Ezekiel 3:17-22 and Mark 13:32-37
If you had asked me two weeks ago to define the word tsunami I would have probably given since humorous response, suggesting that it was either an item on the menu of a Japanese restaurant or a new line of automobiles being produced by the Koreans. Today, however, there is nothing funny to be said about that awful word tsunami. This under water earthquake that produced waves that swept across the Indian Ocean at 50 miles per hour and then slammed into the coastal areas with waves of water as tall as a three-story building, washed away everything in it way for thousands of miles from India to Kenya and every island in between. The whole world stands in shock and sadness as we see over 150,000 people, mostly children, swept out to sea and then returned as bloated bodies. We have seen whole villages washed away and entire families killed as they sat together on a beach enjoying a vacation together. There is nothing funny about the word tsunami.
The events of last week represent a tragedy of epic proportion, and David Brooks was correct when he wrote in yesterday’s New York Times editorial page that none of us have words or emotions to fully explain what happened in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the other South Asia nations and islands that were impacted and often obliterated. Human beings have not tamed nature; we just live on the outskirts of its mercy. Every time we begin to think that we are the master of our fate and the captain of our soul” (to quote the words of William Ernest Henley in his poem “Invictus”), something happens like a flood or an earthquake, or a tsunami which is an earthquake that results in a flood, to remind us that life is fragile, time is limited and tomorrow is not promised.
As this New Year dawns upon us we would all be wise to remember that the tsunami was not just an event that occurred in the Indian Ocean. It was also a reminder to every one of us that we can be sitting pretty one minute and knocked down tomorrow. We can be on “easy street” one minute and find ourselves on “skid row” in the twinkling of an eye. Our economic security can be undermined by the loss of a job or the loss of the primary breadwinner in the family. A disease or an accident that can turn our world upside down in the twinkling of an eye can compromise our health status.
Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers and Lebron James. He was playing basketball on his 20th birthday and it seemed as if he had the whole world at his feet. The team was in first place for the first time in years, and young Mr. James was clearly the reason why. Then, without any warning, he was introduced to the elbow of Dikemba Matumbo of the Houston Rockets and James cheek bones was fractured, there was some initial concern if his season might be over, and if the team could carry on without him.
The same point could be made about the former pro football player, Reggie White who died of a heart attack last week at the age of 43. It could be said about the young, talented hip hop artists who were either shot and killed or died suddenly this year in the prime of their lives. How many public officials both in our local area and across the country find themselves in serious trouble with the law for one reason or another? How many people do you and I know hose lives were suddenly and painfully turned upside down? My point is simply this; life is uncertain and unpredictable. Time is short and we need to make the wisest use of that time while we are on this earth.
Let’s take another look at that tsunami that hit in the Indian Ocean last week. What makes this event all the more tragic, is that while the tsunami itself could never have been prevented, the death toll could have been significantly lowered if people on the shore had received even a few minutes of an early warning that might have allowed them to leave the beaches and move as far inland as possible. Such a system exists and has been used with great effectiveness in other parts of the world. However, for various reasons, both economic and political, that early warning system is not in operation in the South Asia region, and that enormous death toll was the result.
It is this idea of an early warning system that I want to explore with you today. Since we all realize more clearly than ever how quickly our lives can be turned upside down, there are numerous areas in life where a spiritual early warning system could be invaluable. I want to encourage you to let 2005 become the time when you take more time to watch what is going on around you and act accordingly. I also want to suggest that those of us who are Christians and members of the church have a special role to play when it comes to this business of taking the time to watch what is going on around us, and then of giving a warning to our society about what we see, whether anybody listens to us or not. In a sense, we have an obligation to be the same kind of early warning system that could have saved lives when the tsunami was approaching last week.
That is exactly the role that God assigned to the prophet Ezekiel. In the Ezekiel 3, God said to that prophet, “Son of Man I have made you a watchman over the house of Israel.” In order to grasp what it was that God was saying to and asking of Ezekiel you will need to use your imagination for a moment. Imagine an ancient or even a medieval city that was surrounded by high, thick walls that were meant to keep the people who lived inside safe from any attacks that might be coming from the outside. There would always be a heavy, immense gate that was the primary way in and out of that city, and those gates could be closed and secured whenever danger was approaching.
