Sunday, May 21, 2017

Empowered to Proclaim: God's Word in the Power of the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 2:1-3:3, Acts 1:4-11)

Do you know what the number one fear for people is?

It’s glossophobia… the fear of public speaking, getting up in front of a group of people and speaking to them. Jay Leno quipped it’s so bad that at a funeral most of us ‘would rather be the person in the casket than the one giving the eulogy’.   I’m not sure about that, but it does sum it up for many of us.

You might think that as I stand up and preach each week and lead worship that I’m immune, but that is not the case. I always tell couples I marry that on the day, I’ll be the most nervous because I’m the one who has to say the majority of the words.  At funerals, I always make sure I’ve got everything I’m going to say written down, including my own name, just in case I forget it. When I’ve had to speak at places like presbytery or general assembly in a debate I quite literally shake and often what I say comes across as emotionally charged. But I stand up and preach because I believe it is what God has called me to do, to take his timeless word and open it up in a timely manner for his people. Praise God he gives me the strength I need to do it by his Holy Spirit.

I think in the Church there is another fear that people have, that is sharing their faith with others, talking about Jesus Christ in their everyday life. I’ll put my hand up and say I’m like that as well.

Heading into Pentecost this year we are working through a series looking at the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament: From hovering over the waters in the creation story in Genesis right through to being poured out in fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel chapter two. Seeing what the Holy Spirit was about then and there and how Jesus changed all that and what it means to us here and now. Today we are looking at the calling of Ezekiel to be a prophet, to speak God’s word, and what that has to say to us today about being called to be witnesses to Jesus Christ risen from the dead.

Ezekiel is a prophet who speaks to the Jewish people in their exile in Babylon.  He was a priest by profession and at the opening of the book we find him amidst the exiles at the Kebar river, which is a channel off the Euphrates river just to the south of Babylon. We are told that the hand of the Lord, a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, was on Ezekiel, he was anointed as a priest but you get the sense that God has been leading and guiding him in life. Even bringing him to being in the midst of the exiles. There as a priest to be of some comfort for his people as they mourned about where they were. Psalm 137 paints the picture of Jewish gatherings in exile “by the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, there we wept when we remembered Zion”.  Ezekiel has an overwhelming vision of God. God on his throne, carried by these amazing living creatures, four faced seraphs. The image behind me is from the Book of Kells, and it is a representation of the four gospels as each of the faces of those four creatures, the Man, the Ox, the Eagle and the Lion. An amazing image of the reality of Jesus Christ carried to us by the four gospels. Ezekiel’s vision is of God being with his people in exile.  Ezekiel sees the one who is on the throne and falls flat on his face, in fear because he has seen the Lord.  That is where the passage we had read to us this morning comes in. It is the passage of Ezekiel’s call to ministry.

God says ‘to stand up and he will speak to Ezekiel’ and as he says this we are told that the Spirit came upon Ezekiel and it enabled him to stand and to hear what God was saying to him. Ezekiel had an amazing spiritual experience, he saw God sitting on his throne, but what stops that from just being something that overwhelms his senses and leaves him terrified is the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. It gives him the courage to stand in God’s presence and to hear what God is saying. This is what the Holy Spirit is still doing in and for us. As we saw last week the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is a seal of his ownership , that we don’t need to grovel and fear God but we belong to him, that we can stand in his presence through Jesus death and resurrection.  In John’s gospel Jesus speaks of not leaving us as orphan’s but making us part of his family by sending the advocate, the comforter. The comforter, the spirit of truth, that will teach us all we need to know and will bring to our minds all that Jesus has said. The Holy Spirit in us enables us to stand and to hear God’s words.

