Ezekiel 2:8-3:11 – Use the Head-Butt

Rufus R. Jones (1933-1993)

Son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not join them in their rebellion. Open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

Then I looked and saw a hand reaching out to me. It held a scroll, which he unrolled. And I saw that both sides were covered with funeral songs, words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom.

The voice said to me, “Son of man, eat what I am giving you—eat this scroll! Then go and give its message to the people of Israel.” So, I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. “Fill your stomach with this,” he said. And when I ate it, it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.

Then he said, “Son of man, go to the people of Israel and give them my messages. I am not sending you to a foreign people whose language you cannot understand. No, I am not sending you to people with strange and difficult speech. If I did, they would listen! But the people of Israel won’t listen to you any more than they listen to me! For the whole lot of them are hard-hearted and stubborn. But look, I have made you as obstinate and hard-hearted as they are. I have made your forehead as hard as the hardest rock! So don’t be afraid of them or fear their angry looks, even though they are rebels.”

Then he added, “Son of man, let all my words sink deep into your own heart first. Listen to them carefully for yourself. Then go to your people in exile and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’ Do this whether they listen to you or not.” (New Living Translation)

When I was a kid, my brother and I watched “All-Star Wrestling” on television every Saturday. One of our favorite wrestlers was Rufus R. Jones. Like all wrestlers, he had a signature move, a lights-out-nobody-is-getting-up maneuver that always ended the match. 

Rufus’ move was the head-butt. Slamming his hard forehead into the head of his opponent always brought raucous behavior from me and my brother. Then, as the boys we were, we acted out the head-butt scene over and over. The hardest head always won…. I usually lost…. That probably explains a lot.

God gave a message to the prophet Ezekiel concerning the stubborn hearts and hard heads of the Israelites. The Lord was looking for repentance, for the people to turn their hearts and minds back to true worship and an authentic humble relationship with their God. 

The prospect of facing such a task, such an opponent, seemed daunting to Ezekiel. So, the Lord assured the prophet that his forehead would be harder than that of Rufus R. Jones. So, there is no need to be afraid of the opponent. They may be hard, but they’re no match for the rock-hard head of the prophet.

In essence, God told Ezekiel to pull-out the signature wrestling move and do the lights-out head-butt maneuver. And the promise from God that backed up Ezekiel was this: There’s absolutely no way you’re going to lose the match with the kind of head I’m giving you.

Like Ezekiel, we are to speak the Word of God with the promise of not losing. Prideful ungodly stubbornness will get us knocked-out. But conversely, gracious bold stubbornness, which determines to do the will of God, shall always win the day.

The only catch is: The Word needs to sink down deeply into our own hearts through listening well – before we can effectively speak to others.

God provides us with spiritual giftedness. Yet, that doesn’t mean we never need to develop that gift or engage in any spiritual practices to make it better. We are to use that which God gives us, no matter the response from others.

There is often a fine line between sinful obstinate stubbornness and godly persevering tenacity. We are never to use our abilities to slam people, obnoxiously and persistently, upside the head with an oversized King James Version of the Bible – in the wrongheaded notion that the Word doesn’t come back without effect.

That kind of effect, however, is harmful spiritual bruising that is devoid of grace. It’s really nothing more than an individual working out their own anger and frustration on somebody else.

Rather, we are to carefully, deliberately, consistently, and daily internalize God’s Word so that what comes out of us is helpful, not harmful. Only by a constant use of solitude and silence, in truly listening well for the voice of God, can we effect the sort of positive ministry which is needed for the present moment.

Put another way, whenever we head-butt an opponent, the grace and mercy ought to be uncompromising. It’s not our job to be the judge; our task is to communicate effectively and humbly without giving in or giving up. The message may be hard, but it should always be sweet.

Almighty and ever-living God, we pray that you would give us the Spirit of wisdom and discernment so that we may know you better and love you more. Give us an understanding heart so that we may be open in hearing your voice of grace and guidance.

Use us, your people, not to be unthinking and unfeeling tools of bludgeoning others, but to be your hands and feet – your voice and heart so that we may be a channel through which you pour out your grace to help others – may we decrease to nothing so that only Christ is seen in our lives – we ask this in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus. Amen.

