I was scheduled to preach this coming Sunday on Ezekiel 33:7-11, but I have spent the week sick. I am very thankful for my associate pastor Heather for filling in on 3 days notice.
Here is a message I did from this passage in 2008.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Billy Graham wrote a book called How to be Born Again. What a straight forward title from a man who has spent his life telling the simple truth in a direct manner. In this book, Rev. Graham tells us about Joe.
Joe was brought up in Bronx Ghetto. … The streets of New York had been his home since [birth]. Gang warfare, knife fighting, stealing and lying were simply a way of life. He was … a drug user and an accomplished thief.
Joe, however, went to a meeting at which Akbar Haqq, [a Billy Graham Association] evangelist was speaking. Before the evening was over, Joe had given his life to Christ. The day after his conversion, one of his buddies was trying to induce Joe to go with him to get drugs and Joe didn’t want to be bothered. The friend pulled a knife and threatened to cut Joe. Joe was much quicker and he got the better of his friend, stabbing him many times. His friend was in the hospital for two weeks.
Joe [had accepted Christ, but he] had no Christian background to fall back on, and he had many ups and downs in his spiritual life.
Is there a common thread between you and I and Joe? I haven’t met gang members here at our church. Of course there is drug use, violence, and crime in Chapel Hill, but I have not run into many people like Joe. I have though met a lot of people in our town and in our church that go through ups and downs in the spiritual life. No matter how dedicated we are to prayer, to worship, to Bible study, and to Christian service, we have high points and low points and many days where we are somewhere in between. There is no solution to that. Discipleship is a journey. What we can see in Joe’s life and in the words of the prophet Ezekiel and in other stories we’ll hear this morning is that repentance has to be a critical part of the disciple’s journey. Repentance is more than something we just do when we initially confess our sins and accept Jesus. Repentance is more something we just do when we know we have committed sins or lived in a season of spiritual dryness or in a season of decadence or sinfulness. Repentance is a crucial, consistent element in the disciple life.
I read about a young German girl in the 19th century who was giving a piano concert in her town. She was not famous, but she wanted people to come, so she fudged her resume. She said she was a student of the famous composer, Franz Liszt. She had never met him or studied piano under him, but this was a great way to generate a crowd until she learned that the day of the concert, Franz Liszt would be in town.
In her embarrassment, she dealt with what she had done. She didn’t try to hide. She didn’t hope the whole thing would blow over. She went to Franz Liszt when he arrived and confessed all. He said to her, “You made a mistake. We all make mistakes. What you need to do is repent and I believe you have. Now, I want you to sit down and play what you will be playing in the concert.” She did. He corrected a few of her mistakes. Then he said, “Now you can truly say I have been your teacher. Proceed with your concert. Your teacher will play the final number.” And he did.[i]
As this pianist found redemption from a kind hearted master in Franz Liszt, the New York street-tough turned Christian, Joe, found redemption through the faithful witness of Akbar Haqq and Billy and Ruth Graham. Joe was led to Jesus when he heard Billy Graham’s associate present the Gospel. However, just because Joe accepted Christ does not mean he was instantly a perfect disciple. Like the 19th century small town German girl, Joe made mistakes even after he was saved. He made a lot of mistakes.
When Billy Graham came to NY to do an evangelism crusade, he learned of Joe’s story. Ruth Graham met Joe and urged him to come to the worship services and he did. A friendship formed between this evangelist’s wife from NC and this tough-guy turned believer. On one occasion, Joe, frantic, called Mrs. Graham. She by now knew him well enough to ask, “What have you done now, Joe?”
He responded that he had robbed a filling station. “Why would you do that,” she asked. Here is his response.
Well, it’s like this. I have this buddy. He really needed money, but he had never robbed a filling station before. I had, so I just thought it was my Christian duty to help him.
She told Joe, he had to repay all the money. He was shocked and hurt at what she said. She asked if he had stolen anything else. He looked at her strangely. Everything he owned was stolen. Through much guidance and love from the Grahams and their associates in NY, Joe did return all the things he had that were stolen. He grew in faith and eventually went on to graduate from Columbia Bible College. He has given his testimony at many Billy Graham Association evangelism events. He presents himself as the ultimate example that no one is a hopeless case.[ii]
Joe’s journey has not been easy. It was not easy for the young girl in Germany to confess her sin to Franz Lizst. Repenting – turning away from sin and toward the truth – is difficult work. It is work that must be a regular part of the life of any person who would follow Jesus.