Then Ezekiel receives God’s commission to be his prophet. To take his message to God’s rebellious people. In the Old Testament God chooses individuals to do special tasks for him. Ezekiel is ‘to be sent’ to his people, to speak God’s word to them, whether they will listen or not. He is to be a faithful servant amidst a rebellious, hard headed, stiff necked people. In the New Testament, the disciples are called apostles, and apostles basically means the sent ones. Commissioned by God, and in the passage, we had read to us in Acts Chapter 1 Jesus sends them and all his followers, he sends them to speak his word, to witness to Jesus Christ risen from the death. To witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the end of the earth. Instead of simply calling and sending individuals in Christ, God now sends his people, all of us, to speak his word to the world.  Just as God gives Ezekiel his Holy Spirit to enable him to do what he is called to do, Jesus sends his holy Spirit, to give us the power to do what God calls us to do.

I was a bit reluctant to use Ezekiel’s call as an example for us because it is unique in the scriptures, Ezekiel does not give God any excuses why he shouldn’t do what God has said.  Most of the people God chooses and calls in the Old testament have big buts. Which has nothing to do with how much they’ve got to sit down with. Rather they have excuses and reasons why they are not the ones to be called.  Moses wasn’t good at speaking, he had a speech impediment, Gideon, was the least important member of the least important family in the least important tribe of Israel, Jeremiah is too young, no one will listen as he’s only a boy, Amos is criticized for being just a farmer from Tekoa, (you can imagine Te koa being this small town down the east coast somewhere, right next to nowhere, which of course is Maori for nowhere) what has he got to say to the people in the big city. Jonah just plumb does not want to do it, he hates the people of Nineveh. It’s not that Ezekiel is perfect, rather in being called to speak to a rebellious people as a faithful servant, he does not get a chance to voice his excuses. It does say in chapter 3:14 that the hand of the Lord leads his home and that he is bitter and angry in his own spirit. The key thing is God chooses ordinary people to do his will to speak his word and to achieve his purposes. You could give the same sort of list of people in the New Testament, and down through church history, however it is God’s spirit that gives them what they need to do God’s work, to proclaim God’s word.

The Key reason I’ve chosen Ezekiel, is because we get something of the process by which God enables Ezekiel to speak his word and to prophecy, which is important for us. It is easy to think of God inspiring people to speak like someone being God’s loudspeaker system, or like God’s type writer. God pushes the keys and the words come out. It’s not the case. Ezekiel is told to speak God’s word, but first he is invited to eat what God gives him. A hand, again a symbol for the Holy Spirit, gives him a scroll to eat. To digest and allow to fill him up. You get the picture of it becoming part of him, being the sustenance for life, and what gives him strength and energy for life. Before we speak God’s words we must know God’s word and allow it to be digested and fill up our lives and be our nourishment and food. Then we are able to let it flow out of us. That’s the process of inspiration. Down through history people have seen things as so inspired they are God’s word for all time but for most of us it is God’s timely word, for the situation we are in…

Did you notice the paradox in how the scroll tastes to Ezekiel. The scroll that is given to Ezekiel is full of lament and mourning and woe. But it tastes sweet to Ezekiel. God is asking Ezekiel to speak to a rebellious people, and the words of God’s covenant of grace has to be bitter to them, they think God will come and quickly bring them back to Jerusalem, but God’s word is that as they have been rebellious for so many generations that this exile is going to last for a long period of time, so much so that they will have to settle down where they live and learn to be God’s people all over again in a foreign setting. It points out that they will have to change their ways so that God can move in a new way. But to a faithful person like Ezekiel, they are sweet because they speak of God’s desire to redeem his people, his unfailing love for his people, that this exile has purpose and meaning in God’s plans and purposes. It is like when Paul talks of the preaching Christ crucified, it is folly to the gentiles and Jews, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God for our salvation.   

In this eating of the scroll we see how God enables and inspires people to speak his word. His word is given to us, in this case it may well have been the Sinai covenant with its list of blessings for obedience and woes or consequences for disobedience and Ezekiel digests it and then it is spoken to the specific time and place and situation through the personality, words, and temperament of Ezekiel. We’ve mentioned the repetition of the phrase rebellious people in this passage and repetition of phrases and words is a stylistic part of the book of Ezekiel, it may well be a mark of how he speaks. Why say something once when you can emphasis it by saying it again and again. With the Spirit being involved in the process and in the person what comes out is equally tht persons word and God’s word to that situation. In the case of Ezekiel and the other books of scripture the decernment process of God's People lead by God's Spirit have seen as being God's abiding word for all time: authoritatively God's word for all people all time.  