1 Corinthians 14:1-12 – Pursue Love and Service

Pursue love and use your ambition to try to get spiritual gifts but especially so that you might prophesy. This is because those who speak in a tongue don’t speak to people but to God; no one understands it—they speak mysteries by the Spirit. Those who prophesy speak to people, building them up, and giving them encouragement and comfort. People who speak in a tongue build up themselves; those who prophesy build up the church.I wish that all of you spoke in tongues, but I’d rather you could prophesy. Those who prophesy are more important than those who speak in tongues unless they are able to interpret them so that the church might be built up. 

After all, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation, some knowledge, a prophecy, or a teaching? Likewise, things that aren’t alive like a harp or a lyre can make a sound, but if there aren’t different notes in the sounds they make, how will the tune from the harp or the lyre be recognized? And if a trumpet call is unrecognizable, then who will prepare for battle? 

It’s the same way with you: If you don’t use language that is easy to understand when you speak in a tongue, then how will anyone understand what is said?It will be as if you are speaking into the air! There are probably many language families in the world, and none of them are without meaning. So, if I don’t know the meaning of the language, then I will be like a foreigner to those who speak it, and they will be like foreigners to me. The same holds true for you: since you are ambitious for spiritual gifts, use your ambition to try to work toward being the best at building up the church. (Common English Bible)

Sometimes we need to look at a section of Scripture and see its big picture message, not losing sight of the forest for the trees. At first glance, it might be tempting to question or delve into whether tongues (a private language of communicating with God) and prophecy (divinely inspired speech for a person or group based in Holy Scripture) are for today, or not. 

Please keep in mind that spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy were not the Apostle Paul’s driving concern when he wrote to the Corinthians. Paul wanted the Corinthian believers – who were puffing themselves up like peacocks so that others would admire their gifts and abilities – to grasp a basic important message: pursue love by striving to excel in building up people.

If we miss love, we have lost sight of God’s Word to us. A preoccupation with tongues and prophecy only makes us lose the forest for a few tress. Rather, we are to keep thinking about how we show love for all our brothers and sisters in Christ and put some significant effort into doing our part to encourage them. 

Spiritual gifts are given by God to Christians as a means of loving and encouraging the Church. They are not given in a vacuum, as if those gifts are only for an individual’s help. They’re meant to be directed toward helping and serving others.

For example, I am a teacher of God’s Word. It would be really weird if I jumped out of bed on a Sunday morning, got dressed, looked in the mirror and taught at myself. Then, went back to bed dreaming about what a great teacher I am. Spiritual gifts are meant to be unpacked and used for the community, not self.

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Winston Churchill

One of the great temptations of humanity is to finagle our efforts so that other people will notice and give props to our wonderful work. Indeed, we can write Facebook messages to garner as many “likes” as we can get, or post things on Twitter and our favorite blogs hoping to look smart and funny in the eyes of a community of people we may not even know personally. All the while we may be withholding love to actual people right in front our faces because they may not give to us the attention we crave.

Perhaps with Lent coming in another month, you might want to consider a fast from social media in order to better connect with people within your direct sphere of human touch and influence. Or maybe ask someone close to you what they believe your primary spiritual gifts are, with the expressed intention of using the information to explore fresh avenues of love and service to others. 

Whatever you do, pursue love and excel in building up the church.

Loving God, you have graciously gifted us all for love and service. May we continually see your love expressed to us through Jesus Christ so that we will be always inspired to pass on that same love to others for whom you also love. Amen.

Romans 12:1-8 – On Being Worshipers and Servants

Brothers and sisters, in view of all we have just shared about God’s compassion, I encourage you to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, dedicated to God and pleasing to him. This kind of worship is appropriate for you. Don’t become like the people of this world. Instead, change the way you think. Then you will always be able to determine what God really wants—what is good, pleasing, and perfect.

Because of the kindness that God has shown me, I ask you not to think of yourselves more highly than you should. Instead, your thoughts should lead you to use good judgment based on what God has given each of you as believers. Our bodies have many parts, but these parts don’t all do the same thing. In the same way, even though we are many individuals, Christ makes us one body and individuals who are connected to each other. God in his kindness gave each of us different gifts. If your gift is speaking what God has revealed, make sure what you say agrees with the Christian faith. If your gift is serving, then devote yourself to serving. If it is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If it is encouraging others, devote yourself to giving encouragement. If it is sharing, be generous. If it is leadership, lead enthusiastically. If it is helping people in need, help them cheerfully. (God’s Word)

China and Clay

Every person is important. Everyone is needed. Each individual is to offer their entire lives to God through worship and using their spiritual gifts. Every believer is to be active in building up others. 

