Forever One

15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’ 17 Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.

18 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ 19 say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’ 20 Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on21 and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lordsays: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding,[a] and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever,and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lordmake Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

Sheep Who Rest Securely

4th Sunday of Easter
Ezekiel 34:25-31

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, who is our ultimate Good Shepherd, dear friends in Christ,

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and on this day we focus on that beautiful image that Scripture uses over and over again to illustrate our relationship with God- we are sheep, He is the Shepherd. Since I’ve never actually worked with sheep, everything that I know about sheep is what I’ve read or been told. But apparently, if a sheep is going to feel secure enough to lie down to rest there are at least four requirements that need to be met: First, because sheep are so full of timidity, they will refuse to lie down unless they are free from all fear- no danger, no predator, no threat. Second, because of the social behavior of sheep, they won’t lie down unless they are free from friction with other sheep. Third, if the sheep is tormented by flies or parasites, the sheep won’t lie down. And Lastly, the sheep will not lie down as long as they feel the need to find food.

Well, what is it for us humans? What do we need in order to live a life of quiet rest? What is it that makes you feel safe? As a parent there are plenty of times when my children get scared, they get scared of a noise in the night, a thunderstorm, the dark. Apparently, psychologists will say that it’s actually god for children to get scared at times because it gives them opportunities to develop their ability to trust in those who will keep them safe.

But it’s not just children or sheep that get scared, is it? We live in a world where there are people who know a lot of technology and they would like nothing less than to steal your personal information. We live in a world where we have to be very careful to know exactly where our children are and not let them go just anywhere. We live in a world where natural disasters can reek incredible havoc and death, like in Japan. We live in a world where we could easily face cancer, stroke, heart-attack, or some other kind of sickness or disease.

So how do you rest securely? What do you do to feel safe? Always make sure that you have a cell phone on you so you can call somewhere in any emergency? Get a security system for your home? Make sure that you have a large enough financial nest egg just in case? Only buy a car with the best safety rating? What do you do to rest securely?

But the reality is, no matter how much YOU do to make yourself secure and safe, there’s always something. There’s always something beyond your control that can threaten. You can’t control the economy, you can’t prevent your body from aging, you can’t even control how the person driving in front of you is going to drive their car. There is always something beyond our control. What do you do? How do you feel safe and secure in a world like this?

Well, perhaps, it’s not all bad that we get scared. Maybe it’s not a bad thing when what scares you leads you a little closer to the one who has promised to keep you secure, to keep you safe, to let nothing snatch you out of His hand.

Ezekiel was a prophet of God called to deliver God’s Word to a people who probably didn’t feel very safe in the world. Because the majority of the Israelites had turned away from God, trusted in idols, lived in terribly immoral ways, God allowed the Babylonians to invade, plunder, kill, and devour the land of Judah. The people had lost everything they knew. They were exiled to a foreign land. Their rich, beautiful, promised land and their beloved city of Jerusalem and their temple was left in ruins. They were probably not feeling very secure in a foreign land. And yet, God sends a message of hope to them. Look at this incredible promise! God speaks in incredible imagery here picturing ultimate rest in terms they would have appreciated: a covenant of peace, rid the land of wild beasts, they can live in the desert and sleep in forests in safety, showers of blessing, trees bearing fruit, ground yielding crops, people will be secure in their land, break the bars of their yoke, no longer plundered, no wild animals devour them, live in safety, no one will make them afraid, provide them a land renowned for crops, no longer victims of famine and here’s why: “Then they will know that I, the LORD their God, am with them and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Sovereign LORD. You my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are people, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

Yes, the Israelites would eventually return to their land, but this is talking about something far greater than that. The Israelites returned to their land, but what God is telling them here is that He is going to provide for His people a security that is better than the best thing this world can imagine. This was fulfilled when God sent the Good Shepherd, Jesus. You see Jesus suffered the worst punishment so that we could have a covenant of peace with God. Jesus bore the yoke of your sins so you might be totally free from slavery to it. Jesus was secured to a cross with nails so that you would be secured to Him forever. Jesus died and rose again so that you might enjoy the showers of God’s blessing no matter what. He assures you that He will use even the bad stuff of life for good- to lead you closer to Him.

Sheep are skittish animals and they need a lot of conditions in place in order for them to lie down and rest. But, as I’m told, there’s really nothing that helps a sheep feel secure than the presence of their shepherd. When their shepherd is with them, that’s when they’re safe and secure.

