Chapter 22

A Prophet among You

When what you say to the people for God resonates with how you live among them as an imitator of God, they will know that a prophet has been among them.

The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.

A couple years ago I was smitten by a message given at a church ordination service. It was from Ezekiel 2:4-5: " The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. "

Can you identify with that?

" Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says.' And whether they listen or fail to listen — for they are a rebellious house — they will know that a prophet has been among them. "

Here's the setting of this passage: Ezekiel is sharing his personal story about how God called him to be a prophet-priest and gave him a vision. The biblical account is complex and vivid, full of imagery. Ezekiel saw the glory of Yahweh coming down from heaven. It was so overwhelming that he fell on his face. (That's the only place for us to be when we're in the presence of the glory of the Lord — on our face.) But the Lord would not let him stay there. God said, " Son of man, stand up on your feet, and I will speak to you " (vs. Ezekiel 2:1). And the Lord spoke.

The message God gave Ezekiel to preach was given to him in a scroll. Ezekiel received his appointment from God. And it was a tough calling. It wasn't a promising situation — not the opportunity to plant a new church in a rapidly growing part of the city, not an opportunity to serve as the senior pastor of the downtown first church to which all the influential members of the city belonged, not an appointment to a posh suburban situation. God made this clear: In exercising his prophetic office, Ezekiel would have to preach to deaf ears and dwell among scorpions.

I've preached to a lot of deaf ears, but I've not dwelt among scorpions. Recently a student pastor, who's serving a church out in the country, told me that he has a lot of polecats — skunks — in his congregation. We may not have that sort of thing, but we know a little of what the Lord was saying to Ezekiel. There was no prospect for success laid out for the prophet in his initial call to ministry, and the burden of no prospect continued to increase as the Lord continued to speak.

Yet the call carried with it the power of support. Yahweh made the prophet's face harder than flint (Ezekiel 3:9). The message of doom Ezekiel was to proclaim was given to him to eat (Ezekiel 3:1). And it tasted sweeter than honey. From that point on the prophet was entirely on God's side; the person and the word were considered to be the same. Thus whether they heard or refused to hear, they would know there had been a prophet among them.

I haven't been able to get away from that text since I heard it a couple years ago. It has been and continues to be a troubling proposition burning in my mind and heart, calling me to assess my witness and ministry, judging my failure, challenging me to deeper commitment. I keep asking myself, To what degree do people know when I have been with them that a prophet has been in their midst?

This past summer in my study of Ezekiel, I came across a book by the Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rod. He wrote that more than any other prophet, Ezekiel was influenced by Israel's priestly religious life. Indeed his prophetic ministry was really a priestly one. Von Rod asserted that Ezekiel was the first prophet consciously to enter this new sphere of activity that may be described as the " cure of souls. " Ezekiel's calling was not only a traditional call to speak prophetically to the community and to the nation; it was a call to care for individuals, to play a pastoral role by helping people realize their situation in the eyes of God.

What is a prophet-priest's role — especially when faithfully performed so people will know God's representative has been among them? He or she speaks to the people for God and speaks to God for the people.

A prophet-priest speaks to the people for God

The prophet addressed this in Ezekiel 36:22-23. " Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes. "

Ezekiel was saying that God's honor must be restored in the sight of the nations, and that honor is connected, in fact is integral, to God's holiness. Ezekiel was speaking to the people for God. We, too, must speak to the people for God. We must call God's people to holiness if we're going to call the nation to God's righteousness.

God's name had been profaned not only by the heathen, but by his own people. Today's world is not paying attention to the church, and the world tomorrow will not pay attention to the church until and unless those of us who call ourselves God's people vindicate God's holiness before the world's eyes.

At no other time has there been such great concern for holiness as today. The call is coming from almost every theological tradition, from Calvinist to Catholicism.

Illustration: Free Methodist bishop Richard Snyder shared an interesting experience. He received an e-mail from Robert W. MacDonald, a retired Anglican priest who wrote: " I've been reading books from the Free Methodist Church off the Wheaton College Web site about holiness teaching and about the life and teaching of B. T. Roberts. I've always been committed to the preaching and teaching of the gospel according to the Word, but now I must confess that until this current reading, I have never properly known the true burden and message of John Wesley. Does God reach with entire sanctification a seeker now 72 years old? Is this still taught in the Free Methodist Church today? "

An Anglican priest getting to the Free Methodist Church and B. T. Roberts and John Wesley through a Wheaton College Web site. There has been a rekindling in the concern for holiness because the gospel has been so relativized by those who would revise Christian theology. Is holiness a life and death issue in our culture today? This is an important question because our culture has become a valueless one, almost completely debauched.

