When I read the books of the prophets in the Old Testament I can’t help but feel at least a little sorry for them. They really had some terrible assignments. Sometimes pastors complain about the assignments they get, but I think few could ever compare to the tasks God gave the prophets. They had to denounce things and proclaim judgment against nations. I have never been a very good denouncer, so I think it was a hard task.
But, the truth is that sometimes God asks all of us to do some hard things. Sometimes when God asks us to do something hard there is great reward to it. We love hearing those stories of people who took risks for God and went on to accomplish great things. But, there are other stories too. There are also stories of missionaries who spent nearly their entire lives in a country with little to show for it, according to our standards of success. All they had was the assurance that they were doing the right thing. That comes from within. If you aren’t successful by the standards of our culture you won’t get much encouragement from others. It has to come from inside. It has to come from God. It is the power to get up everyday and do the right thing because you know it is the right thing. Maybe there are some of you reading this right now who are frustrated about this. You know you are doing the right thing, but there doesn’t seem to be any reward for it. I want to encourage you. Keep doing the right thing.
I find it interesting what God told the prophet Ezekiel right after giving him the mother of all bad assignments. He said, “Don’t be afraid though briers and thorns are all around you and scorpions as well.” (Ezekiel 2:6) Now the brier patch is an interesting spiritual image. If you have ever tried to work your way through a brier patch you know how painful and difficult it can be. They prick, tear at the skin, catch at the hair and trip your feet.
The Brier Patch.[i] What a great metaphor for following God in a difficult task. Brier patches are difficult places. I generally try to stay out of them. But, I remember as a kid I would have to work my way though briers to pick blackberries. I don’t know if I have ever mentioned this before, but I love blackberries. The only thing better than blackberries is blackberry cobbler. And my mother could make those. That was my reward for enduring the briers. If I returned with a bucketful of blackberries she would make me a cobbler. It made the pain worth it. Sometimes following God is difficult. Doing the right thing is difficult. But the reward is to know you did the right thing and to know that you honored God with your actions.
But, the brier patch God speaks of is around Ezekiel. Do you remember that old story about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox? At long last Brer Fox trapped Brer Rabbit and was going to have him for dinner. Ever the trickster, Brer Rabbit tells Brer Fox that he doesn’t want to be eaten, but at least he didn’t throw him in the brier patch. There is nothing worse than being thrown in the brier patch. “Whatever you do,” he said, “Don’t throw me in the brier patch.” The reverse psychology worked and Brer Fox, out of meanness, threw Brer Rabbit into the brier patch. Born and bred in the brier patch, Brer Rabbit laughed as he escaped yet again from his archenemy, Brer Fox.
The Brier patch isn’t just a difficult place. It is also a place of protection. Ezekiel is encircled by the brier patch. Like Brer rabbit it is his protection. It protects him from what is outside of it. The briers are both difficulty and protection. To accept the divine protection of the thorns gets rid of any illusions about the harshness of the world or it’s ability to wound us even when we are doing God’s will. Even when we do God’s work we often emerge with scratches and scars.
Just look at Jesus.
[i] I am thankful to Margaret Odell for her insights into the Brier Patch as a spiritual image, Ezekiel, pp.49-51.