Sunday, July 5, 2009

Lectionary 14
Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Unto thee do I lift up mine eyes, O thou that sittest in the heavens.

The pagan priests played a very important role in ancient warfare. Things were so much different when the armies relied on hand to hand conflict. They gathered on the battlefield, often settling into lines and camping warrior to warrior for days or even weeks before actually fighting. The leaders would often meet to see if they could come up with some compromise. Of course, no one was willing to give in, so the meetings regularly ended with additional discord between the armies. Meanwhile, the armies on the field began the work of fighting, with words and actions that would intimidate the enemy. The priests often danced in terrifying costumes between the armies, throwing curses at the enemy, hoping that the soldiers would be discouraged and frightened into retreat or confusion.

Modern warfare is much different because the armies rarely even see the whites of the enemyís eyes. Bombs are dropped from airplanes flying high above the earth. Guns can shoot ammunition to targets miles away. Technology has made it possible to destroy buildings in specific ways at specific times so that the army has complete control over every aspect of the combat. We donít use pagan priests in front of our armies anymore.

However, we still intimidate the enemy; we just do so in much more technologically advanced ways. The army will put out propaganda, showing the size and strength of their army. The taunting comes through television, radio, internet and print. This type of intimidation is not limited to war. We see it in other types of competitions like political campaigns. This technique has also moved on to the game field. Football players scream onto the football field. Basketball players make incredible shots during warm-up. Baseball players move in toward the batter to insinuate that he canít hit the ball very far. Taunting words are used to discourage the other players, to make them think that they can not succeed. If you convince someone they will fail, and they canít get over it in their own mind, they usually fail.

Thatís what was happening to the Jews when todayís psalm was written. Theyíd returned to Jerusalem after the exile, and under Nehemiahís leadership tried rebuilding the city walls. They faced a real difficult situation. Many of the wall rocks had been burned so badly that they were broken and crumbling. It didnít help that there were leaders from other nations that wanted the Jews to feel defeated so that they could not grow strong again. According to Nehemiah 4:1-3, Sanballat said, ďWhat are those feeble Jews doing?Ē and Tobiah the Ammonite asked, ďWhat are they buildingóif even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones.Ē They wanted the Jews to think that the work they were doing was useless, so they insulted the work of their hands.

The singer of todayís psalm must have known what it was like to be treated with such derision. Perhaps these words even came from the work they were doing at that time. The scorners were proud and arrogant, wanting the Jews to fail because then they would have more power. However, the singer knew that their derision did not matter. He or she looked to the God who sits in the heavens. The singer is not humbled by the taunts of the enemy, but by the graciousness of God, who provides for His people like a master to a servant.

We may face similar taunts in our life, when we are trying to do work that others do not want us to accomplish or that others think we are incapable of doing. Look at the work of the prophets in todayís passages: Ezekiel, Paul, the disciples and even Jesus.

I canít tell you how many times Iíve heard self-proclaimed prophets make the statement, ďThus says the Lord.Ē This statement is supposed to make the hearers tremble in their shoes as if in the Ďprophetí will be made credible just in the speaking of the words. All too often, however, the message they bring is not one which the Lord would actually send. They think that the use of that statement will make anything they think true. Some are even arrogant enough to consider themselves equal to God. They also think that everyone should hear their words just because they claim it comes from God. This is what makes them self-proclaimed prophets.

Real prophets arenít given any guarantees. In todayís passage, Ezekiel is told that the people who hear the message will probably not even listen. When it comes to Godís prophets, however, it doesnít matter whether they hear or refuse to hear: God will cause His word to be known. It wonít take a powerful person, or someone highly respected. The prophet wonít enjoy popularity or receive the respect of the hearers. As a matter of fact, the prophet will probably be spit upon, beaten and threatened. But Godís Word gets through, is heard, even if the listeners do not realize it at the moment. In the end, God will prove His prophets to the world.

I have often wondered whether my own kids have heard the lessons, but have been very proud of them through the years. Though it seems like they havenít heard, they have proven over and over again with simple words or actions that they really do listen. Iím sure Iíve made mistakes over the years, the things that matter are taken to heart and manifest when it matters. It may seem like no one is listening, but when it matters those words will be remembered. Then they will know the truth. The self-proclaimed prophets would do well to speak the word and let it go from there. We should not seek popularity or respect, but speak what God has given them and let Him do the work. We should not expect respect or good rewards for our work. Though it isnít easy to be ignored and rejected, it isnít about us, anyway. It is about God. We speak not to build up ourselves, but to give the world a revelation from the One who changes rebelliousness into faith.

We do not need to worry about the point of view of those who will treat us with contempt, although there may come a time for us to stand up for ourselves and for the work we have been called to do. Take Paul, for example. He was facing a difficult time with the people of Corinth. He had shared the Gospel message and helped them establish a congregation of believers, but others came in to teach a different Gospel. Paul had to get their attention, to bring them back into the reality of life in Godís kingdom. The other preachers were popular. They appeared to be even more successful than Paul. But what they were teaching fell short of the truth.

Imagine what it must have been like to be Paul. He was pretty incredible, a specially chosen man called to do an extraordinary task. He would have been right to hold his leadership and authority over the members of the congregations he established. He could have demanded payment for the work he did. He could have insisted that the Christians do as he said. He had the authority based on his experience. It was obvious that he was chosen by God. He was gifted and Godís grace was manifest in his life and work. He even had some remarkable things happen to him that serve as proof of Godís hand in his life.

The conversion on the road to Damascus was more than enough to establish Paul as Godís helper, but in todayís passage Paul tells another story. This was probably an important moment in Paulís ministry because in it he was given a vision of Paradise and given a message from God that he could not share. Now, for many modern day prophets, this type of experience is the center of their ministry. They demand respect, attention and obedience because they can make this claim. Now, they might look to this text to make this type of boasting acceptable, since Paul seems to do so.

However, Paul is humble about it. He refuses to be the center of the story, claiming it is about someone else. Then Paul reminds the congregation about his imperfection. He talks about his thorn, whatever that might be. I know that many try to insert their favorite cause or disability into this text, but whatever was wrong is not important. The point to this text is that Paul was not perfect. Though he was gifted and blessed, called by God and given the most incredible spiritual experiences, he insists that his authority is not based on his mountain top experiences or even his incredible gifts. His authority is based on Godís grace. And so it is with us. There might be visions or revelations weíve received that prove to the world that we are chosen and called by God. But it is in our failures that we are humbled to remember that we are nothing without Godís grace.

We need only keep our eyes on the Lord our God who provides us with all we need. It may seem like the tasks are impossible to accomplish, but we can live at ease knowing that God will have mercy on us and is with us through it all. The ease is not in the task, but in the knowing that we succeed with Godís help.

It is a matter of trust, which is what Jesus wanted to teach the disciples in todayís Gospel passage. He sent them out, two by two, with nothing. They were not to take a wallet or extra shoes. They were not even to take an extra coat. No food, no luggage, no American Express card: just their feet and their walking stick. They were to stay where they were welcomed and to leave where they were not welcomed. This might have seemed like a strange condition: wouldnít they be welcomed everywhere? They might have thought that before they returned to Jesusí hometown. After all they were probably going to run into people they knew, family and friends who lived in different towns. Why shouldnít that cousin welcome them, especially since they have something so wonderful to share?

But we have an expectation of those we know from the past and we have a hard time seeing beyond our memories. Even though people grow and change, it is hard for us to see them differently. We change. We grow in knowledge and wisdom. We realize our failings and we repent. We get through difficulties and learn new ways of living. Sometimes we learn knew skills, things we might never have been able to do before. We take up new habits or give up the old. Those who knew us in the past remember us as we were. The changes might have been gradual for us and for those around us, but those we see again after the change are shocked by what has happened. They often do not believe it to be true. Can a chain-smoking, beer guzzling person really kick those habits? We have a hard time seeing them as anything other than that chain-smoking, beer guzzling person.

Jesus was different, at least to those who knew him best. His family and friends from his hometown knew Jesus the man. They knew the education heíd received. They knew the work he was skilled to do. They knew his strengths and weaknesses. He wasnít brought up to be a priest or rabbi or teacher. He was a carpenter, the son of a carpenter. They couldnít believe that this kid they knew was there teaching and preaching. They remembered what he was and couldnít see beyond the memories to what was standing in front of them. They rejected Him not because they didnít want to hear the message but because they couldnít believe that the messenger could give them what they wanted.

Why would things be any different than us? How many pastors run into the same difficulty when they go home for a reunion? Those members who knew them as children canít see the adult theyíve become. They remember the rambunctious games and canít the new leader seriously. Our own friends canít understand when we try to tell them about Jesus. They know our faults. Theyíve seen our failures. Theyíve experienced the hurt we can give. They see our preaching as hypocrisy. So, they donít listen. They refuse to hear. The reject and ignore our words.

But it isnít for us to worry about it. Godís word does not go out without being fruitful. Ezekiel could proclaim Godís word with the expectation that it would transform the world in which he lived. Paul assured the Corinthians that Godís grace is greater than our failure. Jesus encouraged the disciples to go forth in faith, knowing that they would be rejected by even the most familiar and important people in their lives but that God can and will do His work anyway. The God in heaven has called us to do this thing without guaranteeing our success. It isnít about us anyway. It is all about Him. And He is faithful. Of this we can be sure.

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