3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Ezekiel 2:8-3,11 Sermon
June 5, 2005
SBH 213 "Behold Us Lord, A Little Space"
TLH 342 "Chief Of Sinners Though I Be"
TLH 660 "I'm But a Stranger Here, Heaven Is My Home"
SBH 479 "I Need Thee Every Hour"
“STUBBORN AS A MULE”
TEXT: (3,7) “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 are of a hard forehead and of a stubborn heart.” (The entire Ezekiel text is printed following the sermon.)
This morning, I’d like to tell you the interesting story behind Schultz’s Hardware Store, a rather small store in the Midwest.
George Schultz grew up during the depression and war years. George’s dad ran a hardware store, and young George would go in and work for him. He listened and watched intently to everything his father said and did; and as a result he became an excellent hardware man. He loved the business, and it was his dream to go into hardware as his life’s occupation.
George's dad had died while he was in high school, and the family business had to be sold to pay expenses. So after George graduated from college.his education and experience landed him a senior manager’s position for a rather large hardware store in the city. He was making good money and he loved the work, however after several years, he began to find out that the people he was working for were dishonest businessmen. And what’s more, they were asking George to be dishonest too.
George of course couldn’t put up with this; he was a faithful Christian, and his conscience wouldn’t let him. And so he quit his nice paying job. He vowed then and there to be the exact same hardware man his father was, or nearly exact as he could be.
And so he began to drive around to various towns, searching for opportunities. He’d go into hardware stores, speak to the owners if he could, and find out about what kind of opportunities he might have, either working for, or starting his own business.
Then one day, he drove into this moderate sized community which had only one hardware store. George went in and began to talk to the owner, who was a white haired man in his mid 70’s.
The owner was very impressed with George and his knowledge of the business. So he told him that he was looking to retire and sell the business, and wound up making George an offer he couldn’t refuse. He wanted a cash down payment for the business, and then would collect rent on the building and land as a supplemental retirement income. Then after he and his wife both died, the building and land would become George’s too, sort of a lease/purchase agreement.
So between the money George had saved from his first job, plus some additional from his father’s life insurance settlement, he was able to pay what the owner wanted.
George was so happy. Finally his own business! Schultz’s Hardware was then born, and he was very successful.
When George got married, his wife came and worked in the store; and when they had children, they were around the store too helping where they could. It was a nice family operation; and all the while George did everything as exactly as he saw his father do, right down to a tee. And since George’s wife knew nothing about the hardware business, he wound up making all of the decisions himself.
As good as George was at knowing hardware, he lacked much in the area of public relations. He didn’t have nearly the patience of his father. He would frequently argue with customers about numerous things, sometimes trying to talk them into buying one thing that he had, rather than something else he didn’t. He would make biting and sarcastic comments, which made people angry. But people kept coming back all the time, mainly because he had the only hardware store in town.
George was upset when he heard of a new hardware store opening in the town. He fought with the town council trying to keep them out, but they opened up anyway. And when they did, George’s sales dropped nearly 50%.
As time went on, George’s children grew up and moved away. Since the hardware store was getting too much for George and his wife, it came time to hire a manager. The man he hired used to be a customer service representative for the home office of a hardware chain, so he certainly new hardware. He was looking for something less stressful than what he’d been in before.
George started out liking the guy, but soon became disillusioned with him when customers would walk right on by him, and deal with the new manager. And then the manager started talking about doing some new and updated things to get the business booming again. He saw areas where the other store in town was weak, where they could be strong. He talked about advertising, putting things on sale, adding some new lines and discontinuing others, etc.
But George would yell out “NO!” “My father never would have done things that way, and I don’t plan to either. You’re not even a fourth the hardware man he was!” And every time something was suggested that seemed to go against what George learned from his dad, he always took it as a personal insult against his father. Everything had to be done exactly as his father did it. After all, it had worked for years, and George couldn’t see any reason to change anything.
The manager patiently tried to work with George, but nothing would sink in. He reckoned that all this was more stressful than the job he had left because of stress. And so when the manager was offered the manager’s position at the competitor’s hardware store, he left. Then George watched as his former manager’s suggestions were put into practice by his competitor. George’s sales dropped even more. But George still couldn’t see that it was his problem. But I guess what hurt George the most, was when he drove by his competitor’s store and saw his own pastor coming out with a major purchase.
Here’s some examples of what George did. He would not allow anything made overseas in his store, nor would he consider changing brands to a better line of something. He would never carry a metric tool or bolt in his store, with the reasoning that this “metric stuff” was a passing fad, and he didn’t want a lot of surplus stock when the fad wore off. When Visa and Master Card came out (back then it was BankAmericard and Master Charge) he would have nothing to do with that. “A bunch of loan sharks” he called them; and besides he did give his customers store credit, which he felt was just as good or better. And of course there’s a lot more.
Let’s put old George on the back burner for awhile, and look at some of the words of our text for today. Ezekiel records the words God is speaking when he writes: “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 are of a hard forehead and of a stubborn heart.”
First of all, we can see how stubbornness and hard headedness are two very big problems for God and His workers. It is almost like God was having to deal with an entire nation of Georges! You can just sense the intense amount of frustration in these words.
And secondly, we can see how this stubbornness and hard headedness made the Israelites into their own worst enemy, somewhat in the same sense that George was his own worst enemy. He wouldn’t listen to reason. He didn’t want to be confused with facts, as his mind was already made up. Everything had to be done in the pattern of his father.
