I followed my gut. Now I'm lost!
My sermon Sunday was only ten minutes long. And yet I preached through the whole book of Ezekiel. Verse by verse. Pretty amazing if I might say so myself. How?, you ask. Well, I promised our church I would not expound on any text I didn’t understand. Which left me with 2 verses.
I didn’t understand them either. But I had a hunch, so I followed my gut. Which rarely ends well.
It took me all of seven minutes. Add three minutes for an introductory joke and closing prayer.
The first verse was Ezekiel 21:21. The king of Babylon is standing at a fork in a road. Examining a liver. My point was short and sweet. (And wrong.) I said “So if you’re at a crossroads in life and unsure which way to go, just listen to your gut.” At my wife's suggestion, I dug into it's meaning. You won't believe it! It's not what this verse means at all. Always dig before you call. Or preach.
The other verse was Ezekiel 18:2. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. Now I only know a little Hebrew. And he's no help. Unless you need kosher donuts. Since I found myself at a crossroads and can't read livers very well, I listened to my gut.
Which I regret. I said. "This verse shows that even in Bible times, men don’t check expiration dates. It never occurs to them until after they eat year old cheese. Not only will they eat sour grapes, they put them in their kids lunches! And yet wonder why they’re losing teeth in Jr Hi."
Apart from these 2 verses, I don’t know what most of Ezekiel means. OK. I confess. I don't know what these 2 verses mean either. So what should a preacher do if he doesn’t understand a text? Skip it? Is that fair to the author who put it in there for a reason? Or to God who inspired him to put it there? So I can’t just disregard it. Yet how do I explain a text I myself don’t understand?
Example: I once tried to preach through Exodus. Verse by verse. Didn’t study much. I thought I could ‘wing it’. (I was wrong.) Realized this in Ex. 24:24. “And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him (Moses) and sought to kill him”. I knew better than make a comment. I chose to skip to the next verse and felt a wave of relief. Until I read the next verse.
“Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet.” After a long silence, coughs and chuckles rippled across the sanctuary. I said “Speaking of feet, I heard about a new remedy for bunions.” My diversion wasn’t lost on my wife. Or anyone else for that matter. I did as she knew I would. I said ‘Moving right along’. She mouthed it with me.
I know a ‘friend of a friend’ who tries to skip past difficult texts without anyone noticing. Never
works. Some fearless kid (with your same last name) who knows 25 comes after 24 isn’t afraid to speak up in church and say. ‘Hey Dad, you skipped v.25!’ Or the verse you skip to starts with ‘Therefore’. Now you're stuck explaining a text you don't understand. And hoped to avoid.
So I’m thinking maybe the best route is the honest route. From now on, I'll just read the text and say "You know, I have absolutely no idea what this verse means but I’m sure it’s important.
And since I have no clue what it means, let’s turn to a verse that I can identify with: Mark 9:6."
"He (Peter) said this because he didn't really know what else to say, for they were all terrified."
Even if I study and learn the meaning of a hard text, I still tend to skip over it if I can’t see how it applies to us today. Only problem with skipping is I fall prey to selective reading which leads to subjective preaching. And God rebukes those who ‘prophesy from their own hearts’. Ezek 13:2
Fortunately, a wise elder kindly challenged me to find the author’s intent in a text. Only then can I discover how it applies to us. So I dug into Ezekiel 18:2. God rebukes Israel for speaking this proverb about father’s eating sour grapes and children having a sour after taste. It was spoken as a complaint against God. Implying that the children were being unjustly punished for what their fathers did. If a father ate sour grapes, he should have the sour taste. Not his children.
My first thought was that it still doesn’t apply to people today. Or me. But then I remembered
how often I’ve blamed my ‘issues’ or problems on what my parents did or failed to do. As if I'm never the responsible party. Not considering I bring most of my ‘issues’ on myself. By myself.
So I read all of Ezekiel 18 and found it more relevant than I thought. Especially v. 23. ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? ... Am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’ Like Israel, I charge God with cruel and unusual punishment if I face the consequences of sin. But He's a Dad too. To discipline me truly hurts Him more than me. So why do it? For my good.
So I think I’ll share what I’ve discovered next Sunday in a follow up sermon on Ezekiel. It’s only fair to the sheep I’m called to feed that I lead them to grass, not artificial turf. I also may rethink my policy on preaching only what I understand. When I know full well I have not invested much in study nor have I asked God to open my eyes. It takes both to rightly divide the word of truth.
But even with diligent study, I know that some texts will leave me just as baffled as those I lead.
Whenever that happens, I think from now on, I’ll just admit I don’t know rather than ‘wing it’.
While preaching recently, I heard myself say “I won’t take the time now to expound on that topic”. Then in a sudden burst of honesty, I confessed “You know what? I couldn’t expound on that if I wanted to. I know nothing about it.” To which they applauded. And my wife said she’s never been more proud. My ego is confused. I like to be celebrated. But not for being clueless.
Maybe letting them see my ignorance goes a lot further than using a Greek word that actually means ‘potato’ when I’m claiming it means ‘propitiation’. Besides, I must not forget that I have deacons who verify everything I say with their smart phones. When they aren’t checking their March Madness brackets or researching what a ‘tarheel’ is. If it means potato, I'll hear about it.
I’m starting to think that sheep feel a lot safer with an honest shepherd than a brilliant one. Or one who thinks he is. Sheep also graze better when they feel safe. And I shepherd better when I lead them to the green pastures of God’s Word. Instead of the fluff I come up with when I wing it.
So next Sunday, I think I'll start over in Ezekiel. But this time we’ll actually do it verse by verse. I just may need to slow it down. I’m thinking 25 years with 2 hour long sermons. 7 nights a week.
I told my deacons about it. A few were not happy. Turns out, they liked my 10 minute sermon.
Whether it was biblical or not. I'm sure they don’t check expiration dates either. How do I know?
They still want 10 year old manna. Specifically a sermon I titled "Come and dine". I took it from a famous pastor. Never heard his sermon. Just his title. I thought people might like my sermons better if I laid out God's all you can eat buffet. And a few did. But most didn't. Like my wife. The
elders. Jesus. So I went back and listened to that sermon and text. It was titled 'Come and die'.
I'm confused. How is that supposed to win friends and influence people?