The other week we had pastor’s conference and this pastor’s conference is designed for the pastor’s family to attend as well. The kids always enjoy swimming at the hotel pool. When I had some free time I went with them and I was holding our 2 year old David. As I was taking David around in the pool I led him out to the deeper end and kept telling him let’s go deeper and deeper. As the water rose higher and higher he kept clinging closer and closer to me getting more and more scared – even though at the deepest point of the pool I could easily stand up. If David was able to analyze the situation, though, he would have realized there was no reason for his fear. Anywhere in the pool was too deep for him, even in the shallowest part of the pool he could have drowned. His safety anywhere – whether at 3 feet or 5 feet depended on his dad.

Perhaps there’s times in your life when you feel like you’re “out of your depth.” When things happen beyond our control. Our temptation is to be afraid and scared. But here’s the truth: You’ve never been in control. We’ve always been held up by the grace of the Good Shepherd, and that never changes. Our Good Shepherd is never out of his depth- no matter where we are in the pool- even if it might feel that we’re deeper than we’ve ever been before.

What is it that makes you feel secure and safe? Look at what God tells you: “You are my people, the sheep of my pasture, I am your God. Even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you, you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Jesus is your Shepherd who meets every need, brings comfort in the midst of every trial and trouble, who never leaves you alone, who went through life and death first for you, so that you know that when your time comes he will be there waiting to welcome you into life everlasting. No matter what the wilderness of life is that lies ahead for you- your Shepherd will keep you safe and bring you safely to the perfect pasture awaiting you in eternity. Rest securely in your Good Shepherd. Amen.

Are you Hopeful or Hopeless?

1st Sunday of Pentecost
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in them the fire of your love! Amen. In the name of Jesus, who promised to send the Holy Spirit and has fulfilled that promise, dear friends in Christ,

One of my friends is a pastor in northern Wisconsin. A number of years ago his wife was diagnosed with cancer. It was July 12, 2005, Kris, his wife and mother of 3 young daughters, lies in her hospital bed at home, her body fragile and weak, defeated by cancer. “Daddy,” her 8 year old Kayla asks, “Why are mom’s eyes black around them?” “You know what’s happening to mom, right?” Her dad responds. “Yes, she is getting sicker?” “That’s right, Kayla, and then what will happen?” “She will die.” The very next day this wife and mother died. Have you been there? Watched as the life slowly ebbed out of your loved one? There’s nothing fun about it, let’s be honest, it’s horrible. You know, we live in a world full of hopelessness, don’t we? Chronic illnesses, accidents, sicknesses, broken marriages and families, family feuds, grudges, resentment, work frustrations, set-backs, financial difficulties, and then all the problems and difficulties of this world will end in one place: death. It’s not fun, it’s not pretty and for many it’s hopeless.  Dust you are and to dust you will return.

In the midst of this world full of dry bones, both in us and in our experience, God comes with hope. It’s one of the main things that we humans need in this world full of dry bones: hope from God. There are times in the lives of people where there is no one to give hope. And many people are out of practice in looking to the only one who can give hope in a hopeless world, many people are out of practice in looking to God for hope. That’s exactly what happened to God’s Old Testament people.

At the time of our text there was no hope for God’s people. The Babylonians had come in and burned and destroyed Jerusalem. Many people were taken back to Babylon in exile. Some of the poor and needy were left in the demolished city. This weekend we especially thank the Lord for the men and women who serve our country in the armed forces and are willing to lay down their lives to protect our freedoms. But imagine that some foreign enemy of the U.S. actually took over the U.S. invaded our land, not only coming through Bemidji, destroying our city, destroying your home, destroying our church, but also exiling you and your entire family to some foreign and strange place. Way off it Babylon the Israelites sat. No city, no home, no church, no army to come and rescue them. They felt like they were living in a grave. Add to that that the reason they had been overrun by a foreign enemy was because of their unfaithfulness to God. Because of their unfaithfulness they lost the blessing of being a nation, they lost the blessing of a special promised land, so, had they lost the most important blessing of the Savior too? No hope for the future, no American dream, no hope for a pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, they felt like they were living in a grave.

