” and tanks and wot not as a child, Ezekiel was to “play” siege warfare. That would grab attention! Further,

3 Then take an iron plate and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; set your face toward it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it.

Here Ezekiel is to role-play God in this “play battle,” only God is not portrayed as there to rescue, but to remain hidden as the siege rages on. That would grab attention. Further,

4 Then lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it. . . three hundred ninety days, . . . When you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side,. . .forty days.

Ezekiel is to lie down by his model of a siege every day for over a year, for 430 days to be precise! Most Biblical scholars think that this would have been part of a daily routine of street theatre and so we perhaps ought not to think of Ezekiel being stuck there for the duration. Nevertheless, Ezekiel’s play siege and lying down daily for days on end would grab attention. Further,

9 And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. During the number of days that you lie on your side, three hundred ninety days, you shall eat it. . . .11 And you shall drink water by measure, one-sixth of a hin; at fixed times you shall drink.

This is not a health food diet, this is a no food diet. This is what the people of a city would cook up as a last resort for mere survival under siege. Ezekiel is to eat and drink very little for all those days. Some Biblical scholars think this “dramatic eating” in public would be supplemented by Ezekiel each day at home. Others think this would have been Ezekiel’s only food and water for the duration. You can imagine Ezekiel over time losing weight and looking starved. The diet would grab attention either way. Further . . .

12 You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. 13 The Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them.”

Ezekiel complains at this point and the Lord lets him use cow’s dung for fuel instead of human dung. Cow’s dung is still used as fuel for cooking to this day, but the use of human dung would be an offence to any good Jew like Ezekiel. I can imagine Ezekiel letting the onlookers to the street theatre know that he was supposed to cook over human dung. This too, would grab people’s attention.

What is the point of Ezekiel grabbing people’s attention? To deliver a message of judgement. There will be another siege against Jerusalem, it will last a long time, God will not intervene, food and water will be scarce, and, as symbolized by the human dung, the rest of the people of Jerusalem people will be joining Ezekiel and the other captives in an unclean land. This was a message to the overly optimistic; captivity is the future. This was a message for the overly pessimistic; God is not dead, He is keeping His covenant promises. This was a message delivered not so much through speech as through art, through street theatre. Ezekiel was called by God to deliver the message in a way that would grab people’s attention, that would make them do a rethink.

Are we as the Christian Church doing enough to grab people’s attention? Our message of reconciliation through Jesus is far more exciting than Ezekiel’s message of judgement through the Babylonians! Are we engaging people with it?

Are we grabbing people’s attention through the Arts? Through visual arts, dramatic arts, creative writing, music, in fact through every art form available? We can pray for Christian artists, encourage Christian artists, or even be Christian artists. Art can be a great way to grab attention and lead people to do a rethink.

Are we grabbing people’s attention through the Sciences? Through the study of history, medicine, philosophy, archaeology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, cosmology, and everyotherology? There are Christians devoted to the study of all these sciences, and many find themselves drawn closer to Christ through them. The sciences can be a great way to grab attention and lead people to do a rethink.

Are we grabbing people’s attention through the Christ-honouring life? Love grabs attention, as do the things done as an expression of love; forgiveness grabs attention, bearing a cross for the sake of others grabs attention. Peace grabs attention. Patience, kindness, generosity, and goodness grab attention. Faithfulness grabs attention. People are amazed when they hear of a long-lasting marriage. A Christian covenant marriage grabs attention. Gentleness and self control grab attention. Do these qualities sound familiar?

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.(Galatians 5:22,23)

A Christ-honouring, Christ-following, Spirit-led, Spirit-filled life is a great way to grab attention and lead people to do a rethink.

People may have mocked Ezekiel for his street theatre. People may mock us for our involvement in the Arts and Sciences. They may mock us for living Christ-honouring lives. But the reaction to Ezekiel was not near as important as the response to the message. People’s reaction to us is not near as important as their response to Jesus. Being mocked is evidence that we have in fact grabbed someone’s attention.

People do not want to hear it, they do not want to talk about it. We have no need to ram religion down people’s throats, but we are called to get Jesus into their heads. We can be creative in that. Speech and preaching is important, vital even. But the Lord also uses the Arts, the Sciences, and Christ-honouring lives in enabling the Church to fulfill its prophetic role in the world. Ready to grab attention?

All scripture references are from the NRSV and unless stated otherwise are from Ezekiel, chapter 4.

