Very often we hear of, and pray for missionaries. Although most of us are aware of the many and varied nature of missionary work the image it conjures up in our mind is always fairly similar. Some isolated person (usually female!) or a couple living in a mud hut eating lentils surrounded by hoards of smiling children all itching to learn their memory verses. Certainly, most missionary prayer meetings, including our own will focus on the mission field, by which we invariably mean somewhere abroad.
I would like to suggest to you this evening that although mud huts in deepest Africa may represent a mission field they do not give us the definition of mission.
I believe that mission is reasonably defined by fifth word of verse 5. Sent. Very often we refer to our calling, I prefer to think of our sending. We do not necessary go where the people want us, we go where the Lord sends us. In verse 5 Ezekiel is told he is not being sent to people of strange or hard speech. The Hebrew literally means 'of deep lip or heavy tongue'. At first sight, and many of us would assume, this means Ezekiel is being given the easy option. He still has his family around, he knows the terrain, most of the home comforts will still be available.
The first clue we get that Ezekiel may not be in clover comes from a subtle shift of language in verse 6. Not to many people of a strange speech. The first disappointment Ezekiel is going to face will come numerically. Not for Ezekiel the crowding throngs, Ezekiel's work was of national importance yet much of it happened within the confines of his garden. The ones and twos. The next is more subtle whose words thou canst not understand. You would have thought that being able to understand the society you are in was a good thing. But is it? How much of what we hear and what we understand from being locals actually does us any good. The real blow comes at the end of the verse, had I sent thee to them, they would have hearkened unto thee. The hardest thing Ezekiel had to face was the indifference of his mission field.
The point is driven home in verse 7, the house Israel will not listen to Ezekiel because they will not listen unto God. Why? Because they are impudent and hard-hearted. I personally believe that Britain is one of the toughest mission fields currently around. There are very few physical hard-ships, little or no persecution, and an abundance of resource materials. The people are relatively literate and most people speak their language. Throughout the land there are preaching points and churches with a history of great Glory to God. That is what makes it so tough. Looking upon the material things mission in this country should be a cake-walk, but the people are so hard and we are so lethargic. There is nothing like a two mile walk to a water hole first thing in the morning to remind you that you are a missionary. We don't get that, we can just trundle from one day to the next without giving our mission a second thought.
Verse 8: Note that God makes two things strong, the face and the forehead. The emotions and the mind. We should not fool ourselves into thinking the two are the same. Some of us can be mentally tough yet emotionally we loose the will to progress. Some of us have the will but allow ourselves to become sloppy in our thought processes. Note too, the face is strong, the forehead is hard. The face is not hard. We have to be careful that we don't confuse the two. Someone who is strong emotionally can still be very soft. People who are cold and hard emotionally are usually those who are weak.
Verse 9: The word adamant is strange, it is also used of a thorn bush. I suspect the point is that it isn't just hard, it is sharp. A cutting edge if you like. One of the problems of living in your own culture is that very quickly you learn to make the assumptions that the people around you do. I'll give you a tiny (but contentious) example. We all believe in God given democracy. But where in the Bible do we actually find God giving us democracy? Theocracy certainly. Monarchy was given, albeit with a warning. I think you will find democracy is predicted in Daniel, the statue descends from Gold at the top down into Iron and Clay, where Iron represents government, and clay the will of the people.
Verse 10: Two little points to make. First it is all of his words. Ezekiel was not to pick and choose the bits he thought people would most like to hear or that were most entertaining. Secondly we have an interesting reversal. Receive in thine heart, and hear with thine ears. We would tend to think of it the other way around. Hear with your ears and then receive. I think the reversal shows us one of the main barriers to hearing, receive. Suppose you turn up expecting to be spoken to, wanting to hear what is being said. How often do you suppose your mind will wander? Suppose however that you are out of tune with the Spirit, you really want to do your thing, your way. What better idea than simply to switch off.
Verse 11: Finally in this section, go get thee to them of the captivity. This phrase shows us a very important point, the first move really has to come from us. To them of the captivity. We say, quite rightly, that Satan has blinded the eyes of the unsaved. We say that they are slaves to sin. Then we wonder why they don't come in to hear the Gospel. Unto the children of thy people. This needn't mean to juniors, but it does mean to those of your kith and kin. We shall see towards the end of the chapter that we are called, or better sent, to uphold truth to those who are around us. That means in our Gospel hall, but also in our road, and importantly, in our houses.
