Evangelism, Typewriter Sales, & Ezekiel.

As Christians we have an amazing message to share with the world. God is love and desires to be reconciled to each and every person no matter where they came from or what they have been like. He has done the heavy lifting necessary for reconciliation through Jesus and offers His Spirit. We share in God’s amazing ministry of reconciliation. Yet it often feels like this amazing message falls on deaf ears. Churches have tried a great many things in order to get the message out, including revamping the experience of church in an effort to get people in. However, many have felt the frustration of trying change after change, and program after program, with limited results. The message seems stuck within our walls, and even when it gets out, it feels like no one is listening. It feels like we are selling typewriters.

Ezekiel had a similar experience of not being heard. For seven years he faithfully spoke messages from the Lord to God’s people in exile. These were, more often than not, messages of judgement, or stated more precisely, messages of opportunity. In Ezekiel 33 we get a glimpse of how successful he was:

As for you, mortal, your people who talk together about you by the walls, and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to a neighbor, “Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.” 31 They come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, . . .

So far so good!

. . . but they will not obey them. For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain. 32 To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it. Ezekiel 33:30-32 (NRSV)

In other words, Ezekiel was not very successful at all! No one was really “getting” the message. Ezekiel may have had more success selling them Latin-script typewriters.

So is there any encouragement for us from Ezekiel’s experience? Yes, there are four points of encouragement:

First, look to the future.

Having been told that his efforts have failed, Ezekiel is pointed to the future:

When the thing takes place — and it is beginning now — they will know that there has been a prophet among them.’ (Ezek. 33:33 NJB)

In this chapter word arrives that Jerusalem and the temple have been destroyed. Now that judgement has come, the truth about Ezekiel is made plain. He is not just a “singer of love songs,” he is a prophet of God, and has been speaking true and truly significant things.

The Church might be thought of as many things to many different people; a curiosity, a museum, a historical footnote, a crutch for the weak, a drug for the masses, a danger to society, a false religion, a source of entertainment, a social opportunity, a collection of nice, but not very bright people, and of course, a bunch of hypocrites. But, when Jesus returns, the truth will come out as to what the Church really is. We are not typewriter salespeople. We have a prophetic role, we speak a message on God’s behalf to the world:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (NRSV emphasis mine)

We are ambassadors for Christ, we we fulfil a prophetic role by speaking a message on behalf of God; be reconciled to God. That may seem like hogwash to many today, but the day will come when “they will know that there has been a prophet among them.”

Second, Ezekiel had confidence in his calling. He knew he was a prophet.

When this comes—and come it will!—then they shall know that a prophet has been among them. Ezekiel 33:33 (NRSV)

Before the people knew a prophet was among them, Ezekiel had to know it first! Do we as God’s people today have confidence in God’s call upon us? Many things have been tried, and will be tried in efforts to attract people to the Church and Jesus. However, sometimes we confuse our methods with our calling. Our calling is not to attract people, but to call people to reconciliation with God. We will know we have been faithful in our calling if it said of us “the Church has been a prophet among us, those people have been speaking a message of reconciliation on behalf of God.”

Third, Ezekiel had confidence in his message. He knew his message was the correct one.

Just as the message of Ezekiel was not popular, and certainly not as popular as the “happier” messages from the false prophets, so the Christian message is not popular. I am reminder of the hymn lyric “Oh the old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me.” Despite the unpopularity of the message, we can have confidence that it is the correct message, and the most important message in the world.

In luring John Scully away from Pepsi to work at Apple, Steve Jobs famously asked “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” There is no doubt that Apple products like the iPod and iPhone have been transformative. But if Steve Jobs were still alive we could ask him if he wanted to sell circuit boards the rest of his life, or if he wanted to join Jesus and change the world. Even the smallest, most stuck in the mud church, with the most boring preacher ever heard, has a greater and more significant calling than the extraordinary Apple company. The message we have been entrusted with is the most important message in the world. We do know that, right?

Fourth, Ezekiel was faithful despite being ignored for 7 years. 

We need to be faithful for as many years as it takes. When the world does not listen to God’s message, let us remain faithful as God’s messengers.

What Do You Have to Have, to Have a Church?

What do you have to have to have a church? Here are some possible answers I’ve heard along the way:

  • you have to have mission and vision statements.
  • you have to have music that reflects the culture outside the church.
  • you have to have music that reflects the culture within the church.
  • you have to have PowerPoint for the sermons, shorter sermons, or even no sermons.
  • you have to have a constitution, a budget, a proper system of governance, and a bunch of paperwork.  . . or risk losing your charitable status, which of course everyone knows you have to have.
  • you have to have buildings and paid staff.
  • you have to have programming for every age group and for every felt need.
  • you have to have values that reflect the society around you, which means ever changing values of course.
  • you have to have a worship experience that makes each person feel affirmed and good.
  • you have to have a good consumer experience for a happy customer.

