Preachers and listeners
Ezekiel 33: They love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.
They’ve gotten used to Ezekiel. For years he’s preached his sermons and acted out various illustrations for them. His words are seldom encouraging, in fact, they’re down right condemning. Beyond that all his approaches to basically the same sermon have become to them like well-worn clothes: nothing to get excited about, but comfortable. These days, it isn’t unusual for folks to show up at Ezekiel’s house on a summer evening just to see what Ezekiel has up his sleeve today. They aren’t interested in responding to his message but they do find his rants somewhat entertaining. As a Sunday preacher I have to say that this passage is chilling to me. The folks at my church have also heard my sermons for a long time now. Sometimes I fear that they’re so used to me that, as it was in Ezekiel’s day, “they love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.” It’s interesting how small things become big things as I think about stuff like this. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I suggested folks take a particular course of action. Yesterday I was handed something someone had done as a direct result of that sermon. I can’t tell you how encouraging that is to me. It’s also humbling. I’m flattered that anyone would come to my church and listen to me preach my sermons week after week. I’m encouraged that some folks actually take what I say to heart and literally respond by doing something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’m humbled that I have the opportunity to touch lives each week in this way, realizing that in myself I have nothing to offer. If anything “comes out of it” it will take cooperation with God by both preacher and listeners.
Take Away: Preaching must be much more than entertaining.
A good word from the Lord
Ezekiel 29: I’ll give you, Ezekiel, bold and confident words to speak.
A turnaround is coming. For some time now Israel had heard nothing but condemnation from God’s prophet, Ezekiel. According to him things are going to get worse before they get better. Now, we see that things will, indeed, get better. The same man who’s condemned their sin and the sins of the nations associated with them is going to be given a different word from the Lord. His words will bring hope and deliverance. His messages will reconnect them with God, himself. What powerful words they’re going to be! These aren’t the empty promises of a politician. This is God’s man speaking God’s word to them. When the Lord gets involved words take on an additional element of power. As a preacher I’m both encouraged and challenged here. I’m encouraged that, as old fashioned as it might seem, that God can communicate to people through a weak vessel like me and that as I preach God can “stir up fresh hope” and usher in “deliverance” in people’s lives. I’m challenged to live close enough to the Lord that he can direct me in that endeavor; to trust him and cooperate with him in what he wants to say to those who are listening.
Take Away: Words directed by the Lord are powerful and can be life changing.
Trust and obey for there’s no other way
Ezekiel 3: …but you won’t die. You’ll have saved your life.
As the prophet is commissioned he’s told that his job is to warn people. If they refuse his warning, then they’re responsible to God for that refusal. Ezekiel’s job is to issue God’s message. His salvation is contingent on his faithfulness in doing so. My first reaction to this passage is one of caution. I read this from a New Testament point of view and immediately respond that my hope of salvation isn’t in my performance but in my faith in the Savior, Jesus. Does that, in some way nullify this passage for me today? Upon reflection, I think not. Old or New Testament, preacher or listener, the requirement of God is the same: obedience. The Lord calls Ezekiel to preach his message and that’s what’s required of him. He’s called to obedience even as he calls his listeners to obedience. It’s the same for me. As I understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world I must obey his call to yield my life to him and follow him. Anything else is disobedience. So, Ezekiel obeyed by preaching God’s message. His listeners were to obey by forsaking their sin and worshiping the Lord. I obey by trusting in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and living in a relationship with him. People may refuse Ezekiel’s message, but he’ll be saved in his obedience in preaching it anyway.
Take Away: No matter where a person is on their spiritual journey, the Lord’s requirement is this: obey.
Lamentations 2: They didn’t face you with your sin so that you could repent.