When I was growing up, we had a fine China set that my parents kept in a beautiful China cabinet.  The set and the cabinet are old and were a prominent part of our house. However, we almost never used it. I can only remember once or twice that my Mom got the China out to use.

God is not looking for fine China believers who sit unused in a cabinet church. Instead, the Lord is looking for rough-and-tumble clay pots—the kind that can be used every day. God wants ordinary table-wear that can be handled in a crash-and-bang world.

Followers of Jesus Christ are to be like a working kitchen, where well-worn pots are filled again and again to dispense their life-giving contents to a thirsty world; and, where common plates and cups are used again and again to provide a hungry population with the Bread of Life.

Jews and Gentiles

Within the ancient Roman Church were both Jews and Gentiles – two groups vastly different from each other.  They tended to keep to themselves and only operate within their familiar and comfortable circles of friends and relatives.  But the Apostle Paul wanted them united through using their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the entire congregation, and not only within their respective groups.

We are to give ourselves in service to one another because of God’s mercy in Christ. Since God has saved us from our guilt and shame, we are to have a grateful response of worship that is dedicated to serving everyone. 

Worship and Service

The word “worship” in today’s New Testament lesson is where we get the word “liturgy.” That is, Paul’s vision for the church was to have daily liturgical rhythms of spiritual worship, not just on Sunday when we might pull out the fine China and try to impress people.

Paul did not guilt people into serving. Rather, he straightforwardly exhorts all Christians to appropriately respond to God’s grace by offering their lives in sacrificial service as a form of gratitude to God. For this response, our mental faculties must be renewed through saturation in Scripture. It is here we discern our spiritual gifts, know what God wants us to do with those gifts, and use them effectively in the church and the world. 

Grace and Gifts

Grace is given to every believer in Jesus, not just a select few. We all have different gifts and are graced with abilities for the benefit of other, without exception. When everyone collectively exercises their spiritual gifts, then there is clarity in knowing the will of God.

All Christians must share and work together by utilizing God’s grace, instead of getting burned-out because others are not serving. Grumbling about what others are not doing begs the question of whether we are over-functioning, or not.

It could be that we have succumbed to the danger the Apostle Paul warned us about: thinking so highly of ourselves that we believe our gifts are superior to others, so we need to maintain our control and hegemony in the group. This is a terribly misguided notion. 

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 4:10-11, NIV

We belong to one another. Therefore, one major way of giving to God is through offering ourselves to each other with equity and without favoritism. We must not separate Christ from his church. To say that we need God, but do not need the church is to really say that we do not need God because the two are inseparable. Nowhere in Holy Scripture do we find individual Christians doing their own thing, isolated from a committed group of people, the church.

When Jesus called people to follow him in service to God and a world in need, some gave him excuses that they were busy and had other pressing matters to attend to before they could follow him. Jesus simply left them and told them they were not fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:57-62)

When people were pre-occupied with building wealth, or gaining power, or jockeying for influence, Jesus told them to stop it, exercise some faith, and seek first the kingdom of God.  Build your treasure in heaven, Jesus said, because it will be permanent; and, not on earth where it is temporary. (Matthew 6:19-34)

Spiritual Gifts and Abilities

We are graced by God with abilities which God fully expects us to use. “Cheap grace” is merely embracing Christ as a personal Savior but not welcoming him as the Lord in whom we must sacrificially give our lives to service in the church and the world. Spiritual health and vitality cannot exist apart from every person using God’s given grace to contribute to the functioning of the Body of Christ. 

The list of spiritual gifts Paul provided is not exhaustive but represents a combination of speaking and serving gifts necessary to bless humanity. Paul exhorted the church not to restrain people’s service but let them go at using their spiritual gifts, full bore:

  • Speak what God has revealed. Prophets do not foretell the future. Rather, they have “inspired speech” from God that addresses what God’s people are to do in consideration of Scripture. 
  • Serving. Servants give themselves to all types of hands-on service. 
  • Teaching. Teachers instruct the faithful in all the revealed will of God. 
  • Encouraging others. Encouragers both speak and serve, coming alongside others and helping them to do something with both verbal coaching and tangible help. 
  • Sharing. Givers live a simple life so they can give generously and contribute to the needs of others. 
  • Leadership. Leaders get out in front and show the way in obtaining the will of God. 
  • Helping people in need. Helpers show mercy by seeing down-and-out hurting people and being a conduit of God’s grace to them.

There is no one person who possesses all these gifts. That’s why everyone must work together to have a spiritually healthy community. A spiritually toxic community is the inevitable result of only a few people using their giftedness.