Verse 12: For me, there is always one acid test of any commission, activity or thought. Is it designed to bring Glory to God. Ezekiels reaction to the preceding verses was interesting. The Spirit lifted him up and he heard Blessed be the glory of the Lord, from his place. Then in verse 13 the chariot moves off, the vision departs, and Ezekiel is left to work out his response.
Before we look at verses 14 & 15 let us just pause and ask ourselves, what is our response to our work here is Clacton. Do we see ourselves as missionaries to Clacton? Or are we really just here to eke out our existence until we are called to greater things? How do we react to disappointments, do we take them personally or do we see them as a rejection of God? Or have we got so used to disappointment that we don't even expect to see God moving. Perhaps our foreheads are as hard as flint but have our emotions become hardened too?
Verse 14: Here I part company from the older (and sweeter) commentators. The traditional line here is that Ezekiel shared in God's wrath and the hardness of Israel and that he is showing symbolically the attitude of God. With this reading the hand of the Lord was strong upon me shows God comforting Ezekiel. Whilst I can see the argument I think there is a much simpler reading which fits in rather better with the vision Ezekiel then gets.
I don't think Ezekiel was bitter and heated at the Israelites, I think he was bitter and heated at God. Just look at the position he has been put in. He spent the first 25 years of his life training to be a priest, he is wrenched from his home and exiled. Five years later he sees a sign that God is going to move, a great vision from heaven, then he is told what he is going to do. Spend the next thirty years banging his head against a brick wall. That is what it means, As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead. I am sure that Ezekiel was more than happy to be a mouth piece for God, but to know beforehand that the visible results would be negligible? I think the hand of the Lord becomes quite clear. It was convicting Ezekiel of his calling. On the one hand, Ezekiel had seen the glory, he knew what he had to do, but it just seemed so hard. I think this also explains verse 15. Ezekiel had this tremendous inner turmoil, the Glory of God on the one hand and his own desire for some form of life and reward on the other.
Verse 16: A beautiful feature here, particularly if my interpretation of verses 14 & 15 is correct is that the next movement comes from God. Our God is a holy God, but he has chosen not to be an isolated God. We have seen in these past weeks the great throne carried by the four Cherubim yet in these particular verses God speaks to Ezekiel whilst he is sat by the captives in Tel-Abib.
Verse 17: Here we get a recurrent theme, particularly in prophetic literature, most famously in Habakkuk. 'The watchman' a fairly meaningless term today but in the days of walled towns and fenced villages a well known expression. Somebody had to be awake and alert at all times to see when the enemy, or in this case the judgement, was going to strike. A watchman needed two qualities, acuteness of sense is one, a loud voice was the other. We get both of these in verse 17, hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. I believe that the assemblies in this country have a peculiar commission to be watchmen. We pride ourselves on our biblical basis, doctrine and application. We would claim to have a reasonable understanding of the physical out-workings of the prophecies contained within scripture. But are we sounding the warnings? We may have developed our senses so that we can discern this problem from that problem, we may have developed our intellect so that we can foresee and predict the next move without any outside help, but if we're not sounding the alarm loud and clear then we are fundamentally falling short in our duty. But so what?
Verse 18: Here we are dealing with the Gospel, the word to the wicked. The message from God is that he shall surely die. Now, let us pick this apart carefully. If the watchman, us, does not give the warning the wicked man will die, not because of us, but because of his iniquity. But his blood will I require at thine hand. This fascinating expression is the one used in the law in the case of manslaughter. What the Americans would call second degree murder. Watching someone die when you have the power to attempt to help them is viewed most severely by our God. So the next time someone talks about 'their partner', and you know full well that what they mean is they are living in sin, and you choose to keep quiet, you have become an accessory to the act.
