One Sunday morning in 1974, 3M engineer Arthur Fry was sitting in the choir watching the little slips of paper he used to mark hymns fall out of the book and lose his place.
The sermon began, and Arthur started daydreaming about how he could mark his place with paper that stayed put. What he needed was a bookmark that stuck to the paper but didn’t tear it when it was pulled off. Thus was born the Post-It Note.
And thus was also born one of the better examples of how what we might want to happen when we talk about God isn’t necessarily what’s going to happen when we talk about God. And if you’ll be polite enough to not remind the preacher that sometimes more good things come out of boring sermons than out of good ones, I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t have so much time to do your daydreaming.
God is having a similar discussion with Ezekiel when we drop in on them here in chapter 33. Ezekiel, as we know, was called to be a prophet, and despite what we think of prophets in retrospect, they weren’t always popular or well-liked people in their day. We’re told artists sometimes have to die to be appreciated, and plenty of kings and leaders in their day would have appreciated prophets a lot more if they’d been dead. Or at least quiet.
Because he faces problems in delivering the message, Ezekiel isn’t sure he wants to do what God has asked him. Prior to this he’s described some of his visions. But they are so completely out there that I imagine people aren’t so much upset by him as they are making the universal “too much booze” sign behind his back.
Now, though, God may want him to confront some of the wickedness of his society. And he may not want to do that. One reason might be that he doesn’t want to get into trouble and risk his safety or his life. And he might also figure nobody’s going to listen to him if he brings nothing but the gloom and doom. How effective can I be, he wonders, if no one listens to me?
Well, God says, whether or not they listen is their problem. I’m talking to you about whether or not they have something to listen to. If I ask you to call them out on their wickedness and they don’t listen to what I say through you, then they’ll have to deal with the consequences. But if you don’t call them out, then you have to carry not just the burden of ignoring me, but also the burden they would have carried if they’d heard what I wanted them to hear.
Ezekiel was supposed to speak a message of prophecy, which discerned the evil that the people wanted to overlook. We don’t have that same call nearly as often, and certainly we don’t have it anywhere near as often as some people like to think they do. The quick rule of thumb is that if saying something will make you a jerk, you should pray about whether or not you’re listening to God or your own desire to put people in their place.
As Christians, our call is to proclaim the gospel. Some of that proclaiming involves speaking the truth about evil. But even more of it involves speaking the truth about God’s grace, love and mercy. We may or may not want to say that message, or maybe we only want to say part of it. We’re happy with the fire and brimstone part but we’re a little less happy with the grace and mercy part, or maybe vice-versa.
God’s caution to us is the same as his caution to Ezekiel. We’re called to proclaim the gospel as it was proclaimed to us. What happens to the people who hear it is between them and God. And I imagine that you, much like me, just had an uncomfortable memory of a parent telling you, “It doesn’t matter what your brother (or sister) does. I’m talking to you.”
We may offer someone the gospel message and watch it transform them. Or they may ignore it. Heck, maybe we say it over and over again and it seems every time we do the people hearing us ignore it. If we hear God’s message to Ezekiel, though, we understand that God has a purpose for us that is worked out in our obedience to him, and it may be served by people listening to us, or it may not.
Our job is to answer his call, and remember with gratitude that we know him because someone else answered his call to give that gospel message to us.