Turn Back

This is part of a series of sermon manuscripts I’ve preached while traveling to other churches. For more information, see the introduction to “Preaching the Blessed Gospel.”

Below is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on September 10, 2017 (14th Sunday after Pentecost) at Coker Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Coker, AL, just west of Tuscaloosa. As with all the manuscripts I post, the actual sermon varied in places. 

Image credit: Maarten van Heemskerck, The Prophet Isaiah Predicts the Return of Jews After Exile

Sermon Text – Ezekiel 33:7-11

“’As I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.'”

The people of Judah, the people of Ezekiel, were humiliated, disoriented in a strange land, and filled with guilt because their sin had put them there. It had been three hundred years since one king had ruled over all the tribes of Israel, and all that had been remembered for generations was a people of God divided among themselves. A hundred years earlier, their great-grandparents had seen from a distance the fall of the Northern Kingdom. They had heard the stories of how fellow Israelites from their sister tribes were conquered and taken into exile. They probably had heard the oracles from the prophets to the Northern Kingdom: Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, and Jonah. They had certainly heard the warnings from their own southern prophets: Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Obadiah, Jeremiah – and Ezekiel.

The way of idolatry was filled with danger. The trust they placed in kings and foreign alliances was trust misplaced. Lack of faithfulness to the one, true God would have dire consequences. Conquest and exile and shame were the only possible outcomes from their eagerness to abandon the God who had given them life and a home and food and protection.

Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the time of exile for the people of the Southern Kingdom had come. Trusting in their own strength and disobeying God, they rebelled against Babylon and asserted their independence from that empire. Babylon invaded. One by one, the city lights of Judah were put out. Their homes were destroyed or abandoned. They and their children were marched off to the capital of the invading army, Babylon, like prized trophies. They watched as some of their children were dashed against the rocks. The few relatives and friends that were left in the land were destitute vassals of a foreign foe. And in this chapter of Ezekiel, the news comes that Jerusalem herself has fallen. And they are forced to sing songs for the pleasure of their captors.

By the waters of Babylon,

          there we sat down and wept,

          when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

          we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors

          required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

          “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the LORD’s song

          in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

          let my right hand forget its skill!

Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,

          if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

          above my highest joy!

Ezekiel, for his part, had delivered the warning from the LORD. The call Ezekiel receives in verses 7-9 in today’s passage are very similar to the first call Ezekiel had received in chapter 3. Ezekiel was the watchman. It was not Ezekiel’s job to stop the danger – it was his job to sound the alarm. It was his job to remain alert, awake, and pass along the things he had seen – the things he had received from the Lord – to the people. It was the people’s job to repent, to prepare, and to pray so that disaster might be avoided. The people did not. For 24 chapters, Ezekiel warns them of the danger that’s coming. The people do not repent. Now they sit in exile.

Have you ever sat in exile? Most all of us can probably remember a time growing up when our mama or daddy warned us not to do something. Then, instead of bailing us out, they let us reap the uncomfortable consequences of whatever stupid decision we had made. What about now? What harsh words have you said that severed friendships or even family relationships that you desperately miss? What lies have you said that have come back to break trust you had with another person? What things have you neglected only to have them turn into major problems?

And, perhaps even more pertinent to our Christian growth in sanctification, our Christian progress by the Holy Spirit at work within us to become more holy, more like Christ – do you really mourn for your sins themselves and not just the consequences of them? Do you hate your sin the way that God hates it?

It is easy for us to take the first verses of this passage and glorify ourselves as watchmen, pointing out the sins of other people. However, keep in mind that though Ezekiel condemns the actions of the nations in chapters 25 to 29, his primary call is to people of faith! His main condemnation is for people inside the community, inside the church, to call them to repentance. There is certainly the clear command from the Bible for us to lovingly correct one another – especially within the church. I certainly need to be called out, often, by sisters and brothers in Christ – pastors are no exception to this rule.