You and I sin. We say mean things to people we love. We look at others and we judge them to be less than us. Maybe we look down on people in certain profession. Maybe we have latent prejudice toward people of certain ethnic backgrounds. This is uncomfortable to face because we know that all people of all races are beloved in God’s eyes. We know from scripture that we are not to judge or despise anyone. But when we look honestly into our hearts, we know we do. We may try not to. But those feelings are in there and they come either bluntly or subtly in our words and in our actions. It may not be a judgmental attitude. It may not be a deep seeded prejudice. Maybe the sins that keep recurring are related to rage, excess, greed, or omission. That’s one on which Jesus hit the Pharisees pretty hard. We know what God wants us to do and who God wants us to help, but we don’t help because we don’t want to. That is sin as grievous to God as theft or adultery or even murder. To us, it’s that not that bad. But to God, it is someone taking the name ‘disciple of Jesus Christ’ and then acting by the world’s values instead of kingdom values. This is not being said to beat us up. We simply have to be honest and specific in acknowledging that sin is a reality in our lives.
God doesn’t want to punish us for our sins. It’s not His preference. Ezekiel, writing in chapter 33, has spent much time and exhausted many words in calling out the disregard for God of the people of God. They’ve sinned and Ezekiel has pointed it out. It can’t be missed. They’re sitting as slaves in exile. Ezekiel is set in Babylon in a time after invading armies have ravaged the land God promised to Abraham. The temple has been destroyed. Sin and the results of sin, the brokenness and utter defeat are apparent. And yet, after all he has said and written, God tells Ezekiel to write this. “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from their wicked ways and live” (33:11b).
When someone goes out and drinks and then drives, God doesn’t want that person to get in an accident and live as a paraplegic for the rest of his life; or to live with the guilt of knowing he killed someone while driving under the influence. When two friends speak words in anger and the result is the end of the friendship, God doesn’t want them to each live in pain and loss and bitterness. The language God tells Ezekiel to use is oath language. “As I live,” God says. He’s making a pledge to people. The almighty isn’t obligated to do that, but He does it to get through to us. He promises the depths of the diving heart, he doesn’t want us to hurt from our sins. Sometimes we will even though God doesn’t want that. But, there is a way to cope with our sins and even grow past them.
Turn! We must honestly face the sins in our life. We must confess them. We must turn from those sins and the lifestyle that ends in making mistakes and hurting others and ourselves. We turn away from that life and those bad choices, and we turn to God. Five times in the NRSV translation of Ezekiel 33:7-11, God implores his wayward people to turn. We, because of Christ, are counted among the people of God. In verse 11, he pleads with us. “Turn back; turn back from your evil ways. Why will you die?”
Sin leads to death and destruction. As long as we live in sin and with sin clinging to us, our souls are in decay. Death lurks in the corners and even hovers over us. But God asks, why? Why accept such a spiritually dark, depressing existence. Turn to me and live. Jesus said the type of life we have when we follow Him and obey the Father. He offers right now abundant life, joy-filled life, exciting life. There is though work involved. One aspect of the work of a disciple is regular repentance. Regularly we examine ourselves, identify where our hearts are oriented toward values of the world, and we turn. We turn from sin, to God. This is not easy work, but it is necessary work.
The journey of Israel, God’s chosen people, from Abraham to Joseph to slavery in Egypt to Moses and exodus, and Moses and law to monarchy and the golden days of David and Solomon to slavery again, this time exile in Babylon is a study in the hard work of repentance. At times, leaders like David and Solomon and Hezekiah and Josiah did things to call the people to God. They shined as His people, chosen to represent Him in the world. But as soon as the nation seemed to get it together and start to move toward holiness, human values instead of heavenly values would begin to take over the corporate mindset. Israel would fall into the worship of statues, idols representing foreign gods. Israel would look to strong foreign nations for security instead of putting her trust in God. By the time Ezekiel came along, it seemed all was lost. They weren’t even in Israel anymore. They were the property of their Babylonian conquerors.
Yet God forgave the past. Through Ezekiel God told them the past is in the past. God implored them to turn back and live. How could they live the faith and the identity of God’s chosen while wallowing in servitude? God would take care of things. Their only concern was to faithfully turn back. Repent and turn once again to God and He would lovingly accept them.
This is a story with two sides, whether we are talking about ancient Israelites or the present day church. On our side is the burden of repentance. God give gives us free will. He will not force us to turn to Him. We must choose. If we choose to reject God we will continually suffer the painful consequences of our sins and we face eternal destruction, eternal death. God’s side of the story is grace. If we turn back to Him, he forgives all and gives us abundant life and the promise of eternal life.
As we said, ‘the turning back’ is not as easy as it sounds. Last weekend, Candy and I watched a comedy – Failure to Launch. It’s a silly movie with some good laughs. The 3 poignant moments of the movie are when the different characters have to apologize for the devious and cruel ways they have treated each other. Each apology is accepted and ends in a warm embrace. In real life, apologies are not so easy or feel-good. Sometimes pain lingers.