This raises an interesting old chestnut, the judgement of the believer. We are of course told in Romans 8 that there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus although fewer of us quote the rest of the verse which actually goes on who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit. I would suggest however that this refers to those things we do wrong, our sin (and sins) are taken away. But there is still a judgement (or assessment if you prefer) of those things we have down right. 1 Cor 3 gives an interesting insight into this. You'll need to read it yourselves, I will quote a little of verse 15 if any man's work shall be burned he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
We must tweak one doctrine simply to support another. I believe totally in the eternal security of the believer, we cannot be lost, but I also believe that our actions down here on earth will be weighed and will materially alter our position in heaven. And watchmen that don't warn will get a very low position.
Verse 19: This gives us the most important marker if we can grasp it. Ezekiel was being told that he was not being measured by the number of people who take notice of him, but by the number of people he warns, or better yet by the percentage of people he tells. How many opportunities do we let go to explain the gospel. <Sigh> I never get opportunities. Really? You haven't spoken to a single unsaved person all year? Or just the opportunities you had would have made you feel too awkward.
Verse 20: In reading this verse we need to remember that we are in the old testament. The term righteous man refers to someone righteous within himself. In the New Testament Christians are not made righteous, we are accounted righteous, so we cannot fall. I do think this gives us a point to consider though. Many of us have friends, children, maybe parents who are accounted righteous. They are saved. Thank God for it. Yet many of them, if we believe biblical doctrines, have fallen over stone after stone, what do we do about it.
It is all too easy to say "they worship God their way, I do it mine". That isn't ok. The question is who is worshipping God, Gods way. If you really believe the things you hear from this platform, and I don't just mean from me, then some of the Christians in this country, and in our families, need warning just as much as the unsaved.
Sometimes we hear about Protestantism, and we all say how marvellous the addresses are. But do we actually believe it? Just about every single church in Clacton, except this one, is part of the "Churches Together", including the Catholics. The baptist churches in Clacton have an acceptance of ecumenism, and thus catholic doctrine written into their trust deeds. Their ministers and the catholic priests are in the same fraternal.
Different tack. How about the Toronto blessing. Falling to the floor and cackling like hyenas. From God or from the Devil? In this country it actually comes from Holy Trinity Brompton. So what? That is exactly the same place that the Alpha course comes from. Central to the alpha course is the 'Holy Spirit Weekend'. Do you believe God is the creator? Are you aware than Alpha chooses not to mention the fact?
But what does all this have to do with us? We don't have those things here? No, but for many of us our relations do. I'm speaking from experience. My dad is the alpha co-ordinator at Holland Baptist. It is so easy just to keep quiet. But if we keep quiet who is to blame as the churches slide downhill into a world-wide false church. Well says verse 20, we are. I challenge you this Christmas, as we gather with our families to celebrate the Catholic mutation of a pagan festival, how many of us are actually going to take this opportunity to live, and tell what we really believe.
I wonder what effect the challenge of the watchman has upon you. It is a passage that has often kept me going when I wanted to stop, certainly when others wanted me to stop. I believe the effect on Ezekiel was electric. From verse 22 onwards we see, I believe, Ezekiel raring to go, and then we see the constraints placed upon him. First Ezekiel is taken into the plane and shown the Glory of God. Not the mountain. We often think of God revealing himself in spiritual highs, but sometimes he speaks at his clearest when we are low. If you feel low, on a plain, then look up, God may just have a vision for you.
Verse 24: Then the spirit came an announced where Ezekiel was to go, to his house. Not to a foreign land or a strange place, simply to his house. Verse 25 may suggest some form of house arrest, I suspect however that the bands were metaphoric. Ezekiel would be constricted not just by his four walls but by form and convention. The rules of our nation may permit free speech but the conventions of the people we mix with usually do not.
Verse 26 & 27 often confuse people, is Ezekiel able to speak or not. I suspect he can speak but that he can only speak the words the Lord gives him. Social pleasantries and chit-chat are out, if Ezekiel speaks you know it is a word from God. I wonder to what extent this is true of us. As we later gather around after the meeting and then go to our homes, let us remember that we are missionaries. We don't have to walk two miles for our water, we probably know where our next meal is coming from, and it is probably bigger than it needs to be. Be we have still been sent by the Almighty God to be ambassadors of his Son. At this time of year when our interaction with friends and families is higher than it might otherwise be, let us be watchmen. In New Testament language, let us be salt. If salt has lots its flavour it is fit for nothing but to be trodden underfoot. Tired of being downtrodden? Then this season let our families have a new seasoning with their turkeys. Us.