Monday, September 29, 2014

Sermon on Ezekiel 18:1-32, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "Personal Responsibility and God's Justice"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our OT text from Ezekiel 18 strikes on an issue that we often wrestle with today—our personal responsibility for sin, and the temptation to question God’s justice or fairness in how sin is punished. God spoke through Ezekiel during one of the darkest times for the Jews—when the kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were facing God’s judgment for their sin, and war and destruction from the armies of Babylon was pressing down on them. A popular saying was going around the nation: “The fathers have eating eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” It meant that the children were suffering for the sins of their parents, not their own sins. In essence, it said God was being unjust because “you’ve got the wrong guy!” It was a victimization mentality that passed off the blame of guilt to someone else, and/or accused God of taking pleasure in punishing those who didn’t deserve it. Ezekiel 18 is God’s answer to these charges, and His determination that they would never again use this proverb, this saying, in Israel. Though God has no need to prove His justice, He voluntarily does so, and shows that they have actually reversed things from reality. So a question we will have to answer, is how is God going to lift this charge they’ve made against Him?

It’s easy for us to fall into the same victim mentality and chalk up our problems to someone else’s mistakes or faults, or to deny our responsibility for a situation. It’s easy for Christians in churches to look at the lamentable state of affairs in our nation, and to point the finger of blame at the “sins of society” while ignoring our own “pet sins,” or forgetting our inaction to help matters. And while there are countless situations where people are legitimately victims of someone else’s violence, malice, jealousy, lust, or something else—we are all too often masters of spinning almost any situation into one where we are the victims and someone else is to blame. Even if that’s far from the truth. Ever since Adam and Eve first sinned and tried to pass the blame, “she made me do it”; “he made me do it”; we’ve fallen into the same habit. In Ezekiel 18, the Israelites were blaming their ancestors for the impending doom that faced their city, and were claiming they weren’t responsible, and therefore God was unfair.

Of course to the believer who knows God’s Ten Commandments, they might even quote Exodus 20 to support their view. Didn’t God say in the commandments, “I, the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5-6). The “sour grapes” saying was basically passing the blame to the parents, and claiming the children bore no blame of their own. They might have thought Exodus 20 proved this. But a careful reading of the Exodus passage shows that it’s not innocent children suffering for the sins of guilty fathers, but it’s guilty children who continue in the hatred of God that their fathers showed. But that God is faithful to thousands of generations of those who love Him. Ezekiel 18 goes further to clarify this, by saying that the “soul (or person) that sins shall die.” In verses 5-24, which were not in our reading today, he gives five examples to prove his point.

The first three examples talk about three generations of men. A righteous father who obeys God and does what is right—living faithfully. His wicked son who turns from his father’s righteous ways and falls into terrible sins. And the righteous grandson who turns away from his father’s evil to walk again in the way that is right. In three successive generations, there is good, evil, and good again. Each of these three are presented as living consistently as righteous or as wicked throughout their life. And the righteous live—and do not bear the guilt of their wicked son or wicked father. And the wicked dies—and is not saved by the righteousness of their family member. These examples show our individual responsibility, and that we are not guilty of the sins of our family if we don’t participate in them. The fourth and fifth examples are of a person who changes course in the midst of their life—either turning away from their wickedness to the way of the Lord—and living by their new righteousness; or a righteous person abandoning the right path and turning to evil and dying for it. In these two examples we see that it was not the things that they had previously done in life that condemned or saved them—but the final state of things—whether they returned toward God or turned away from Him.

In every case, we’re judged individually by God and share no one else’s blame or righteousness. And picking up at the end of the chapter, God again drives home His point. It is not God who is unjust, but we are unjust. If we are punished, or if we die, it is for our own sins. But if we turn away from sin; if we put it behind us and do what is just and right, we will live. Though not spelled out in detail in this chapter, as it is elsewhere, it must be understood that it is by God’s mercy and forgiveness that the person’s former sins are forgiven and forgotten by God. God shows the worthlessness of this victimization proverb, the “sour grapes” saying, by proving that He does not delight in the death of the wicked, but rather that a sinner would turn from their ways and live. This expresses to us the incredible heart of God, that is most clearly seen in Jesus, but is prominent also here in the Old Testament. That for all God’s warnings of punishment, and declarations of His wrath against sin—He takes no pleasure in punishing, but rather the purpose of these warnings is to turn us back to Him to find life. Life and salvation is God’s goal and desire for every living person; His heart is for the lost and the wicked, to turn them from their ways to find the Way, the Truth, and the Life in Him.

