Like a deer frozen in headlights, I knew it was approaching and yet I couldn’t get out of its way. Ever since beginning to preach through the book of Ezekiel, I knew that chapter 23 was quickly approaching…as did most of the pastors who laughed at me for preaching through Ezekiel. I actually remember the day when, around age 12 or 13, sitting in the back of the sanctuary with my friend, I found or was shown (don’t remember which) Ezekiel 23. “Surely there’s been a rank editing error. Certainly someone let things into this Bible that God didn’t intend.” Truth be told, some of those thoughts crept again into my preparation last week.
All this because Ezekiel 23 is one of the harshest, most violent and explicit passages in all of God’s Word. In explaining the just-around-the-corner demolishing of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, God shows Israel and Judah’s idolatry to the exiles through the metaphor of adultery. There’s no gentleness in this passage, no hinting at sin or finding a tactful way to ask someone to consider that, just maybe, things aren’t quite right in their life. With no less than fourteen variations on the word “whore”, God makes painfully clear just how clearly pained he is by his bride’s unfaithfulness to him.
So I was tempted. Tempted to skip chapter 23, perhaps using the sensitivity of women and children as my excuse. But I couldn’t because we were committed to it: committed to the principle of consecutive preaching, committed to hearing all of God’s counsel (Acts 20:27), committed to hearing all of God’s counsel through Ezekiel. And so with more fear than usual, I preached on Ezekiel 23 this past Sunday. In his providential humor, God made sure to pack the pews more than usual and in his providential mercy, he made sure our recording didn’t work. All in all, the sermon proceeded as planned: the Shepherd’s sheep listened well, if somewhat uncomfortably, and the gospel was preached to sinners and saints, focusing on the gospel’s call to trust Jesus exclusively.
Afterward, I reflected on our commitment to consecutive preaching. My first thought: no one who wasn’t committed to consecutive preaching would ever preach on Ezekiel 23, because if they just chose it as their text, well, that would be all-the-way-weird. Seriously, would you want a pastor who just up and decides that Ezekiel 23 is the passage he wants to preach that Sunday?
My second thought proceeded from the first: if a commitment to consecutive preaching is what keeps us under the Word of God through the uncomfortable bits, then I am more than glad for it. Faced with my own weaknesses and immaturity, I know I would have skipped this if the option was there. But I thank God for not giving us this option, for keeping us under his Word at all points.
My final thought was about hobbits: introducing hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien observes:
The genealogical trees at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch are a small book in themselves, and all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull. Hobbits delighted in such things, if they were accurate: they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions.
Just as I didn’t really delight in preaching this particular passage, I’m sure few delighted in hearing it. But that’s what sets apart Christians from hobbits. Rather than just giving us things we already know, God’s Word, rightly and consecutively preached, pushes and pulls at us, challenging us, discomforting us…all so that we would finally see ourselves as the truly sick who need the Great Physician. Left to ourselves, we each would have our own version of Jefferson’s Bible, edited down for our comfort and pleasure yet absent of the true gospel. Thank God that he doesn’t leave us to ourselves but continues to invade, tearing down and building up with his his holy, uncomfortable and ultimately comforting Word!