The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the occasion of St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, 21 September 2020.
Eat the scroll (Ezekiel 2:8-3:11)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Brothers: Eat the scroll, … though it may at times cause indigestion!
There is a way that you can read the Bible and hardly ever think about the pastoral office. Many “evangelicals” do that. Sometimes it’s really hard to do. For instance, in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 5, The Sermon on the Mount, we notice that although Jesus speaks from a hilltop so that the crowds can hear too, He is first speaking to His disciples, those future pastors. Jesus is forming these select sheep into shepherds. And before these sheep can feed, they need to be fed. Pastors are both sheep and shepherds. Incidentally, they do not just suffer with their flock, but also by, for, and even instead of the flock, like the pattern set for us by the Chief Shepherd, Christ and Him Crucified, yet also the unique Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Seminarians are in the midst of a transition into a new identity. Even after many years of being a pastor it remains an awkward fit.
In the vision to Ezekiel, its pretty difficult to opt for a view of pastor as simply an elevated lay person or skilled leader, over one that embraces the prophetic role that he plays in the kingdom of God. He’s not just a missionary either. He is sent to God’s believing people. So, brothers, here in seminary you eat, and learn to eat the scroll, while also experiencing a kind of transformation that can feel like a fluctuation between rejuvenation and indigestion.
So we pray: Blessed lord, You have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that, by patience and comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Now, I believe that there are two kinds of eating that we experience in our ministry. As baptised believers, we eagerly devour the Gospel Word when we feel ourselves famished, such as during a crisis or those dark and desert moments when we suffer from involuntary fasts due to the bleak circumstances in life that the Lord has permitted to befall us. Sometimes students with their heavy workloads need to read a lot of the Bible in one setting. But this isn’t what I mean. Its not about quantity. Its about necessity. We feel ourselves so hungry that we cannot stay away from the bread from heaven, even if we tried. Like all Christians we eat it, even devour it, since we need it for ourselves.
But then there is the kind of eating that happens for the sake of others. Ezekiel is commanded to eat the scroll of God’s holy Word, for the sake of God’s people. He is not asked to simply read, contemplate, reflect upon it, but called to something even more radical and life consuming. Eating to feed involves slow chewing, allowing each delicious morsel of the feast that you don’t want to end, to circulate within your mouth, carefully and prayerfully controlling the way it brushes against your tongue and activates your taste buds; not just for your own sake, but so that you can best describe, or rather, effectively convey these tastes to others: to transmit them to the beloved members of your congregation, in an effort to satisfy their hunger. There is no greater joy then feeding hungry souls who are eager to eat; and even when it seems that they only have an appetite for some nibbling.
A pastor is like a mother bird feeding her chicks the same food that she has just consumed and digested; regurgitating it within the nest of God’s Church. In medieval times Jesus is symbolised as a mother stork who takes her beak and penetrates her own body in order to feed her little ones her very own flesh. Its hurts but is worth it. There is no scientific foundation for the idea. But still the image is profound. So too pastoral nurturing of others involves suffering, Anfechtung, tentatio.
For multicultural Canadians, many of us enjoy sampling new foods. But in most countries people don’t have diverse diets. They eat and enjoy simple meals with limited ingredients. Moreover, the Old Testament Jews, with the distinctions between clean and unclean things, were accustomed to avoiding even the taste of foreign foods. Pastor Ezekiel may have been as uncomfortable with this vision, as St Peter was with his when our Lord commanded him to eat formerly forbidden foods. Its not easy, nor comfortable, nor even natural, consuming what God has carefully prepared for us to eat, digest and share. It is an alien experience. You should have a few butterflies in your stomach when you preach and lead worship, and eventually preside at the altar. These are sacred acts, sacred places, because they (and you) embody sacred words. Its equally uncomfortable and can even cause painful stomach cramps regurgitating that which we have consumed when the mouths of our hearers are tightened shut. After all, ours is often unpopular message, an increasingly distasteful and neglected dish among the smorgasbord of denominations who continue to add tempting new sugar coated plates that cater to what the majority think will satisfy their hunger, but are sure to cause spiritual food poisoning. Force feeding an infant who refuses to eat good nutritious food is nothing compared to faithfully preaching the full counsel of God to Christians who, however unintentionally, lack faith in the necessity of the pastoral office for their spiritual health and this divine nurturing process. Its one thing when strangers reject clergy, but when our spiritual family does it, it cuts like a knife.
For the prophet Ezekiel, episodes of his personal life uniquely embody divine expressions of judgement. He suffered immensely for the people that he was called to serve. They were angry when he prophesied unsettling news, and even angrier when those prophecies came true. Ezekiel was martyred. He foreshadowed Christ and His cross, the final prophet. Like the prophets, we have been chosen, called. You didn’t enter seminary by accident. We are messengers or soon to be (by the grace and will of God). Yet we do not just carry the message. We embody it. We eat the scroll, digest it and it changes you. After all, you are what you eat. We shouldn’t take successes or failures in the ministry personally, since Jesus says he who listens to you listens to Him. He is the chef and the meal.
Consider the vision to another prophet, Isaiah, where the winged angel touched the preacher’s tongue with a glowing coal, transmitted from the holy altar, which purified his soul from its sin, and anointed his tongue with God’s grace. Bible study is a great opportunity for pastors to regurgitate what they have digested, to their hearers, but location matters too. There is no replacement for the divine word expressed in the Divine service, as the winged man anoints lips and invites us to eat and be satisfied by the Word made flesh, bread made body. God says “open your mouth and eat what I give you.” We respond, “Lord open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”
And when we cease to fret over whether the foreign message put into our mouths, entrusted to our care, handed to us by Christ’s outstretched arms from the cross, is happily received or not, we find that it is less bitter than we had thought before, and is rather sweet as honey. For many, the Gospel is indeed hard to swallow. For some Lutherans, gazing upon a crucifix (upon Him who reminds us and forgives us all our sins) as opposed to, say, an empty cross — with not much meat! — takes a lot of “stomaching”. Yet once the grumbling of hunger pangs begins to vibrate in a soul, the Christian jaw naturally begins to moisten and drop open to receive the bread of life, manna from heaven; yes sour to some lips but delightful to ours.
So brothers, take and eat the scroll and feast upon the Lord’s holy Word. And all you beloved children of God, Taste and see that the Lord is good. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all human understanding guard your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.