God is not unjust, punishing the wicked and the righteous indiscriminately, or punishing innocent children for the sins of their guilty fathers. Rather the soul that sins will die—we bear personal responsibility. And here is the hinge on which God’s refutation of the false proverb swings: God is working for the salvation of the sinner, to keep us from being ruined by our own sin. God is holding out for us, delaying judgment so that He can call us to repentance. The New Testament tells us that “God desires all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). God wants to give us a new heart and a new spirit. It’s not possible to call God unjust, because He is actively seeking to restore lost sinners to Him.

If we read Ezekiel 18 in isolation from the rest of the book, or even from the rest of the Bible, we could easily fall under another mistaken impression—that we actually have the power to make our own heart and spirit new. Or that salvation is merely a matter of our good works, straightening out a crooked life, or balancing the scales, and that God rewards our change in behavior with eternal life. But if we read the rest of Ezekiel—especially chapters 34 & 36, we see that the Lord is the Good Shepherd who goes out and rescues His lost and endangered sheep. We see that the Holy Spirit is the one who takes our stony heart of sin and replaces it with a living heart of flesh and a new Spirit. We see in Psalm 51 that the sinner cries out to God to create a clean heart and right spirit within him, because he has sinned against God.

And in the fuller light of the New Testament, we see that Jesus Christ is that Good Shepherd who came to seek and to save the lost. We see that there is no one righteous, not one who seeks after God; but God seeks after us. When Jesus made a new covenant with us in His death on the cross, He did it for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus’ extraordinary sacrifice shows how God is at work refuting the claim that He is unjust, or that He delights in the death of the wicked. God could be fully proved as just, if He simply punished us all as our sins deserved—and that would mean hell for all of us. But God has gone far beyond mere justice—He gives extraordinary mercy. While we each rightfully bear the responsibility of our sins—Jesus took upon Himself our guilt and punishment. Jesus suffered Himself to be unjustly accused and condemned to death as a guilty man, while simultaneously undertaking a great exchange. That He took on our guilt in exchange for giving us His righteousness. He took our death, that we might have His life. Our sin in exchange for His perfect life.

God’s Divine Justice went above and beyond the call of duty—we could say that it puts the “nail in the coffin” of the argument that God is unjust, or punishes us for what we don’t deserve. But perhaps it would be better said that Jesus’ empty tomb is the proof of Jesus’ innocence, and of God’s invincible power of life over death. God allowed Himself to be punished for what He did not deserve—that He might give to the undeserving a new heart and new spirit, and everlasting life. God’s true character shines forth in His mercy and love.

God delights in life, and not death! He delights in righteousness, and not wickedness. And life and righteousness only come from Him. It is God who wills and works in us according to His good pleasure. Only He can reorient our life to the right path by His power and guiding. And we don’t have to beg God for help as though God is a stingy and reluctant giver—He is eager and generous to give. That doesn’t mean the walk of a righteous life will be easy or without trial; it doesn’t mean that our sinful nature won’t constantly try to sabotage the Holy Spirit’s work, or that the devil won’t use every trick up his sleeve to make us stumble. But God is eager to give His Holy Spirit, and He is powerful to overcome every sin and struggle we face, as Jesus overcame them Himself in His body. We can put the blame game to rest and take personal responsibility for our sins as we confess them and turn away from them, and then rejoice as Jesus forgives them and gives us life. In His hands we can turn away from sin and onto the path of righteousness. By Jesus’ faithful shepherding, He lifts us up when we stumble on that path. He does it because He delights in life! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. In Ezekiel 18:2, the people of Israel are repeating a saying or proverb, that seems to accuse God of being unjust, and punishing the children for the sins of their parents. Compare to Jeremiah 31:29 and Lamentations 5:1-7. How does God answer what this “proverb” accuses Him of doing? Ezekiel 18:3-4.
  2. Ezekiel 18:5-24, not read during the service, gives several examples that each show individual responsibility for sin. Why is it so common for humans to try to “pass the blame?” Genesis 3:10-13.
  3. Why is continuing on a sinful path so dangerous? Ezekiel 18:4, 30; Romans 2:5-10; Psalm 1. What alternative is there?
  4. Because of God’s impending judgment, for which we are all individually accountable, God calls us to repent and turn away from all our sins, cast them away, and make for yourselves a new heart and spirit (18:30-31). Does this mean that we are actually able to create a new heart and spirit ourselves? Compare what is said in Ezekiel 36:25-27; Psalm 51:10-12. What sins do you personally need to cast away and return to God for forgiveness from them?
  5. According to Ezekiel 18:32 and 33:11, what does God not delight in; and what does He delight in? How does inform our understanding of God? What does God show His will is toward sinners? 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9.
  6. How does God’s sending of Jesus, His only-begotten Son, silence the criticism that God is unjust or delights in punishing sinners? How does it show God’s character and His generosity?
  7. How did Jesus take personal responsibility for all of our guilt? How does this destroy the charge that God is unjust?



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