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.

Advertisements

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.

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)