Freedom of Religion & Ezekiel

You can make a case that God given values as taught in the Bible are great values to build a society upon. In fact you can make the case that Western society has been positively influenced by these values, though increasingly not so much. Therefore, should we be compelling all Canadians to hold Christian values? Should we be forcing the Christian viewpoint on everyone?

God’s calling of Ezekiel to prophesy to His people in captivity provides an interesting parallel for us to consider. God’s people of Israel have rebelled against God and the time has come for something to be done about it. Is Ezekiel called as a prophet to enforce the law? Will his role be to crack down on the lawbreakers by force? Let’s take a look:

16 At the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me:17 Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. (Ezekiel 3:16-17 emphasis mine)

Ezekiel is called, not to be a “religious policeman,” nor a “ruler,” but a “sentinel,” or as some translations have it, a “watchman.” While we normally think today of defending a nation, back in antiquity they thought rather of defending each individual city. Part of a city’s defence was to have watchmen who would stand on tall towers or walls watching out for an approaching enemy. The role of a watchman was to make the leaders and people aware of the facts. What happened after that was up to the leaders and the people. In calling Ezekiel in his role as prophet to be a watchman, God was calling him to state the facts: “you shall give them warning from me.” Ezekiel was required to do no more, nor no less. This responsibility is made clear in the verses that follow, for example:

18 If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. 19 But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life. (Ezekiel 3:18-19 emphasis mine)

Ezekiel was called to warn, to state the facts, but not to force or enforce.

When we look at the apostles in the New Testament we see them acting like watchmen. We see this in Peter in his first sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’.” (Acts 2:40 NIV) As we read through the New Testament we find that the early Christians were never interested in arranging a political coup. They were not looking to create a political entity or to seize power from the current political entities. If anything, there was a call to pray for and respect the prevailing civic powers. Christians instead were calling individuals to repentance, giving warning about the consequences of a broken relationship with God and making the invitation to be reconciled to God through the grace of Christ. They were stating the facts, very important facts, and with great urgency, like any good watchman would do.

We can note here that the beginnings of Christianity with an implicit separation of Church and State is quite different from the beginnings of Islam. Muhammad claimed to be a prophet, but he became in fact a political leader and a military commander which has had implications for what fundamentalist versions of Islam look like today. The leaders of the early Church were neither political nor military leaders. Many people hoped Jesus would become a political and military leader in hopes that he would lead a revolt against Rome. Rather than pick up a sword, Jesus picked up a cross. The followers of Jesus were committed to following the example of Jesus and the “Great Commission” of Jesus:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 18-20)

Jesus said “make disciples”, not laws. Jesus said “make disciples”, not Christian nations. The early Church in new Testament times kept its focus on making disciples without any thought to armed action. We must admit, however, that a clean division between Church and State has not been kept through every era of Church history and in every place. We must also point out that the separation of Church and State also does not mean that Christians cannot have a voice in politics. The Bible does point us, however, toward being sensitive in our politics to the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.

That Ezekiel is to give warning and not force a decision is further highlighted in the concluding verse of the chapter:

But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’; let those who will hear, hear; and let those who refuse to hear, refuse; for they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:27 emphasis mine)

Ezekiel is to give free space for response: “let those who will hear, hear; and let those who refuse to hear, refuse”. The response is not Ezekiel’s responsibility. A watchman gives the facts. What people do with the facts after that is not the watchman’s responsibility. As the people of God we are not called to force the hand, we are called to direct the eye. The watchman says “Look,I see the enemy army over there!” The Christian says “Look, we see signs confirming that God is real”, and “Look at how far you are from God because of sin and rebellion”, and “Look, you can see clearly God’s love and grace at the cross, reconciliation and life with God is possible through Jesus.” We do not force people to accept our viewpoint, we point people to the truth and invite them to see for themselves.

So should we be forcing Christian values and beliefs on everyone? We respect the freedom of people to make up their own minds; but remember, they are not free to do so until they have all the facts. The leaders and people of a city are not free to make good decisions until the watchman shares what he knows. People do not have the freedom of religion until we share the facts. That means sharing Jesus!

(All scripture references are taken from the NRSV unless stated otherwise)

The Uncomfortable Message of Repentance.