What does the Bible say you have to have to have a church? What better place to go than the Books of Acts where we read about the earliest Christians and the origins of the Church. In looking to the book of Acts there is one sentence that captures what you have to have to have a church:

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Acts 2:46-47

Did you notice what was there in the first church without which you cannot have a church? No, not food. Just two things: “The Lord,” and “those who were being saved.”

“The Lord.” You cannot have a church without the presence of the Lord. And by Lord we do not mean just any god, or God in a generic sense. This is the LORD, Who created the heavens and the earth, Who created all life including humanity, Who called Abraham with a promise, Who rescued His people from slavery in Egypt, Who gave His people the Law and the covenants, Who came to humanity in Jesus, and bearing a cross for our sin He rose from the dead, Who comes to us in the Holy Spirit, Who ensured we had a record of all this and more in the Bible. That LORD. The church is not in the business of promoting spirituality but rather has a ministry of reconciliation. We introduce people to that LORD. You can have all the things people generally think you have to have to have a church, yet if you are missing the presence of the Lord, then you don’t have a church.

“Those who were being saved.” We can read the entire book of Acts to be introduced to those people and find out what they are like. When we do we find out that they are an imperfect people, a growing and learning people, a praying people, a listening people, a preaching and reaching people, a generous people, a missionary people, a hope filled people, a changed people, and a willing-to-be-persecuted people. You have to have people like that to have a church.

There are some practical implications in needing only two things to have a church:

Church is a people rather than an organization. In the Book of Acts we are not given a manual on how to organize a church. Sometimes we might wish we were! We are given, rather, the story and stories of people responding and relating to the Lord. We do well to remember that we organize as churches, not for the sake of the organization created, but for the sake of the people God is re-creating. As you read through the book of Acts you never once hear a church named. There is no “Calvary Baptist,” or “Grace United,” or the like. But you hear time and time again about the Lord, about people, and about the Lord in relationship with people. When we celebrate a church anniversary, which is something we love to do for we like any excuse to have our cake and eat it too, we are not celebrating how long an organization has been organized. We are celebrating the lives that have been changed by God through the lives of the people who have been changed by God.

The church is something we always are rather than something we sometimes do. It is funny how when asked to describe our churches we quickly report on Sunday morning attendance. Instead we ought to report about what happens throughout the week. We should speak of the saints on their knees in prayer, those who visit, those who give, those who encourage, those who volunteer, those who forgive, those who are patient, those who are peaceful, those who are joyful, those who are self-controlled. . .  you get the picture. In the Book of Acts you never hear of a church described by numbers in attendance on a Sunday morning. But you you do read of people living their lives for the Lord every day. Church is what we always are, not something we sometimes do.

That you only have to have two things is good news for the small church. I must admit to being discouraged when I read a book written for small church pastors then realize they are written by superstar pastors, or that by “small church” they mean a church of 200. That is so not me, and so not us! Good news, to have a church you do not have to emulate the big churches and do everything they do. We are not to follow the lead of bigger churches, we are to follow the lead of the Lord. Small church leaders can learn to say as the church leadership said in Acts “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (Acts 15:28)

That you only have to have two things is good news for a church under threat. We are told we face the threat of becoming irrelevant. From that perspective, the first Christians must have seemed supremely irrelevant. The apostle Paul discovered that the Gospel was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1st Corinthians 1:23). Yet the presence of the Lord together with the presence of God’s people was turning the world upside down.

Perhaps someday we will face the threat of losing our charitable status as we do not keep in step with a society that keeps changing step. Look to the first Christians. Never mind a privileged position in society, they were persecuted. Yet with the presence of the Lord and the presence of a people who set themselves to the task of keeping in step with God’s Holy Spirit, not even the gates of hell could stop the Church.

What do you have to have to have a church? Look to the Book of Acts where they did not have charitable status, buildings, mission and visions statements, organs, worship bands, a multitude of programs for every age, denominations, PowerPoint, constitutions, church growth consultants, or a very organized clergy. (Some days it seems the church I pastor still lacks organized clergy!) All they had was the presence of the Lord, and the Holy Spirit filled people of God. And it was brilliant. When we have those two things, it still is!

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Out of Their Own Imaginations and Out of Their Minds. Foolish Prophets Then and Now.