As our text opens, we see the Lord reminding Ezekiel not to pattern himself after the Israelites. Then God gives Ezekiel a scroll, on which was written “words of lamentation and woe.” These were God’s words of judgment against the hard headed and stubborn Israelites. They were their own worst enemies, and they were taking themselves on a path of certain destruction.
Then God imparts these words to Ezekiel in a very picturesque fashion. He tells him to eat the scroll, which Ezekiel describes as being sweeter than honey, and quite delicious. Today of course, we might think of the one prayer in the liturgy which has this line in it about how we are to regard God’s Word: “(that we are to) read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.” Certainly the Word of God is sweet for us, sweet because through it we are brought to faith and are saved.
Next, God makes Ezekiel’s head “harder than flint.” So no matter how hard headed these Israelites were, Ezekiel could be tougher. Indeed a very formidable opponent! And if the Israelites decided to ignore God’s Word spoken through Ezekiel, then they could only expect the words of God’s judgment against them.
But the fascinating thing about all this, is that regardless of how frustrated God gets with these people, He keeps on going back and gives them chance after chance. God still loves, even when His children ignore him time after time.
The stubbornness and hard headedness of the Israelites of course isn’t limited to right here. They kept on being stubborn, even to the point of trying to kill several of God’s prophets. This stubbornness is carried right through their past, and can even be clearly seen in our Gospel lesson for today.
In the Gospel lesson, we see Jesus calling a tax collector, Matthew, to be one of his apostles. Matthew was probably a well known figure, because other tax collectors and sinners followed along and wound up joining them for a meal.
The Pharisees come up and criticize Jesus for eating with them. And Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The Pharisees were cut from the same cloth as the Israelites were in Ezekiel’s time. They were hard headed and stubborn. Certainly they were sick with sin and in need of what Jesus the great physician had to offer. But not in their eyes. They saw themselves as righteous, and certainly not in the same boat with the people Jesus was eating with. Hence the response that Jesus gives.
You see, the Pharisees were like another group of Georges as well. You couldn’t tell them anything. They were more concerned about hanging on to the traditions of their forefathers, than they were about the ministry to the people. The ritual had become more important than the message. For the Pharisees, the traditions of their fathers became their golden calf, and woe to the person that would dare challenge that!
So the point of all this is quite simple really. We are all “Georges” to a greater or lesser degree. We all have that bit of George we carry around with us, that influences our thinking and our decisions. Or we could say that we all have that little bit of the hard headed and stubborn Israelite or Pharisee. Whatever.
But when we’re honest, we have to see that in ourselves. Maybe it shows itself with other people, maybe it shows itself in the way we deal with our families, and far too frequently it shows itself in the way we deal with God. We must recognize George in ourselves; and when we do, we can’t just excuse it or justify it. No, it represents a sin in our lives, and we have to root it out.
Jesus tells the Pharisees, “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” And so we come to the great physician, Jesus Himself. We come confessing our George disease, or Israelite disease, or Pharisee disease. We come to Him with the knowledge that we will be spiritually healed. We know that through faith in Him, we will enter heaven someday, not as Georges, but as Jesuses. George will be a forgotten part of our past that died with us. Jesus has put that George part of us to death, when He died on the cross.
So what’s the end of the George story? Well, George went through a number of different managers who would stay awhile. Business would pick up a bit, but then they’d get frustrated and leave. Last I heard, George and his wife were at retirement age, and they both were tired and wanted out. He had incorporated his business, and decided to split the corporation five ways: one fifth to his wife, one fifth to him, and one fifth to each of their three children.
George and his wife don’t come in to the store much anymore. His daughter started to do the bookkeeping and ordering work. His two sons come in off and on, but are otherwise employed and have families, so they don’t have much time. And yet another new manager has been hired.
Now you would think that having George pretty much out of the picture would help matters; however his children learned a lot from him, bad judgment and all. His daughter is always giving the new manager grief about how her dad would have done this and not that, etc. And of course she is continually phoning him telling him what’s going on and asking for advice. Fortunately though, the manager has a head that’s “as hard as flint,” so he’s holding up pretty well.
So what was George’s problem? Why was he this way? Well, he learned the hardware business during the depression and war years, and still ran the business as if there was still a depression or war going on. When he went to work for an advancing and growing company, he found out that they were dishonest; and so he acquired this bad taste for anything that was remotely progressive. He developed a tenacity for his father’s ways and methods, and faithfully stuck to them, even though it about cost him his entire business several times.
Of all the things that George learned from his father, he failed to learn his dad’s optimism, his pleasant character, his loyalty to his customers, and his progressive attitude. He just about threw away his business just to remain loyal to the traditions he learned from his father. Some were good, no doubt about it, but many were very much outdated and not applicable to the changing society.
Over the years, especially when times were tough, George would wonder to himself: “What would dad do?” Considering how things were going and what George was doing, I’d say his dad would have given him a swift kick in the seat of his pants.
Our text from Ezekiel and our Gospel lessons for today are warnings for us too; warning us not to be representative of the Israelites or the Pharisees, where the method means more than the ministry. So in faith we come to Jesus as the stubborn and hard headed people we all can be sometimes; we come as the sick, as the sinner, knowing that He will forgive and heal us, and that He is our righteousness.
Ezekiel 2, 8 – 3, 11
8 But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you."
9 Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, 10 which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.
1 And he said to me, "Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel." 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.
3 Then he said to me, "Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it." So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.
4 He then said to me: "Son of man, go now to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. 5 You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel- 6 not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. 7 But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate. 8 But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. 9 I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house."
10 And he said to me, "Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you. 11 Go now to your countrymen in exile and speak to them. Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says,' whether they listen or fail to listen."