As Jeremiah deconstructs the fall of Judah for us he describes the failure of the preachers of his day. Even as Jeremiah faithfully proclaimed God’s word of condemnation on the nation, his competition described coming divine rescue. Jeremiah’s message called for a radical change of attitude and lifestyle. Their message was that everything was going to be just fine, that they were children of Abraham, and therefore, God had to keep his promises to him no matter what they did. Because of their success in convincing people of their mistaken theology, Jeremiah’s message was rejected and those who needed to repent never did so. I’m not writing today to put down some radio or TV preacher. To tell the truth I don’t listen to any of them enough to even know their core message. I do believe this, though: we preachers have a responsibility before God to call sinners to repentance. If all we do is share principles for a happy marriage, or tell parents how to raise well-adjusted kids, or outline how to get along with the boss we’re failing people. I’m not saying that there’s never a time and place for such sermons, but Jeremiah says the preachers of his day didn’t confront people with their sin and therefore, they never realized their need for repentance. Does this translate over to today?
Take Away: We have a responsibility before God to call sinners to repentance.
Business, but not quite “as usual”
Jeremiah 32: I will restore everything that was lost.
When I think of parts of the Bible that were written in jail it’s the Apostle Paul and several letters of his from the New Testament that come to mind. However, many years earlier Jeremiah was locked up and continued to declare his messages from God. In this case Jeremiah is in jail for insisting that the invading Babylonian army is going to be successful. He urges everyone to surrender and take their punishment. Even as he’s proclaiming this message, the Lord tells him that he needs to conduct some family business. It must have seemed odd to his fellow prisoners to see this man who’s been saying their nation is about to fall stop to buy some land from a relative of his. If everyone’s going to be taken away as Jeremiah claims, why in the world would he take time to buy property? Jeremiah does his business and then asks that the deed and other paperwork be sealed in a jar and buried. That deed won’t be of any use for a long time but someday it’ll be dug up and still be good when God’s people return to their homeland many years hence. Even as Jeremiah proclaims coming disaster he does so with hope for a brighter future. Today, my message may, at times, be more negative than positive. My nation can’t expect to continue down the God-ignoring road it’s on and think that God won’t notice. Still, though, my message should, in general, be a positive one. What happened at Calvary brings the hope of salvation to the whole human race. Even when there’s plenty to be concerned about, that’s the really big news.
Take Away: What happened at Calvary brings the hope of salvation to the whole human race.
Playing the “God card”
Jeremiah 23: Quit the “God told me this, God told me that” kind of talk.
Jeremiah’s not the only preacher in the nation. As he proclaims God’s message there are others with a very different message, contradicting Jeremiah all the way. Jeremiah preaches saying, “This is God’s message,” and these other preachers come along right behind him saying, “No, THIS is God’s message.” These preachers with their alternate sermons have gotten the attention of the people. They’ve also gotten the attention of God. The Lord tells them, “Only the person I authorize speaks for me.” He says he doesn’t want to hear any more “God told me” preaching from the others. The Lord isn’t against them discussing Jeremiah’s sermons. He says, “Ask questions of one another, such as ‘how do we understand God in this?'” I’ve been in some discussions with people who played what I’ve heard called the “God card.” That is, they declared that “God told them” what was right. Once that’s said it’s pretty much the end of the discussion. After all, who wants to argue with God? This can be a big problem when someone with a differing view plays their “God card” too. Now what are we going to do? God is giving conflicting messages to different people! In this passage I’m reminded that the Lord’s paying attention to my words. I’d better tread lightly when I presume to speak for him. I’m not saying the Lord never directs, after all, this is all about Jeremiah’s message, and he HAD heard directly from God. Most of the time I’d better do more listening than “declaring.” The Lord isn’t opposed to them discussing Jeremiah’s messages, but he’s very much against them presuming to speak in his name.
Take Away: Most of the time it’s better to “listen” than it is to “declare.”
Preaching to please people
Jeremiah 15: Let your words change them. Don’t change your words to suit them.
