Near the beginning of the book of Ezekiel God calls Ezekiel, saying to him, “But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (3.7, NRSV).
I preached this text for a friend’s installation service just over a year ago with the warning that pastoral work can be hard, met with resistance (both active and passive). At times the work of the pastor feels and looks like the work of the prophet Ezekiel. Many pastors are not sent to “a people of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand” (3.6) but to the people of God who can be stubborn, hard-hearted, and given to pagan worship. I told my friend that day that his work will be difficult and painful as God makes his forehead hard so that God can set it against the hard forehead of his people.
There is a danger inherent in pastoral ministry: the danger of assuming a competitive and/or violent “us against them” framework, thinking the congregation to be your antagonist with whom you must contend. Ezekiel lends itself to such a reading. One hard forehead set against another. One righteously called by God, the other living in rebellion under the judgment of God and the call to repentance.
But pastoral ministry is never that clean or tidy. One of the most painful gifts of God during my short two years as a pastor has been the continual uncovering of my own sins. I am constantly confronted with my own hard-foreheaded-ness and stubborn, rebellious heart. As in marriage or deep friendship, the relationship between a pastor and a congregation can be a place of sanctification, a place where our sins are revealed and exposed as we encounter, and are encountered by, another. As a pastor my own sins are revealed in my relationship with my congregation. Some of those sins are constantly put before me like the annoying, repetitive, never-ending ticker scroll across the bottom of a TV tuned into CNN.
There are times I find myself praying that God would help to harden my often soft, compromising forehead so that I may be faithful in my calling. But if I am not careful my hard forehead can soon become a hardened heart, a heart that stops seeing the people of God as those whom God loves, has redeemed, and is making holy. More often than not I find that instead of a hard forehead I need to ask God to soften my cold, hardened heart; to make fleshy my rebellious, sinful heart of stone.
In Ezekiel 36 God tells Ezekiel that he will cleanse Israel and forgive them of their sins “not for [Israel’s] sake” but for the sake of God’s own holy name. God says that he will “sprinkle clean water” upon his people, cleansing them of their sin. Ezekiel is to say to the house of Israel: “A new heart I will give you, a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36.26). In the beginning Ezekiel contends with the hard foreheads and stone hearts of God’s people and in the end, by the gracious mercy of God, Ezekiel proclaims to Israel that their hard foreheads are traded in for hearts of flesh, brought to life by the Holy Spirit.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the kingdom of God one must be “born from above” (John 3.3). Confused, Nicodemus asks how it is possible to be born again. Jesus, taking up Ezekiel 36 and making it his own, tells Nicodemus that to be born from above is to be born of “water and spirit.”
Water and Spirit, old hearts of stone replaced with new hearts of flesh, death and new birth—this is the mystery of God to me, to us—that in the waters of baptism we are sprinkled clean with water, cleansed with Christ; that in the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit our cold, stony hearts are being broken and in Christ, we are given a bleeding, fleshy heart of love.