Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2023
Our old testament reading today is from Ezekiel, and I will be basing my message on this reading. But before we delve into the reading too much, perhaps we should spend some time on the man, the prophet, the namesake of this book: Ezekiel.
Ezekiel lived during the time of the great Babylonian Exile where most of the people of Israel were either enslaved or taken out of their land and living amongst the Babylonians. Ezekiel was also exiled along with his people, and God called him to be his prophet while in Babylon. And as is often the case with these sort of apocalyptic callings, in a vision, Ezekiel is taken to the throne room of God where he sees the mighty living creatures, the Seraphim and above them he sees a throne with one like a human in appearance sitting upon it. And then the Lord speaks, and Ezekiel melts to the floor in holy fear.
It took the Spirit of the Lord Himself to get Ezekiel back to his feet, so that he could hear his call and ordination from God to be the prophet, the preacher to Israel.
And what’s interesting about Ezekiel’s call is what the Lord says his call, his priesthood will be like. Listen to what the Lord says to him:
Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ 5 And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. 7 And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house.
8 “But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”
Ezekiel’s call would not be one of constant bliss and good news. He wouldn’t be making millions off of his preaching, flying in private jets or owning multi-million dollar mansions. He is sent out to preach to a rebellious people, a stubborn, haughty, self-absorbed people, people that wouldn’t listen to a word he said, that would laugh at him, scoff at him, mistreat him and even do violence against him…and this wasn’t the Babylonians, this was the people of God who were supposed to be listening, humble, open, prayerful, peaceful, contrite.
This is the people to whom God sent the prophet Ezekiel. And the things Ezekiel had to do to try and convince the people to repent, to stop being the stubborn, rebellious people they were. Did you know he had to cook his food atop cow dung, that the Lord commanded this of him in order to teach a lesson to the house of Israel? And that wasn’t the worst thing.
Who’d want to be Ezekiel? Any of you up for shaving your head and beard (if you have one) and living through Minnesota winters bald? Any of you up for eating only a few small pieces of really bad bread cooked with cow dung, and a few ounces of water each day for 390 days while only sleeping on your side? And the one thing Ezekiel was called to do, preach the Word, God had already told him that no one would listen to him, and people would shun him and continue to exhibit rebelliousness and a lust for sin.
Fruitless preaching, horrible life…who’d want to do this?
But then, hold the phone here…I’m Ezekiel! I am called by God to fill this holy office. I am set apart by God to preach. God has assigned specific duties to this office of holy ministry, and at the forefront of this office is His command to preach. And what am I to preach? I am to preach His Word, thick or thin, come what may, no matter what, I am to preach His Word, whether it draws people into the pews or stubborn people leave. God has established the office, He has called me and others to fulfill this office, and each of us pastors is called by God to preach what He tells us to preach. And the Lord did not tell me to preach things that make the people happy and tickle their sensitive ears. He said, “Preach my Word, and know that some will receive it with joy and others will despise you for it.” In this manner, I am Ezekiel, and this office certainly does bring its own…flavor…of suffering.
But consider this: YOU are Ezekiel! That’s right. You might respond and say, “But I didn’t sign up for cooking with cow dung! My parents forced me to be baptized. I just come to church on Sundays to sing my favorite hymns and drink coffee. I’m just a layperson, a little guy. I have no training; I have no experience.” But consider Ezekiel’s response to the Lord’s call. Do you think he was all on board with what was demanded of him? He had his excuses too. But like Ezekiel, you are called, not to the office of holy ministry, but to the office of Christian, as sheep among wolves, and the people to whom you are sent are stubborn people, rebellious people, and they will be angry at you and gnash their teeth against you for speaking the truth. But God has given you his Word to carry out to the world and to speak.
That’s a very scary and terrifying thought, isn’t it? When I preach the Word of Christ and when you share the Word of Christ with others, we suffer.
I mean, we are all sinners. God did not call Ezekiel to preach to stubborn Israel because he was somehow less a sinner than others. God did not call me to preach or administer the Sacraments because I am somehow more worthy or less a sinner than you. When you say the confession of sins at the beginning of the service, I say it right along with you. I am a poor, miserable sinner, I have sinned against my Lord in my thoughts, words, and deeds, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have stood in the way of the Lord more times than I can know. I have walked dark paths, I have been the stubborn and rebellious one, the one who refuses the Lord’s counsel, who refuses to listen to Him.
