Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pentecost Six
Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them

The Corinthians were plagued by false prophets who boasted about so many things. The false prophets made claims about God which were in direct opposition to the things that Paul had taught the believers in that city. As we saw last week, it was apparent that the Corinthians were turning back to the Way as Paul had taught, rejecting the false prophets and believing the Gospel as Paul had made it known. Yet, Paul wanted to build a strong foundation for those Christians. False prophets would come and go. They would always be a problem, even until this day.

So, Paul described why he was the authority they should believe. It is no doubt that the false prophets made statements like “Thus says the Lord” and that their message sounded good. It is even possible that they were giving a message that made the people feel good. Warm fuzzies are so much easier to embrace than harsh criticism. We don’t like to hear that we are sinners. We’d much rather hear that we are loved. We are more likely to respond to that message of love, and be more generous to the one who speaks it. We’d rather turn away from that preacher or prophet that tells us we need to repent, who finds blessing in suffering. Paul is still rejected today by so many. There are those who claim that Paul was never meant to be an apostle and that his idea of the church is not what God intended.

Those who claim such things will even say it with some semblance of authority. “Thus says the Lord,” they claim and they lead people down this rosy path where everything is love and there is no need for repentance. Now, I agree that love is the foundation of the Christian faith. Without the love of God we would be nowhere. Without Christian love, the world would be a much darker and sadder place. But we must beware of what type of love we are promoting with our teaching. Is this a love that accepts everything, that allows everything? Does God tolerate everything? Does God accept everything we do? There is room for grace, thank God, because we all fail daily. But does grace allow us to be whatever we want to be?

Paul had something to say to the Church in that day and in our day. We cannot ignore the lessons Paul gives us in the scriptures. In many cases Paul was responding to very specific situations, but we know that those situations can be relevant to our day as much as they were relevant to those first churches. Perhaps we don’t have those specific false prophets, but we certainly have many false prophets today saying “Thus says the Lord.” They are leading Christians away from the true Gospel message to some twisted version that ignores the reality of the world in which we live. We are saved by grace. But we still need Jesus to save us. The Gospel being proclaimed in many places has ignored our need for Jesus and focused on our works. The Gospel is no longer something we receive that changes us; it is something we do to change the world.

So Paul, who had the message the Corinthians needed to hear, felt the need to prove himself. In chapter eleven, he boasted about his suffering, suggesting that God was glorified in his life because his weaknesses showed God’s strength. Any other man would have died at the hands of so much torture. He was beaten, whipped, shipwrecked and robbed. He faced dangers from every angle, from Jews and Gentiles alike. He worked hard, never taking a dime for his ministry. He knew pain, hunger, thirst and the stress of caring for so many people. He had empathy for the Christians, suffering alongside all who suffered.

Such boasting doesn’t make much sense to us because we think that pain and suffering must mean that the prophet is doing something wrong. After all, don’t we respect those pastors and preachers who have massive churches? We think that overflowing pews and bank accounts must mean that God is blessing that congregation. And yet, some of the most successful churches preach a message that tickles the fancy of those who are in search of the good life. Prosperity theology will always be popular because we want a Gospel that makes us feel good and guarantees a happy life. But Paul found that it was in his suffering that he most experienced God’s grace.

In our passage for today, Paul went on to boast some more. Now, in this case the boasting is something more positive. He says he knew a man who had a vision. As you read on, you discover that the man who had the vision was Paul himself, but he did not want to boast of such a thing. He wanted the people to see that God is in the midst of the suffering as well as the visions. He would rather they accept him based on the physical evidence of God’s grace rather than on the spiritual blessing he experienced.

After all, anyone can claim to have had a vision.

There are dozens, hundreds, probably thousands of books describing someone’s experience of God. Some of them give an incredible story of God and His grace. They are very believable. Perhaps they are even true. But do those stories give the visionary the authority to change what God started through Paul?

A few years ago a book of such a vision called “The Dolorous Passion” was very popular. The book told of visions that were given to an Augustinian nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich; those visions were the basis for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” I had a discussion with a friend when the movie was in the theaters and she was surprised to find that it was based on someone’s visions. She read it and later came back with excitement and belief. She was ready to accept that this version of Christ’s passion had the same authority as the Gospels.

While there might be truth to the visions and what those visions have to say to us, I shared another book with a friend that gave a completely different vision of Christ’s suffering. Those who believed that story accepted it as authoritative, too. But which one is real? Which message is from God? Which vision is from God’s own voice? Contradictory visions and messages can’t both come from God; one must be true or both false. Just because someone says, “Thus says the Lord” does not mean that they are really speaking for Him.

Life wasn’t any easier for Ezekiel. The people didn’t believe him, either. God even told him, “I am sending you out there to speak to people who aren't going to hear a word you say, people who will reject me and everything I want to give them and persecute you for trying.” I'd like to answer such a calling with, “But God, why should I bother? If they aren’t going to listen, what good will it do?” God always gives hope. “They’ll know that a prophet has been with them.”