Doug Wendel, writing in Discipleship Journal, explains,
Blaming someone else is not repentance. Crying is not repentance. Even feeling sorry for people who've been hurt by our sin is not necessarily repentance. True repentance is the inner focus of my heart on my own sin—realizing the pain and separation I have caused in a situation, feeling sorry about my wrong actions and attitudes, and being willing to turn away from my sin. It is [to quote Jesus in Matthew 7] recognizing and dealing with the plank in my own eye before trying to remove the speck in my brother's eye.[iii]
Furthermore, Wendel points out that the New Testament word used for repentance literally means to change one’s focus or purpose. Our purpose, in doing the work of repentance, becomes receiving God’s grace and extending to those who have sinned against us.
I find it helpful to look to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for further help on this. Foster’s book is a prescription for applying the classic disciplines of the disciple life in our 21st century American lives. The purpose of performing disciplines is to do things we are able to do in order to accomplish – holiness – we cannot accomplish on our own power. The example is of the amateur weightlifter who wants to bench press 300 lbs. When he starts, he cannot. He can’t even do 150 lbs more than twice. But he can do that twice, and so he does three times a week for a year. By the end of that year, it’s not 150 lbs, it’s 175. And he’s not doing it 2 times, he’s doing it 8. The discipline of something he could do, lift 150 lbs, helped him accomplish something he could not – 300 lbs. In spiritual discipline we do things like confess, worship, study, fast, and pray in order to become like Christ. This is work, lifelong work.
I am suggesting here that repentance be a part of our spiritual discipline. Foster does not include a chapter on repentance as a discipline in his book, but he does include a chapter on confession.[iv] In that chapter, he writes of his own experience. He was pastoring his first church and he felt he was missing something. Something of the power of God was absent in his life. He couldn’t figure out why. He knew there were spiritual resources available for facing the challenges of living the disciple life that seemed beyond his reach.
So, he devoted a day to prayer. He got three pieces of paper, each representing an era of his life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. In silent prayer, he asked God to reveal anything that needed forgiveness or healing. As things came up, he wrote them down. He was careful not to analyze or judge himself or anyone else. He trusted that God would reveal what he needed to confess or be healed of. When this time of prayer was up, he had three pages representing those three seasons of life.
With paper in hand he went to a trusted brother in Christ. He read it all, slowly, painfully, confessing his life. He finished and went to take the paper and leave, but his friend, took the paper from his hand. He watched as his friend ripped the history of his sins to shreds and dropped them into the trash. He knew he was forgiven. Then his friend laid hands on him and the power of that prayer has always lived in the heart of Richard Foster.
What I have described is the practice of confession. How does that relate to repentance? Initially, Richard Foster had to turn to God and that led him to remember his sins. Writing them, confessing them, and receiving forgiveness was all a part of the work of turning away from sin. Recall the story of Joe, the tough guy-turned-disciple. Part of his repentance was doing what Richard Foster did. He confessed. Part of it was following Ruth Graham’s advice. He repaid the money he had stolen. Part of it was working with Graham association to tell his story. And in Joe’s life and I suspect in Richard Foster’s life this work of turning and confession, making amends and telling the story has had to be repeated not for already forgiven sins, but for newly committed ones. Add to this the young German girl who had to face the one her lie affected and we start to get a picture of repentance.
(1) We acknowledge the sin.
(2) We turn from it.
(3) We turn to God and confess.
(4) We repair relationships with people who have been hurt by our sins.
Consider two examples from the New Testament. Jesus told a parable of two sons. The younger asked for inheritance he would receive when his father was death even though he wasn’t. The father could have thrown the son empty handed out at this insult. Instead he gave the cocky young man what he asked for. The son went into the world and spent it all on prostitutes, booze, parties, and anything else that would bring a cheap thrill. When it was all gone and he was starving, he returned to his father hoping to be hired as a worker. His father received him with love and celebrated his homecoming.
At this point the older brother got really mad. He couldn’t understand the grace his father gave. He considered his rebellious younger brother dead. He judged him and he hated him. He hated him for his wildness, and he hated that the father forgave.[v] I have heard a lot of believers say, “I can really identify with that older brother. What the father did wasn’t fair.” Keep the older brother in mind.
Jesus also told a parable about a landowner hiring day laborers to harvest in his vineyard. He went early, 6AM, and hired those who were looking for work. He went again at 9Am and found more who needed employment, so he hired them too. He did the same at noon, at 3PM, and again at 5PM. The last group hired only worked for an hour.
