2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway was a motivational book called written by some years ago. Unfortunately for Ezekiel, it wasn’t published at the time he was around, because he might have found it useful. He was set the task of prophesying to the exiles in Babylon, but was warned up front that they probably wouldn’t want to listen. God told Ezekiel that he should go and speak to them anyway. It can’t have been the most enticing of prospects.
Our readings today all have something to say to about people being set a task that makes them vulnerable to failure. Ezekiel was sent to proclaim God’s word to a people who were stubborn, impudent and rebellious. In our gospel passage, Jesus sent his disciples out on a mission with absolutely nothing – not even the bare essentials for survival. There was the risk they wouldn’t last out more than a day or two on the road without food or shelter.
In our epistle reading we hear that Paul wasn’t exactly in the best of health as he set about the task of taking the gospel into the Gentile world. He was afflicted by something he described as a thorn in the flesh that was such a hindrance to his mission that he felt it must have been sent by Satan. Even Jesus wasn’t guaranteed success. The people of his hometown weren’t the only ones who found his message and behaviour unacceptable – the cross is proof of that.
I’m sure we must feel like too, sometimes: called to be servants of Christ in a world that doesn’t want to know us, and that we’re struggling in our weakness like Paul. Perhaps we feel we lack adequate resources like the twelve who were sent out with nothing to fall back on other than their partner and their faith in Jesus. What is interesting is that although the people in these passages must have felt they had been given a difficult task, they went ahead and got on with it anyway. None of them protests that the task is beyond them.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that kind of confidence, to be able to overcome our apprehensions and take the risk of doing bold things for God? So often, many of us want to feel safe and secure, to stick to what we know, perhaps some of us even avoid trying anything different or new, and resist all change. Of course, if we all felt like that all of the time, we’d hardly be a vibrant, healthy church, and it isn’t what we read about in the Bible.
When Jesus sent out the twelve on their mission, he didn’t promise them that they’d enjoy fantastic success and come back triumphant. They had to set out not knowing what the outcome would be. Perhaps Jesus himself didn’t know for sure. The reaction he got from the people of his hometown was certainly not what he’d anticipated. He was quite taken aback by it. Ezekiel wasn’t promised that his mission would be successful either – in fact, he was told to expect the very opposite.
For people like Ezekiel, Paul, Jesus, the apostles and the prophets, success or failure wasn’t the issue. Doing what God wanted was the issue. They focused on the task itself and allowed themselves to be vulnerable to failure for God’s sake.
When Jesus is rejected by his hometown, he moves on to somewhere else. He tells his disciples that if no one will listen to them they’re to shake the dust off their feet and try somewhere else. In other words, don’t worry about it. Look at how When Paul deals with his thorn in the flesh that won’t go away, he sees it as a way of giving even greater glory to God. Now there’s a perfect example of a win-win attitude of mind. If God will grant Paul healing from his affliction, that’s good because it will mean he’ll be fitter and stronger for his mission. But if God withholds healing, that’s good too because it will prove that Paul isn’t working under his own strength.
Motivational books like Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway recommend strategies like this win-win pattern of thinking, but as people of faith we have something extra that has real power to transform, encourage and renew us.
Ezekiel says that a spirit entered into him and set him on his feet. People who are inspired and empowered by God’s Spirit are full of trust in God. They have confidence in God’s wisdom and goodness, and so are helped to overcome the fears that would otherwise try to stifle them.
Perhaps the secret to finding the confidence to do bold things for God is to have faith that if we do it for the right reasons, the outcome will be what God desires. It might not fit in with what we had planned or envisaged, but if we’re motivated by Christian love and a readiness to proclaim the gospel, then perhaps that in itself is the most important thing. We can have no way of knowing what the longer term outcomes might be. Ezekiel couldn’t have known that his words, which his contemporaries might choose to ignore, would be preserved as holy scripture and would be read by many generations to come. Paul had no way of knowing how important his letters would become for Christians of a far-distant future in every corner of the globe. We never really know how God might use what we offer to God.
This might seem alright in theory, so long as we don’t actually have to do anything much ourselves. However, come the autumn, we’ll be faced with deciding how we respond to the options that our Feasibility Study gives us for the future of this building, and what kind of money we’ll need to raise. Remember that God might be wanting us to step out in faith, without knowing exactly where we’ll get to or how we’ll do it, but it might yet be what God wants us to do.
Another thing that we can learn from our gospel reading and our reading from the Hebrew bible is that the very people we might expect to be most receptive to the message of the prophets and the apostles often turn out to be those who are most resistant to hearing God’s word.
The prophet Ezekiel wasn’t sent to speak to pagans or foreigners but to God’s own people who were with him in exile in Babylon, yet he was warned even before he started that it was going to be an uphill battle. Jesus wasn’t speaking to pagans or foreigners either. He was in his local synagogue in his own hometown, amongst people who had been his neighbours and family friends. We might have expected them to be full of encouragement and support for this rabbi who was one of their own, but instead they couldn’t be open to receive from him because they thought they knew everything about him.
As followers of Christ today, we are the people who claim to be God’s own people, who know Jesus as our lord and Saviour. May we never be too stubborn to receive fresh guidance from him, or be so arrogant as to believe we know all there is to know about him. May we also find the company of Jesus challenging and unsettling from time to time.
Can we, like Paul, let God’s grace be sufficient for us, and rather than worrying about all the ways in which we could fail in our mission, let the power of Christ dwell in us? With God’s help we can Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.