The Third Sunday in Lent
March 6-7, 2010
Text: Ezekiel 33:7-20
Dear Friends in Christ,
In order to understand the place of Ezekiel in the Bible we must understand the divisions of the Old Testament. The Christian Church has not regarded all books equally. In the Old Testament, the books are divided into four sections, according to the old Jewish division of the books. The five books Moses are the most important. They are called the Torah or the Law. Then comes those books connected to full time, professional prophets. They are called the Nevieem or the Prophets. The third division is those books written by part time prophets. They are called the Kethibeem or the Writings. The fourth division is those writings which were regarded as accurate and useful, but not actually inspired by God. We call this the Apocrypha. It is often not included in Bibles today, but as recently as 1800 it would have been unthinkable to print a Bible without the Apocrypha. Ezekiel was a full time prophet, thus is part of the Prophets. He is the last major writing prophet. About now you should be ready jump up and say what about Daniel? Didn’t he live about the same time as Ezekiel and in fact probably was active as a prophet after Ezekiel? Ah, yes, but we don’t count Daniel as a major writing prophet because his day job was that of advisor to the King of Babylon. So Daniel was a part time prophet and thus his book is considered to be part of the Writings. And yes, we should understand this as a pecking order. The Law is more important the Prophets, which in turn are more important than the writings, which in turn are more important than the Apocrypha.
Ezekiel was one of the first exiles take from Judah to Babylon by King Nebucudnezzar. In one place in Ezekiel it says they were taken to Babylon twelve years before they heard of the fall of Jerusalem, which took place in 586 B.C. They were being held essentially as hostages for the good behavior of the people back in Judah. Thus they were allowed to remain as a separate community. They were not forced to intermarry with Babylonians. This is different than Israel, that is the northern kingdom, where the people were forced by the Assyrians to marry non-Israelites, thus losing their ethnic identity.
The assumption was that Yahweh was most powerful in Jerusalem. He would be weaker in Babylon. In fact, in Babylon, because of the power of the Babylonian gods, it was doubtful if Yahweh could speak or act at all. Yet, in the very heart of Babylon, God raised up Ezekiel as a prophet. Like Jeremiah, his contemporary back in Judah, Ezekial was a prophet of God’s judgement. But he was also a prophet teaching about God’s plan for the survival of the Jewish people. They would be raised up again, as though from the dead, to be again God’s priestly nation, through whom the Messiah would come to all the world.
Our text is one that is often used at ordination or installation services. And certainly much of it applies to the pastoral office, which is rightly understood as an extension of the prophetic office. Consider the hymn “God of the Prophets, Bless the Prophets’ Sons” (LSB 682) where the second verse of the hymn begins “Anoint them prophets...” It is a text of warning both to the shepherds and the flock.
The first charge is given to the pastors. They are to preach the law of God. They are to warn people against abiding in their sins. And the people are to expect this of their pastors. They are to understand this is part of their God given mandate. They are point out sins and to teach what God’s law is. We’ll start with a softball one here. We have no choice but to preach and teach that homosexuality it a sin. This is required of us. But it is also important to examine our sins as well as the sins of others. How many times is the Sixth Commandment broken in other ways? And don’t tell me it’s just among the young people. If that were the case why is there an epidemic of venereal disease in the retirement communities of Florida? Young and old need to examine their lives in light of this command from God.
God tells Ezekiel that He does not delight in the destruction of sinners. God will send people to hell. But it is not something that He desires to do. It is part of what we call God’s consequent will, as opposed to His primary will. In other words God will send people to hell in response to their sins. What does God desire that people turn from their sins. We have a word for this. It is called repentance. And notice what our text says about sin and repentance. No matter how righteous you are, it cannot save you when you transgress. Notice that the assumption here is that everyone is a sinner. So just going through all the prayers and devotions and such will not save you, if you turn around and wantonly sin, if you are unjust to your neighbor. But those who turn from their sins and walk in God’s ways will be saved. That’s what the word repentance means. It means to turn around and go the other way. Repentance is not an apology. It’s not saying I’m sorry. Repentance is turning around and going the other way. In the confessional service that was in The Lutheran Hymnal, it speaks of the need to amend our sinful lives. Now I must caution you here, that because we are born sinners, we are frail creatures. We will always struggle with sin. We will struggle to amend our lives. We never finish the job. And many will struggle over and over with the same sin. The question is not do we sin, but do we give ourselves over to the sin? Do we no longer see it as a sin? This we would call abiding in our sins. Likewise because of the horrid state of catechesis these days, we have many who simply don’t know better. Here too we must be gentile. Sometimes we must wait for an opportune moment to call someone to repentance.
The final, and most important thrust of our text, is that of forgiveness and restoration. Those who are repentant, those who seek to do God’s will, are saved. They will face no condemnation. The doors of hell close to them and the gates of heaven open wide. God tells Ezekiel the sins of the repentant will be remembered no more. God knows all things, but yet, He forgets the sins of the repentant. You never knew that God could be forgetful, did you? We must take sin seriously, as God does. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel remind us of this. Sin has consequences. Repentance doesn’t necessarily take all the consequences away. If a person commits a murder and then comes to repentance, they are right with God even as they go to prison. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer became a Christian in prison. He has had many people try to plead with the state of New York on his behalf, asking for clemency. But Berkowitz himself will have none of it and simply says that he is where he belongs. Jeremiah and Ezekiel teach us this same concept. Because of their sins Jerusalem was destroyed. Right after this text Ezekiel gets word that the city was in fact destroyed. And yet, in repentance, in turning from sin and turning to the ways of God, there is forgiveness and life. Our sins are remembered no more.