And God did not call you to be a mother or father, an employee or employer, a brother or sister, a husband or wife or whatever other calling He has, He did not call you and set you apart as His child because you deserve it, or you earned it or because of some innate inner holiness that He foresaw.
Each one of us is a mess. We’ve been the revelers, the ones who seek after self-glory rather that God’s Word, who have rebelled and fought against His Word, scorned His commandments, trampled upon His called servants and prophets and preachers. We’ve treated one another, not with the love and mercy and grace and godliness we are called to exhibit, but with distain and wickedness. We hear only what we want to hear and believe only how we want to believe. When the Word of the Lord hits us the wrong way, we groan and complain to have it the way we want it. We do a good job hiding it from others, but it’s still true. Let’s just be honest, we are as bad, and even sometimes worse, than those to whom we are sent.
And yet the Lord calls us and gives us a job to do. Just look around you, look at the world, look at the condition it’s in. Look at the people of the world and the horrible, evil, things they do and say. They are a mess…and sometimes we make it worse.
And you know what, Ezekiel felt the very same way. There were times when he just didn’t want to be around his own people, the people to whom he was sent to preach. As a pastor, I can tell you that there are weeks that I’d much rather be on another planet, sitting on an island and far, far away from this pulpit. There are days that go by where I ask myself, “What am I doing, why did God call me to this church, this ministry, this Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, this orthodox way of preaching and teaching the Scripture? It’s not working, it’s only making people mad, it’s only making people grumble and complain. This Law/Gospel preaching is turning people off. Maybe I’d be better off compromising and making it all easy on the ears, so no one gets mad at me. Heck, it’d make my life better.”
And the fact that I even think these things shows how unqualified I am for this office. And the fact that you can think it too, the fact that you can think the only way to “save the church” is to compromise and lower the bar so low that the Word of God is hidden behind worldliness and human ideas, is evident that you are no more qualified to be Christian that I am to be pastor.
And yet, the Lord calls us, cleanses us, qualifies us, and sends us out anyway. God knows we are all poor, miserable sinners. He knows this. He knew, long before you were born, that you were going to be a mess, that we would all be the chief of sinners, the worst of sinners. Your sin is not news to God. He knew it with Ezekiel, he knew it with me, and He knew it with you.
And this is why He sent His only son. Jesus didn’t come to be a mere example for us that we should look up to and imitate. If that’s the only reason He came, it’s a lost cause from the start. But, no. God sent His only son to die. An ancient debt had to be paid. Adam sinned, the wages of sin is death, Christ Jesus died, debt is paid, and all of Adam’s descendants are debt-free. We were all carried to the glorious throne of our Savior, the bloody cross of wood, and by His blood we were cleansed and purified and set apart, called to be the children of God, living by His light and abiding in His life.
We belong to God, once we were not His people, but now we ARE His people. And this gracious gift of salvation and eternal life is received through faith.
This is why Ezekiel was qualified, it’s why I am qualified, and it’s why YOU are qualified. It’s not about your works; it’s not about how well you can speak or how well you know the Scripture or your people skills. It’s not about how much or how little money you drop in the plate or how much or how little you volunteer. You are qualified to carry out your calling because God has said it. The blood that flows from Jesus onto you and into you cleanses you and makes you a citizen of His Kingdom. You are qualified to be a child of God, a servant of His Word.
Now this doesn’t mean you are called to be a pastor or to preach from this pulpit. The whole 90’s era “Everyone’s a Minister” motto was not really a faithful exposition of the Scripture. But you are called to serve the Lord in whatever station you are in, be it parent or teacher or laborer, whatever. And you are qualified for that call, and God has sent you out into the world in that call to proclaim the Gospel. If you are a parent, you are called to teach your children about Jesus, to pray with them, to crack open that catechism and teach them the commandments, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, etc. You are called to raise your children in Christian homes, to bring your children to church, and I don’t mean once or twice year, but every single week if possible, as much as you can, because believe you me, this world spends time with your son or daughter every day and every hour and every moment. If you want your child to grow up Christian and go to heaven, then you carry out your calling even if it brings you suffering.