You and have the word of God, Jesus Christ living within us by the Holy Spirit, we have the word of God in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament which the Holy Spirit uses to speak into our lives, the spirit enables us to speak that out to the people around us, to witness to Jesus Christ. The Spirit brings it to mind, gives us the words when we need them. Because God has gifted each of us with our own individuality it’s going to sound like us, but God can use that to speak into people’s lives. We are called to do that weather people listen or not… we are called to proclaim it by  living  it out, and speaking it out.

Let me finish with a great illustration, audio bibles are usually produced with the bible being read by someone with beautiful BBC English. The Jesus story book which Sundayfunday are using is a great example its produced in the states but the stories are read by David Suchet, the amazing English actor, who ironically you will know as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule  Poirot. He has a wonderful voice. It is done I think because it gives the bible and the story the authority that a BBC voice over might give a documentary. In fact that kind of voice over is called ‘the voice of God’, this is how it is, this is the truth, my BBC English proves it. We can have that idea of this is how God’s word should sound.

But with the rise of the Internet and digital media, there is a democratization of the voices you can hear broadcast… or rather pod cast. People are doing their own content, their own shows, telling their own stories, making their own comment. Bible in action in New Zealand are in the process of producing what they are calling the pod bible. They are  putting the contemporary English version bible online. They have taken 300 volunteers from round New Zealand, men women, young people, older people, people for whom English is their first language and others for whom English is a second or even a third language and got them to read a chapter of the bible each. With their own inflections and imperfections, accents and inadequacies, there amateur passion of the scripture rather than professional polish for the presentation. It makes the scriptures come alive, you hear it in our voices, the voices you might hear down the road, at the mall, beside you on the bus or train, at the football game. 

This is what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. We have been called to witness to what we know of Jesus Christ; it’s not the voice over word of God BBC doco, unless that is you, the spirit allows you to speak and proclaim what you know, how you know it, how it has been digested into your life and made part of you. There are people who have a prophetic ministry and calling, but we are all called to voice God’s timeless word in a timely manner to the very time we inhabit, and it the Holy Spirit that enables and empowers us to do that.

 Jay Hotere died last week. I’d never met him but he had influenced a lot of people who I know and admire. One person placed a video of his testimony on line. I watched it…Jay had grown up in a violent abusive environment and sadly for so many men in our society was starting down the track of repeating that destructive behaviour. He got to the point of wanting to kill himself and prayed well Jesus if your real you’d better let me know because if you don’t I’m going to end it.  The phone rang and it was a mate of his who said, God had been telling him to ring, what was going on, and not to do anything till he got there. Jay became a Christian and his life changed and he helped transform many other lives. The voice and word of God came in a friend’s voice. Adrian Plass is a wonderful Christian broadcaster and author in England and one night read out a very personal letter to god over the radio, voicing his doubts and fears and feeling of being unworthy. When he got home there was a letter on his doorstep, from God replying to all his doubts and fears, assuring him he was loved, and Plass said it was amazing how similar God’s handwriting was to his mothers.

You are called to speak God’s word by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Postscript: I am aware that in this sermon I do not make mention of the phrase 'Son of Man' which along with it's mention in Daniel's vision in Daniel 7. Theologically this phrase Son of Man is significant because it is the title that Jesus Chose to use for himself. Son of Man in Ezekiel is a phrase which means 'Mere mortal'. In Daniel 7 it is a vision of heaven where one like the son of man appears as God's anointed one. The title pulls together both the idea of a mere moral, Jesus as totally human called to speak and proclaim God's word, and the son of man as God's son in Daniel.

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