Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 3, 2011

Sermon on Ezekiel 33:7-11

SIN IS SERIOUS!

  1. For the ministers God calls to confront sin
  2. For the sinners God calls to repent of sin

Text: Ezekiel 33:7-11

I.

You wake up one morning and your back is killing you.  It seems like it takes nothing short of a miracle to get out of bed and stand upright, except that you’re not quite up right.  The day goes on, but you don’t feel any better.  You’ve dealt with back pain before, but nothing quite like this.  So you decide that it’s time for a visit to the chiropractor.  Since you’re a St. Mark’s member, you call up Dr. LeMay.  He takes some x-rays, runs you through some tests, and asks some questions.  He’ll be able to help you, but he also has some advice.  If you want to avoid any reoccurrences of this problem, you should really take up some specific exercises that will keep your spine where it’s supposed to be, and you should think about improving your posture which might have had something to do with your sudden pain.

You’re eating lunch and all of a sudden you have pain in one of your teeth like you’ve never had before.  It seems like any time there’s pressure on that spot, the pain comes back.  You can’t eat or drink without pain, and after a day or two it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  So you decide it’s time for a visit to the dentist.  Since you’re a St. Mark’s member, you call up Dr. Peterson.  You fill out a questioner, his assistants take some x-rays, and you have an examination.  The news isn’t pretty.  You’ve got a mouth full of cavities.  He’ll be able to help you, but he also has some advice.  If you want to avoid revisiting this situation, you’ll need to brush more carefully, floss daily, and stay on top of your dental health more faithfully.

Question: When our imaginary St. Mark’s member took these imaginary visits to Drs. LeMay and Peterson, do you think the doctors’ advice came from a general desire to boss their patients around and to make them feel miserable for not being in tip-top health?  Or maybe, just maybe, were the doctors interested in helping you avoid major problems in the future?  Of course!  In fact, if doctors are not honest with their patients—even if their honest news is not what the patient wants to hear—they put make themselves liable to a lawsuit.  We want our doctors—any doctor—to tell us what we need to hear, which is not always what we want to hear.

The point of these illustrations is not to give free advertising to medical practitioners who belong to St. Mark’s.  The point of these illustrations is to provide a modern parallel to the illustration that leads up to today’s First Lesson.  The First Lesson from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel is the basis for today’s sermon.  The excerpt you heard begins partway into a chapter.  The opening verses of the chapter, which you didn’t hear, contain an illustration that related to life in the ancient world.  Ezekiel talks about a watchman who sees an enemy coming to attack, and yet the watchman does nothing to warn the people of the city about the impending attack.  Speaking for God, Ezekiel said, “If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood.”  We are far removed from the time and culture in which a watchman guarded a city.  Citrus Heights is not surrounded by a wall and there is no watchman to alert us if the army of Fair Oaks or Roseville decided to attack.  But the point should still be obvious.  An ancient watchman who didn’t issue a warning wasn’t doing his job.  Even if his news isn’t what the city wanted to hear, he needed to report that an enemy was about to attack.  That may not be what the citizens of that city wanted to hear, but it is what they needed to hear.

With those ancient and modern illustrations in mind, listen to what God told Ezekiel in today’s First Lesson.  “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.  But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.” 

Ezekiel was not a doctor of chiropractic or dentistry.  He was a doctor of souls.  He was not a watchman for a city.  He was a watchman for the Church.  And the task that God gives him in our reading is to confront the wicked and the sinner.  No doctor wants to deal with a malpractice lawsuit, but if Ezekiel doesn’t do his job, a lawsuit would be welcome consequence compared to what God says.  “[If] you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.”  In no uncertain terms, God says that sin is deadly serious, serious enough to put someone to death in this life and the life to come.  And since God appointed Ezekiel to confront the sinfulness of ancient Judah, he needed to confront sin.  He would be held responsible if the wayward Israelites were not addressed.  If he warned the wayward Israelites and his warning was ignored, he could know that he was faithful to his task even if his message fell on deaf ears.  Sin is serious business for the ministers God calls to confront sin!

I don’t know a single pastor who thinks that church discipline is the most exciting part of his ministry.  I’ve never met a church elder who jumps at the chance to confront inactive members who have strayed away from the Word and Sacraments.  Contrary to the old stereotypes, faithful ministers in God’s Church are not out to control people’s lives, or to flex their egos, or to impose their agendas.  Pastors confront sin because God has called them to confront sin.  Christians confront sin because in the Gospel for today Jesus called us to confront sin, and he even mapped out a specific approach to follow when someone shows no repentance.

Biting tongues that divide families or cause rifts in churches need to be addressed.  Apathetic hearts that see no need for the Word of God need to be confronted.  The personal pet sins that we think we have an excuse for need to be dealt with.  In familiar words that echo our First Lesson, Saint Paul said, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Sin needs to be dealt with because it is not merely something that hurts someone else, but because it puts us on the path to death.  That’s why sin is serious business for the ministers God calls to confront sin.

II.

Do you like to follow politics?  I try to keep up with national politics, but it doesn’t take long to get annoyed with politicians.  One of the things that gets annoying—and it happens on both sides of the aisle—is the blame game.  Have you ever heard a politician who took full and complete responsibility for a problem?  “Yes, I admit that my platform and policies led to our current crisis?”  The day that a politician actually says that will be a cold day in Hades!

Of course, politicians don’t have a monopoly on that kind of thinking.  Isn’t it easy to blame your course words or your self-centered actions on someone else?  Dysfunctional homes, difficult spouses, or downright unreasonable bosses are entirely responsible for all of our problems—so we think.  And while we cannot deny the disastrous effects that one person can bring to others, we also ought not to pretend that other people are responsible for the dysfunction and difficultness and downright unreasonableness that we can be just as guilty of.

What I have just described was the situation in ancient Judah, the little two-tribe remainder of what used to be the great nation of Israel.  Ezekiel had been warning the people of Judah that if they continued to wander away from God, God was going to let the nation of Babylon take them captive.  When Ezekiel began his work, Babylon had already come through once and hauled off people into captivity—including Ezekiel.  When Ezekiel wrote this section of his book, Babylon had come through again, destroying Jerusalem and its temple and hauling even more Jews off into captivity.  Before this unfortunate attack, the people of Judah had just passed the buck.  They blamed their forefathers for their problems.  They even blamed God for their problems!  They blamed everyone but themselves—until now.

Finally, they admit the problem.  Ezekiel sums it up: “This is what you are saying: ‘Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them.  How then can we live?’”  Finally, they realize that sin is serious for themselves, the sinners God called to repentance.  Their sin, their guilt, their constant rejection of God’s Word and wandering from his ways caused their souls to rot away.  What could be more helpless than something that cannot even stop itself from rotting?  They knew that they ought to be on the wrong side of God’s judgment.  They knew they were dying—but they wanted to live!

So what does God tell them?  They knew how long and far they’ve wandered from God.  They knew that death should be around the corner.  So did God.  So what did God tell them?  “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  To these down-and-out exiles who have wandered from the Lord about as far as they could have, God says, “Turn away from your sin and return to me in faith.”  We know the same truth from words that St. Paul wrote: “God our Savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).  Can’t you just hear the anguished invitation?  “I want to forgive!  I want to reconcile you to myself!  Why do you want to rot away in your sin?  Why do you want to die?”

What about those times when you realize that you can no longer hide, excuse, or explain away your guilt?  What about those times when you feel like you have no business approaching a holy God who only lets holy people into his holy presence?  At that moment, when you expect to come face-to-face with an angry judge who is ready to toss you into death’s prison and throw away the key, God says: “Why do you want to die?  Look to my Son’s death on the cross that has already paid for your sins.  Look at his empty tomb and the forgiveness and life that you will find inside it.  Turn to me and live!”

Maybe you think that it can’t be that easy.  “Firmly in these words believe, Jesus sinners does receive” sounds great in a hymn, but it just can’t be that simple.  Why would confessing my sin bring me peace instead of punishment?  If you aren’t so sure that confessing your sin to God is the answer to your guilt, then ask yourself this.  Why would a holy God send his sinless Son into a sinful world that has rejected him six ways to Sunday?  Why would the Son of God actually endure—and defeat—the very same temptations you and I experience, and why would he never flaunt his perfect record in our faces?  Why would the Son of God endure the eternal agony for your sins and my sins on the cross?  Why would God the Father raise his Son from the dead and declare that event to be proof positive that your forgiveness has been won and your death has been defeated?  Why would God direct his ministers and all Christians to confront sin and then to proclaim grace and forgiveness to the repentant sinner?  Why would God give us a gift like Holy Communion, feeding your souls with the very body and blood of your Savior that won your forgiveness in the first place?  Why would Christ do all this for you and why would God proclaim this good news to you?  Because “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”

There is no doubt that sin is serious.  Sin separates us from God and from each other.  Sin is serious for the sinner God calls to repentance.  But God is serious about sin so that he may be serious with his grace!  God addresses sin with this single goal in mind: to call you back to himself and to keep you in his grace.

Conclusion

Did you notice anything unusual about the musical arrangement of Psalm 51 that we sang this morning?  The ending didn’t feel like an ending, did it?  As we sang the final refrain with the choir, we were left with a sense that there was more to come.  It didn’t sound like the typical way to end a piece of music.

I have no idea if the composer of that Psalm setting had this point in mind, but I think that was the perfect ending to that psalm.  Psalm 51 contains King David’s confession of sin after he committed adultery with Bathsheba.  We sang a psalm of confession, but confession is never the final word.  A Christian’s confession is always followed by absolution—a statement from the Christian friend or pastor we confide in that the blood of Jesus has wiped away our sin.

Sin is serious, but so is God’s grace.  Sin is serious, but confessing our sin is never the end of the story.  Confession leads to absolution.  Admission of sin leads to forgiveness of sin.  Law leads to gospel.  No wonder God invites us to come clean with our sin so he can declare us clean in the blood of Jesus.  So “Come, O sinners, one and all; come accept his invitation.  Come, obey his gracious call.  Come and take his free salvation.  Firmly in these words believe: Jesus sinners does receive.”  Amen.

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