To avoid relational toxicity, and embrace communal harmony, our minds need transformation through renewing practices of godly sacrifice, regular worship, pursuing unity, and becoming aware of our spiritual gifts.

Here’s three ways we can discover our gifts:

  1. Pay attention.  Every spiritual gift reflects God’s grace and character, and so, you will find joy and satisfaction in expressing it. Your spiritual gift will be a place of deep spiritual formation and growth in your life, as God uses it both to powerfully connect you spiritually and to expose areas of your soul that need forgiveness and redemption. 
  2. Try. Give it a whirl. Volunteer. Connect with a service or ministry or try doing what you feel might be something God wants you to do. Gifts are primarily discovered from others observing and affirming your gift and not so much by going through a research process. The encouragers among us will be happy to affirm the gifts of others.
  3. Develop. All spiritual gifts need growth, cultivation, and development. Paul told his young protégé, Timothy, to fan into flame the gift of God. (2 Timothy 1:6)

We will find our greatest delight in life through engaging in worship of God and service to others. That leads to a spiritually healthy Christian community that loves God, loves one another, and loves the world.

God of grace, stir up the spiritual gifts of your people. May the gifts your Holy Spirit has decided to give us be activated and used for your glory and the edification of others. May you grant peace and joy in churches everywhere so that no one will be jealous or covetous about anyone else’s gifts. May these gifts grow and develop in love so that the fruit of the Spirit will be truly manifested. May you receive all praise honor and glory through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

1 Corinthians 1:3-17 – Proclaim Good News

Jesus de Greatest, statue in Nigeria

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore, you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (New International Version)

The Apostle Paul clarified the foremost mission of Christianity to the Corinthian church: Preach the gospel. 

Everything else Paul did – from healing people to gathering offerings for others, and from making tents to journeying around the Mediterranean world – he did with the central focus and aim of proclaiming the good news of God’s grace in Christ.

Unfortunately, the Corinthian believers had lost sight of this urgent and needed imperative of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Instead, they hardened into opinionated groups. Disunity amongst them was rampant and rancid. In short, the church made secondary matters of first importance. So, Paul wrote to correct this situation, which had gotten completely out of hand.

The proclamation of the gospel in Word and Sacrament needs to be at the core of every church and every believer’s life. When it isn’t, there are factions, special-interest groups, and condescending attitudes which fill the vacuum left in the center.

There are some things, maybe most things, we can agree to disagree with. Yet, when it comes to the good news of forgiveness and grace in Christ, we are to be of one mind. It is imperative we agree together that the heart of Christian mission is the gospel.

Unity around the gospel won’t happen if everyone is listening to competing voices.

Some believers have their favorite pet preachers. They follow that person and listen to them. That’s fine – to a degree. Yet, problems will inevitably arise because some practices happening within a particular church or faith community may not sync with the pet preacher or teaching. And if several individuals have different folks they follow, it can get messy in a hurry.

Following one person over another, Paul insists, is not the real issue in Christianity. Rather, it’s proclaiming the gospel – and not some person or their ideas. Believers need to put a whole lot more energy into using their spiritual gifts, rather than putting a crown on some worm of a preacher.

People can disagree on a lot of things, and that’s okay. But, in the church, there ought always be agreement and unity in building ministry around the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Everyone in the church, without exception, has a role to fulfill, a gift to exercise, in proclaiming good news. For me, I enjoy teaching Scripture to unbelievers and answering their questions, as well as mentoring believers in the cardinal doctrines of faith and practice. 

Others proclaim the gospel through hospitality, or partnering with others, or even inviting people to events and bible studies. In all the myriad ways God has gifted us, whether it is in serving or speaking, we are to use that gift not to advance a personal agenda, but to preach the gospel.

In this season of the Epiphany, Christians celebrate that the gospel has come to Gentiles and not only Jews. The light shines on all people, not just some. Therefore, followers of Jesus are to let their light shine, as our Lord exhorted us:

“You are the light that shines for the world to see. You are like a city built on a hill that cannot be hidden. People don’t hide a lamp under a bowl. They put it on a lampstand. Then the light shines for everyone in the house. In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, ERV)

Blessed Father, Son, and Spirit, you are One God, perfectly united and in continual harmony. You have loved humanity to such a degree that you orchestrated a great deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Help your entire church to resolve petty differences and fix a gaze firmly and graciously on proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus, our Lord. Amen.