Monday, March 04, 2013

Sermon on Ezekiel 33:7-20, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "Light or Heavy?"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our text is from Ezekiel, where God lays on him the solemn responsibility of being accountable for the people. Of particular concern is that he warn the wicked of their sin so that they can turn and live, and to warn the righteous who presume they are saved, to not build false confidence in their righteousness. Likewise pastors have the solemn charge to preach God’s Word of Law, to bring the wicked to repentance and to unsettle the complacent, and to speak God’s Word of Gospel to the repentant to give them comfort.
God’s Word from Ezekiel strikes a severe blow at our pride, and the pride of any who would cling to their own righteousness to deliver them from their sin. It disables the “balancing scale model of salvation”—that if we do enough good deeds to outweigh the bad, then we’ll live by that righteousness. This is so common, as to nearly be universal in our human thought. But God warns the “righteous” that if “he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die.” You mean none of my past righteous deeds will buoy up those sins and injustices? The people cry out in the reading, “our rebellions and our transgressions weigh upon us, and because of them we are rotting away.” Who is going to help us with all this dead weight we’re carrying?
Typically we fail to rightly estimate the seriousness of our sins—we tend to take a “light view” of sin—not considering the gravity with which God weighs them. We find excuses or justifications for our sins, but ignore God’s warning, “O wicked one, you shall surely die.” Sin is far heavier than we would like to imagine. So if heavy sins weigh down even those who have acted righteous, what about the flip side? What about those who are known for having acted wickedly, but then have a change of heart? What about when they turn from the evil and come back to God? What if they do what is just and right? Shouldn’t they still be weighed down by their sins? What about all that dead weight? Astonishingly, God says, for those who have turned away from sinning, and come back to Him, “none of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.”
We can almost hear the protest beginning: “But that’s not fair!!” “How did their sins get forgotten?” And the people said the same to Ezekiel, “The way of the Lord is not just.” But God answers—it’s not my way, but their way that is not just. There is no injustice with God, only with us. We have no room to argue with God about what is fair. We who always want to take the light view of sin for ourselves, and then give lip service to the heavy view of sin when it’s applied to others. We all know what that is—a double standard. The cry of “not fair” applies to us, not to God. But to go even further, we bitterly resist the heavy view of the law, because we see that our sins and transgressions “weigh upon us” and we think we ought to have the strength to lift them! All the while priding ourselves in our lightweight righteousness. Trying our best to bulk up and boast in the few good deeds we can scratch together for our record. Thinking that piling these onto the scale should lift the heavy boulders of our sin. We’ll never balance or tip the scales that way. In fact, if we dive deeply enough into the Scriptures, we’d take the even heavier view that even our righteous deeds—the best we can claim in this life, is but filthy rags to God. In all reality, they don’t even add up on the good side of the scale, but because they’re tainted with our impurity and sin, they too sit on the bad side of the scale.
Well pastor, that’s such a gloomy outlook, what hope is there? Well the hope is in the Gospel—the good news. And don’t worry—there’s plenty of that. But for now we must first be watchmen to warn the wicked to turn from their sin so they don’t die in their iniquity or guilt. To neglect this duty is to take the blood of the wicked on my own head. The watchman cannot proclaim safety and security while the enemy approaches and danger is at hand—but only when rescue comes or evil is driven away can he give the “all clear.”
So how does the rescue come? How is the evil driven away? God is the only one who can grant the possibility of life, and the only one who can lift the heavy weight of sin. And it’s not a joint effort between us and Him, it’s God’s job alone. And only Christ’s pure and innocent righteousness is weighty enough to leverage up the scales weighed down by all the world’s sin. Drop Christ’s weighty righteousness onto the scales, and it alone can tip the scales toward the good. Our own little balancing acts have all failed, and our sins are too heavy for us to lift. But that is so that we might turn to Jesus and see that He alone can do what we’re unable to do.
