19th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Ezekiel 18:30-32 Sermon
September 25, 2005
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
419 "O Saviour Precious Saviour"
468 "O Jesus King Most Wonderful"
487 "This Is My Father's World"
576 "Abide With Me"
WHERE’S YOUR NAME ON THE LIST?
TEXT: “Therefore, I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God, so turn, and live.”
This morning, I’d like to share a story with you, about a pastor who had just received a call to a fairly large, older congregation. Upon his arrival, before his first sermon, he met with the congregation’s church council.
As various things were discussed, the chairman of the congregation handed him a piece of paper. “Here Pastor,” he said, “This is a list of topics we DON’T want you to preach about.”
Rather surprised, he opened the list and began to read it. He then questioned some of the items on the list. “Why can’t I preach against gossip?” The answer came back, “Well, Mrs. Carpenter is the chairman of our Ladies’ Aid. She does so much for the church, and she really loves her Lord; but quite frankly, she knows dirt about almost everybody, and she spends most of her day on the telephone letting everyone else know…and we certainly wouldn’t want to upset her.”
The Pastor then asked, “Why can’t I preach against adultery?” And the answer came back, “You see, Dr. Brighton is quite well off, and he gives over 30,000 dollars a year to the church; however he never got a proper divorce from his first wife, and he’s not married to the woman he’s currently living with…and we can’t AFFORD to upset him.”
So the pastor continued through the list, questioning each item on it. Each item had one or more similar reasons connected with it; and by the time he was through the list, there wasn’t one commandment that hadn’t been eliminated at least several times.
The pastor, now quite exasperated, asked the question, “Well, what CAN I preach about?”
The answer came back, “Oh, you can preach about how much God loves us and accepts us just the way we are; or you can tell everyone to help the poor and needy; or you can tell everyone to appreciate the beauties of nature…you know, nice SAFE subjects.”
Of course all of this was quite disturbing to the pastor, and it became evident why the previous pastor had taken a call elsewhere. But he knew that the Lord had called him to this congregation for a purpose. And so he prayed long and hard as to what he should do for his first sermon. What could he preach about that wasn’t on the list?
So that first Sunday morning came, and this is what happened. He stood up in the pulpit, and read the words of his sermon text, which was the words of II Timothy 4, 2-5, which are as follows: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth, and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
His text being read, the pastor stood there a few seconds looking out at the expectant congregation. And then he began his sermon by saying: “I had a meeting with the church council a few days ago, and they gave me this list (which he held up). This list contains all of the topics I’m not supposed to preach about, for fear that I might offend someone.” And with that, he slowly read through each of the forbidden subjects. When he finished, he held the list up again, looked into the faces of the congregation, and said, “Okay now, where’s YOUR name on this list?”
You see what happened, don’t you? The church council had given him a list of “forbidden topics,” but nobody ever told him he couldn’t preach about the list itself. And that list had virtually everybody in the congregation nailed dead to rights.
When we organized this congregation, I can be quite thankful that nobody handed me such a list. My call is to preach the Word of God in its truth and purity, no holds barred. That is my job.
Now listen to a portion of our text for today, verses 30-31: “I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit.”
So how does God judge us? How does God speak to us and tell us what our offenses are? It’s all in his Word.
I don’t need any lists, because I have the perfect one right here. All we need to do is look through the pages of the Bible to see that God has identified each and every one of us and our sins many times over. So the question we all need to be asking ourselves is, “Where is MY name on this list?” We’re all sure to find it there; and no matter how proud we are, no matter how much we try to fool ourselves with our self-created goodness, our name is definitely on the list.
It hasn’t been too long ago that we discussed the passage from Hebrews 4, 12 which says, “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edge sword…” And when God has us dead to rights, when we’re convicted in our sin, when our conscience is guilty, then that Word has cut hard and cut deep.
The Lord has judged each one of us according to our ways; and when we see ourselves honestly, then we must admit our guilt. We can pretend and try to rationalize our actions all we want to, we can try to ignore the words of conviction, or we can try to convince ourselves that various sections of the Bible don’t apply to us when they really do; or we might even try to justify our actions, thinking that God will certainly understand our “bending the rules” in this case.
But when all the garbage is stripped away, and all the forms of self-justification have gone by the wayside, there we stand. And it’s at this place, when we’re feeling grief and sorrow and anguish over our past wrongs, when we’re feeling cut to the core by God’s judgment, then we look to heaven, and we exclaim with David in Psalm 51, 9-13: “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clear heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.”
There are two very important aspects presented here. The first is, of course the recognition of sin and the desire of forgiveness. When we recognize our transgressions and we see how God convicts us of our sin in spite of what we try to do, it’s as if God has come and broken all of our bones. We try to stand by ourselves, but who can stand when all our bones have been broken?
The only thing we can do is lie there helpless and look for forgiveness. Yes we look for forgiveness, because that same word of God which has us dead to rights and convicts us of our sin, now promises us forgiveness for that sin. If we were to ask Jesus where HIS name is on that “sin list,” we wouldn’t find it. But yet, Christ was punished and convicted as if his name were in every category. Christ suffered and died so that through faith in him as our Saviour, God would not find our names on any sin list.
Sin has created so many problems in our lives. We are to come to Christ with the desire to be free of that sin. Our text today states in verse 31, “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed and get a new heart and a new spirit.” Aren’t those very words reflected by David in Psalm 51 when he prays, “Create in me a new heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me?”
