My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.
When all this comes true—and it surely will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.
I read somewhere recently that “good job” is the most destructive phrase in the English language. I’m suspicious of that statement, and I think I can imagine some much more destructive phrases, but I get the point. “Good job” can be a participation trophy, a “thanks for playing” that encourages people to revel in mediocrity. Sometimes saying “good job” is really just shorthand for “whatever you just did was not outstanding in any way, but I have neither the time or energy to give you an honest critique.” (I know, also, that sometimes “good job” simply means “I think you did a good job with that. Congratulations.” But sometimes you can’t tell which meaning is intended, and I guess therein lies the point.)
I experience “good job” moments most every Sunday, as people walk by me at the door of the church. “Good sermon” is actually what I hear most often. People rarely complain to my face right there. Some shake my hand or give me a hug and say nothing. Every once in a while, someone wants to discuss something they heard, or ask me a question. But, by and large, what I hear most is “Good sermon.”
Sometimes it means something like “that sermon really connected with me,” or “you really addressed something that I’ve been thinking about lately.” Sometimes it no doubt means “I think you were correct in the things you said, though I don’t really see the relevance.” Sometimes it probably means “you seem to have worked really hard on that, and so I feel like I should say something nice.” I can’t always tell. I usually can’t, in fact.
The thing is, I really like hearing “good sermon.”
It feels like a win, doesn’t it? When someone compliments something you’ve done, something you’ve worked hard on and care about, it’s a success. It almost doesn’t matter why. If someone approves, you were successful. Their approval validates your efforts.
We grow up with that, looking for the approval of others, measuring success by the number of “good jobs” that we hear. I wonder why that is? Some Sundays, not many, I preach a sermon that I think is really good. But if I don’t hear many “good sermons” that week, I start to question it. Maybe it wasn’t as good as I thought. And, conversely, if I preach one that’s I feel is a clunker and get lots of approval, well, it must have been better than I though.
Ever feel like that at your job? At school? In your home? In your marriage? Do you ever try to measure success by the approval of others?
Ezekiel was a prophet who lived more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus. God gave him the difficult job of bringing a message from him to “a rebellious people.” God doesn’t give him a lot of hope from the outset that his work will change a lot of hearts. He doesn’t give Ezekiel reason to think that his service to the people of God will forestall the judgment that is coming. But Ezekiel’s work isn’t to win the approval of his countrymen. His work is to testify to the power and the coming judgment of God, so that the people “will know that a prophet has been among them.” “One day,” God says, “they’ll look back and say to themselves, ‘Ezekiel was trying to tell us, and he was right.’” And that, for Ezekiel, would be success.
It just can’t be right, can it, that the approval of others is the marker of success? What if, for example, the neighbors around your church take offense to your church’s efforts to feed hungry people? What if they complain about the class of people that your church’s ministry attracts? Is it success to end the ministry and enjoy your neighbors’ approval? Or is it success to continue caring for those in need?
Are you successful if your teacher likes your plagiarized paper? Are you successful if your boss gives you a bonus on the basis of numbers you reached by intimidating and bullying the people who work for you? Can you call yourself a success if you achieve your career goals while abdicating your responsibility to your children?
Ezekiel needed to change is definition of success. God even says that Ezekiel will have his share of “good job” moments, when his countrymen tell him what a great sermon he just preached. But he isn’t to be taken in by those moments, nor is he to worry about creating them. His job isn’t to cater to those who listen to sermons like they listen to singers sing love songs, or like they listen to gifted musicians. He is called, instead, to witness to the power and presence of God. To make it possible for people, even in hindsight, to say “a prophet was among us,” and so to know that the Lord has been among them all along, too.
That, in case you haven’t made the connection yet, is your job too. Your calling. It matters remarkably little if the people around you understand or appreciate that. Listen, please your boss whenever you can. Make the best grades you can. Work hard to preach the best sermons you can, if that’s what you do. But don’t begin to imagine that the approval of people means you’ve succeeded, or that their disapproval means you’ve failed. Your calling, always, is to witness to the power and presence of God. Do what God has called you to do, whatever it is: manage an office, drive a truck, operate on a patient, write an ad, care for your children, teach a class, take a class, have coffee with a friend, play golf with a co-worker. But don’t do it for a “good job” from other people. Do it so that those people will get a glimpse of God in the face of Jesus.
His approval is what ultimately matters. And he is not difficult to please. So do everything you do less to please the people around you, and more to help them to know him.