And that’s the truth for us too. God was teaching His people a lesson. This world is nice, we thank the Lord for the life He gives us in this world, but if we look to anything in this world for hope, it will ultimately fail us. And we can see that. Some people look to politicians to give them “hope” but after 4 or 8 years they’re ready to look for someone else to give them hope. Some people look for hope in money or a successful career, but then they find out that those things usually only come with a high price tag that includes losing the more important things of life like their family, their health, their contentment. Some people look to some kind of substance to give them hope- this drug or that, alcohol, you name it – but those things, too, come with a high price tag of losing health, friends, family, freedom. Where are you looking for hope today? If you are looking for hope in this world, it will fail you.

To His people in exile in Babylon, His people feeling like a bunch of dry bones, God sent His prophet Ezekiel. And here Ezekiel has a real out of body experience, God gives him a vision. God takes him to a valley full of dry bones, God walked him back and forth, back and forth in this valley. And these bones were very dry. So, we ask, “What is God doing here? Why is God leading him back and forth in this valley of dry bones?” God is getting Ezekiel to see the intense hopelessness of the people. Death happened in this valley, thousands upon thousands of people died, there is no life in this valley, it’s a hopeless scene. That’s what it felt like to the Israelites. Dust you are and to dust you will return.

Why do we face death? Why do soldiers die in a battlefield? Why do young wives and mothers die from disease? Why do tragic accidents take the lives of children? Why do you and I face our own bodies getting weaker as life slowly ebbs away from it? Death is a consequence of sin. The wages of sin is death. Dust we are and to dust we will return. And that’s not the worst of it. Not only do we face physical death, but each of us was born into this world dead. A baby might look very much physically alive, but spiritually we inherited our parent’s sinfulness and so we were born spiritually lifeless, dead, a corpse the Bible tells us. And there’s one thing we all know: dead people don’t do anything.

But then God asks Ezekiel a question, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And when God asks you a question the safest answer is, “Why don’t you tell me, Lord?” Ah! There it is. What is God getting at? The people had forgotten how to hope…in God! If we haven’t learned to hope in God, we will be left desolate, deserted and like a bunch of dry bones. But God has the answer, “Prophesy to these bones.” In other words, speak God’s Word to these bones. And what happened? Close your eyes for a moment and picture it. There’s a noise, a rattling sound, this leg bone is scurrying over to this other leg bone and they’re being joined to the hip bone, this bone that had been carried over here by some animal is being brought back and is being attached to this other bone, then there’s tendons and muscles forming over these bones and then there’s skin that’s covering these bones! What a sight! But there was no breath in them, so God said, “Prophesy to the breath,” and the breath came and filled these people and they stood up, living and breathing, and their chests were going in and out. And there before Elijah stood an army, the Hebrew literally says, “An army, great, very, very.”

What happened? God made them alive! A moment ago they were nothing but a bunch of lifeless, dead, dry bones, but GOD made them alive! Then God applies the vision. This is what you are to tell those people living in captivity. They thought they were going through a dry bones experience, they thought they were living in a grave. The bones represent the people of Israel, they are saying, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” But this is what God says, “O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live!”

What’s God’s whole point? Your situation looks hopeless, but I am… God! I make dry bones live! You are not hopeless because you have GOD! Think about it. You know what this means for you and for me? We still live in a world that’s chock full of tragedy, disease, illness, accidents, set-backs, sometimes life can feel like you’re living in a grave. But there’s no reason for us to be hopeless for God is with us and God makes dry bones live! Some 30 years after this event the Persians completely overran the Babylonians and one of the first things the Persians did was allow the Israelites to go back to their land and they even funded their rebuilding of Jerusalem. Why? Because GOD makes dry bones live, GOD gives hope in hopeless situations, GOD makes sure His promises never fail!

Many of you know many hopeless situations where they’ve gotten better. In fact, you’re one of them. The fact that you believe in Jesus as your Savior is a dry bones made alive experience. Today is the day we celebrate Pentecost. The day when God really made dry bones live in Israel. God sent the Holy Spirit to bring people to real life, spiritual life. Peter, a dry bone, stood up and spoke to a bunch of dry bones and said, “You killed the Son of God! But God made Him to be a sacrifice for sins!” And how did the people respond? “Get out of here!?” No! They said, “What shall we do?” “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

You and I were dry bones once too. But in amazing grace God sent the Holy Spirit through God’s Word or through baptism to give you life, to give you flesh, to give you breath, to give you spiritual life. Today, all over the world, the church, God’s people are alive and breathing in a God who saves, who is here to share life and hope in a hopeless world, because God makes dry bones live.