That is the second aspect brought forth by David, which is repentance. The desire to have one’s sins forgiven should always be coupled with the earnest prayer to have a clean heart and a right spirit, which means we pray that God would replace our attraction to sin with the desire to do what is right and good. The repentant sinner is to continually recognize sin, and with the help of God, turn away from it.
This is the function of the Holy Spirit. For by nature, we have no power to choose that which is right, but only the power to do that which is against God. The Holy Spirit causes us to want to be free of that sin, and gives us the desire to do that which is right. The Holy Spirit brings us to the knowledge of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness that is offered through him. And the Holy Spirit gives us the desire to continually live our lives in a God-pleasing manner.
The whole concept of repentance then, is the desire to turn away from sin. It is a complete, 180 degree about-face from that which is wrong to that which is right. Repentance begins when we feel sorrow and desire forgiveness, for if we didn’t have a repentant heart, we would feel no need for forgiveness. But it continues on with us, as we live repentant lives.
Repentance however is not a very popular term, especially in today’s society. Christians like to look at forgiveness more as an open license to continue to sin. Christians like to see themselves in this state of grace so that they can live their lives in a self-pleasing manner, rather than in a God-pleasing manner. People will always be making excuses for reasons to continue to sin, rather than see the need for repentance, and they will seek to justify their actions in a variety of ways.
For example, it has been reported that the famous Chicago gangster and crime boss, Al Capone, was also a faithful church attender. He held the clergy and his religion in high regard. But you know the problem here. Al Capone went to church as a criminal. He made his confession, he heard the Word of God, he took Communion, and he went through all of the rituals; but when he came out of church again, he came out still as a criminal. Al Capone had no desire to repent. He had no desire to close the door on his sinful life; rather he wanted to keep the door jammed open. He wanted to be able to justify within himself his own wicked actions, and he wanted to continue to do them; but he also wanted God’s blessings as well.
But what does Scripture say to all of this? James 4, 17 states, “Anyone then who knows the good he ought to do, and doesn’t do it, sins.” And Hebrews 10, 26-27 says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” That is not a very pleasant outlook for those who are looking to God for licenses to keep on sinning.
In our text for today, Ezekiel is delivering the Word of the Lord to the Israelites. In the Old Testament, the Bible talks about how stubborn and rebellious these Israelites were. They wanted God’s blessing, but they wanted it on their own terms. They wanted God’s grace and forgiveness, but they wanted to do their own thing. They had no desire to make any changes of any sort to their lifestyle; they wanted God to fit in with their ideas. And so Ezekiel speaks the Word of the Lord: “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall.”
When Jesus began his ministry, the first recorded words out of his mouth are written in Mark 1, 15: “The time has come, he said, the Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Gospel.”
So whether you examine either the Old or New Testaments in the Bible, you’ll find that the concept of repentance is a continual refrain throughout Scripture. Repentance is a key factor in our faith, and needs to be core of our Christian life.
The concept of repentance had unfortunately gotten lost and misplaced in that congregation I spoke about at the beginning of the sermon. For a church council to prepare a list of “forbidden subjects” just to keep some sort of superficial semblance of peace is absolutely reprehensible. Sin just doesn’t go away our cure itself by ignoring it. People don’t go to heaven by learning to be comfortable with their sin, and tuning out all those things that may show their sin for what it really is.
The Lord has a very pointed lament for the unrepentant sinner in our text for today: “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Indeed the unrepentant sinner has nothing to look forward to, except eternal death and punishment.
It is unfortunate that in this day and age, a person can search out a church or gathering that will preach what they want to hear, and basically can tailor-make their religion so they can get away with almost any sin. But that’s not keeping with the Word of God. You see, God demands perfect repentance. And a servant of the Word can never make any apologies for what God says.
Yes, God demands perfect repentance. He tells us that we are to completely turn away from sin and seek only after righteousness. We are to root out that sin in our lives, and completely get rid of it. We’re not to try to jam the door open to our sinful past, but completely close it. We are to try to correct and rectify the sinful situations in our lives, and not make excuses for continuing in them.
But to demand perfect repentance is impossible, isn’t it? Don’t we daily sin much? What about all those sins that keep popping up and that we keep committing, no matter how hard we try to keep them under control?
Of course, perfect repentance is impossible for us; for while we’re here on this earth, sin will always be with us. Naturally we can’t take the attitude of, “I can’t be perfect, so why even try.” Rather, our repentance will always need to be an attitude of the heart, and a response of our faith. A repentant sinner is one who sees his sin honestly, and is sincerely sorry for it. A repentant sinner never tries to conjure up excuses or rationalize a sin as being somehow acceptable, regardless of what society or our worldly common sense may say.
The repentant sinner is one, that when he or she commits a sin is not driven to excuses, but driven to their knees. Our constant attempts and failures at repentance on our own, can only bring us to Christ, where in faith, we lay hold of his perfect righteousness. Repentance is the recognition of our own weakness and helplessness when it comes to sin. A repentant faith sees our name on that “sin list.” And it is then a repentant faith that comes to Christ, looking for forgiveness and strength, knowing that it may be found nowhere else.
We know we’ll always be faced with situations where we’re tempted to do the wrong thing. We’ll sin, we’ll get angry, and we’ll get frustrated. But then we look to Jesus for forgiveness. And when we come to our Saviour in faith, then we have done as Ezekiel has instructed us in our text for today. We have repented, and now we live! We can be assured that the list our name is now on, is the list in the Lamb’s book of life.