Spirituality seems to now be what you want it to be. This has many implications, both obvious and subtle. Let me give an example. As a pastor I do not receive as many phone calls from people looking for a wedding officiant anymore and just this summer it dawned on me as to why. Google. I am old enough to remember the days when an unchurched couple looking for a wedding officiant would phone around the churches. Now they just Google it. So I tried Googling “wedding Cobourg” and must admit that it was somewhat of a reality check. There is no lack of officiants in the area willing to marry you, or fulfill some of the other celebrations that we clergy once almost exclusively took care of. What dismayed me most was that in the typical “hire me to marry you” blurb, there were no offers of pre-marriage guidance, no promises of talking with and walking with the couple through what the Bible has to say about love and marriage. Instead there were offers to individualize and personalize the wedding, so that the wedding could be exactly as you want and so that you will be happy at the end of the day. It seems that the means has become the end. The “perfect” wedding ceremony has become the goal when a wedding ceremony ought to point beyond itself, indeed beyond even the happy couple, to God’s gift of, and plan for marriage. It is fascinating and sad that “personalize” and “individualize” are words, but “Godize” isn’t. Many a wedding, not to mention a marriage, needs “Godized.” Many a spiritual or religious leader needs to take a lead in this.

In the prophet Ezekiel’s day there was a tendency for prophets to individualize and personalize their messages, rather than “Godize” them:

1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are prophesying; say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: “Hear the word of the Lord!” 3 Thus says the Lord God, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! Ezekiel 13:1-3 (NRSV)

The “prophets” were prone to saying what they thought the people wanted to hear rather than what God had to say. So they went about telling people to relax, that there was no danger. Ezekiel on the other hand heard God’s message, and then delivered it. Judgement is coming. Tough times are ahead. Not a message people wanted to hear, but it was true.

Ezekiel chapter 13 has much to teach a prophet, one who would presume to speak on God’s behalf. Let us consider some points. You may want a Bible handy (or click on the link above):

  • In verse 2 Ezekiel is to say to the prophets “Hear the word of the Lord.” This is not something you would normally say to a fellow prophet, who should be dependable in speaking the word of the Lord. We would hope that all teachers of religion are hearing and understanding the Word of God before teaching it.
  • In verse 4 the foolish prophets are likened to “jackals among the ruins”. In other words they are opportunistic just like the wild animals that would enter a city once it has been destroyed by an enemy. We would hope that religious teachers are leading from a place of servanthood rather than opportunism.
  • In verse 5 the foolish prophets are said to have left breaks in the walls. That is, they do not help people defend against evil. We would hope that religious teachers are part of how God answers the prayers of the people “deliver us from evil.”
  • In verses 6 and 7 the prophets are straight-up called liars. We would hope that religious teachers are honest and seeking, speaking truth.
  • In verse 8 God tells the prophets “I am against you”. We would hope that all who are religious teachers never get into such a sorry place of having God against them. Therefore they should avoid being against Him like the plague.
  • In verses 10 and following the prophets are said to be using “whitewash” to hide problems with the walls. I have come to learn that you can hide a multitude of renovation sins under a “whitewash” of drywall mud. However, a solid frame underneath is far more important than a good looking wall. We would hope that religious teachers are involved in some solid framing work.
  • In verse 18 the prophetesses are spoken of as magicians and they are likened to those hunting for birds with nets. They trap people. We would hope that religious teachers are in the ministry of freedom, not entrapment.
  • In verse 19 the prophetesses are spoken of as acting purely out of self interest, and worse they pervert the justice of God. We would hope that religious teachers are not in it for themselves, and point to the wonderful justice of God.
  • In verse s22 and 23 the prophetesses accomplish the opposite of what God wants. We would hope that religious teachers are serving the will of God.
  • In verse 23 it is assured that false prophecy and divination will come to an end. We would hope that religious teachers understand that anything false will not last, but the Word of God will stand forever.
  • Also in verse 23, people need saved from the prophets. We would hope that people do not need to be rescued from religious teachers.

As we contemplate the above let us keep in mind that anyone who speaks their mind on spirituality and religion in effect becomes a “religious teacher” no matter their claimed religion or lack thereof. So this includes me, but probably also you. However, Ezekiel 13 pertains especially to prophets who claim to speak on behalf of the God of Israel. God has spoken in Christ and the Christian Church is called to a prophetic role in speaking on His behalf to the world. We want to be sure we are being consistent with what God has said, not what we might want God to say, or what people might want to hear. We run the risk of becoming foolish prophets when we try to make Christianity palatable. I forget who said it, but we are called to be salt, not sugar. We are called to shine a light, when people who have something to hide would prefer the dark. Light is not welcome everywhere by everyone.

But as we consider the trap of making Christianity palatable, let us remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is beyond palatable. God’s expression of love, justice and grace through Jesus is a most wonderful truth. It is the admission of sin that is the unpalatable part. No amount of whitewash, drywall mud, sugar, or darkness can make that part go away. And thankfully, in God’s faithfulness, nothing can make His grace in Christ go away either. With the wonderful truth of God’s love we would be out of our minds to speak out of our own imaginations.