Illustration: A while ago I read a newspaper article in the Los Angeles Times about a teacher who had taught in the Los Angeles public schools. She had been a good teacher, but when she and her husband decided to have children she left her job. They had three children, reared them as well as they could as Christians within their home. Then when the last one went to college, this teacher decided to go back to teaching. So she applied and was accepted, and she wrote an article about her first day back teaching a seventh grade class after 20 years. In the article she spoke about her anxiety. Would she be up to the task? Would she be able to handle the kids?

She talked about walking nervously down the hallway of the school on her first day back, anxious about teaching. She remembered that in her previous teaching days she used to begin her day by walking into the classroom, putting her books down on the desk, looking out at the class, and saying, " Good morning, students. " And the students would respond, " Good morning, Mrs. Jones. " There would be a kind of settling down, and she could begin to teach.

So she took a little courage in that and began to reenact it. She put her books down on the table. " Good morning, class, " she said. And some kid on the front row shouted back, " Shut up, bitch. " And everybody in the classroom began to laugh.

In the Los Angeles Times article, the teacher asked this question: What happened in America between " Good morning, Mrs. Jones, " and " Shut up, bitch? And w ho is going to do something about it?

Our debauched culture underscores the need for holiness and supports the Scripture's claim that holiness is not an option for God's people. And the prophet-priest must speak to the people for God reminding them of this command to be holy. It's not likely that our prophetic words to the nation will be heard unless there is at least a remnant of God's people who seek to be, as the apostle Paul said, imitators of God — holy as he is holy, and living in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Holiness without love is not God's kind of holiness. And love without holiness is not God's kind of love. Our prophetic priestly function of speaking to the people for God requires us to identify with the people, to have a passion for their salvation, and to have a compassion that will cause us even to suffer for their sake.

To what degree do our people know we really care for them? As Yahweh made Ezekiel responsible, has he not made us responsible for those committed to our care? It was rather dramatic with Ezekiel. If he allowed the people to die unwarned, Yahweh threatened to require the prophet's life. So Yahweh said to him: And you, son of man, groan. With trembling loins and bitterness shall you groan before their eyes.

Are you groaning before the eyes of your people? Do they see that kind of passion flowing from your life?

Who are the people in your congregation who, though they may be members of the church, really don't feel they belong? Who are the people in your community who have yet to receive a clear message from you personally and from your congregation that you care deeply for them and that God loves them? What about the poor? Are you committed to the irrefutable truth of Scripture that God has taken a preferential option on behalf of the poor? What about the working poor, chief among them single mothers?

What of the vast segment of folks in every community for whom Christ and his church are really strangers? Are you ordering your life and the worship life of your congregation, your ministry and mission, in a way that goes to their turf and seeks to speak their language, a language they understand? Do you offer something that will meet their needs — not where you would like them to be but where they really are?

What about recovering folks, those seeking freedom from drugs and alcohol? Is your church a community of welcome and hospitality that will help them break the chains of shame and blame?

" Son of man, groan, " God said to Ezekiel — and he says to us. Show the people you care, that you speak for a God who loves us, who forgives our iniquities, and heals our diseases, who restores us to wholeness, and gives us joy.

A prophet-priest speaks to God for the people

Not only do we speak to the people for God, but we speak to God for the people. Our groaning becomes our intercession, our pleading with God on behalf of our people. One of the actions God called Ezekiel to perform was to lie for a considerable time, first on his left side and then on his right side, in order to bear the guilt of Israel. God introduced that requirement in Ezekiel 4:4: " Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the house of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. " It's a powerful call for identification and suffering with and for our people. It's a commanding call to intercession.

The most significant breakthrough I've had in my prayer life during the past decade is a result of my decision three years ago to find a way to pray specifically for our community here at the seminary. At the beginning of each year, I divide our community into subgroups so that before the year has past, I will have had the opportunity to pray for every person in our community. At least, that's my intention. Prior to the week that I'm praying for a particular group of students, faculty, and staff, I write them a letter and invite them to share their joys and thanksgiving so I can celebrate with them. Then I ask them to share their needs and concerns so I might focus my prayer attention in that fashion.

During the past two weeks I have prayed for a young couple who just got engaged and another couple who are struggling desperately to keep their marriage together. I've been praying for the spouse of one of our students. The spouse is deaf, and she's having difficulty getting a job. I've been praying for a baby just conceived, the first baby this couple will have. But I've also been praying for a six-month-old baby who was born nearly blind, is being fed through a tube into her stomach, and has club feet that are in casts — the first child of a student's sister. I've been praying for a student pastor who has had his first conflict with his congregation. (I haven't told him that that's just the beginning!) I've been praying for a group of our students who are on a mission trip to Venezuela. And I've been praying for three of our professors who are in South Africa.

I make no claims about the working impact of my prayers within the lives of these people — though hardly a week goes by that I don't have a dramatic affirmation from someone. But what's really important is that since I began that prayer practice, my life has changed. The way I do my work as the president of this institution has been altered. At the depth of my concern and compassion there is an intensity of spirit, because I speak to God for these persons.