The Lord called Jeremiah to be his spokesman but Jeremiah’s words aren’t well received. In fact, they get him into a lot of trouble. As a Sunday sermon preacher I like it when people are energized by my words. It hurts when folks can hang out in the foyer chatting while I pour out my heart in a sermon. I have to admit though, that Jeremiah’s situation gives me a whole new perspective on things. Not only did his listeners reject his sermons, they actively tried to silence him. Having folks who are angry with me and out to get me over a sermon would be much worse than their simply wanting to chat about other things while I preach on Sunday! Facing such opposition, Jeremiah’s tempted to adjust his preaching a bit, to downplay the “gloom and doom” and focus on things like God’s love instead. The Lord, though, is having none of that. He looks Jeremiah square in the face and tells him to stand up and take it like a man. If he has to decide between his congregation not liking his sermons or the Lord not liking them, he’d better land on the side of the Lord. The Almighty says to Jeremiah, “Don’t let the congregation craft your sermon. Be faithful to my directions and your words will change lives.” We preachers need passages like this to remind us of the spiritual facts of life. We aren’t preaching to please people. Instead, we’re preaching to change their lives. It isn’t so much what they want as it is what they need. There’s only one in the audience who must be pleased no matter what. I need to spend time with him as I prepare a sermon, lean on him as I deliver it, and then leave the results of it all in his hands.
Take Away: It’s a good thing when the congregation is pleased with the sermon. It’s even better when the Lord is.
Speaking God’s Word
Jeremiah 1: I’ve just put my words in your mouth.
Jeremiah isn’t being falsely humble when he hesitates to accept the role of prophet. Frankly, he doesn’t think he’s up to it. After all, what will he say? He feels inadequate for the task. The Lord understands. In fact, the Lord probably agrees that Jeremiah’s an unlikely prophet. However, the Lord isn’t necessarily looking for the most capable person anyway. For reasons known only to him, the Lord chose an unlikely person for a very important job. To encourage Jeremiah, the Lord puts words in his mouth, a demonstration of how it will work. Today, I very much identify with Jeremiah. As a young person I felt God’s call on my life. Growing up in a small, wonderfully supportive church I marched forward with the confidence of youth. It was during my first year in college that I realized I’m, at best, a very average person. One day, as I faced my inadequacies the Lord took mercy on me as he did for Jeremiah in this passage. As I read Matthew 10 these words became a personal promise to me: “Do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” It seemed to me that the Lord said to me, “If I could give words to the disciples even when they were being abused, I can help you as a preacher to say things I want you to say.” That day was a “Jeremiah 1” day for me. It wasn’t that I now understood all there was to know, but I grasped this promise of God to me. If he called me to the ministry, he would help me do ministry. Almost 40 years later, I can report that the Lord has been faithful to keep that promise.
Take Away: If the Lord calls you to it he will help you do it.
Dual level preaching
Isaiah 9: For a child has been born — for us! The gift of a son — for us!
Sometimes the prophet does exactly what we generally think of a prophet doing: he speaks of the future. Isaiah says that even when oppressors come and seem to destroy everything that God will have the last word. That Word, Isaiah says, will be in the person of a Child who can rightly be called names like “Strong God” and “Eternal Father.” Have you ever wondered about the state of mind of men like Isaiah when they speak words like this? Does Isaiah see it all: manger, shepherds, and wise men? Or does he scratch his head and wonder why he just said that? I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. I can give a very minor personal example of what I mean. A few weeks ago I was delivering my Sunday morning sermon and found myself emphasizing something that had originally been only a minor part of my sermon. Such an event is hard to describe to people who haven’t preached, but I think most everyone who has carried on spiritual conversations have, at times, experienced something similar. Honestly, as I thought about that sermon and remembered who was in the congregation I had the idea that maybe the Lord wanted to encourage a good person who was going through some challenges in their life. Still it never crossed my mind to “aim” that portion of the sermon at anyone. I was surprised that I had pursued that point as far as I did. A few days later, with no thought of that sermon, I was praying and dealing with what I thought was a totally unrelated issue. Suddenly, the words that I had said on Sunday morning came back to me and I realized that on an entirely different level they were meant for me! At that moment, the “deeper meaning” of what I had said became real to me. I think that prophets like Isaiah operate at that level when they speak of things like those in Isaiah 9. Had you had a frank conversation with Isaiah about his promise of the “gift of a son” I think he would have plugged it into some current situation in his nation. That isn’t to say he was ignorant of there being more than he could grasp, but that, for him, these words applied right then and there. Only as God’s plan is played out does the greater meaning of the old prophet’s words come to light.
Take Away: Even when we think we know what’s going on we’re often surprised to later realize that the Lord was working at levels beyond our grasp.