14th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 18) LSB #’s 496, 579, 707
Text – Ezekiel 33:8
If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, & you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.
WARNING THE WICKED
Jerusalem the golden, with milk & honey blest – the promise of salvation, the place of peace & rest – we know not, oh, we know not what joys await us there: the radiancy of glory, the bliss beyond compare! LSB 672:1
Within those walls of Zion sounds forth the joyful song, as saints join with the angels & all the martyr throng. The Prince is ever with them; the daylight is serene; the city of the blessed shines bright with glorious sheen. LSB 672:2
Around the throne of David, the saints, from care released, raise loud their songs of triumph to celebrate the feast. They sing to Christ their leader, Who conquered in the fight, Who won for them forever their gleaming robes of white. LSB 672:3
Although written almost 900 years ago, those words are still one of the most poetic & lovely descriptions of heaven in existence. A Benedictine monk, by the name Bernard of Cluny, wrote them. Better known for his writings that condemned humanity’s search for earthly happiness, he criticized the immorality of his day, including the moral decay of the church.
That criticism fits hand in glove with the beautiful image of heaven he portrayed with the lyrics to Jerusalem The Golden. And even longer ago than Bernard of Cluny was a prophet named Ezekiel, about 2000 & 600 years ago. Yahweh called Ezekiel to warn the immoral people of his day with these words, “O wicked one, you shall surely die…” (Ezekiel 33:8 ESV)
But 1st, before sending him to warn the wicked, God called Ezekiel to a vision of heaven: “Then I looked, & behold, a form that had the appearance of a man. Below what appeared to be His waist was fire, & above His waist was something like the appearance of brightness, like gleaming metal. He put out the form of a hand & took me by a lock of my head, & the Spirit lifted me up between earth & heaven & brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court… And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there...” (Ezekiel 8:2-4 ESV)
That is Jerusalem the Golden, in the words of Ezekiel the prophet. What I’d like you to consider is this – why did God show Ezekiel a vision of heaven before He sent him to warn the wicked? From our perspective, it seems more effective to experience a taste of hell before you warn someone to stop their wicked behavior.
Scared Straight is a program where hardened convicts from maximum security prisons tell their stories about the truth of prison life in order to convince juveniles that no crime is worth the risk of being locked up in prison. Whether you feel that is appropriate or not, the logic makes complete sense.
There is all manner of chaos right now in numerous cities across our nation. Rioting & looting are nightly occurrences & the debate involves what to do about it. Some are saying that the rioters have a right to be angry so we should let them vent their anger until they’re satisfied & will finally agree to negotiate.
Others are saying that all such activity is wrong so everyone involved should be locked up. And, there are a million varying degrees of opinion between each of those two points. Regardless of human opinion, Jesus spoke the truth when He said, “The thief comes only to steal & kill & destroy; I have come that they may have life, & have it to the full.” (John 10:10 ESV)
It should be clear that Jesus is contrasting Himself as the opposite of those who steal, kill & destroy. However, what is relevant to the message from Ezekiel is this – Jesus highlights what it is that He offers – life & that to the full. If you boil it down, what is Jesus offering? It’s what we think of as heaven! In other words, those who have life to the full want no part of stealing, killing & destroying. In heaven, to sin will never enter your mind.
Bernard of Cluny criticized the immorality of his day & wrote a beautiful hymn about heaven. Ezekiel was sent to warn the wicked, but 1st God gave him a vision of heaven. Jesus tells us that He brings heaven & it is the opposite of the wickedness in our world & the opposite of the wickedness in the heart of every sinful being.
So, why does God call Ezekiel to warn the wicked after showing him a vision of heaven? It has to do with motivation. The glories of heaven are why we warn the wicked – not because they are bad – so are we. No! We warn the wicked because heaven is so amazing! And that makes an eternal difference in our warning!
If we approach our task, & it is your task as well as mine, with a heart that says, “I’m going to warn them because what they are doing is evil,” by the letter of the Law we are correct. However, there’s a huge temptation to do so with the motivation of self-righteousness. We’ll be tempted to think in these terms:
“I’m not rioting so why are you? Stop! You’re hurting people!” In that scenario, our motivation leans more to a self-centered impulse.
On the other hand, if we begin our task with a vision of heaven, we are more likely to view things from an other-centered perspective. We’ll be more likely to encounter them from a perspective of sadness over what they’ll miss than from one of anger at what they have done.
All of us are evil & deserve to be destroyed, so we should, like the angels in heaven, rejoice when a sinner repents & returns to the Good Shepherd. After all, the Christian life is one of daily, personal repentance. The baptized are called to die to self, with Christ in order to be raised with Him, daily, to new life. When God’s children hear of & see great numbers of people suffering from sin, the primary response is grief, not anger. Vengeance is God’s work, not ours.
If we survive the upheaval of our nation, grief is our form of death in this time. It is deep contrition over the inescapable & universal reality that, as heirs of Adam, you & I are dust & to dust we shall return. This is not fatalism which panics, despairs & gives up at the sight of death. Christians grieve, yet not without hope. We look through death to resurrection.
As heirs of God’s promise of new life in Christ we are called even in the worst times to hope in God’s deliverance from the corruption of life that is brought by sin & death. This hope against all odds is a bold confidence in the promises of our Lord & Creator & Savior.
In Ezekiel, just 13 verses after God calls him to warn the wicked, word arrives that the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed. God’s judgment had fully arrived for a stubborn & obstinate people who refused to follow Him in life. Instead, they chose death. To end their misery Yahweh brought it upon them.
The task of sharing the Gospel is still a matter of life & death, fraught with the greatest responsibilities both for the preacher & for the hearers. Words of warning to the people of our nation will also, certainly, be connected to the destruction that will one day come upon our land.
That is why our Lord has given each of us a picture of the glories of heaven. Having a glimpse of what an amazing place it will be helps motivate us to tell others about it – to warn them that they do not want to miss the paradise to come. We do not have to warn people out of anger, nor out of a sense of vengeance. As the Holy Spirit lives in us we warn them out of love.
That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ at work. This Good News has created faith in Jesus in us, & the plan is for it to be spread around the world, or just to our friends & neighbors, through us. When we fail, Jesus has already paid for those sins so we don’t need to lose hope & despair. Salvation is a done deal. Heaven is waiting in all of its amazing glory. That is something we can celebrate & share without reservation. If people reject the love of God, that is not our sin. As we live in the saintly nature created in us, we long for more people to join us in knowing that peace that surpasses all human understanding. Amen.
The Law is good; but since the fall its holiness condemns us all; it dooms us for our sin to die & has no power to justify. To Jesus we for refuge flee, Who from the curse has set us free, & humbly worship at His throne, saved by His grace through faith alone. Amen. LSB 579:5-6.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet