1999-10-17 - "A Matter Of Stance"
I have been giving a great deal of thought recently to the issue of communication. By that I mean how difficult it seems to be in the era in which we live, for people to communicate with one another. It seems that with the busy world in which we live and the clamouring voices and competing sounds, it is sometimes hard just to find a moment to sit down with another human being and truly converse. This was never more evident to me than over the past few weeks when three different incidences took place: the first was when I took a friend of mine out for dinner to a restaurant. The purpose for this meal was not only to tuck into some good food, but also to have the opportunity to talk about something that I knew was very dear to his heart. When we entered the restaurant and sat down and ordered our meal, I knew within a matter of seconds that this was going to be a difficult task. Blaring forth in the restaurant was the loudest music! Now I like Eric Clapton's ”˜Leila' and I really don't mind Britany Spear's ”˜Crazy' but I don't like it when I'm trying to have a conversation with a person over a meal. So bad was the conversation that we skipped dessert and actually stood on Yonge Street, a place much quieter to have our discourse! We are bombarded with noise wherever we go and it is hard to converse.
This was brought home all the more to me when a little while ago I visited a lady in her apartment. She had called to ask for some pastoral care and I had agreed to go and visit her. As I entered the apartment it was evident again that I was going to have a problem because she had decided to leave the television on. There was a soap opera playing behind us. I don't mind General Hospital and I watched it twenty-five years ago and it doesn't seem much has changed! Luke is still there twenty-five years later. But I'm not sure that that was the avenue for me to get an interest in General Hospital, nor did I really feel that there was major communication between that dear lady and myself. There is always noise!
Sometimes we just can't be bothered to talk to each other. We use all manner of things to try and facilitate the communication. (I'm using all this technical language you notice.) It's like a business person I was talking to not long ago. In the middle of a very in-depth conversation that I thought was going very well, he just cut me off short and said, “Oh Andrew, we will pick this up later. I will have my people to talk to your people and we can arrange a meeting.” I said to him, “I'm sorry. I don't have any people!” But that's the kind of world we're living in. It's gyrating and moving with sound coming from all corners of the earth and it's hard to sit down and have a simple conversation. Is it any wonder then that we have the same problem in listening to and in talking to Almighty God?
We're living in a day and age that is so obsessed with sound, so obsessed with the immediacy and responses to questions we have asked, that we simply do not appear to have the time to listen to God. Therefore in assuming that God does not speak, in assuming that we never hear anything from God with our ears, we simply talk about God as if God is a detached third party or some dead historical figure. There is lots of talk about God these days. It seems everybody has a theory about what God is like, or an opinion of what God is like. As I said here before, at TEMC it is as if we're trying to create lots of little gods in all our own images. Part of the problem with that is due to the fact that we are not still. We do not take the time to listen. We do not discipline ourselves to have a conversation with a living God, in a living relationship that is vibrant and informative and uplifting.
Throughout the Christian faith we have always known and believed that God speaks and God speaks in many different ways and places. God can use many different avenues to do that, but to understand that, we have to silence ourselves. We must be quiet and listen. For over two thousand years ?? for four thousand years in terms of biblical chronology, God has been a god who has always spoken. Look, for example, at the Book of Deuteronomy and a papyrus, which was found in 100 BC that contained the great history of Israel ? a history that had been passed on in the oral tradition. This great Book of Deuteronomy is predicated on the belief that God speaks directly to God's people. Look at the New Testament times: even with the awful and oppressive Roman Empire hanging over people like the sword of Damocles, nevertheless, the Roman Empire became a vessel, a means through which the word of God and the Gospel could be heard from city to city and province to province and region to region. The word of what had happened on the cross, the word that had happened about the empty tomb, was passed through the conduit of the great Roman Empire. Look also at the monasteries during the Middle Ages and the dark ages when Christendom was under attack and when people had no source of knowledge or inspiration except that which came from their priests. It was in the monasteries that the word of God was written down and meticulously preserved and translated, in order that some day people would be able to hear the word again.
Look at the Guttenberg Press in 1456. This great discovery that brought the word of God to be recreated in print and within fifty years (I found this out from the Bible Society) from 1456 to 1506 the number of Bibles in the world went from 30,000 to 9,000,000! That is how the printing press had such a profound effect on the word getting out. People wanted to read it and know what God had said. Look at the new media. Think of the radio ministries ? not only our own, but think of the great C.S. Lewis who in the 1950s and ”˜60s would deliver his great speeches on the radio and people would hear and find that their lives were changed. Or the one that I love on television when it first began: do you remember Bishop Fulton Sheen? Wasn't he an awesome person? Even as a child, I would love it when he would wave his arms around and write things on the wall. Fulton Sheen would speak to me when nobody else would; an amazing person. The point I make is that God speaks and continues to speak. God's word is living and acting. We are a faith that is predicated on the word of God and for centuries, from our very infancy, we believe that God has spoken through people. God has spoken through the Word, the scriptures, in Jesus Christ and that God continues through the Word, to speak to us today. The issue is: Are we listening?
One of the greatest of all the prophets and one of my favourites is Ezekiel. In our text from the Book of Ezekiel, we find a moment in his life that was central. It was his call to be a prophet. In his call we notice something about the way in which Ezekiel stands and the way that God places him, that allowes him to hear the word. Ezekiel was writing during a difficult time in Israel's history. It was during the exile and from both Palestine and Babylon, this great prophet spoke and wrote. From this great prophet, great things emerged, including hope and the majesty of God. There have been many critics who have looked at Ezekiel and his visions and have tried to psychoanalyse him and break him down. I read one article that said he was a catatonic schizophrenic. Somebody else said that he had a repressed sexual aggression; others said that he had an inflated ego and all these different assessments of him came into being because he had visions of dry bones and of streams running through Jerusalem. But they misunderstand the whole of Ezekiel when they try and do that.
Ezekiel had these visions in order to pass onto the people, God's will and purpose in their lives ? that when everything was crumbling and they were destroyed, God in God's majesty would be there to save them and to redeem them and bring them home. Before he could deliver that message, and this is the key for you and me, he had to have three things happen. God put him in three different places. It was a matter of stance. All of us need at some point to have all three if we're going to listen to the Almighty.
The first of these is that he was face down. After he'd had his first vision Ezekiel wrote, And the Lord called me and once I had heard all I could do was place my face to the ground. Now placing your face to the ground in the biblical sense is a true sign of humility, that you realise that you are not worthy to look up metaphorically and gaze upon God. There is nothing worthy within him on the basis of this vision to make him a prophet. He humbles himself and simply presents himself before the Almighty majesty of God. In many places and times we symbolise the same thing when we look at those who are our superiors or those who are greater than ourselves or those to whom we pay respect. Before you appear before a monarch, you must bow or curtsy as a sign of respect. When Roman Catholic priests are ordained they lie face down on the ground before their Bishop as a sign of loyalty. Even in our own tradition, a minister kneels and has the laying on of hands. One of the most poignant moments that speaks of this is in a piece of art by Rembrandt. He draws the story of the Prodigal Son, just an etching, but a profound one. The Prodigal Son comes up to the father and gets on his knees, his eyes are cast down and his hands are cast up and he seeks the forgiveness of the father. In all these there is a sense that we bow down in humility in order that we might hear and be forgiven and in order that we might be open.
The great George Washington Carver, the black scientist, was often asked what was the secret of his success, for he became a great peanut farmer. He said, “One day the following happened. I asked God, ”˜God, tell me the secrets of the universe.' And God said, ”˜George, this is too great. I reserve that only for myself.' So George said, ”˜then in that case show me the mystery of the peanut.' And God said, ”˜George, that's more your size, I think I can do that!'” You see, George Washington Carver realised that even in the little things, he needed to recognise divine guidance and grace in his life. He needed to be lifted up, but before he could be lifted up he had to humble himself. In this day and age I believe we have to do the same thing.
I must be very frank with you. I think we have to humble ourselves more before the word of God than we do at present. I think we need to take the time from our busy lives in order that we might hear again the word of God by reading it in the Scriptures. I think that we are becoming very quickly a biblically illiterate society and particularly biblically illiterate in the Church. How can we possibly reflect on the word of God if we do not take the time from our busy lives to read it and study it and nurture it? We need to be especially as Protestants, show we are people of the Word. We also need to be people of prayer. I find, in my life, if I don't take the time to humble myself, to be at prayer and listen, I can see the fruits of that in my own life. I can tell that I am not in tune with people's needs, I am not as sensitive to people's concerns, I am not as invigorated in my proclamation and work and I need that time of prayer. But you're not going to get it unless you take the time to be as Ezekiel was and humble yourself before God in order that you might have a conversation with God.
We also need the community of the Christian Church and of the faith. I believe to hear the word of God, we need each other. We need the discipline of worship; we need the mutual support of one another. It is lonely out there in the world as a Christian unless you have a community of faith. To those who are listening on the radio I implore you to attach yourself to a congregation as well as to listen to the radio whenever possible. Attach yourself to a community of faith because through the Church the word is heard. Never was this brought home to me more than in my first congregation in a small community in South Africa where I was a student minister. I shared this story with the Wednesday morning group and it's in my first book What's Good About the Good News, but it was such a central moment in my life that it affected everything that I was to say and do.
I went to this small congregation on the first Sunday I was there and it was an all black congregation. Sitting on the right were all the women and sitting on the left were all the men. The choir was sitting behind me on my right and the elders were sitting behind me on my left. So half the congregation was behind me rather than in front of me. It was a small church, very poor, had a dirt floor, the pews were charred on the ends (having been donated by a white church which had had a fire and had decided to give them to this black church.) The hymnbooks were in every pew but the problem was that not all the hymns were in every hymnbook so we had some eclectic singing some Sundays. The pulpit was a beer barrel cut in half and on humid days was extremely inspirational! I went into this small and poverty-stricken church on my first Sunday and I had my pin-striped suit and my white shirt, I'd put Armour All on my bible to give it a nice shine and I had an immaculately prepared and exegeted sermon. As I got up to preach and looked at those forlorn faces and their poor clothing, I just put my sermon to one side and said, “Oh isn't life terrible and isn't apartheid terrible. Look at all the injustices you suffer. How do you people manage to go on? Oh I feel sorry for you.” All of a sudden there was a tap on my shoulder and before I knew what had happened, the elders had picked me up and whisked me away from my sermon and taken me into the Vestry in back. They sat me down and said, “Mr. Stirling, we know you are from the college and are well educated, but we know that life is tough and we don't need you to tell us so. We know life is hard and you're not making life any easier. Are you going to get out there and preach the gospel or are you not? We need to hear the good news. If you're not going to preach the gospel, go back to the seminary from where you came and ask them to send someone who will. Do you understand?” Oh, I got the message loud and clear! I went back there and preached a sermon the likes of which you've never heard.
Many times I've thought of what they said. What they wanted from me was someone who was humbled before the word and would let the words speak and let God speak and they would do the rest.
There is a second stance: once humbled then one stands. God spoke to Ezekiel, “Son of man stand up that I might speak to you!” Once humbled, God then lifts up Ezekiel. The difference between good and evil I believe is that evil lifts us up in order that we might get knocked down. Good brings us down that we might be lifted up. Therein lies the difference. Ezekiel was humbled but then told to stand, to be bold, that now the word of God was to be heard and Ezekiel was going to speak it. John Calvin, in his commentary on this text put it very succinctly. He said, “God prostrates us on the ground, but always for the purpose of being able to lift us up again.” There are many people in this life who feel that they're down and are unworthy, who feel that they're in no position to be a disciple and God says as he said to Ezekiel, “Stand up in order that you might hear the word.”
In the passage from the Gospel of John it is a similar message that Jesus gives the disciples. When they, like Israel, felt that they were in exile and felt that he was going to die and all was dark and that there was no hope, Jesus comes into their midst and promises them what God promised Ezekiel ? that the power of the spirit would grasp them. The power of the spirit would enable him to stand where he could not stand, to inspire him where he could not be inspired and to lift him to a vision of what God has. We need, too, to stand in the power and strength of the living God, but to do that we need to be quiet and let the spirit speak.
There is one last stance. God comes to Ezekiel and says, “Son of man, I am now sending you to my people.” The word of God grasps us in order not that we just stand where we are, but that we walk and move on. The purpose of the power of the spirit is to inspire and to invigorate and to renew, in order that we might walk in the path of God, that we might face the difficult challenges of life with power and hope and that we might have a renewing grace in our lives that enables us to live as passionate people. How this is needed and needed even in the Church. I know this doesn't speak of Timothy Eaton, but a friend was once asked the question, “What is the capacity of your church?” His answer was, “Well, it sleeps five hundred!” So often the church sleepeth, though not this morning! Sometimes it needs invigorating just like the people of Israel needed invigorating. In difficult times in their lives, the power of the spirit moved them on to where God would have them be. That is what Ezekiel's message brought to the people. I do believe that the power of that spirit that moved Ezekiel, that was given to the disciples, speaks to us and gives us the confirming power to walk in his footsteps.
Today in the Flora McCrea Auditorium, there is a Survivors' Monument to those who have suffered child abuse and survived. It is a very moving tribute to those who have found some source of power in their lives to help them deal with this great social ill and tragedy. One of the reasons it grasps me is because one of my closest friends in Nova Scotia is a man who suffered at the hands of his parents. So bad was the abuse in his life that he developed Multiple Personality Disorder; he would deal with the problem of abuse by creating other personalities that would allow him to be able to handle it. Jim was so bad in his life that at times he would end up driving to New Brunswick and flying to Ontario from Nova Scotia and not even know he was there. At times we would meet him and he wouldn't know who we were. He would come home and would play games with his children and the next morning would have forgotten it all. So bad was his disassociation of the different personalities in his life that he couldn't hold a job or even function. Jim went through some great therapy and there was a doctor who helped him enormously, but if you ask Jim the one thing that gave him the strength in his life, he would say that it is his faith and the Church. One day, out of the blue, knowing that he'd had a very difficult time, knowing that his personalities were fragmented and that I had actually gone to his home to stop him killing himself, he came to me and said, “I've been reading the scriptures and I'm convinced of one thing. God is calling me to be an Elder in this Church.” When I asked him why and under what power he was going to do this, he was so blunt and clear. He said, “Under my own volition and my own power I cannot do it. In my own inspiration I cannot find it except that which God himself gives and on that I will rely.” My friend Jim has been a faithful Elder from that day on for nine years. He's never missed a visit, never missed a communion, never missed a service and it is all the more poignant for me that I am the godparent of one of his sons, that he has never missed a hug for his son.
That is what the power of the word of God can do. We need to hear it. We need to wait on it both walking, standing and kneeling, just like Ezekiel. Amen.