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Preacher: Canon Peter Collier QC, Cathedral Reader
Date: 15th January 2023 4pm
Readings: Psalm 96; Ezekiel 2:1 – 3:4; Galatians 1:11 – end
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
“Don’t be afraid of them; don’t be afraid of their words and don’t be dismayed at their looks”.
When Ezekiel heard those words he was 30 years old. It was the year he should have been ordained as a priest in the temple at Jerusalem if things had gone according to plan.
His personal back story was that he had been born in the reign of King Josiah – that great reforming King of Judah – you may recall that it was in his reign that the law had been rediscovered and put back at the centre of national life. That was just a couple of years before Ezekiel was born.
So he grew up in that atmosphere as a child and as a teenager. And we can perhaps imagine something of his growing anticipation of the day when he would himself begin to play a significant role in the rituals and worship of his people. His was going to be an honoured place – there would have been no doubt about that.
But when he was sixteen Josiah died and things started to change yet again.
This time God shifted from being at the centre of people’s lives.
Obedience to God’s law began to slip and to slide.
And that had an impact on people’s thinking, their conversations and their behaviour.
The poor and needy became oppressed so that the wealthy might have an even better standard of living – the much improved king’s palace was a sight to behold, but built on forced labour. Pagan cults began to arise again. And they looked for security in national alliances rather than putting their trust in God alone.
And then when Ezekiel was 25 years old, all his hopes and expectations came to a juddering halt.
Because he along with all the leading people of Judah were taken far from their homes in Jerusalem into exile. Somewhere in the middle of what we now call Iraq was where they ended up. And there he spent the next 5 years in a slave labour camp digging irrigation channels beside the river Chebar.
We cannot really begin to imagine what that change in fortune would have meant for him, let alone imagine what would have been filling his head day after day and night after night.
His future role in the temple could no longer happen. Any role as a priest would be a shadow of what it should have been. The future was now just a gaping hole of uncertainty. Anxiety would undoubtedly be affecting him on a daily basis. And at times that anxiety would turn to fear.
And it would all be fuelled by the talk of people around him asking why this had all happened. After all they were supposed to be a special people, God’s people.
And some began to talk up a confidence that God would soon restore to them all that was rightfully theirs – though there was little sign of that happening; and the Eeyores among them were saying “it’s only going to get worse”.
And Ezekiel would have been soaking all that up. After all, why should he think any differently from all those he shared his life with day by day? I am sure that groupthink was as real then as it is today. You can perhaps imagine the equivalent of the BBC reporters going out with their microphones to collect the vox pop from the streets of Tel-abib and giving us the opinion poll readings – probably then as ever 52/48.
And it was in that atmosphere that Ezekiel had spent these last 5 years – the years that should have been the lead in to his becoming a fully-fledged priest.
But now as he reached the age of 30 he has a remarkable experience.
The background to both our readings this afternoon describe similar extraordinary experiences for Ezekiel and Saul. Each of them had life changing experiences.
Each was stopped in his tracks;
Each saw a great light;
Each fell down;
And God spoke to each telling him to get up and to go forward into a new and quite unexpected line of service for God.
We are going to stay for the next few minutes with Ezekiel, although you may over the next day or so want to reflect on Saul’s experience as well.
The outcome of this experience for Ezekiel was that he was told to go to his people and speak to them the message that God would give him.
It was to be quite a task – God would in due course tell him not just to deliver a message in words, which would be hard enough given its content, but also to use dramatic visual aids and to act things out so as to drive that message home. This was something that would leave him very exposed to people.
And it was made clear to Ezekiel that people would not welcome that message.
So he was told – Don’t be afraid of them; don’t be afraid of their words and don’t be dismayed at their looks.
It is not difficult to imagine those words:
“Uh oh, here he comes – the God botherer;”
“Who does he think he is?”
“Keep that religious stuff for the temple, if you ever get there;”
“Politics is for us leaders not for you priests.”
But one more thing God does there in the mud is he gives Ezekiel a scroll with bitter words written on it, which when he eats it turns out to be as sweet as honey in his mouth.
This was to encourage Ezekiel to deliver this unpopular message because bitter as it might sound, when he chewed on it and internalised it and it became part of him it proved to be as sweet as honey.
I guess for many if not all of us, although we have not been digging irrigation canals beside the Chebar, things are not quite as we might have expected them to be 5 years ago.
It is after all what happens in life – it may be a bereavement, illness, loss of a job, some trouble in the family – experiences that turn everything upside down. All our expectations suddenly ended – and we are asking: where do we go from here?”
But above those personal experiences; as a people and a nation we seem to have inflicted one blow after another upon ourselves in recent years, and on top of what might be seen as self-inflicted blows we have had other blows fall as well, particularly the impact of the pandemic.
Now for us the future looks bleak in the immediate future in terms of rising prices, of fuel and of food. And on top of the cost of living, there are huge anxieties in relation to health care, social care as and when we might need it, or when our relatives need it, and for those of us fortunate enough to not feel particularly at risk on those fronts, our public services seem generally pretty broken.
And like Ezekiel we hear the conversations going on around us just as he did.
It’s not just the conversations we hear. It is the newspapers we read and the TV and radio we watch and listen to.
Like the people of Judah we can be pretty good at pointing the finger at others – it’s the other voters, it’s the politicians, the union leaders, the immigrants, the media, social media ….. and so the list goes on.
And all of this shapes our thinking and our conversations day by day.
So, where is the voice of God in all this for us?
Although I wouldn’t rule it out the possibility of flashing lights and a voice from heaven they are probably unlikely for most of us.
Perhaps for us this afternoon the lesson is in the scroll that Ezekiel took from God’s hand and ate.
There is something here about internalising what God says, whatever that may be. For Ezekiel it was the bitter words of lamentation and woe that he was going to have to speak to the people. And literally by chewing on them he discovered in reality they were as sweet as honey.
What is the equivalent for us? God does speak to us – God can speak in many ways, but particularly we hear God when we read the bible, and when we hear people preach about God’s word – and sometimes what we hear and read is hard stuff. Sometimes we say we are challenged by what we read or what we heard. We talk about chewing things over. And as we do that, what might on its face look hard and difficult begins to taste sweet as we find it to be true and right. And as we begin to agree with God and bit by bit to change our lives to become more like God so we experience God’s word as sweet not bitter. It’s always in the context of God speaking to us that God loves us and accepts us, as we are, with all our disappointments, with all our confusions, so we can come without fear in the words of the collect to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the word of God.
And as we do that who knows what unexpected avenues of service will open up for each of us.
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