Pentecost 19a

Preached: October 23, 2011

Repent and Live
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit calls out to you and to me to keep turning to Jesus is Ezekiel 18

The word of the Lord came to me. “What are you people doing by repeating this proverb for the land of Israel: ‘The fathers eat acidic grapes, but the sons’ teeth go bad’?”

“As surely as I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “you will no longer repeat this proverb in Israel. See! All souls belong to me. The father’s just as the son’s belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.”

“You say, ‘The Lord’s way isn’t right.’ Listen now, house of Israel. Is it my way that’s not right? Isn’t it your ways that aren’t right? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness, does wrong, and dies because of it, he dies for his own wrongs that he’s done. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he’s done and does what’s right and just, he keeps his soul alive. He sees and turns away from all his rebelling that he’s done. He will surely live and not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The Lord’s way isn’t right.’ Is it my way that’s not right, house of Israel? Isn’t it your ways that aren’t right?”

“Therefore, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, house of Israel,” declares the Lord GOD. “Repent and be turned from your rebellions. Don’t let them be a sinful stumbling block for you. Send away from yourselves all your sins, by which you have rebelled. Get a new heart and a new soul for yourselves. Why die, house of Israel? For I have no delight in anyone’s death,” declares the Lord GOD. “Be turned and live!” (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32).

This is the word of our Lord.

In October 1517, Martin Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said, ‘Repent,’ he wanted the whole life of believers to be repentance.” That was the first of his Ninety-Five Theses. But Luther wasn’t the first to preach repentance. Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ preached, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 and Matthew 4:17 NIV1984). But they weren’t the first either. About six hundred years earlier, the Lord used the Prophet Ezekiel to preach repentance, as you heard in the text today. And he was only one of a long line of prophets preaching repentance going back to the Lord God himself, when he called out to Adam and Eve in the garden to turn away from hiding in their sin and turn back to him, who was sending the Offspring of the woman to crush Satan’s head.

So we do well, dear friends, to listen to the prophet’s call today. It’s a matter of life and death. “{W}hen you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17 NIV1984), the Lord God had told Adam. Sin and death passed down to us all. Only the way of repentance is life. Repent and live.

A. Repentance confesses how just God’s way is

“Why are we suffering? It wasn’t us, but our fathers and their fathers who really messed things up. Look at what King Manasseh did some sixty years ago! He built altars to idols even in the courts of the Lord’s temple. He sacrificed his sons in the fire and practiced sorcery and witchcraft (2 Chronicles 33). And now we are the ones exiled! We’ve been taken from our home in Jerusalem to this foreign land. How unfair! God’s way is so unjust to punish us for our fathers’ sins!” That’s the way many felt in Ezekiel’s day.

Ezekiel himself was one of the early exiles brought away from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezer, King of Babylon. The Lord called Ezekiel to proclaim his word to those in exile, calling them to repentance. But many felt the Lord God had been unfair to them. That’s the gist of that proverb: “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2 NIV1984). “Our fathers did that bad stuff, and now we, the children, suffer for it.”

And isn’t that part of our nature still to blame others for our problems? “Why am I suffering? I’ve tried hard. If you knew the background I was struggling against, you’d see how far I’ve come. Some things I just can’t help. That’s the way I am. That’s my up-bringing. You can’t hold that against me. I’ve come a long ways, even when others are unfair to me. Shouldn’t God credit my effort? At least shouldn’t I suffer less than those who don’t try as hard?”

But those thoughts, dear friends, are the opposite of repentance. That attitude leads to death, being cut off from all hope in hell. For you see, even if we tell ourselves we’re only blaming other people, we’re still blaming God. Isn’t it ultimately his fault if life’s unfair? He hasn’t dealt us a good hand. He’s playing favorites. He should make it better for us, but doesn’t. His way is unjust!

So the Lord God calls us to account, just as he did for his people in Ezekiel’s day. “{E}very living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son---both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4 NIV1984).

He made us. He’s the Creator; we’re the creatures. Who are we to measure his ways by our standards? Who are we to judge him, who is the Judge of all? He’s not accountable to us; we’re accountable to him. Rather than comparing ourselves to others, examine your own heart. We each have enough sins to earn us death and hell many times over. “{T}he wages of sins is death” (Romans 6:23 NIV1984). And yet we blame him that our earthly lot isn’t as good as we think it should be. “The soul who sins is the one who will die … Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust?” (Ezekiel 18:4 NIV1984).