When it came time to pay, he paid everyone equally – an acceptable wage for a day’s work. The workers hired at 6AM were quite upset. The pay was fair for a day’s labor, but it wasn’t fair that those who were hired after them received that pay. Instead of being grateful for what they got, they grumbled at what someone else got. I have heard many Christians over the years say, “I can really identify with those workers hired early. They had a legitimate gripe. It wasn’t fair.”
The older brother and the workers hired early were more upset about the grace someone else received than the grace they received. Too many people who claim to follow Jesus, get caught up in thinking that faith is theirs because they deserve it or they earned. They’ve gone to church for 30 years. They’ve tithed. They’ve served in ministries. They deserve the grace God gives. People who come wandering in after a life of sin and get saved don’t deserve the same grace of God. Doesn’t this sound ridiculous? This is the spoiled fruit of neglecting repentance. This is what happens when people look at murderers and drug dealers and porn-addicts. People in church look at those who commit more obvious transgression and say, “Well, I am not that bad. I don’t need to repent.” We all need to repent. Repentance is a disciple’s way of life.
As Jesus followers, we don’t begrudge the grace of others. We are so happy that we are forgiven we rejoice in the grace of others. If we are in the role of the older brother, we join the party and celebrate the prodigal’s return. We don’t get angry at the celebration thrown for him. We help plan it. We don’t rub his nose in his mistakes. We embrace him in his new life.
Rick Warren asked John McCain and Barak Obama each about their greatest moral failings. McCain confessed responsibility at the failure of his first marriage. Obama confessed drug use and other aberrant behavior in his teens. If I was asked that question – about my greatest moral failure – I could say honestly, I have never committed adultery or fornication. I have never used an illegal drug. I am not as bad as those guys. In doing this, it might be tempting to take on air of moral superiority. If that happened, it would be damning to my walk with Jesus. I’d become a Pharisee who stood in the way of his work of leading people into the kingdom of God. My safeguard against such arrogance is practicing repentance as a normal part of my life. It’s something we should all work on.
(1) We acknowledge the sin.
(2) We turn from it.
(3) We turn to God and confess.
(4) We repair relationships with people who have been hurt by our sins.
Right now, begin picturing what repentance would look like in your own life. What sins do you need to turn away from? What things do you need to bring to God? What relationships do you need to approach with a new heart, a disciple’s heart? Imagine right now how you are going to do the work of repentance in this upcoming week. Plan how this will become a part of your spiritual practice, your exercise of spiritual disciplines. Five times in Ezekiel 33:7-11, God emphatically tells the prophet to tell the people to turn away from wickedness and turn to God. This is repentance; changing one’s purpose, direction, and focus.
Zenji Abe, a native Japanese man, lived in Tokyo most of his life. However, on December 7th, every year he made a trip to Hawaii. Why? He had to visit Pearl Harbor on that day. Why? He was one of the pilots of those Japanese planes that bombed the US navy and brought the United States into the war. He recalls in detail his own horror at what he saw that day. He was a part of the second wave of attack. When he arrived, he said he could see “indistinct, black anti-aircraft bursts, flashes of exploding shells and tracers flying all [over the place].”[vi] Abe barreled his fighter jet down on the USS Raleigh. His bomb hit his target and he almost passed out from the dive and then delivery.
Abe counts himself fortunate to have survived WWII. He did not talk much about his experiences until 1991 when he was invited to Hawaii to speak at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the attack. After that, he returned each year. Through his annual meetings with Americans who also survived the war and specifically December 7, 1941, Abe has developed friendships with those who were his enemies. Every year on the 7th, he places a rose on the memorial wall that lists the names of the Americans who died.
Abe is not going back each year to receive again forgiveness from America. It was war and he has long since been forgiven. He goes back to continue to do the work of reconciliation, respectful remembering, and future friendship building. His effort is a good model for us. Once we are forgiven, our sins are gone. What’s left for the disciple is to repent of future sins and to do the work of reconciliation and relationship building with God and with people. In our walk with Jesus this week, let us hear Ezekiel’s word. There’s no need to live a living death. Let us turn to the Lord and live the abundant life.
[i] I got this story from the illustrations list in the E-sword library.
[ii] Graham, Billy (1977). How to Be Born Again, Guideposts (
p, 80-82. Carmel, NY
[iii] Wendel, Doug, “True Repentance,” Discipleship Journal, online archives.
[iv] Foster, Richard (1978). Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (HarperSanFrancisco), ch.10. p.143-157.
[v] Luke 15:11-32.
[vi] Wenger, J. Michael (December 3, 2006). The News and Observer, 1D, 5D.