Illustration: I was flying out of Tampa, Florida, some time ago. It was late in the afternoon just before sunset. I was seated in the front seat of the airplane. When the plane was about to take off, rather than sitting in the jump seat, a flight attendant took the seat beside me. As we taxied on the runway, I looked out my window, and there was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. I was awestruck. I couldn't contain myself. I said to the flight attendant, " Look at the sunset! " She glanced casually out the window and nodded. I realized she wasn't interested in the sunset; she was already preoccupied with a magazine. So I returned to the book I was reading.

When we were airborne, she had to get up from her seat to do her work. And I began to pray for that woman. As I began to pray for her, I felt that something was wrong. By the time we made our approach into Atlanta she took her seat beside me again, and she was a different person. She wanted to talk, and I believe my praying had something to do with that. She told me that when she got off the plane in Atlanta, she would drive for two hours to south Georgia to visit her mother. Just before boarding the plane in Tampa, she had received word that her mother, who was a cancer victim, was probably not going to live through the night. This would be the last time she would see her mother. No wonder she wasn't interested in the sunset. I was able to share my concern, as well as the love and care of God, and I was able to affirm that underneath her were God's everlasting arms. She appeared to receive those words with gratitude.

Of course it doesn't always happen that way, and I don't pretend it does. But it happens just enough for us to know the power of prayer, to give us the joy of prayer, and to inspire us to continue the practice.

I spoke to God for a person and was given the opportunity to speak to a person for God. How is the question stirring in your mind now? Whether they listen or refuse to listen, they will know that a prophet has been among them.

God calls us to be holy as prophet-priests

In the record of God's call to Ezekiel in chapters 2 and 3, God gave Ezekiel some direction, some promises we can apply to us. First, God said to Ezekiel: Stand on your feet and I will speak to you. The lesson? We're to listen. Our stance must always be a receptive one. Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

Second, after hearing God's call to stand on his feet so he might speak to him, Ezekiel said, " As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. "

God called Ezekiel to stand on his feet, but then, as Ezekiel said, " A spirit entered into me and set me on my feet. " We might express that lesson in this fashion — God does not call us to a mission that we can accomplish within our own strength and with our own resources, but only with his divine aid. In that way, we're kept on our knees dependent on him.

Third, Ezekiel 3:1-3 says, " He said to me, 'Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel.' So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, 'Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.' So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. " The lesson? We must become one with God's Word. What we say must be matched by how we live. It is only then that people will know a prophet has been among them.

There are some experiences, some encounters in our life that are so solidly lodged in our memory that they continue to invade our consciousness to help us or to hinder us in our Christian life.

Illustration: John Burtbeck is a person around whom a whole cluster of memories are gathered for me, memories that invade my immediate awareness now and then. John was a Scot Presbyterian preacher. During a part of my tenure as world editor to TheUpper Room, John was the editor of the British edition of The Upper Room. He was a marvelous preacher in the classic style of the old Scot divine. I remember long walks with him in the evening on the streets of Edinborough and Glasgow and Aberdeen, and extended hours across the table in a caf drinking coffee talking with and listening to him. We were never together without my probing him about Christian doctrine, his own insight about biblical truth and preaching, and the wisdom of the Scot divines. It was John who introduced me to the great Scottish preacher Robert Murray McChene. I will never forget what John called to my attention in one of McChene's books, in which McChene said, " The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness. "

I found that statement to be true.

Illustration: Throughout my years of ministry the greatest need of my congregation has been my own personal holiness. I remember a time back in the early sixties when I was confronted with a shocking realization: " I am as holy as I want to be. " I was a young Methodist preacher in Mississippi. I was the organizing pastor of a congregation that had known amazing growth and success. The fellowship of that congregation was splintered by my involvement in the Civil Rights movement. I didn't think there was anything radical about my involvement, but many of the folks in the congregation couldn't understand my commitment and participation. I couldn't understand their lack of understanding. The gospel seemed clear.

The pressures, the stress, the tension wore me out. I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, ready to throw in the towel when I went to a Christian ashram led by E. Stanley Jones. I'll never forget going to the altar one evening and having Brother Stanley lay hands on me and pray for me. He knew my story. We had been together that week. As I knelt, he asked me, " Do you want to be whole? Do you want to be holy? " That was a sanctifying experience in my life that changed the direction of my ministry.

Through the years since I have constantly asked myself, Do I want to be holy? And I have reminded myself over and over again that I'm really only as holy as I want to be. What about you? To speak to the people for God and to God for the people, your word and life must be in harmony. When what you say to the people for God resonates with how you live among them as an imitator of God, they will know that a prophet has been among them. I hope and pray that every congregation of which you're a part will know a prophet has been among them.

This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio #214 workshop. To order this Preaching Today Audio tape, e-mail your request to