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.

How Easter Cures Our Religion Addiction

We can become addicted to religion. Behind this there can be a sense of “if I do the right things, and say the wright words, God will have to love me and be good to me.” Religion has “me” as its focus. What I do. What I say. What I think I deserve. When we are addicted to religion we put ourselves, rather than God, at the centre.

The Christians in Colossae were being pressured into becoming more religious. Some scholars think that the pressure was coming from Jews who thought you needed to practice the Jewish religion to be a Christian. Other scholars think that it was an early form of the religious philosophy “gnosticism” that was the source of the pressure. Either way, in his letter to the Colossians the apostle Paul wants to set the record straight. In chapter two Paul lays out clearly our part in being Christian, but also what we cannot accomplish. Let’s take a look.

First out part:

Colossians 2:6-19 (NRSV) As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Notice, first off, that Paul’s encouragement is not “since you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, now get very religious, doing the right religious looking observances, saying the right religious sounding words.” That would actually be too easy, for you can do that kind of thing on your spare time. What is called for is something far more profound; “live your lives in him.” The requirement is not in doing religion, but living life. It is an every moment thing. The focus is not the religion, but the Person of Jesus. It is a relationship thing.

Sceptics like to say that religion is a man made thing. Paul would agree:

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

Paul is not speaking against philosophy as an academic endeavour here. Philosophy, like all the arts and sciences are worthy pursuits. Paul is warning against, more literally “the philosophy”, that is, a particular way of thinking being foisted on the Christians at Colossae. He is arguing against becoming too religious “according to human tradition.” Rather than pursuing man-made religion, we are to pursue Christ himself.

We could sum up Paul’s line of thought here with “live your lives in him rather than practice religion.” That is our part. Next Paul points us to God’s part. Religion highlights the things we do. In the following passage I have highlighted in bold the things God has done.

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

The focus is on God’s activity. As Paul warns the Christians at Colossae against false religion, he puts the focus on what God has done in Christ. While religion points us to our activity, relationship with God as revealed in the Bible has always been first about what God has done. He created. He Made a covenant with Noah. He called Abraham with his promise of blessing that would touch the world. He rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He gave His chosen people the law at Sinai. He gave them the promised land. He called the prophets and gave them the words to speak. He came to us incarnate in Jesus. He, God the Father, raised Jesus, God the Son, from the dead. While religion has what we can do as its focus, Christianity has as its focus, something we could never do, that is, raise the dead.

Because Jesus is risen, we do not practice Christianity as a religion, we relate to Jesus as a living Person. We serve Him, we worship Him, we adore Him, we learn from Him. This may give the appearance of being religious as prayer, the Bible, and church become expressions of that. These religious looking things are not the practice of religion, but rather part of how we live our lives in Christ. Living our lives in Christ goes way deeper than doing “religious duties,” it goes to walking with the Spirit and being transformed from the inside out: “. . .the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Compared to character transformation, being merely religious would be far too easy!

Paul continues his argument against being religious:

16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Religion fills us with pride as we point to what we have done. The events of Easter fill us with humility as they point to what we have done. We committed a reprehensible crime when we crucified Jesus. We fell short of the glory of God. The events of Easter also point to what God has done. He has reconciled us to Himself. Our part is to live in Christ, “holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.” Are you addicted to religion? God has done for you through the events at Easter what religion never could. Why dedicate yourself to religion, when you can dedicate yourself to the One Who loves you?

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Feel Like Staying Put or Turning Back? Romans 8:12-17

Do we look forward to meeting God in heaven, yet are not particularly enthused about walking with Him today? Last week we looked at perfectionism as an error we can fall into regarding our walking “according to the Spirit.” (Romans 1:4) This week we look at another problem; not expecting enough from the Holy Spirit. We may speak of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and yet keep Him far from our hearts and minds, preferring to keep Him in our back pocket so to speak. Are we treating the Holy Spirit like the Health card we carry around in case we need it? Are we treating God like an insurance policy to file away rather than a Person to be in relationship with? Do we nurture an excitement about God’s salvation when we look far ahead to the journey’s destination, but hold an apathy or ambivalence toward God’s presence with regards to our next step?

Romans 8:12-17 makes a case for getting excited about God’s presence, not just at the destination, but over the course of the whole journey.

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:12-17

Biblical scholars point out that these verses echo another experience of a people on a journey with God:

  • verse 12 – When God led Israel out of Egypt, they were under no obligation to the Egyptians. There was no reason to think “perhaps we ought to stay here.”
  • verse 13 – In leaving Egypt, to go back would be to face hardship and death, to keep going forward would be to face blessings and life.
  • verse 14 – As a father leads his child, the people of Israel were led by God through a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day.
  • verse 15 – Israel had a choice: go back to Egypt and be slaves to the Egyptians, or keep going forward as God’s son.
  • verse 16 – God’s presence with Israel was powerful confirmation of what was said to Pharaoh: “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.” Exodus 4:22
  • verse 17 – Israel looked forward to the inheritance of the promised land. But Israel was not there yet, God would not simply transport them Star Trek style. They must follow His lead through the wilderness building their relationship with Him along the way.

The experience of rescue from slavery linked with “sonship” to God is reflected by the prophets

I thought
how I would set you among my children,
and give you a pleasant land,
the most beautiful heritage of all the nations.
And I thought you would call me, My Father,
and would not turn from following me. Jeremiah 3:19 (NRSV)

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them. Hosea 11:1-4

While in the wilderness Israel was prone to complaining and even expressing their desire to go back to Egypt. From our perspective, we see that and think “Are you crazy? You would rather go back to being slaves to Egypt than go forward as a son of the living God!? Do you not want to move forward into the amazing inheritance He has prepared for you!? Do you not understand the amazing privilege you have, the close relationship with God Himself, and your future hope despite the current discomfort!?” Of course hindsight is 20/20 and having an objective view of what is going on is easier for us now than for the Israelites at the time.

Are we being objective about our own situation? Living with the hope of heaven as the destination but little concern for God’s leadership in our lives now is like saying we want to reach the Promised land while staying in Egypt. It does not work that way. For the Christian to live an unaffected life is as silly as the Israelites wanting to go back to Egypt. We have been rescued from what is behind, we will want to keep moving forward. We have been given the opportunity to join God’s family as His loved and free children, leaving behind our identity as slaves to the human sinful nature. God’s presence is with us for the journey and He leads us as our Father. Why would we want to dig in or turn back? Let us keep walking according to the Spirit.

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:12-17

All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.