Sometimes it takes longer than we’d like, but that’s no reason to give up hope. July 13th 2005, God took Kris, His tired child home. Yes, 3 daughters will grow up without their birth mother. They have to wait to see her. But see her they will. For God made dry bones live and now she really lives with her Lord and Savior in heaven. See how God gives hope – even in death!

In this world we are so easily wrong when it comes to any hopeless situation that we find ourselves in. We get hopeless way too quickly. But see what God does? God brings dry bones to life! What hopeless situation are you facing? Illness, difficulties, trouble, setbacks? Set your hope in God; He brings dry bones to life, He fulfills all His promises, in Jesus’ blood He’s already redeemed you for eternal life, He promises to bring you safely there! And even death, our final enemy, even when death is awaiting us, on the Last Day day God will make our dry bones come alive and unite them with our soul and we will live body and soul in heaven with all our fellow believers forever. So hope in God, if God is with us, we’re going to be ok. Amen.

My Brother’s Keeper

7th Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-10

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!  In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, I read an interesting article this past week.  It was written by a veteran of the military and he was writing about why he feels that many veterans struggle in the transition from the service into civilian life.  He stated eye-opening statistics regarding joblessness, narcotic addictions, and suicide among veterans.  Most people attribute those statistics to trauma that they suffered while in the service.  But this writer attributed it to something entirely different.  You see, in the army each soldier has a supportive social environment unequaled to anything else.  You might think that doesn’t make much sense; being chewed out because your shoes aren’t shined doesn’t seem very supportive, right?  But think about it:  In the army it matters to someone else if your boots fit properly or not, it matters to someone else whether or not you’d been to the dentist, it matters to someone else if you are where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there and you’d find out if you weren’t!  That culture is inbred in the army in order to support the team mentality of the troops.  But it also meant that there was always someone there for you.  It was everyone’s job to look after you, and it was your job to look after everyone else.  If you’re on a road march and someone is struggling, you’d help carry the load.  If you’re in the cafeteria and someone’s on crutches, you’d help carry his tray.  That’s just how it is in the army.  But then you exit the service and what’s gone?  No more standing at attention, no more grueling runs setting your speed to the slowest member of your group, no more morning formations.  Suddenly, gone is the cohesive structure meant to take care of you, gone is this strong sense of social security, gone is the sense that wherever you go you fit in, gone is your network of friends who are as much interested in your success as you are in theirs.  The writer’s point was this: when Veteran’s leave military service, many of them are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced.  And hence many spend the rest of their lives searching for that belonging that they had in the military.

Well, that need for belonging is something for which every human being longs ever since the fall into sin.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed a perfect sense of belonging, a perfect relationship with God and with each other.  They weren’t troubled by not being part of something, they weren’t troubled whether or not someone was going to be there for them or not.  But when they sinned against God, all that changed.  Gone is that perfect care for each other, gone is that perfect trust in God, gone is that belonging to God’s family.  But by God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus that what was lost in the fall is restored to a degree within the family of believers, God’s people, Christians, the church.

God calls each of us to be concerned not just about ourselves, but with each other.  Not just to be there for encouragement, support, and care, but also be there for our fellow believers to correct, rebuke, and confront them when they’re wrong and their souls are in danger.

And that is what God told the prophet Ezekiel in our text this morning.  It was Ezekiel’s job as watchman for the nation of Israel to confront them with their sins.  The nation of Judah was still in rebellion against God at this time, they were trusting in themselves and not God, many were still committing idolatry, many were living in sin.  So what did God do?  He sent the Babylonians to invade Judah and haul many of them into exile in Babylon.  But many of the Jews who were left in Judah still didn’t repent of their sins.  They claimed they had the temple of the Lord and everything was going to be fine.  So, in a devastating act in order to get them to turn back to Him, the Lord allowed the Babylonians to come and completely destroy the city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, including the temple.  The very place that symbolized God’s presence with His people.  In other words, turn your back on God and you forfeit God’s presence, protection, and blessing.  After that, the people were devastated.  Finally, it seems that they took to heart Ezekiel’s message and said, “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them.  How then can we live?”