Rather than asking why we’re not treated better, we really should be asking why we’re not treated much, much worse. The repentant heart knows how great our sin is. The repentant heart abandons all hope in ourselves and our efforts. The repentant heart confesses that God’s justice ought to condemn us forever. How could there be any life for us?

If God’s justice looked at you and me, at our effort, our heart, our will, our actions, then even the repentant heart would have no hope, no peace, no life. But the Lord’s justice looks at the cross of Christ. Listen to how the Apostles explain the justice of the cross: “God presented {Jesus Christ} as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice … so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25, 26 NIV1984). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV1984). “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18 NIV1984). “… Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1, 2 NIV1984).

Do you see the astounding, amazing, life-giving justice that the repentant heart clings to? Even as the repentant heart abandons hope in ourselves it clings to hope in Christ and the justice of the cross. The repentant heart confesses: “How marvelous are your ways, O Lord! How wonderful your justice is above all our ways. For you do not judge us as our sins deserve. You judged Jesus as if he were us. You counted our sins against him and punished him in our place. He has fulfilled and satisfied justice for me. So you are just, O Lord, even though you declare a guilty sinner like me acquitted, justified, and forgiveness. For you credit Christ’s righteousness to me. His is the only righteousness that brings me life.”

Those are the words of faith, dear friends. That’s what the repentant heart confesses about the Lord’s justice -- justice that judges according to the cross of Christ, which faith clings to. Repentance confesses that God’s ways are just, so much more just than we could ever imagine, so much more just than we could ever deserve. Repent and live, for only in the justice of the cross do we have life. Repent and live.

Now, repentance that confesses the justice of God’s way, the justice of the cross -- such repentance flourishes in a brand new heart. That brings us to part two.

B. Repentance flourishes in a brand new heart

The Lord changes our heart. In repentance you receive a new heart, a new soul. “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:31 NIV1984), the Lord calls out.

The old heart that we’re born with imagines: “Since Jesus paid for my sins, my sins are not that big of a deal. As long as I say I’m sorry and ask for forgiveness -- that’s what repentance is about, right? Oh, maybe I should promise to try better next time, but God’s not asking for much more, is he?” That’s the thinking of the old heart.

But the Holy Spirit has given you a brand new heart. Yes, the old with its inclinations still tempts, but the new fights against the old. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). How often don’t we pray those words from Psalm 51! For the Lord does not want from you only words of sorrow or outward actions that look good. That’s not repentance. He wants your heart, your entire heart, along with your body, mind, and soul -- a new heart, a new spirit, devoted to him.

Notice the contrast between the old and the new that Ezekiel lays out for us. When someone knows the righteousness that comes from Jesus and has followed the Lord but then turns away to follow his old heart, he dies. Because of his own sin, faith dies in his heart, separating him from life with God. How tragic! Don’t imagine that you can follow your old heart and still live a life of repentance. Others might call you a Christian, but God doesn’t.

Ezekiel continues the contrast, “But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die” (Ezekiel 18:27, 28 NIV1984). That’s the new heart in action.

The new heart does what is just and right because we know the grace and mercy of our Lord. He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. That’s why he sent his own Son to carry our sins to the cross. Our new heart longs to live for him who died for us and rose again. That’s repentance.

Our God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. That’s why he calls out from his word for you and me to turn from our old, sinful ways and follow Jesus. Repent and live! He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. That’s why he gives you a new heart to follow him. Don’t let the desires of your old heart drown out the new. Don’t turn away from where your new heart leads no matter how difficult the cross is. Repent and live! He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. So let repentance flourish in your new heart. Repentance is horrified at our own sins but rejoices in the righteousness that comes only from Jesus and his cross. “The Lord … is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NIV1984). Repent and live!

Yes, the entire life of a Christian is a life of repentance, as Martin Luther stated. And what a blessed life that is no matter what the cross or hardship or tragedy! For the repentant heart believes that Jesus has made us right with God so that we have life, eternal life in his name. Such repentance confesses that God’s way is just. What surprising justice we find in the cross of Christ! Such repentance flourishes in a new heart, a heart eager to serve our Lord and do what is just and right. Yes, dear friends, repent and live! Amen

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313