1 He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2 And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. 3 He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” 5 Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. (NRSV)
Well, the lectionary kind of got me here. There’s nothing like starting off with a text like this on your first Sunday, right? What Fun!
Ezekiel’s commissioning as a prophet isn’t exactly an easy word to hear or to proclaim. But I’m the one who chose this text from the lectionary because I like to preach on the Old Testament. So we can ultimately call this a self-inflicted dilemma.
Ezekiel is one of my favorite books along with Amos. The Prophets fascinate me. Prophets, essentially, speak on God’s behalf. Biblical prophets are not, what we think of in the more modern sense, predictors of the future. Sometimes the prophets said things like, “If you don’t change, bad things are going to happen,” and they did. Sometimes they said, “God will restore and heal our people,” and God did. But prophets were not primarily concerned with predicting the future. The role of Prophets is, first and foremost, to call God’s people to faithfulness. Prophets speak God’s word to God’s people. Prophets point out social injustices and religious inconsistencies. Prophets call God’s people to repent. Prophets point out truths that have gone unnoticed or unrecognized. A great example of what a modern-day prophet would look like is Martin Luther King, Jr. He pointed out stuff that wasn’t right, and pointed the way forward to what ought to be. That’s what prophets do.
Prophets don’t speak of their own accord. Prophets are called. But why on earth would God call a person to speak on God’s behalf? What’s the point of having a prophet? The office of the prophet goes back to Moses. When Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Israelites saw and heard God on Sinai, and they were terrified. They said, “Let’s not do that again. Moses, you tell us what God wants us to know, and we’ll go with that. But don’t let us hear God again. If we do, we’ll all die!”
So Moses spoke in God’s stead, and the people… kind of listened. Then, when the questions arose of what would happen when Moses died, God made a plan. God told Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” (Deut. 18:18)
It seems like a risky move, on God’s part, to speak through human beings. We’re kind of weak. Even a little squishy at times. But, for some reason, God chose people to be the normal channel through which God speaks and reveals to the human race. It’s risky because messengers are flawed. And it’s risky because people don’t always listen. Yet, the role of the prophet is to speak, whether the hearers listen or not.
We all know Isaiah’s commissioning story from Isaiah 6. Songs have been written about it. It’s where Isaiah has a vision of God seated on the throne, and God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!” And we think that’s just such a delightful story. But maybe we wouldn’t think it was so delightful if we actually read past verse 8. In the very next verses, this is what Isaiah was told to do, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
So what’s the point? What’s the point of speaking on God’s behalf if people aren’t going to listen, if people aren’t going to pay attention and internalize what is spoken? It’s risky for God to speak through human beings. But that’s what God does. Because, despite the sinfulness and corruption of people, there is the potential in every person for faithfulness and obedience. And when that happens, it’s powerful.
So here, God is raising Ezekiel up to be a prophet. But it doesn’t look very promising. Ezekiel collapses, so the Spirit of God picks him up. He can’t stand on his own. He can’t hear on his own. God has to fortify the guy with some spirit so he can do anything. But, while it looks like weakness, that is as it should be.
The really cool thing about this particular prophet, I think, is that Ezekiel was a Temple priest living among the exiles in Babylon and he was called by God to be a prophet. The interesting thing about this situation is that priests and prophets didn’t like each other a lot of times. They were often opposed to each other.
Priests were the ones who maintained the Temple cult. They kept the sacrifices going along with all of the laws and regulations found in the Law of Moses. They kept the rules that God gave to the people. Priests were the ones who said, We have to make this sacrifice on this festival during these certain days. It’s written right here in the book.
Prophets were sometimes the anti-priests. They were the ones who came in and blew up everything the priests were trying to maintain. Prophets were the ones who said things like, “I hate, I despise your festivals!” (Amos 5:21).
And the poor priests would complain, What do you mean God hates our festivals? God is the one who told us to do all this stuff!
And the prophets would respond with things like, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That’s in the book of Amos, by the way. (Amos 5:24).
Priests led the worship of God according to the official channels and prescriptions of the written word. Prophets were saying the official channels don’t matter if the heart of the people isn’t in their worship. None of it matters if people don’t live rightly in their daily life. Being God’s people involves more than coming to church, so to speak. It also requires justice and righteousness: behavior that is consistent with God’s plan.
Needless to say, there weren’t very many priests who were also prophets. It’s almost like rooting for Duke and Carolina at the same time. There might be a few, but it doesn’t happen very often! And yet, this is who and what Ezekiel is: prophet and priest.
Both of these roles are important for the church. Even the furniture we use in our churches is there for these dual roles of prophet and priest. A lot of churches have a pulpit and a lectern. The lectern is where Scripture is read. That’s the place for priestly speech. The pulpit is where the word is preached and expounded. It’s the place for prophetic speech. Ordained pastors have both priestly and prophetic roles. We read Scripture in worship, we preside over the sacraments, and at weddings and funerals. We visit the sick and pray over them. These are priestly functions. But we also preach. Preaching is a prophetic function. Ezekiel is a paradigm for ordained pastors who act as both priest and prophet.
The interesting thing for us is that what was once limited to certain people in the Old Testament has been expanded to everyone in the Post-Pentecost world. The church—and when I say church I mean people. The church is not a building. It’s people. The church is both the speaker and the receiver of proclamation. Our words and our actions are to be a prophetic witness, a prophetic proclamation to the world in which we live. When we seek justice for the oppressed and live righteousness. When we love even our enemies and work for reconciliation and peace we are, in a real sense, preaching God’s word to the world.
We are all commissioned to ministry by our baptism. This is our ordination into the priesthood of all believers. We’re all called to serve. We’re all called to priests and prophets in our every day. God still calls and sets apart people for ordained ministry, but we’re all called to serve in priestly and prophetic roles. We’re all called to proclaim.
And yet sometimes, for whatever reason, we are the ones who need to receive proclamation. We’re fallible people. We mess up. We lose hope. We get things wrong. Sometimes we’re the ones by the River Chebar in Babylon. Sometimes we’re the ones who feel helpless, or who are experiencing a kind of exile. Sometimes the words of the exiled Jews in Psalm 137 sound familiar to us: “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”
I’ve had to look to Ezekiel several times in my ministry for encouragement. Sometimes I was the one who hung up my harp and wondered how I could continue to sing. The task of ministry and service to which we Christians are called is not easy. It can be especially disheartening in a world where we count and tabulate stuff in order to measure success.
Students are measured by test scores and classroom grades. We measure everything from our cholesterol and blood-glucose, to our investments and savings accounts. Every area of our lives is counted, tracked, and compared to averages and standards in order to measure this fleeting thing we call “success.” We want to know, we want to be able to see, that our efforts are making a difference. And so we measure.
I understand there’s a place for such measuring, but our call to faithfulness is different. Ezekiel was sent, not to a foreign people whose language and speech are difficult, but to the house of Israel: to a nation of impudent and stubborn rebels. It’s his own people in his own home. He was told, “You will say to them, ‘The Lord God proclaims.’ Whether they listen or whether they refuse… they will know that a prophet has been among them.”
Like Ezekiel, our job is to speak. Our job is to proclaim with words and with actions, with living and with loving, whether people listen or not. It’s not about measuring. It’s about being faithful. We speak because we’ve been called. We proclaim because we’ve been sent. And it doesn’t have to be to a far-away place where language and speech are difficult. It might be right here among our own people, in our own city, in our own home. God knows that we can’t control whether or not others listen. We can only control how we speak and how we live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotation are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).