The Church is called to deliver an uncomfortable message. If we look to Peter’s first sermon to the people on the Day of Pentecost following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus we will find a key word. Upon being asked “what should we do?” (Acts 2:37), the very first word out of Peter’s mouth is “Repent” (Acts 2:38). This has been a central part of the Church’s message to the world ever since. The word “repent” literally means ‘to have a change of mind’ and the Church is to call people all over the world to have a change of mind in their worldview, and in their ethics. This does not sit well with everybody and needless to say many Christians find this message of repentance to be uncomfrotable. Given that the culture of Canada is slowly but surely slipping away from Judeo-Christian values, a proper call to repentance will become even more uncomfortable for the Church in Canada in the days to come. Perhaps we would rather have a comfortable message, like “every religious worldview is valid,” or “God does not really care about how you live”. But we must go with an honest message, not a comfortable one.

Ezekiel was called to deliver an uncomfortable message as a prophet and there are some things we can learn from his experience. Let us consider the following passage:

You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house. 8 But you, mortal, hear what I say to you; do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you. 9 I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. 10 He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:7-10 emphasis mine)

This is going to be uncomfortable! While Biblical scholars debate whether Ezekiel was to literally eat the scroll, or rather if it is meant to be taken figuratively with Ezekiel knowing well the word he is to speak, there is no doubt about one thing. This will be a bitter message. The people will not want to hear it, and no doubt Ezekiel did not want to deliver it. Sounds a bit like the message of repentance the Church is called to deliver today. However, let us read on:

1 He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. 3 He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 2:1-3 emphasis mine)

Bitter words of “lamentation and mourning and woe” end up being as “sweet as honey”? Could it be that the call to repentance is sweet? Let us consider why the scroll is sweet.

“Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are sweet because apathy is bitter. There is nothing worse than a broken relationship with God. If you don’t believe me, ask Adam and Eve. Our hearts break for people when they experience health troubles and the like, but do our hearts break for people who experience a broken relationship with God? To be unaware of, or without care for, the judgement the lost are facing, and so to not share the good news of God’s love and salvation in Christ would be a bitter thing. To hear the word of woe and so have a broken heart for the lost is sweet indeed.

“Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are sweet because injustice is bitter. Mention the justice and judgement of God and eyes roll. Yet when a criminal gets off on a technicality we cry out for justice. People naturally tend to have a keen sense of justice, it is part of having a conscience. Throughout the world you can hear cries for justice, it is something humanity yearns for. If you love justice you are really going to love God, for his justice is perfect, more thorough than any legal system, more keen that any judge, more to be trusted than any jury. The scroll is sweet because God’s justice is perfect.

“Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are sweet because a missed opportunity is bitter. Contrary to what many believe, the prophets of the Old Testament did not share predictions of the future to satisfy curiosity. Rather prophets speak on behalf of God, often pointing to the future so that people could make wise choices in the present. Ezekiel is to bring a message of woe, he is to help the exiled people see that they are now experiencing the consequence of their sin by being in exile. But Ezekiel also will deliver a message of hope, God will remain faithful to His covenant promises. The hearers of Ezekiel’s message, in hearing the bad and the good, have the opportunity to make a good decision regarding their standing with God. The Church, in its prophetic role, is to speak of the coming judgement, and the love and grace of God in Christ, so that people can make the wise decision of facing the future with Christ on their side. In fact Christ has already shown He is on everyone’s side through the cross, but those who reject Him show that they do not want to be on His. It is a bitter thing to miss the opportunity for reconciliation with one’s Maker. To be motivated to think through all the implications of one’s relationship with God is sweet. The scroll is sweet because it speaks of the God-given opportunity to experience grace.

“Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are sweet because being stuck is bitter. The yucky feeling of regret can lead us to a better place. Over the past three years I have lost 107 pounds. Mind you, I am not 107 pounds lighter for my weight has been up and down like a yoyo and I have gained weight over that time as well. But had I never experienced the yucky feeling of regret I would be well over 300 pounds by now. To be feeling healthier has been sweet. While the evil one can use regret to keep us in a bitter place, the Holy Spirit uses regret to change us and bring us to a sweeter place. The Holy Spirit uses regret to drive people to repentance, to lead people to that place of being unhappy living in sin, and wanting to live in Christ instead. Regret leads people into the arms of God, and there is no sweeter place to be. The scroll is sweet because it unglues people.

The Church has a similar calling in the world as Ezekiel did for God’s people in exile. We are to call people to repentance. Throughout history being a prophet has been an uncomfortable thing, but truly, the message of repentance is very sweet.

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)