Sermon / September 7th, 2014 / Pastor Terry Defoe / Ezekiel 33 / The Prophetic Burden
7 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. (N.I.V.)
In the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, King Solomon reminded his readers that
"There's nothing new under the sun."
Our Bible text this morning reminds us that people today are very much like people in ages past. We have the same basic needs and concerns as people who lived in back in Ezekiel's day. We have the same problem with sin that they had. When it comes right down to it, we need the same things from God. We need what God has to offer – through his Son, Jesus Christ. I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day.
Students of the Old Testament soon realize that the people of Israel, throughout their history, rode a roller coaster of faith. There were times when they were faithful to God. And there were times when God was the furthest thing from their mind. That roller-coaster of faith still exists in our day. Right now, in Canada, for most people, faith is a low priority. Ezekiel was one of God's prophets in the nation of Israel. In many ways, Ezekiel was similar to John the Baptist. He was a bit of an outcast – an oddball. He didn't have a lot of friends. But God's Word burned in his heart and he couldn't hold it in. In Ezekiel's lifetime, he saw the people of Israel go full circle. He saw them go from unbelief to faith and back to unbelief again.
As a young man, Ezekiel saw a short renewal of faith in Israel after years of spiritual darkness. For a time, God's word was re-discovered. For a time, the people of Israel lived by it's teachings. But that was only temporary. It wasn't long before the people fell back into their old ways – separated from God and from His Word. Most of Ezekiel's ministry took place when Israel's faith was at a low ebb. Most of his ministry took place when people lived without God and without his Word. In those days, Israel was like an unfaithful marriage partner. She offered herself in spiritual adultery to all kinds of false gods. Sincere faith in God was replaced by hypocrisy. Abominations took place in the very temple of God. And to make things worse, most of Israel's spiritual leaders had also wandered from the faith. Instead of leading the people closer to God, they led them astray. This was a time when God's word was blatantly disobeyed. The majority of the people were like babes in the spiritual woods, in the greatest danger, but blissfully unaware of the fact. It was Ezekiel's job to wake the people up, spiritually.
My sermon text this morning is the Old Testament lesson read for you earlier. And in that portion of Scripture, we hear God's instructions to his servant, Ezekiel. God commanded Ezekiel to be a watchman for the nation. He was to keep an eye out for spiritual danger. The people didn't seem to care about such things. But God did. And he wanted Ezekiel to bring a strong word of warning to His people. God told Ezekiel that if he warned the people of trouble ahead, and they did nothing about it, He would bring judgment on them. But if Ezekiel DIDN'T warn them, God would still bring judgment, but he would hold Ezekiel ACCOUNTABLE. Ezekiel's preaching was motivated by a desire to do God's will. He had a great love for the people of Israel and it broke his heart to see them drift so far from a Biblical faith.
God's words to Ezekiel are so important that they're repeated twice. Ezekiel's primary calling from God was to preach the Word. He was to preach the Word to the people of Israel. He was, as the old saying goes, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. His words to Israel were to contain LAW – that is, what God wanted of the people. And they were to be balanced with the Gospel – that is, what God had done, by His grace, for His people. So Ezekiel’s preaching contained a strong warning about sin and unbelief balanced by a promise of forgiveness and renewal for those who turned in repentance to God. Ezekiel's Good News included a promise about the Messiah who was to come someday.
Ezekiel preached to a nation bound in sin. Ezekiel compared the nation of Israel to a valley of dry bones. His desire was to see God bring those dry bones back to life. Ezekiel called for repentance – for a change in life's direction and sorrow over sin. And, as a preacher, Ezekiel was not to worry about the results of his efforts. His faithfulness to God was the critical factor. Ezekiel preached with a sense of urgency. He preached believing that people who didn't turn to the Lord would be eternally lost. He had a word for Israel from God. But he also had a word for the surrounding nations. He told them what he had told Israel. He told them that their sin would be their undoing, just as it was in Israel. He told them that the promised Messiah would bring a blessing for all the nations of the world.
There’s no doubt about it. Ezekiel had his work cut out for him. It was his job to tell the people what they didn't want to hear. It was his job to stand up and publicly say what no one else, not even the religious leaders, had the courage to say. There were times in Israel's history when the voice of the prophets fell silent. One of those times was the period between the end of the Old Testament writings and the beginning of the New. The prophetic voice was heard again, loud and clear, when John the Baptist appeared, just before Jesus of Nazareth began his ministry. John's message was simple, (Matthew 4:17, N.I.V.)
17 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Our day is similar to Ezekiel’s day. Problems that concerned the people of Israel still bother people today. We've got our false gods and idolatry, like Israel had. We've got plenty of false prophets, leading God’s people astray. And many people put their trust in things that will eventually let them down. You know, it's been said that it's not the fall that hurts, it's the sudden stop at the bottom! A lot of people in our world today are falling. Right now, it doesn't hurt. But there's a sudden stop coming.
