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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Repentance is Life (Ezekiel 33:7-11)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

“Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them.” The Jews said this of themselves in 585BC. They were enslaved, living in Babylon, 700 long desert miles away from their home – the Promised Land. They were slaves in the desert, far from God, and they knew their plight was due to their own sin.

“Our sins weigh upon us.” They cried. “We waste away. How can we live?” Ah … this is the question.

Some one who has never felt the crushing weight of his own guilt before a holy God cannot truly claim to be a person of faith. We don’t go through life long-faced, a perpetual depression stemming from our overwhelming sense of guilt. Of course not! The way of Jesus is a way of Joy, of community, of love, of grace. In the with-God life, a life realized when we put all our trust in Jesus Christ, we experience happiness, fulfillment, purpose, and excitement no other life can offer. But the journey to that life includes a real, heart-to-heart reckoning of who we are.

We are sinners and our sins are an absolute offense to God. It’s true of every one of us. We are sinners who have hurt others and rejected God’s ways. We cannot enjoy the blessings of God until sin is admitted, confronted, and dealt with. The journey to the abundant life Jesus promises is a journey out of sin and out of guilt.

The Jews in exile arrived at a crucial moment of clarity. “Our sins weigh upon us. We waste away because of them. How can we live?” Well, how do the people who worship at HillSong Church deal with the question, if we’re being honest? Do we know of our own sins? Have we arrived at that spiritual illumination? The ancient Jews feared it was too late. It took exile for them to see the truth. What does it take for us?

Ezekiel begins this section of his teaching with a parable.

The word of the Lord came to me: 2O Mortal, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take one of their number as their sentinel; 3and if the sentinel sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people; 4then if any who hear the sound of the trumpet do not take warning, and the sword comes and takes them away, their blood shall be upon their own heads. 5They heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; their blood shall be upon themselves. But if they had taken warning, they would have saved their lives. 6But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.

God tells Ezekiel to use a classic military image to get the point across. In the ancient world, cities were walled. When invaders came, everyone came in from the farms and took refuges within the city walls. The defense of the city against an attacking enemy began from that point, from within the walls. To take up this defense, the people had to know an enemy was coming. Responsibility lay heavy on the sentinel’s shoulders. Should he fail to blow the warning horn, the city would be rampaged, the people enslaved and slaughtered. And it would be his fault.

The exiled Jews we meet in Ezekiel 33 must have felt this was an after-the-fact parable. Their prophets had warned them of God displeasure at their sin. They knew they had not taken heed of the warning and so their blood – exile, death, separation from family, slavery – their blood was on their hands. It’s almost like the parable of the sentinel and the walled city was a poetic I told you so! The people of God ignored the warnings, continued the sins of idolatry and abuse of the poor and vulnerable among them, and now they were paying for their mistakes. Their response to the parable, in light of their utter defeat, was despair.

But Ezekiel was not saying “God told you so.” This prophet still had work to do because God still loved his people. No matter what we do, no matter how far we fall, God’s love doesn’t fail. Mercy, grace, love – these things are components of God’s character. This is what makes God who God is. Just because humanity sins doesn’t mean God stops being God.

A second element of the parable, besides the people listening or ignoring the warning of the sentinel is the responsibility of the prophet. God says to Ezekiel, “You, son of man, are the watchman. I've made you a watchman for Israel. The minute you hear a message from me, warn them. If I say to the wicked, 'Wicked man, wicked woman, you're on the fast track to death!' and you don't speak up and warn the wicked to change their ways, the wicked will die unwarned in their sins and I'll hold you responsible for their bloodshed” (The Message). The people assumed they were already under God’s punishment and in fact they were, but it wasn’t permanent. God had a future prepared for his people. Ezekiel’s job was to deliver the message to Israel that exile was not the end of the story.

This second element of this passage was the burden on him. God was telling the people that in spite of their dire circumstance, He had blessed future planned. They could submit to despair or in faith, repent and claim the hope God offered. But they could only do it if they heard the good news. Ezekiel’s job was to deliver the good news. If he failed, then the death of God’s people was on his shoulders. If he did his part and shared the message of repentance, the Ezekiel was God’s good and faithful servant no matter what the people did with the message.

So, we have a word from God – repent of sin, turn to God, and live. A second component on that word from God is the mandate to the messenger. Deliver this message, or the death of the people is on you. In the 6th BC, prophesying in Babylon, Ezekiel did his job. He delivered.