I think one of the biggest problems in Christianity today is the tension between legalism and antinomianism. Legalism is any teaching which says, “To get saved, you need to say, do, act, or commit to….” something, that you need to keep the law in some way for God to save you. Antinomianism is any teaching which says, “You ARE saved, so forget about the law and live as you please because God loves you and doesn’t care.”
And as confessional Lutherans, we sort of ride the wave between this tension. We’re not legalists such that we think we must do something or merit God’s grace. But we’re also not antinomians such that we think the Law of God doesn’t matter.
Consider what the Lord tells Ezekiel to do and what to preach. He certainly calls Ezekiel to preach against wickedness and sin, to call Israel to recognize their sin and their rebellion and to repent. And as a pastor, as one called into this office of preaching, I must preach as God instructs. And Jesus tells me how to preach, doesn’t He? See, I can’t preach what YOU want me to preach. I can’t preach what my parents want me to preach. I can’t preach what popular preachers preach just because it’s popular…heck, I can’t preach what I want to preach. The only thing I can preach is what Christ Jesus my Lord and God instructs me to preach.
So, what does Jesus instruct His called and ordained servants to preach? “You can have your best life now, God loves you and has a plan for your life, that you have to ask Jesus into your heart, make a decision?” No, and nowhere does our Lord ever instruct us to preach in such ways, yet it is what you hear most often, isn’t it? And why? Because it brings people in, it fills pews. Legalism and antinomianism will fill the pews, but they will not carry sinners to heaven. Only the Gospel, Christ and His death on the cross can save.
Perhaps Ezekiel thought about preaching a message that would draw masses of Israelites to listen, and perhaps he thought to himself, “Why is God asking me to preach a message that no one will listen to, it makes no sense, why am I preaching a message to a bunch of wicked people who will not turn and listen; shouldn’t I preach to people more eager to hear what I have to say?”
But here’s the thing. For God, it is not about being pragmatic, it’s not about ends justifying means. In our sin, we tend to think far more pragmatically about life and choices and money and transactions. We have a desired outcome, and so the means to get to that outcome…well, if the outcome is good, then no one will care about how we got there.
But God is not an “ends justify means” God. For Him, both means AND ends are important. And so, sometimes – I’d say much of the time – God asks us to do things that don’t make sense to us. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that we want 100 people in church every week by December 31, 2025. What do we immediately start thinking of doing? We start wanting to change the means, don’t we? We starting wanting to change this, and compromise that, and do the means differently so that the end goal is reached. And we do this with family, with friends, with work, with school…we live pragmatically, and we expect our God to be as pragmatic as us.
But God is NOT pragmatic, at all. God doesn’t see in a mirror dimly like we do, but God sees the big picture, and He also sees the intricacies of each moment. And so, as He works with His people, with His church, with THIS church, He threads His will, His purpose through us delicately and intentionally so that, in the end, everything is accomplished just as He wants. And fellow believers, God IS most certainly working in this congregation. You may not see it or recognize it, but God promises it and He never goes back on His Word – not ever.
God will NEVER compromise His own Word; He will never change His Word even if we get a little squeamish or uncomfortable because of it. And He will never ask His called and ordained servants to compromise His Word. Ezekiel suffered from God’s Word, but the people of Israel needed to hear it and they needed to hear the call to repentance, to turn away from their rebelliousness and stubbornness. If Ezekiel were to remain quiet and not warn them, then their blood and their death would be on his hands.
Us pastors and you too, we must not compromise God’s Word even if we think it’ll be helpful, we must not compromise. Because in the end of the day, it is by this very same Word of Christ that sinners are reborn into saints and given eternal life and salvation. It is this faithfulness of God, this relentlessness of God our savior that has led to our salvation, right? God never changed or hid His Word from any of us, but proclaimed it loud and clear, and He continues to. And by His Word we are saved, by His promises, we are called out of darkness, by His only Son, the Word who became flesh, we are redeemed and given paradise. Let us therefore not seek to change His Word, compromise His Word, because it is His Word that saves and draws sinners to repentance and faith. Amen.