TURN BACK, FOR WHY SHOULD YOU DIE?
This is what the house of Israel is saying, “Certainly our rebellions and our transgressions weigh upon us, and because of them we are rotting away. How then can we live?” Say to them, “As I live, says the LORD God, I find no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather that the wicked man turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why should you die, O house of Israel?” Ezekiel 33:10-11
ON the fifth Sunday after Epiphany we get the rare opportunity to hear Ezekiel. Opportunity may be the wrong word, however, since Ezekiel is one of Scripture’s most frightening prophets who afflicts the afflicted and comfortable alike. He is like a spanking that goes on too long, that crosses the line from discipline to abuse, but when God’s people get secure with sin, when they refuse to recognize their transgressions or turn from their rebellious ways then Ezekiel is just what the doctor ordered.
We learn a number of things from today’s Old Testament lesson. First that God is the one who informs the prophets and charges them to speak; so no matter how unsettling the message we must never despise God’s Word but always be sure to gladly hear and learn it.
Secondly we learn that God knows what His people are saying, and even addresses them in their own words, because for the first time since Ezekiel began to preach they connect the dots! They understand that there is no one to blame for their troubles but themselves; and strengthened by God’s Word they do the hardest thing a people can ever do. They admit that they are wrong, despair of their own solutions, and call out to God for help. Oh that all men today, in both church and state, would learn to do the same.
We also learn that the particular people Ezekiel addresses in this oracle are captives in Babylon who had been there for 12 years, cut off from their home, their family, their faith and all that they held dear. They had every reason to despair of life and it is only Ezekiel’s preaching that enabled them to carry on. It should come as no surprise because this is how the living God created us; hard-wired to seek life like the honey bee the flower, and the flower the sun; and to consider death the enemy that it is. Though they knew the right question, they did not know the answer. For that they had to rely on the Lord’s prophet.
What does all this ancient history have to do with us? Some things never change. We too waste away because of our sins with no one to blame but ourselves. Why do we get old, get sick, get frail and die? Why do manipulators manipulate, and dictators dictate? Why, in spite of all the promises of progress we have been fed do we pine away, no more virtuous or better off than our “brutish” ancestors? Everyone seems to have an answer today: politicians, vegans, futurists, MADD. They all promise to do what not even God Himself will undertake until the last day, to rid the world of its weeds while leaving the wheat to grow to fruition, but still we continue to rot away.
How then can we live? Hear God’s Word: “As I live says the Lord I do not desire the death of the wicked but that the wicked should turn from his way and live.” And hear the words of Jesus, “this is eternal life, they know Thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”
How can we live? How can we lose our fear, shed our guilt, stop our self-loathing, find fullness of joy even in the midst of earthly sorrow, and the promise of “the life everlasting?” Only by turning from all that is sinful, all that is wicked, all that is false and letting the Word of Christ’s forgiveness dwell in us richly. Though our wicked ways are an affront to the Almighty, and an assault against all that is holy, just and good, St. Paul tells us in clear terms that, “God justifies the ungodly,” and that, “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
Neither is it ever just talk where God is concerned, so He backs up His desire by the costliest action, by giving up what is most dear to Him; His own Son to suffer for the sins of the world, and to wash us clean from our shame by His own blood. Though we deserve the same fate as Judah of old, temporal and eternal punishment, “Christ suffered for us, the just for the unjust” to reconcile us to God, but God did not stop there! He also gave us His Word, in both spoken and sacramental form, to be the source and sustenance of our lives. Believe Jesus when He says that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Believe Jesus when He tells us that God’s Word is not only true and dependable, but also life-giving and powerful; that it imparts durable life to those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” and promises every good gift to all who hold it dear. Without it no amount of resolve can improve us, or source of spiritual strength turn us from sin to grace, from death to life. When we hear God’s gracious Word, “turn back, turn back,” spoken once to pierce the stygian darkness of our souls, and again to fill them with heavenly light then “the goodness of God leads us to repentance,” and our souls are still again.
Yet even there, God does not stop. He also provides His church with Ezekiels in every generation to preach His Word, to put it into our ears, and to hold it before the world as the beacon which eradicates sin, exterminates death, turns our mourning into dancing and inspires in us the, “kindness, meekness, lowliness and patience” St. Paul admonishes us to have.
These are the things God did for His people 2600 years ago, still does for us today, and will do for as long as there are rebellious sinners in need of life and salvation. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Amen.
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras