September 6, 2020 Ezekiel 33:7-11, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Tell and Show!
What would you do if you were to live in a world where there is murder, idolatry, economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things and immorality? Many of you may say: “Well, we do live in such a world!” And you are right! We do live in a world that sometimes seems pretty messed up! Another shocking week went by as we heard about senseless murders, violence, discord and immoral revelations about a conservative Christian leader. Watching the news, local, national and international news nowadays is not for the faint of heart!
We used to think that you have to look at other parts of the world to see economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things, violence and immorality. Not anymore! These things happen right here in our own country, in NY state and even our own town.
But you have not answered my question, so here it is again: “What would you do if you were to live in such a world where there is murder, idolatry, economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things and immorality?”
I think there are probably a number of things that one could do.
One response to living in a world where there is murder, idolatry, economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things, and immorality is to withdraw from this broken and sinful world into our own safe, personal world. And then we could do everything possible to keep the sinful things out of my personal world. My main task would be is to keep my world intact and insulated. There have been and still are a few communities who are adamant to protect their way of life and keep modernity at bay. I admire these people but I am not sure that it is very effective. The world always manages to seep in or infiltrate my world and changes it. And let me remind you what Jesus himself said. He said that we are the salt of the earth and salt is only effective if it is sprinkled on and mixed in with food. Salt does not really work when you place it some distance from the food!
Another response is to point out the evils in the world. If you are a minister you could preach against these sins and warn that God would punish sinners.
The famous preacher Spurgeon preached a sermon on December 7, 1856 and here is what he said back then: “Two hundred years ago the predominant strain of the pulpit was one of terror: it was like Mount Sinai, it thundered forth the dreadful wrath of God, and from the lips of a Baxter or a Bunyan, you heard the most terrible sermons, full to the brim with warnings of judgment to come”. He continues: “Perhaps some of the Puritanical fathers may have gone too far, and have given too great a prominence to the terrors of the Lord in their ministry: but the age in which we live has sought to forget those terrors altogether, and if we dare to tell men that God will punish them for their sins, it is charged upon us that we want to bully them into religion, and if we faithfully and honestly tell our hearers that sin must bring after it certain destruction, it is said that we are attempting to frighten them into goodness.”
Remember this was in 1856! Today it is even harder to find a receptive audience for sermons about sin and God’s judgment. What adds to the complexity is that if you were to ask two people for a definition of sin, you most likely will get three very vague answers. If you were to ask two people to make a list of sins, the chances are pretty good that their lists would be quite different.
So preaching God’s judgment may be one response to a world where there is murder, idolatry, economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things and immorality – but how effective it is, remains an open question.
Another option is to do what the prophet Ezekiel did in Chapter 5. You could dramatically and with symbolism show people that they are wrong.
The world I described at the beginning of the sermon is actually the description not of our world of today, or the world of Spurgeon of 150 years ago. No! It was a description of the world of Ezekiel of about 2600 years ago! Yes, in chapter 22 he describes his city as a world of murder, idolatry, economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things, and immorality!
So what did Ezekiel do? He shaved his hair and his beard, then he divided the shorn masses into three piles with the help of a sword. He then burned one pile of hair, the second he hacked with the sword, and the third he tossed up so that it is scattered by the wind. Then he explained his actions: a third of you will die of pestilence and be consumed with famine, a third shall fall by the sword and a third will be scattered to all the winds. Certainly a dark message!
So, Ezekiel, by way of symbolic actions pointed out that there are consequences on human behavior, choices and actions. The problem was that even this OT prophet was not particular successful either because his people ended up in Babylon as Exiles!
So what can we learn from his actions and his preaching?
There are certain choices, actions and behavior that enhance life, actions that promote peace and harmony, actions that build up a community and choices that are wholesome and good for humankind and God’s creation.
Then there are choices, behavior and actions of human beings that do the exact opposite, actions that instead of enhancing life, instead of building up, promoting peace and harmony, actually hurt and destroy communities, actions and choices that are not wholesome and good for humankind and God’s creation!
What the prophet did well, as God’s spokesperson, was to point out actions and behaviors that were life enhancing, that build up communities, and that were promoting peace and harmony.
Destructive behavior in Ezekiel came in various forms. One commentator writes: “In Ezekiel’s world, superpower politics and small-scale ethnic nationalism were buttressed by idolatrous practices that legitimated military alliances, violent crimes and oppressive economic policies.”
Assuming that all of us have a prophetic role, all of us should point out what is life enhancing and what is not, what builds up and what tears down, and what leads to harmony and peace in the long run. We all have a prophetic responsibility to tell.
We need to point out what actions, behavior, practices and decisions may harm the community. We need to be honest, brave and thoughtful enough to warn that some decisions and actions may be convenient and expedient, but will lead to much harm later. We need to think about longer term consequences of decisions and policies and not only focus on the easy, reactionary and short term solutions. Sometimes this approach will cause anger and tension and the one with a prophetic voice may experience a lot of resistance and hostility.
The Apostle Paul says that God elected people from all nations to be the body of Christ, the church. And the Christian church has to be obedient and faithful as covenantal people. The Apostle gives us the key for how covenantal people ought to live: love one another – for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
So, let me reformulate the question: What can the church, that is you and I do in a world where there is murder, idolatry, economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things, and immorality?
We can tell the world what is good, right and life enhancing! And we can show the world a different way! In the Matthew reading we see how Christian people should interact with one another. Matthew 18 shows how people who are followers of Christ should care about each other. If a person is engaging in activities that are not life enhancing, that are not building up the community and are not promoting peace and harmony, we should engage in conversation. Discuss! Listen! Explain! And try to understand! The Christian way is one that takes time and effort, because there is mutual love and care. Matthew is saying: Work it out, look each other in the eye, talk and listen. And the Apostle Paul says: do this in love!
We know that this is not how it works in the world. In the world, individuals who disagree, even long time friends, often become enemies, or they avoid each other, the turn their backs on each other and they cease to communicate. Nowadays in the USA people who belong to different political parties or who have a different political philosophy attack each other. Conservatives want to own the liberals and liberals ridicule conservatives. Nations who disagree punish each other and often engage in warfare.
The church’s response to a broken and violent world is to show the world an alternative way. In other words, the church is meant to show the world that it is possible to live together in harmony and love in spite of differences. It is possible to disagree but still comes to an agreement and to do so with integrity and in love!
In a world where there is murder, idolatry, economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things, and immorality, the church (and we are the church) should live in such a way that people can see that there is a better way! The church should live in such a way that others should stop in their ways, think about their lives, and see that God’s way does indeed lead to peace, harmony, reconciliation and wholeness.
That is why it is so sad if there is no difference between the world’s way and the church’s way. When this happens the church has nothing to offer! If we as church, are supportive of actions or if we participate in actions that are not enhancing peace and harmony, actions that do not enhance life, that do not build up but tear down, if we are not kind and gentle, if we don’t care for the environment, if we are judgmental and self-righteous then the world will never see an alternative. Then we can preach or tell of God’s judgment as much as we want. It will have no effect!
Does this sound too complicated? Fact is, it is not! The Apostle Paul in his letter talks about the same thing except that he is using other words: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another! The commandments, you shall not murder, steal, commit adultery, covet and any other commandment are summed up in this word: “Love your neighbor as yourself! Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law!”
By the way: The Prophet Ezekiel, a man of his time, did not see God’s judgment as the end. It was a means to an end. Verse 11 reads: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live! Turn back, turn back O Israel.” That is what God wants! Not destruction.
So, what can we do, we who live in a world where there is murder, idolatry, economic oppression, irreverence toward holy things, and sexual immorality? We need to tell of God’s love, warn of destructive behaviors and actions! But we need to show a different way – for showing is more efficient than telling. We should love our neighbor as ourselves. Yes, we who are forgiven, we should forgive and we should love! Amen!