Today’s texts Ezekiel 2:1-7; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 present three examples of individuals called out and then sent out by God to speak to their communities. One thing we learn is that the quality of a gospel proclamation cannot be measured by its immediate acceptance. What is important is the mission entrusted to them and their fidelity to it.
He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. 3He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. 4The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” 5Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
6And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. 7You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house.
The scriptures help us witness the work of the Holy Spirit not only with the post-resurrection Christian community but also from the very beginnings of our relationship with God. One example in the Old Testament is the Prophet Ezekiel. He knew the work of the Spirit. Ezekiel is mandated by the Holy Spirit to address all the people of Israel – and not only to those living in Judah but those in the former northern kingdom which had collapsed under Assyrian pressure 130 years earlier and those recently exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel knows that if holiness disappears from the land it will cause the end of the old world. He is willing to voice this message and announce this catastrophic result at some personal risk from people who would rather not hear what he has to say! He is cautioned that despite his warnings, his community is unlikely to heed the call to repentance. But, God assures Ezekiel, “they shall know that a prophet has been among them”.
Paul’s second letter to friends in Corinth hearkens back to his knock down-drag out experience with the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus. He speaks of himself in the third person as he writes:
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul is in the thick of a controversy over false apostles who were undermining his work among the Corinthians. Earlier in the letter he had defended himself these “super apostles” (2 Co.11:5) who attacked him because he couldn’t or wouldn’t boast of any great achievements, nor, as far as they knew, hadn’t received any exceptional spiritual experiences, nor was he responsible for any miracles! He begins to mock his opponents late in 2 Corinthinans 11. He boasts about the things that show his weaknesses and vulnerability, ending with a restatement of his reluctance to boast but nevertheless admitting, with tongue in cheek, that he could boast about himself – but he won’t. He alludes to one of his ecstatic experiences from the past when he was “caught up in Paradise.” Despite “the exceptional character of the revelations,” Paul is kept humble by an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.”
The hardships Paul lists may point to the nature of his “thorn in the flesh”. Some have suggested that it may have been chronic depression, another suggested that it may have been his mother-in-law. We just don’t know. It well may have been some doubt or despair, or the effects of the ridicule and persecutions he encountered. He is forced to learn about humility in spite of revelations, and about power in the face of powerlessness (vv.7-10). According to the apostle, the assurance of Christ is stronger than the discomfort of the thorn
My brother-in-law, Jim Treadway, sent me an email recently entitled The Cactus and the Caterpillar. It began “A man once asked God for a flower and a butterfly. What he received was a cactus and a caterpillar. The man was sad. He didn’t understand why his request had been misunderstood. Then he thought, “Oh well, God has too many people to care for.” and decided not to question. After some time the man went to check up on his request that he had left forgotten. To his surprise from the thorny and ugly cactus a beautiful flower had grown. And the unsightly caterpillar had been transformed into the most beautiful butterfly. The email message continued saying that “God always does things right. His way is always right even if to us it seems all wrong. If you ask God for one thing and receive another, trust. You can be sure he will give you what you need at the appropriate time. What you want is not always what you need.” Then the email went on to say that God always grants our petitions, so we should keep on going to God without doubt or murmuring because today’s thorn is tomorrow’s flower. “God gives the best to those who leave the choices up to him.” The well intentioned little piece fails to warn us that sometimes thorns stay thorns and some caterpillars become heel flies and the pain isn’t replaced by joy and beauty. That’s why Christ’s words to Paul on the matter continue to be important to us – “My grace is sufficient for you…”
Life at the end of our rope may well be the place where we experience God’s care. Christ’s sufficency becomes real when all we have learned to depend on has been knocked over. Paul “delights” in his vulnerability. If we can accept our vulnerability for the right reason – for Christ’s sake – then Christ’s power is available to help us survive, build up our faith, and extend the kingdom of God! But that doesn’t mean the thorn becomes a flower – it means, as Paul says, we can learn that “God’s grace is sufficient…” As God’s voice, Paul carried the reality of his limitations into his own life of prayer. He discovered that God’s care is not measured in direct proportion to success or acceptability! This lesson in human limitation is difficult one for us to absorb – that God loves us “warts and all”!
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.
In his work and teachings – especially his healing work – Jesus contradicted the norms of society concerning “clean” and “unclean”. Jesus wasn’t thanked for causing such a radical rethinking about these fundamental characteristics of Hebrew tradition. He was calling in question all the moral distinctions upon which Hebrew religion and society was based. If these foundational beliefs were questioned it jeopardised all those rules that justify political and economic inequality. His words and actions were abrasive, but for those who were open and received Him, those who allowed gifts to be given them and let their reality be reshaped, it wasn’t the abrasiveness of his message that they noticed. People noticed that around Jesus, life had been strangely and inexplicably changed.
After healing an anemic and outcast woman and an acutely sick girl, Jesus returns to his home town to teach in the synagogue. While his friends and neighbors acknowledge that he spoke with “wisdom” and acted with “power” with others, they discredit and ignore Jesus, and are unable to believe that the Messiah they’ve longed for had arisen from within their own intimate circle. These are powerful words: “And he could do no deed of power there…”. Mark points out the fact that ‘hardness of heart’ can stop Jesus’ work. This new life can be resisted. The response of those who valued what is old, resisted. Those loyal to the old order wanted no new energy anyway! Those who were free to embrace the newness had no need to resist. Jesus, disheartened, “was amazed at their lack of faith”. To ridicule their lack of perception or dismiss them as plainly ignorant can be easy but it can also prevent us from acknowledging the many examples of our own hardness of heart. The lack of faith displayed by Ezekiel’s, Paul’s and Jesus’ neighbors is all too present today.
Friends affirm that that same Spirit that emboldened Ezekiel, redirected Paul and energized Jesus continues to work within and among us today. And as with Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus, God’s call will be severely challenged with a healthy list of really good reasons for being loyal to the practical standards of the family, the community and the nation. As Christ calls us and then sends us, as Jesus did the disciples, the call is to faithfulness to Christ’s Spirit and that is not to be evaluated against standards of success, it is not about practicality or acceptability it is about the much larger call to Holy Obedience.