In the Holy Scriptures, an idol is a substitute for God. An idol is something that takes God's rightful place in a person’s life. Idolatry was common in Ezekiel’s day. And it’s just as common in our world today. There was false religion in Ezekiel's day. And there's a smorgasbord of false religion in our day as well. There were those, back in Ezekiel's day, who worshipped the creation rather than the Creator. Back then, many people let themselves get caught up in materialism and forgot the One who enabled them to earn a living. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking is alive and well today.
It seems that the roller-coaster of faith is near the bottom of the cycle in our day. The need for believers to faithfully speak God's word has never been greater. It’s interesting that the Scriptures make a connection between sin and misery. Over the long haul, disobedience to God brings trouble. And obedience brings blessings. There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but over the long haul, it holds true. We all know faithful people who endure much suffering through no fault of their own. And we know unbelievers who live in the lap of luxury. But there is a blessing for those who serve God. And there is trouble for those who do not.
Ezekiel was concerned about people who refused to do things God's way. He was concerned about people who would not accept any personal responsibility for their actions and for the consequences of those actions. In the midst of an environment like that, Ezekiel was called by God to be a watchman for the nation and to preach the Word. In our day, God is calling us to do the same. The need is just as urgent today as it was back in Ezekiel's day. God calls His pastors to preach. And he calls laypeople to proclaim his Word as well. Not in the sense of standing in a pulpit, but in the sense of making the Christian faith known to those who cross our path in life. It's easy in the church to get our priorities mixed up. It's easy to spend all of our time doing secondary things, forgetting that the most important thing we can do is to introduce people to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
At their ordination, our pastors promise to do their best to fulfil our Lord’s Great Commission. They promise to teach, and to preach, and to Baptize. They promise to bring as many people as possible to a saving knowledge of Jesus. And they are blessed when committed laypeople come alongside to assist them in these tasks. The world around us works by a very different standard of measurement than we do. Edwin Lehman, past president of our Lutheran Church - Canada once told me that the Christian standard, God's Word, is like the "Imperial" system. The world around us uses a very different standard, the spiritual equivalent of the “metric” system. The two just don’t match up.
In the Kingdom of God, pastors are called upon to be "stewards" of God's word, just as Ezekiel was. God's Word is entrusted to their care. Someday, pastors will give an account of their work. Like Ezekiel, our pastors stand as watchmen. God's Word is like a coin with two sides. As I mentioned earlier, on the one side of the coin is the Law – what God commands us to do for him. Ezekiel's message, for example, included words like these based on God’s Law:
O wicked man, if you disobey God, you will surely die in your sins.
As you would expect, preaching God’s Law wasn't popular back in Ezekiel's day. And it's not popular in our day, either. One of the occupational hazards of Biblical prophets was death by stoning. Jesus reminded the people of Jerusalem that their forefathers had put God's prophets to death.
The Law, however, is only one side of the coin. The other side is the Gospel – what God has done for us through Jesus’ life, and death, and resurrection. The Law speaks of death and punishment. The Gospel speaks of life and peace, and forgiveness of sins. John 3:16 is Gospel. It's not Law. You know the words:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life."
The Law reveals our spiritual malady. The Gospel brings the cure. The Law tells us that we have lost our way in the maze of sin. The Gospel says that Jesus is the way out of that maze. The Law says that sinners perish in their sins. The Gospel says that believers live because of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. The Apostle Paul carefully blended Law and Gospel when he said (Romans 6:23, N.I.V.)
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus of Nazareth told the people of Jerusalem that he had come to bring them salvation. He described Himself as a mother hen who wanted to protect her chicks under her wings. But most of the people in His day refused his protection – his salvation – to their own destruction. Our message today is that God is like that mother hen. He wants everyone to live a wonderful, blessed life. He wants to protect people from sin and from its effects. But most people today say what they said in Ezekiel’s day:
"Thanks for the offer. It sounds good, but we'd rather go it on our own.”
There are those today who want the church and its teachings to evolve along with the society that surrounds it. There are those who are highly offended when Christians insist on Biblical standards of right and wrong. But Biblical Christians have no choice. God's word still has the power to transform human lives. And, as the Holy Spirit works through the Word and the Sacraments, that’s exactly what happens. Like Ezekiel and all of God’s prophets, God's servants plant the seed, and they water it, but only God can make it grow. Christians pray that God's Holy Spirit would enable people to trust and believe in Jesus as their Savior.
When it comes to spiritual truths, it’s true:
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
In the modern-day Christian church, our goal is to faithfully proclaim God's Word just as Ezekiel did. We know that we are responsible for sharing it, just as he was. And we also know that God’s Holy Spirit has the ability to transform human hearts and minds as he has always done. Scratch the surface and you'll find that people in our day are surprisingly similar to their ancient counterparts. We have the same need for acceptance. We have the same need for forgiveness. And hope. We seek guidance as to how to live. The truth is that what people need most is what Jesus Christ provides. People today have a void in their hearts that only Jesus Christ can fill. May God enable us to speak the truth – but always to speak it in love – and with gentleness and respect. Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Enable us to share Christ with the world. Bless us as we seek to fulfil the Great Commission – preaching, teaching, baptizing – all in the name of our Savior. In His most holy and precious name we pray. Amen.