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.

Acts 7:44-53 – Don’t Be a Church Curmudgeon

Muppets Statler and Waldorf

“Our ancestors carried the Tabernacle with them through the wilderness. It was constructed according to the plan God had shown to Moses. Years later, when Joshua led our ancestors in battle against the nations that God drove out of this land, the Tabernacle was taken with them into their new territory. And it stayed there until the time of King David.

“David found favor with God and asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who actually built it.However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says,

‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?’
    asks the Lord.
‘Could you build me such a resting place?
    Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’

“You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (New Living Translation)

On this eleventh day in the twelve days of the Christmas season, perhaps there are people who have moved on from the yearly celebration to daily complaints. A big reason why I personally hold to the Christian Calendar with its liturgical seasons is that it helps shape me spiritually so that I can avoid being a cranky old church curmudgeon.

It seems like some believers have been baptized in pickle juice. They have something negative to say about everything. And even when they acknowledge they don’t really understand something, they’ll still give a stony faced retort of “I’m against it.”

The liturgical calendar, when properly observed, keeps us grounded in faith, hope, and love. There are plenty of things in this old fallen world which can take our eyes off our calling as Christians. Pandemics, politics, poverty, and pain can mess with us. If we aren’t on solid spiritual ground, all the misfortunes of this life can take a significant toll on us. Then, like a stubborn old mule, we just sit down and don’t budge.

Like the ancient Israelites for whom Stephen railed against in our New Testament lesson for today, we might become hard-headed, and inflexible. We get lost in doing things our own way to the neglect of what God wants. 

Whenever that happens, there is damage to God’s people, God’s name, and God’s law. Rather than tongues being used for praising the Lord and encouraging others, God’s prophets who are calling us to holiness are verbally decapitated. Ironically, those who speak and act in the name of the Lord are resisting him.

“Pettiness of mind, ignorance and presumption are the cause of stubbornness, because stubborn people only want to believe what they themselves can imagine, and they can imagine very few things.”

Madeleine de Souvre

Anytime someone believes they have piously figured out everything, they will soon find themselves fighting against God. The Lord of All has not called us to figure out every mystery and nail down each uncertainty. Those who claim to have done it are living in a delusional world. Perhaps they will eventually discover how large and immense God really is – much bigger than our puny thoughts and misguided practices. 

How then shall we live?

Quit digging your heals in.

Let go of your illusions of power and privilege. Walking around like you’re King Lactose the Intolerant only looks weird and causes too many trips to the bathroom.

Submit afresh to the Lord for whom we must bow in all things. If we can do that, then we are well on our way to seeing the only true God in all his immensity. Humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and set aside self-righteous pride so that he may exalt and honor us at the appropriate time of his choosing, not ours (1 Peter 5:6).

Take up our holy calling as Christ’s ambassadors, having become new people and knowing the reconciling power of the cross, through the proper spiritual tools of faith, hope, and love (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; 1 Corinthians 13).

The following practices can help us become more spiritually flexible and open to the Spirit’s work:

  • Stretch. If we are rarely or never in positions which work our faith, then that faith will diminish and eventually atrophy. Faith is not static, but dynamic. It needs to be worked ands stretched. And your face won’t break if you crack a smile now and then.
  • Breathe. Fear, worry, and anxiety cause us to have shallow breathing and unable to think straight. When we are amped-up about something, focus on doing some breath prayers, i.e., breathing in saying, “More of you,” and breathing out saying, “Less of me.”
  • Relax. A hyperextended faith will not support extreme positions which alienate people and put God to the test. Some folks just need to get off their high horse before God knocks them off. Nobody is helped by another’s forced beliefs.
  • Move. Faith is mostly lived in the mundane daily decisions of life. Consistently taking small steps of faith each day will go a long way toward our spiritual health and vitality – not to mention helping us see a big God at work.
  • Listen. Two ears. One mouth. Get the clue. Many people would be better served if they would just listen rather than incessantly talking. Behind all the bluster is typically an issue of wanting the kind of control God possesses.

To do the will of God, we must have a growing awareness and knowledge of a big unlimited God, and a small, limited self. This will take loosening up on the stubbornness and opening to greater flexibility.

If you are not in the habit of following the Christian Calendar through the year, now is a good time to start. After all, nobody wants to smell like they just crawled out of a pickle barrel.

Holy God, heaven is your throne and the earth your footstool. You cannot be kept within any one church or any single place.  You are much too big for that!  Forgive me for my small thoughts of you and my weak faith. I humble myself before you so that you can live in and through me for the sake of Jesus. Amen.

Nehemiah 9:26-31 – Judgment and Grace

“Repentance of the People” by German painter Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

But despite all this [God’s blessings] they were disobedient and rebelled against you. They turned their backs on your Law, they killed your prophets who warned them to return to you, and they committed terrible blasphemies. So, you handed them over to their enemies, who made them suffer. But in their time of trouble, they cried to you, and you heard them from heaven. In your great mercy, you sent them liberators who rescued them from their enemies.

But as soon as they were at peace, your people again committed evil in your sight, and once more you let their enemies conquer them. Yet whenever your people turned and cried to you again for help, you listened once more from heaven. In your wonderful mercy, you rescued them many times!

You warned them to return to your Law, but they became proud and obstinate and disobeyed your commands. They did not follow your regulations, by which people will find life if only they obey. They stubbornly turned their backs on you and refused to listen. In your love, you were patient with them for many years. You sent your Spirit, who warned them through the prophets. But still, they wouldn’t listen! So once again you allowed the peoples of the land to conquer them. But in your great mercy, you did not destroy them completely or abandon them forever. What a gracious and merciful God you are! (New Living Translation)

Much of the Old Testament is a rhythmic pattern of God’s judgment and grace. The storyline often goes something like this: 

God makes promises and gives commands. 

People get stubborn, refuse to listen, and disobey. 

God responds with judgment. 

People cry out in their distress.

God gives grace and fulfills divine promises. 

People enjoy, then get stubborn again…. 

The promise of God always involves judgment and grace. Proclaiming only a message of judgment without grace brings despair, death, and hell; there is no hope. Speaking only of grace apart from judgment is oxymoronic – it doesn’t exist because there is no need for grace if there is no judgment; grace is an undeserved mercy given freely by God in the face of our stubborn obstinate selves.

Nehemiah chapter nine is a beautiful prayer of confession. Having heard the Word of God proclaimed, the people released their obstinacy; they realized exile occurred because of their own stubborn refusal to listen to God. So, they repented. 

“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

C.S. Lewis

The ancient Jewish people acknowledged their checkered past of ignoring God’s prophets, and they bellied-up and took ownership of their past choices. And God was faithful. Even though the city of Jerusalem had been overtaken and the people sent into exile, God brought them back and the broken wall was rebuilt.

It’s never too late to turn from a past filled with poor decisions, broken relationships, and spiritual disobedience. The time of confession is available, and the time is now. God’s grace always overwhelms our dubious past. 

The appropriate response to today’s Old Testament lesson is to spend some time in confession to God. This chapter, along with Nehemiah chapter one, are good places to begin with understanding just what to say to God. 

For the Christian, confession ought always to conclude with accepting the grace available to us in Christ. 

Today is a new day and a new Christian Year. Let it be a life with the love of Jesus implanted in your heart. As we enter the Advent season, allow that love of Christ to gestate within your soul. Anticipate the birth. Look forward to the Nativity. Long for Christmas and the inbreaking of God to this earth.

Holy Lord, in this time of Advent, we confess we often are distracted by the season’s busyness, by the stress of commitment, and even by putting our own traditions ahead of the true meaning of Christmas. We confess we also often prefer being sentimental to being sacrificial.

Forgive us for all the times we have missed seeing You in our midst, for all the times we have doubted Your presence, and for all the times we have failed to hold the holidays as holy days. Pour peace into our lives and let us be bearers of Your peace to others. Remind us that this is a season of waiting and preparation for the greatest Gift of all. In the holy Name of our Savior, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

Acts 7:44-53 – God is God, and I Am Not

throne of heaven

The tent of testimony was with our ancestors in the wilderness. Moses built it just as he had been instructed by the one who spoke to him and according to the pattern he had seen. In time, when they had received the tent, our ancestors carried it with them when, under Joshua’s leadership, they took possession of the land from the nations whom God expelled. This tent remained in the land until the time of David. God approved of David, who asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for God. However, the Most High does not live in houses built by human hands. As the prophet says,

Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
‘What kind of house will you build for me,’ says the Lord,
‘or where is my resting place?
Didn’t I make all these things with my own hand?’