But we do not do this as specifically appointed watchmen, as Ezekiel was. Our command to call out warnings about wickedness comes because we are sentries who serve under the Master Watchman, Jesus Christ. If we view this text as primarily a call for us to point out every imagined flaw in others, then we forget the clear warning of our Watchman to us: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Make no mistake – we are the wicked who need to turn from our way. Our Watchmen has warned us faithfully. And we warn others – and we should warn others – not as people with any kind of authority but, as D.T. Niles put it, “one beggar telling another beggar where he has found bread.”

The hurricanes that have been pounding Texas and Florida and the Caribbean have been tragic. And whenever one of these natural disasters strike, it seems that there are always Christians who want to explain why such a tragic thing would happen, to call out one sin or other that the community has committed to warrant such a disaster! Nowhere in the Bible, the only fully trustworthy oracle of God, do I see a specific explanation for hurricanes Harvey, Irma, or Jose developing in the Year of Our Lord, 2017! In so many ways, some of us are looking to point the blame instead of looking for ways to help; in so many ways, we criticize others for living in places where storms like this strike instead of offering shelter to those fleeing the storm. We give our efforts to explain why the storm exists instead of pointing to the Christ who calms storms. We say to others, “What sin did you commit to cause these winds and these waves?!” instead of saying what we both need to hear: “Look! Here is the One whom even the winds and the waves obey.”

Maybe these tragedies are extreme examples, but we cast blame for sin while ignoring our own all the time. Drug addict? Did it to himself. Lost your job over a lie? Did it to herself. Worried about being deported? Shouldn’t have come here illegally! We think we are offering warnings, but none of these come from humility in Christ. We forget the countless idols to which we are addicted, and we forget that if not for grace, we would be in the same spot. We forget the many lies we’ve told, lies for which only grace has kept us from bearing the consequences. We ignore the stranger, but we forget that when Christ says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” – the command has no concept of a distinction between legal status or no legal status. We forget that apart from the grace of God, we too were “strangers and aliens” to the Kingdom of God and we were brought in only because God did not follow the strict legal demands of the law but showed us grace in Jesus Christ!

Sisters and brothers, if we are to give any warning, we have to be so heartbroken over our own sin that we continually turn to God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. How many of you have been so broken by your own sin that you say with the people of Judah in exile in verse 10: “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” And note the plural here: “our transgressions, our sin, we rot.” How many of us can say as a church that we are deeply sorrowful for the sins we as a church have committed in the past? Our General Assembly issued a formal apology last year, but how many of us as Cumberland Presbyterians feel the transgression and sin upon us for legally segregating our black brothers and sisters in Christ? For pushing them away for 143 years? For 53 years the University of Alabama, a secular institution just down the road, has been integrated. And we feel no shame, no weight of transgression, for being hesitant about embracing full fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ?

“No regrets” is a popular slogan for the world, but not for a Christian. The people of Judah in Babylon regret in this passage. Are they fully there, yet? Not quite as the end of the chapter tells us. But they have a thousand bad decisions they wish to take back. And if we ever wish to offer warnings to the world, to tell the world it desperately needs Jesus Christ, we have to know the depths of our sin so that we can know the depths of how much we need Jesus.How then can we live?” How could Jesus save someone so wretched as I am? Doesn’t he know what I’ve done? Even as someone who’s a Christian – doesn’t he know what I’m still doing? Doesn’t he know all of the ways in which I’ve failed him, neglected my brother, and hurt my sister? You who pass judgment on others, do you not do the same things? The warning from Ezekiel and from Jesus is for us! How can we then live, knowing what we’ve done to separate us from God? How can we talk about what others deserve when exile from God is exactly what we deserve?

Sisters and brothers, the good news is that God does not delight in the death of the wicked – wicked people like you, wicked people like me, and wicked people like the countless others we judge – but desires that all of us would turn away and live!

And the good news goes even deeper than that. The good news is that even in exile, God finds us!

And can it be that I should gain

An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?

Died He for me, who caused His pain?

For me, who Him to death pursued?

Amazing love! how can it be

That Thou, my God, should die for me?

This was the main point I wanted you to know from the sermons I gave last year on the three parables from Luke 15: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son – the turn that happens in repentance, the turning back to God that we all must do each and every day of our lives, only happens because God in Jesus Christ has already turned toward us and by his Spirit enables us to turn ourselves. Turn to him and live.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

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