So it is astonishing and wonderful grace for God to tell us that He does not desire the death of the wicked, but that we should turn from our way and live! So turn and live! To the idolater who has raised false gods with your heart or your hands—now is the time to turn to the living God, believe and worship Him alone! To the profaner of God’s name, whose mouth is full of curses and the misuse of God’s name, and whose Christian life dishonors God’s name; now is the time to turn and to use your mouth and your life to give honor and praise to God’s name. To the despiser of worship and God’s word, who is neglectful and indifferent; now is the time to joyfully receive God’s good and gracious gifts. To the despisers of parents and other authorities, who live by no rule but their own; now is the time to learn to honor and obey those whom God has placed over us for our common good. To those disrespectful of life, who with words or with hatred, with our own hands or others, would commit violence or harm against others, now is the time to turn to God and help and protect our every neighbor’s body and life.
To the sexually immoral in any way, whether through infidelity, disregard, or distortion of marriage, to those whose thoughts are filled with lust; now is the time to turn to the purity and goodness of God’s good design, to set our thoughts on noble and praiseworthy things. To the liars and slanderers, whose mouths are full of gossip and ready to tear down our neighbor’s reputation; now is the time to turn and use our mouth to speak good, to build up, to encourage, to tell the truth and speak it in love. To the covetous, who set their hearts on all things that not rightfully theirs—a spouse or a house, a worker or any material things; now is the time to learn contentment with what you have, and to help your neighbor protect what is rightfully theirs.
See what even a cursory examination of our lives—both yours and mine (I do not speak as one who is innocent of sin either)—see what it reveals? Doubtless we’re all squirming a bit, because the Holy Spirit’s work in the Law is to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. A watchman cannot stand guard in the city and fail to warn that the enemy has come. Likewise, if sin is crouching at our door—or worse—is already inside our house or business, we can’t just ignore the danger, or fail to sound the warning. And we should not think that because we’re sitting in the church we’re safely righteous, and that only outside are the wicked. The line between good and evil is not between “us and them” but a line that travels through the heart of every man, woman, and child. It’s our hearts that need to be ever turning with more fervent love to God.
It’s our hearts, it’s my heart too, that cries out, with those of Ezekiel’s day, “Surely our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” We’ve arrived at a heavy view of our sin, and the essential plea of repentance that seeks life from God alone. “God, our sins are heavy and we cannot lift them. Our self-made righteousness that we trusted in was light and insubstantial, and cannot save us. Therefore we look to you alone for our help.” And there we stand at the turning point—the pivot of a life, one direction turns away from God, another turns toward Him—and God has us in His hands. And with the gift of His Spirit and with the readiness of a heart made new, He plunges us down to the depths and raises us up to the glorious heights—joining us to Jesus’ death and resurrection, we fall into His gracious and loving arms. The infinite weight of Jesus’ death on the cross plunges our sins down to the depths, never to be remembered again—and buoys us up to the heights of freedom, life, and salvation in His name. We know from the NT how the dead weight of sinners is lifted from the scale, how God takes sin away and remembers it no more for Jesus’ sake.
Like Ezekiel’s crowd, having heard and believed the message of judgment, and having repented, we too are ripe and ready for the message of restoration and hope. The remaining chapters of Ezekiel are filled with that hope (a hope spoken to the exiles). And as Christians who have laid our sins on Jesus, our ears are also tuned to see where a life joined to God now goes—to see the phrase “how then can we live” no longer as a cry of despair, but as a joyful request to God of “what do you have in store for me?” An eagerness to participate in His goodness, to walk in His statutes of life, to let God renew our life and let us live. Because the life of holiness for the Christian is not an anxious assignment to secure enough righteous deeds to drop in the scale to outweigh our sins—that plan is busted. Rather the Christian life according to God’s statutes is a freed exercise in loving our neighbor for their own good and benefit. And it’s the joyful knowledge that all our burdensome sins have been lifted by the worthy and righteous life of Jesus. And as we go forward in life, our ears and our hearts take delight in the promises of God and the hope of eternal life that He gives in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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