Sometimes the city would be surrounded by a small body of water called a moat that provided and additional measure of protection against any danger that approached from a distance. That moat could be crossed only when a draw bridge was lowered that allowed people to come in and out of the city. However, once the drawbridge was up sand the gates were closed people who were inside the city enjoyed a measure of security.
Most of the time the gates of those ancient cities would be open and people would be working both inside and outside the walls of the city. Shepherds would graze their flocks outside the city gates. Farmers would grow their crops outside the city gates. Caravans would pass back and forth outside of the gates of the city and the business of daily commerce would goon. Most of daily life would occur outside the city gates. It was only when some imminent danger was approaching that people would be warned and then be given time to move to safety inside the walls of the city gate.
How would the people know that a danger was approaching from the distance? There would be a lookout up on the walls of the city patrolling back and forth. His job was not to see what was going on right around him. His job was to keep his eyes on the horizon and see if an invading army or a band of marauders was marching in that direction. The person on the wall whose job it was to perform this role of looking out for the safety of the city was called the watchman. His job was not to have a conversation with the people in the streets down below; his job was to watch. His job was not to be asleep on the job or to reading the newspaper or listening to the latest tunes on his CD player with his headset on. His job was to watch what was going on in the world outside the city and sound a warning if he saw anything dangerous approaching.
Take that image of the watchman and apply it to society as a whole and you will begin to understand the task God was assigning to his prophet. God told the prophet Ezekiel that his job was to be keenly observant and see what dangers were approaching the nation as a whole. The prophet’s job was to see the evil actions in which some people were engaged and warn them before it was too late and they died as a result of their sins. The prophet’s job was also to see how some of the righteous people, the ones who are usually on the right side of God’s program have begun to slide back into the practices and beliefs they had before they on the horizon, and if he saw anything he was warn the people in the city.
In 2005 God is calling upon the church to play the role of the watchman. We need to be that early warning system for a society that is drifting off course in its moral values, its economic and political priorities and the content of its popular culture. When the wife and newborn child of a man named Scott Peterson are dead, when he has been convicted of their murder and sentenced to death, somebody needs to say that it is immoral for a publisher to seek to make money by publishing the memoirs of Peterson’s mistress. That is but one small evidence of the moral morass in which we find ourselves as a nation, and we need a watchman to warn us before it is too late.
We cannot allow our desire to be liked by everybody obscure the need to be willing to warn them of the dangers attached to the life they are living or the choices they are making. We need to keep our eyes open and our courage reinforced so that we can see what dangers are approaching our society and sound the warning before it is too late.
Let 2005 be the year when the followers of Jesus Christ serve as watchmen on the wall in America sounding the alarm of impending dangers that approach our society. Let me suggest that some of the dangers we must confront are more local and regional. I am convinced that every gain made by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is being undercut by the continuing high rate of teen pregnancy and children born out of wedlock in our own African American community. When will the church stop acting as if this problem is not happening? When will we realize that when children give birth to children the whole community suffers?
I agonize about raising this topic, because I know how many of us know young people in this situation and how we do not want to cause them any further hardship or embarrassment. On the other hand, if we allow this practice to continue we are digging a hole for our community out of which we may never emerge. Young people do not need their first lesson about sex to be a lesson about safe sex. Our young people need to be challenged to practice abstinence. When you hear about somebody who is 13 and 14 years old becoming sexually active, it is time for you to become the watchman on the wall and take some time to speak up and get involved and try to move that life in another direction.
We need to make it one of our resolutions in 2005 to take some time to talk with our young people about sex and personal responsibility. The answer is not Viagra, the answer is personal virtue. The answer is not safe sex, the answer is sex as a sacred act given by God that should not be engaged in by young people who are not even old enough to get a driver’s license, much less a marriage license. Are there any people in Antioch who are willing to do some “watching” in 2005?
I want to dig a little further into this watchman role and urge the church to toughen its position on the question of divorce. I believe that along with teen pregnancy, the break-up of marriages through divorce is one of the gravest dangers facing our nation. I understand that sometimes a relationship turns sour and it cannot be solved. If you are being beaten or abused you ought to get out of that relationship before you get carried out in a body bag. However, we need to urge people to work a lot harder at holding their marriages together. We need to urge people to have better communication. We need to urge people to take their marriage vows seriously and work things out “for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health until they are parted by death.”
I came out of a home that was marked by divorce, and I was reluctant to get married because I did not want to go through that experience myself. Thank God my wife and I have been together for almost 30 years, but it has not always been easy. But we worked at it, and we prayed about it, and we told ourselves that we had made a promise in the presence of God and we were going to keep that promise with God as our helper. Let me urge those of you who know couples whose marriages are undergoing a strain to become watchmen in their lives in 2005. Take the time to encourage them and support them and help them keep their marriage in tact. We need some watchmen in this New Year.
What we cannot do is act as if we have lots of time and put our role as watchman off for another time. That is the point of the parable told by Jesus in Mark 13. He spoke about a landowner who left for a long journey leaving his employees in charge of his business. Their job was to work steadily, so that whenever the owner returned he would find them at the work he had assigned to them. The parable ends with a clear and concise warning for everyone working on the owner’s property; WATCH!
That is what God is telling us today; we need to watch what is happening around us and be willing to sound an early warning before it is too late. We know two things from the text in Ezekiel; one is that if we give the warning people may not listen and they will still be destroyed. If that happens, their blood is on their own hands. On the other hand, if we see the danger approaching and decide to say nothing about it, those same people will die but their blood will be on our hands. The war may continue, but at least we sounded the alarm. Teen pregnancy and divorce may continue to escalate, but we will have sounded the alarm. The world may go on as it was before, but no one can say that the watchman failed to do his job.
Let me remind you again of a story from my hometown of Chicago that I have shared with you many times before. It is about a railroad crossing in that city and a man whose job it was to give drivers a warning when the train was about to cross at that point. This was at a time before flashing lights and gates that lowered so that cars and trucks would not get caught on the tracks as a train was passing by. In this instance, the only warning system there was involved a man who sat in a shed along the tracks at the point of the crossing with a schedule on his wall, a pocket watch in his jacket and a lantern at his side that he was suppose to light and wave whenever a train was approaching. He was the early warning system for the railroad. People had come to believe that as long as the light was not flashing it was safe for them to cross the tracks.
One night a train came rumbling through right on schedule, but the man in the shed had fallen asleep. He was awakened by the blowing of the train’s whistle and he quickly grabbed his lantern and went outside and began waving it to warn a truck that was coming that way. As the train got closer the truck kept coming. As the truck kept coming the man waved his lantern more and furiously, but to no avail. For some reason the early warning system was not working. Finally, in one horrible second, the train and the truck arrived in the center of the tracks at the same time and, of course, the train crushed that truck into a mass of twisted metal and broken glass.
An investigation was held a few weeks later and the man who sat in the shed was called upon to testify. This is the report that came to the city from the reporters who covered that trial. In a packed and humid court room the prosecuting attorney asked the man if he was in his shed on the night of the accident, and the man said that he was there. He was then asked if he heard the whistle of the train as it approached from a long distance away, and the man said that he did hear, though it was a lot closer than usual because he had fallen asleep. Next the man was asked if, in fact, he had grabbed his lantern and run out to wave it and warn any trucks or cars that might have been approaching. Yes, said the man; I did wave my lantern over and over again. Finally came the decisive question; did you light your lantern before you started waving it? Was there a flame in your lantern or were you waving a lantern without light? That was the fatal error; the man was waving a lantern that had no light. The early warning system that could have saved lives that night was not working because one man had a lamp without a light.
God is calling upon his church to be a lantern in a dark world. God is calling upon us to be watchmen for the city and for the nation. We have to be on the lookout for dangers of all kinds; moral, political, economic and domestic. Our job is simple; sound the alarm. People may or may not listen, but we must sound the alarm. The world may or may not change course, but we must sound the alarm. We cannot stop the spiritual tsunamis from hitting the beach, but we can give people enough warning to run for cover. Behold, God has made us a watchman for his world. Don’t be so busy with the things of this world that you and I forget our primary spiritual responsibility; WATCH and WARN!
Marvin A. McMickle is Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.