The third factor in all this comes today, September 4, 2011. What Ezekiel spoke 2500 years ago was canonized. His words became scripture. The writing of the message, the delivery of it, the preservation of it in what we call the Old Testament, the reading of this word in churches down through the centuries all come together to make this authoritative, holy word to us. God says to us, repent and live. Once again, Ezekiel has done his job. His message has been read in the worshipping community. Now we know. Sin is death, but death is not God wants the story to end. Quoting Ezekiel directly: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from your evil ways” (33:11).

We could recite all the differences that separate us from the 6th century BC Jewish community in Babylon. They were Jewish. We are Gentile. They were slaves. We are citizens of a large, powerful democracy. They lived before Jesus came. We know the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. We aren’t them! But we are. We are sinful people before a Holy God. So we face the two choices they faced.

The first choice is despair. The spirit of the ancient Israelites was broken and they assumed theirs was a future of slavery and death. What I experience with people in our day and time is an acceptance of spiritual failure. People ask a pastor to pray on their behalf, as if somehow hears my prayers but ignore theirs. A clergy person is no better than a lay person, no more holy, no more reverent, no more acceptable to God. But people inside the church and outside act differently. People act as if ministers have a “hotline” to heaven and the only way they can hope to tap into God’s love and healing is if someone holy enough will pray on their behalf.

This thinking is based in the reality that we are sinners. But it implicitly rejects another reality – that God loves us and will remove our sin and make us new creations. We hear the Apostle Paul say, “The wage of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). We hear that and believe it. It sinks in. We are sinners, cut off from God. We somehow fail to hear the very same Apostle in the continuation of the same verse say, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b). Somehow, we fail to hear the prophet Ezekiel when he tells us that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but longs for the wicked to turn away from evil and from sin and to turn to Him. We don’t hear that. We accept our fallen state and live as fallen people.

That’s our first choice of responses to the gospel of Ezekiel, a word from God. We respond by giving in to spiritual despair and death. There’s a second choice.

From later on in Ezekiel 33 (the Message):

On the other hand, if I tell a wicked person, "You'll die for your wicked life," and he repents of his sin and starts living a righteous and just life—being generous to the down-and-out, restoring what he had stolen, cultivating life-nourishing ways that don't hurt others—he'll live. He won't die. None of his sins will be kept on the books. He's doing what's right, living a good life. He'll live.

17-19 "'Your people say, "The Master's way isn't fair." But it's the way they're living that isn't fair. When good people turn back from living good lives and plunge into sin, they'll die for it. And when a wicked person turns away from his wicked life and starts living a just and righteous life, he'll come alive.

The second choice is to renounce our sin. We don’t renounce ourselves, but the evil thoughts we think and the ungodly words we say and the unchristian things we do. Consider your sins – sins committed in relationships. We acknowledge these sins and turn from them. First, we turn to God in humble confession and receive His forgiveness. Second, we turn to those we’ve sinned against and in humble love and confession, we restore the broken relationship. This is our living out the word delivered by Ezekiel. We don’t accept despair. We choose repentance and as Ezekiel showed and as Jesus taught and modeled, repentance is life.

A beautiful picture of this life that is the end of repentance, where repentance leads, is seen in the worship song praising Jesus, recorded in Revelation 5:9. Sung to Jesus it says, “You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.” In renouncing our sin and in believing in and receiving the hope God holds out to us, we enter into a life of repentance. Turning from sin becomes a regular practice. In that life, we become a part of the Kingdom of God. We become saints and priests, Revelation says. We have a future of an eternity spent the beloved presence of God and all worship him. This is choosing life.

“Our sins weigh upon us. How can we live?” The Jewish exiles asked this in their 6th century BC captivity. The answer for them is the same for us. We sin through pettiness, through self-worship, through cruelty to the ones we love most, through materialism and greed, through sins of omission (failing to love and serve whom God has called us to love and serve), through prejudice – in all these ways and many more, we sin! How can we live? By turning to God in faith, as God is revealed in Jesus Christ.

Our prayer is three-fold.

First, God, reveal with great clarity our sins and the affects of our sin.

Second, Father God, help us turn from our sin to you, and help us receive your forgiveness.

Third, God, help us make repentance prayer a life-long spiritual practice.

I am going to lead us in silent prayer, praying along these three steps. Afterward, I will lead a prayer for our offering today that will conclude with us saying together the Lord’s prayer. Then we will move into our offering time. As the offering is being collected, Heather and I will be at the back. If you would like one of us to pray with you about something specific, a need in your life, or a need for clarity or discernment or guidance, please come at that time.

Now, together, in silence, we reject despair, we claim the hope for life, blessed life, offered by God, and we enter into prayer of repentance.

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