Lectionary 14B, July 8, 2018
Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I read the Ezekiel reading right next to the Mark reading, a question occurred to me. God tells the Ezekiel that the people of Israel are a rebellious people, that they probably won’t listen, but to go there and prophesy anyway. And in Mark, Jesus goes to his hometown—to the people who know him best—but they don’t see him as anything special. They don’t see him as a prophet, or a teacher sent from God, and they certainly don’t see him as God’s Son. They’ve known him his whole life, they take him for granted, and that knowledge gets in the way of seeing him for who he truly is, and it gets in the way of hearing his message of forgiveness and grace and healing. They are so sure they know who he is that they are offended when he steps out of the neat little box they’ve put him in. By refusing to see God when he steps out in front of them, they are rebelling against God. But if you had told them that, if you had explained that their ideas about Jesus and about God were mistaken, they would have been even more offended. They believed themselves to be faithful followers of God who were doing exactly what God had called and commanded them to do, and that belief was so strong that when God stood in front of them in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, they did not believe it, and they were offended by it.
So my question is, what about the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day? Did they know they were rebellious? Did they believe it when God’s prophets told them? Or did they honestly believe that they were doing exactly what God wanted them to do? Did they have an idea of who God was and what God wanted that was so inflexible that when God called them to something different they disregarded it? Had they convinced themselves that their own ideas and desires came from God? Did they twist God’s word to fit their own prejudices and assumptions, and then assume that everything they did was according to God’s Word? Is that why they are so stubborn, because they have convinced themselves that God could only say things to them that fit their preconceived ideas about God?
Which brings me to my next question: what about us, here, now, today? Because we do that, too. We all have ideas about God, and all too often I see people ignore the work of God in their midst because it doesn’t fit with what they expect God to be doing. We let our prejudices and our pre-conceived ideas blind us to God’s Word, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to Christ. We are formed by the world, and then fit God into the spaces the world leaves, and think that tiny box we’ve shoved God into truly reflects our Lord and Savior. We create God in our own image, instead of the other way around. That may be most obvious with the “cultural Christians,” the ones who only show up Christmas and Easter and never crack their Bibles open, but I have seen committed, faithful people who are in church every Sunday do it, too. And I know you have all seen people do this, too, although you may not always recognize it for what it is. I bet most of us here have done it at least once, because it is very tempting, quick and easy, requiring no growth or change on our part. And, you know, it’s a lot easier to see when other people are doing it than when we ourselves are. Liberals notice it right away when conservatives do it, and conservatives notice it right away when liberals do it, but almost nobody notices when they themselves do it. And when we see people we disagree with doing this, it is really easy to point it out, or even to attack them. Our society encourages us to attack people we disagree with. And when other people point out that we ourselves might be wrong, all too often we respond by treating it as an attack and hitting back, instead of stopping and asking, prayerfully and with an open heart and mind, if we are wrong.
Which then brings me to the next question: how do we stop doing it? How do we stop being rebellious and impudent and offended by a God who doesn’t do what we expect? Because if there is one thing we can learn from the Bible, God is constantly surprising people. God surprised Abraham and Sarah when God called them out of their comfortable life back home in Ur and told them to wander, and God would give them a child in their own age and land to their descendants. God surprised them so much that Sarah laughed at him when God told them. God surprised Moses when he spoke to him out of the burning bush and told him to go back to the land he had fled from and set the Israelites free from slavery. God surprised Samuel when God told him to anoint David the shepherd boy as the next king of Israel. God surprised Israel when God punished them for their sins by allowing the Babylonians to conquer them, and God surprised the Jewish people again when God set them free to return home again from the exile. God surprised Mary when God chose her to bear God’s Son, and God surprised the disciples when God raised Jesus from the dead. God surprised the disciples again when God gave them the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and sent them out to speak in new languages to spread the Good News, and God surprised Paul when God called him to stop persecuting Christians and become one. God surprised Peter when God told him that the new Gentile followers of Jesus didn’t have to become Jewish in order to be Christians.
In fact, I can’t think of a single time in the Bible when God did something and it was exactly what everyone expected. Even if some people had anticipated it, usually most people hadn’t, and even the people who did anticipate it usually got things wrong somewhere along the line. So maybe that’s a good place to start. When we think that you understand God, when we only see God doing things that we expect God to do … we are probably missing something, at the very least. We know that God is present, at work in the world. We know God is working for justice, peace, mercy, freedom from oppression, salvation, and reconciliation, because God has told us this many times throughout scripture. What we don’t know is what that’s going to look like. And the other thing we know from Scripture is that we are going to find it surprising, sometimes even shocking, at least some of the time. And sometimes God’s actions will be so far outside what we expect of God that we are going to want to deny that it could possibly be God. We’re going to want to be rebellious, impudent, stubborn, and offended.
Here’s some rough guidelines to follow: the most common description of God in the Old Testament is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” In the New Testament, we are told repeatedly that God is love, that love is the core of God’s very nature. We’re also told repeatedly that God’s desire is for salvation, healing, for reconciliation—not just reconciling people to God, but reconciling people to one another. Healing the wounds between people so that we can live together in harmony. God gets angry, of course, but when you look at what makes God angry it’s pretty much always that human beings are hurting one another. Just like any loving parent would get upset if one of their children hurt another.
So here’s my rule of thumb: if we see something happening and there is reconciliation happening, or a deep and pure love winning out over hatred and fear, God is probably involved somewhere. If we see healing going on, or mercy, God is probably involved somewhere. Even if it’s weird and strange to me, not somewhere I would ever expect to find God, I know there is a good chance he’s there somewhere. If, on the other hand, there is hate and abuse, God is probably not involved. If there are growing divisions and fears, if people are becoming more isolated or cruel or aggressive, then God is probably not present, even if people are using Bible quotes to justify themselves or claiming it’s God’s will.
Because of this, I try my hardest to work for healing, for reconciliation, and for understanding between people. I try to spread love instead of fear or anxiety. I try to point out the places in the world where there is abuse or injustice, and work for justice, equality, and healing. This is not to say that I always succeed, or even that I always figure out the right thing. But I do try, because I know that God will probably be there somewhere. And I know that it’s not always going to be obvious, that sometimes it’s going to be surprising. I know that I’m going to get things wrong sometimes, because we all get things wrong sometimes. But I also know that the God who created us loves us still, even when we are rebellious and stubborn and impudent and offended. God’s love is so deep that it will never let us go. God forgives us even when we fall short, even when we can’t see—or don’t allow ourselves to see—what God is doing. Thanks be to God for that love and forgiveness.