This wasn’t a promise that the people would recognize that Ezekiel was a prophet, it was an assurance that in the end they would know that what Ezekiel spoke is true. Now, we’d do well to believe the prophets in the beginning because we could probably save ourselves a whole mess of trouble. After all, wouldn’t it have been better to turn to God before the Babylonians attacked? Wouldn’t it have been better to trust in God when Jerusalem was still standing?

But the people didn’t hear Ezekiel. They didn’t believe the message because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They wanted the warm fuzzies, not a call to repentance. They wanted to do things their own way. Other prophets promised them peace; Ezekiel spoke of war. Which message would you rather hear? In the end, they did know that a prophet had spoken because his warnings came true. We might like to think that we are better at hearing God’s voice than those Israelites, but are we? Do we hear His voice or are we following the voices of the false prophets? Are we chasing after peace and love when we might need to be turning around to God?

Jesus didn’t have it any easier than Paul and Ezekiel! He went home, but discovered the people knew Jesus. They knew Him as a boy and a young man. They knew He was a carpenter’s son, not someone who had been trained as a teacher or priest. What could a carpenter or a carpenter’s son know about the scriptures? What could He know about God? How is this ordinary man, “one of us,” do the things He was claiming to do? I’m sure they even doubted that He could heal. They may have thought the stories were exaggerations or fairy tales. He could not, or would not, heal in that town because they had no faith.

They say you can’t go home again. We can go home again for a visit, so the statement is not true in the most literal sense. Yet, have you ever run into an old friend with whom you have been out of touch? Are they surprised to discover what has become of your life? If I asked your family to describe you today, what might they say? I think my brother still sees me as an eleven year old with pigtails, despite the fact that my youngest child is in college. Even though our family and friends have grown up and matured, they remember us as we were when we last spent time together. We are no different, expecting everything to be exactly the same in our home, neighborhood and family. We are often amazed at the changes.

It is especially difficult when our family and friends undergo a spiritual transformation. When people are born again, they become different. They go home to the people who had been part of their life before they were saved and those people simply do not understand the changes. How many pastors run into old high school friends who respond to their career choice with hysterical laughter. “You? A pastor? You’ve got to be kidding! Aren’t you the guy who did… in senior year?” It is hard to imagine our rowdy, misbehaving friends to be any different than they were in those days.

At first the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, but then they began to doubt. He didn’t waste His time in His hometown. Instead, He went to other towns to share the message of God’s kingdom. Along the way He sent the disciples out to do the same thing, but He warned them that the same thing would happen to them. They would also be rejected. The people to whom they were sent, at least some of them, would wonder how these fishermen and other ordinary men could be speaking about God’s kingdom. They haven’t been trained. They have no authority. And because the people did not believe, they had no power in those towns. “Shake even the dust from your feet,” Jesus said. It wasn’t worth wasting their time. In the end, they would know that a prophet had spoken.

Why would things be any different for us? If Jesus, Paul and Ezekiel were sent into a world where they would face persecution, rejection, failure and doubt, why do we think we will have any more success? If they suffered because they spoke God’s Word, why do we think we’ll be embraced with open arms? Why have we decided that it is better to give the people what they want so that we can fill the pews than to give them what they really need and let God deal with their lack of faith?

The singer of today’s psalm must have known what it was like to be rejected. It is likely that the Psalm was used as pilgrims climbed into the Temple during a pilgrimage. They had just traveled great distances through dangerous wilderness. They may have fought robbers. They may have been ridiculed by Romans. They may have even faced the haughty attitude of the religious leaders who saw the imperfections of their lives. The scorners were proud and arrogant, perhaps even wanting the pilgrims to fail. However, the singer knew that their derision did not matter. Those pilgrims looked to the God who sits in the heavens, humbled only by the graciousness of God.

God’s word does not go out without being fruitful. Ezekiel could proclaim God’s word with the expectation that it would transform the world in which he lived. Paul assured the Corinthians that God’s 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 isn’t about us anyway. It is all about Him. And He is faithful.

Our power to preach the Gospel comes from God, not from our own abilities, experiences or even our own desire to do so. God’s word is best shared by those who are humble before God and trusting in His grace. As we rejoice in our weaknesses God’s strength shines. People will reject, despise, persecute, insult and threaten us. They will believe the message that sounds better. They’ll chase after the warm fuzzies and ignore the calls to repentance. We can only hope that they will see God's presence and trust that one day they will know they have seen a prophet speaking God’s Word. Until then, we’ll climb the steps of the Temple with our eyes on God, praising Him even in the midst of our suffering, for we know God’s strength will shine in our weakness and His Gospel will truly change the world.

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