Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Gnawing on Manna, and My Twisted Teeth Hurt

Warning: this post is the result of a convergence between a recent post by Paul Levy and my life as I preach through Ecclesiastes. And the fact that Facebook just asked me "what's going on?" Well...

Well, things generally seem to be going well (code: God's covenant community here is headed in the right direction, so don't interpret the following as a critique of them or a hint that I'm updating my resume!!). I've noticed, though, as I preach through Ecclesiastes that God is testing me with my own words. How confounded am I by the "vanity of vanities"? Am I taking His gifts to me day by day and trusting Him with everything else? Or am I typically me - quickly overwhelmed when problems crop up in an otherwise charmed life?

I wonder if the Preacher (קהלת) of Ecclesiastes, as he preached to the gathered (קהל) covenant people of God, heard the words "vanity of vanities, all is vanity" echo back to him with every word he preached to the people?

"Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?' Then I said, 'Here am I. Send me!' He said, 'Go, and tell this people: "Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand"'" (Isaiah 6:8,9). Not exactly an inspiring call to ministry, is it? What I can't help but notice is that Isaiah has already self-identified with his people ("I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips," vs. 5). I wonder if that was true of his own inability to hear himself preach at times? I also can't help but notice how many times these verses are quoted by Jesus (Matthew 13:14,15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40) and Paul (Acts 28:26; Romans 11:8). If it were just my people that weren't hearing the sermon, I could - with some weird prideful boasting - feel pretty smug about standing with the Lord and the apostle on this. But it's me not hearing. That's awkward.

What about Ezekiel? I love Ezekiel. His commission's not much better, is it? “Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, stand on your feet that I may speak with you!’ As He spoke to me the Spirit entered me and set me on my feet; and I heard Him speaking to me. Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, I am sending you to the sons of Israel, to a rebellious people who have rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. I am sending you to them who are stubborn and obstinate children, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” As for them, whether they listen or not - for they are a rebellious house - they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, neither fear them nor fear their words, though thistles and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions; neither fear their words nor be dismayed at their presence, for they are a rebellious house. But you shall speak My words to them whether they listen or not, for they are rebellious’” (Ezekiel 2:1-7). I am that prophet proclaiming the Word of the Lord, and I am that rebellious, stubborn, obstinate, and deaf child. Surely that's not what God meant when He later tells Ezekiel, "Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces and your forehead as hard as their foreheads" (3:8). Or, on those days when Ezekiel preached a good sermon, he then hears this message from the Lord: “But as for you, son of man, your fellow citizens who talk about you by the walls and in the doorways of the houses, speak to one another, each to his brother, saying, ‘Come now and hear what the message is which comes forth from the LORD.’ They come to you as people come, and sit before you as My people and hear your words, but they do not do them, for they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain. Behold, you are to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; for they hear your words but they do not practice them. So when it comes to pass - as surely it will - then they will know that a prophet has been in their midst” (Ezekiel 33:30-33). I wonder if Ezekiel was ever both the one who preached the good sermon and one who nodded his head and tapped his foot listening to the catchy tune, only to forget it when the next song came on the radio? I have been.

I know what God's doing in Ecclesiastes - and in reality through the "vanity of vanities." I see God blessing man (as male and female, Genesis 1:27) by giving him the commission to "be fruitful and multiply...fill...subdue...rule" (1:28). I see the Rebellion and the curse that matches the commission: "...I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth...cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:16-19). I know that, as a result, everything is "subjected to futility" (Romans 8:20). "Consider the work of God, for who is able to straighten what He has bent?" (Ecclesiastes 7:12). I KNOW, I KNOW!!!

But knowing doesn't take away the "vanity of vanities." That's where we were last Sunday in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. Confess the absolute sovereignty of God over everything that happens in our lives (3:1-10). I do. Still get frustrated by the "vanity of vanities" (3:11)? I do.

I'm living the sermon, I suspect. Nasty joke there, God. Except that I know it's not a joke. I know what You're doing, even in the midst of this stress. "I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him" (3:14). You're teaching me to fear You more. Which means You're teaching me wisdom and deepening my daily faith, trust, and thankfulness in You as You continually give me the gifts of work and pleasure (2:24,25; 3:13; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:8,9). You give me the manna for this day alone, and I fume (Exodus 16:1-26; Numbers 11:1-35). My own mouth, graciously used by You to feed Your people from Your Word, aches. This set of teeth made by the "vanity of vanities" hurts as I try to gnaw the same food.

Well, from this place in the middle of the week (between the sermons), I've also been burdened with a new prayer for Your people: may they hear better than their preacher and get it the first time. Please.

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