“You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. Was there a single prophet your ancestors did not harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you have betrayed and murdered him! You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.” (CEB)

In the doldrums of summer’s heat and humidity and the uncertainties of what is to come in the autumn season, it is a good time to remind ourselves of where we are in the Christian Year. When a long and difficult season comes upon us, whether in secular or sacred time, it may be far too easy to lose sight of what is important.  We have come through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, as well as Pentecost.  With the giving of the Spirit, we have entered Ordinary Time.  A healthy way of remembering this period in time is that, in this longest season of the Church Calendar, it is the ordinary vocation of each Christian and every Church to grow in Christ and share the good news of Jesus with the world.

Yet, we forget. The vicissitudes of this life and a penchant for hand wringing can easily take our eyes off our calling from the sovereign God.  Like the ancient Israelites for whom Stephen railed against in our New Testament lesson for today, we might become stubborn, hard-headed, and inflexible. We get lost in doing things our own way to the neglect of what God wants. When that happens, there is damage to God’s people, God’s name, and God’s law. Rather than tongues being used for praising the Lord and encouraging others, God’s prophets who are calling us to holiness are verbally decapitated. Ironically, those who speak and act in the name of the Lord are resisting him.

Every time individuals and groups of people believe they have piously figured everything out, they will soon find themselves fighting against God. The Lord of All has not called us to figure out every mystery and nail down each uncertainty. Those who claim to have done it are living in a delusional world. Perhaps they will eventually discover how large and immense God really is – much bigger than our puny thoughts and misguided practices.

Village Church

How then shall we live? What are we to do?  Let go of our illusions of power and privilege. Submit afresh to the Lord for whom we must bow in all things. If we can do that, then we are well on our way to seeing the only true God in all his immensity. Humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and set aside self-righteous pride so that he may exalt and honor us at the appropriate time of his choosing, not ours (1 Peter 5:6). Take up our holy calling as Christ’s ambassadors, having become new people and knowing the reconciling power of the cross, through the proper spiritual tools of faith, hope, and love (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; 1 Corinthians 13).

The following practices can help us become more spiritually flexible and open to the Spirit’s work:

  • Stretch your faith muscle. Physical muscles which get little to no use will atrophy – which is why people who are confined to bed or with limitations need physical therapists to help work the muscles. Spiritually, if we are rarely or never in positions which work our faith muscle, then that faith will diminish and eventually atrophy. Faith is not static, but dynamic. It needs to be worked.
  • Breathe deeply. Proper breathing is essential in using our bodies. The same is true spiritually. Fear, worry, and anxiety cause us to have shallow breathing and unable to think straight. When we are amped-up about something, focus on doing some breath prayers, i.e. breathing in saying, “More of you,” and breathing out saying, “Less of me.”
  • Avoid extreme positions. A hyper-extended muscle will tear and cause a lot of damage. An acceptance of limitations and an awareness of our body’s true capacity prevents us from trying to do something our body simply cannot do. Our faith will not support extreme positions which alienate people and put God to the test.
  • Move more. Getting in bodily shape does not have to be dramatic and involve triathlons (but, hey, if you can work your way up to it, more power to you!). Most of us simply need to get out of our chairs and move a bit more and we would be a lot healthier. Faith is mostly lived in the mundane daily decisions of life. Consistently taking small steps of faith each day will go a long way toward our spiritual health and vitality – not to mention helping us see a big God at work.
  • Listen, do not ignore. It is always best to listen to your body— only push it as far as it can handle, even if it is little by little. Many people would be better served if they would just listen to their gut and the spirit God put within them – rather than pushing themselves and others beyond what they can handle. Behind the attempt at doing too much is typically an issue of wanting the kind of control God possesses.

To do the will of God, we must have a growing awareness and knowledge of a huge unlimited God and a small limited self. This will take loosening up on the stubbornness and opening to greater flexibility. In doing so, we bless both God and the world, while discovering our true calling. And, we might just discover the largeness of grace operating in our lives.

Holy God, heaven is your throne and the earth your footstool.  You cannot be kept within any one church or any single place.  You are much too big for that!  Forgive me for my small thoughts of you and my weak faith.  I humble myself before you so that you can live in and through me for the sake of Jesus.  Amen.