That’s the work of the law.  We need to hear the law of God.  Martin Luther once stated that the human heart is an idol factory.  Every day we chase after this or that, every day our hearts push God off of front and center, every day we don’t want to do what God wants, we want to do what WE want, we want to do what we think is best, what will make us feel good, and we don’t care about what God says.  If we take an honest look at our hearts and our lives we have to conclude that each of us falls into that category of “wicked.”  We’re not righteous, we’re the opposite: wicked.  There is no one righteous, not even one; no one who understands, no one who seeks God, all have turned away, they have together become worthless.  The wages of sin is death.  Unrepentant sin leads to spiritual and eternal death.

So what does God do?  Ignore us?  Leave us alone?  No.  He surrounds us with people, he puts us in a social network of sorts, a group of fellow Christians.  He makes each of us watchmen or women for each other to care for each other with the highest possible care: the soul. To warn, to rebuke, to confront sin, just like Ezekiel.  And God says if we fail to warn someone in danger of spiritual death, God’s going to hold us accountable.  And God also says that if we warn someone and they don’t repent we’ve still done what He wants us to do.

But is it loving to do that?  To confront sin?  Well, think about it this way, it’s just as loving to allow someone to continue in unrepentant sin as it is to leave your neighbor inside his burning house without doing anything to help him.  It’s just as loving to allow someone to live in sin as it is to watch a young child swallow prescription drugs like candy.  It is just as loving to allow someone to remain in sin as it is to allow a young toddler to run out on a busy highway after a ball.    Sometimes it is essential that love has to be tough.  If someone is doing something that is endangering their soul and their eternal salvation, drastic means are necessary to confront that person.

So, what if I notice someone who sins?  What should I do? Well, I could ignore it, pretend I didn’t see it or hear it, and go on my merry way.  But, what does God say?  If I don’t warn that person, God will hold me accountable for their blood.  I could immediately tell other people, gossip about that person, “Did you hear what so and so did?”  And think maybe someone else will talk to that person so that I don’t have to, never mind it is well after their reputation has been tarnished.  Or, I could go up to the that person and lambast them with their sin, telling them I couldn’t believe they could do such a stupid thing, and that they are going to hell and drive them further into their sin or into despair.  Or, I could, as a fellow forgiven sinner, go up to that person in private, gently, lovingly, caringly, share my concern for their soul and their spiritual life.  That is the kind of warning God wants his people to share with those who have sinned.

But what about the other side of the coin?  How does God want me to react if I’m that person who has sinned and a fellow Christian confronts me?  Well, if I am caught in sin, I could say, “This is none of your business!  Mind your own business!”  And continue on my sinful way and my path to spiritual destruction.  Or I could say, “You’re right I’ve sinned!  Please forgive me!”  And hear from my fellow Christian, “God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that they turn from their ways and live.  In Jesus your sins are forgiven.  Go and sin no more.”  But what if I haven’t done something wrong and yet someone comes to me and confronts me with a concern from misinformation?  How should I react? Again, there are several things I could do: I could react by saying, “How dare you think that I could do such a thing!  How terrible! What a mean person you are!” And then become upset, initiate silent treatment, hold a grudge, refuse to speak to the person.  Or, I could say, “Thank you so much for having such a concern for my spiritual well-being to come and talk to me about your concern.  I want you to know that I did not say that or do that.  But I really appreciate your concern for my soul.”

God’s serious about this.  Just like not waking your sleeping neighbor inside his burning house is not just loveless and careless, it also makes you a killer, so not confronting someone in sin is not only loveless and careless, but God says that he will hold us accountable!  This is serious!  Sin is serious!

Why is God so serious about this?  He tells us, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  Why is God so serious?  It’s because of his grace and mercy and sincere desire that no one go to hell and that all repent and receive salvation.   God is making an oath, staking his life on this statement.  In fact, God did more than just take an oath, He came, He Himself laid down His life on a cross as payment for all sins in order to show that he is absolutely serious that He wants no one to perish, but if someone remains in unrepentant sin they reject God’s free offer of salvation.

The responsibility of waking our sleeping neighbor becomes a joyful privilege when we see him emerge from the house safely.  The responsibility of stopping an infant about to choke on prescription medication is a joyful privilege when you see that child kept safe from potential poisoning and death.  The responsibility of stopping a young toddler from running onto a busy highway becomes a joyful privilege when you hold that child safely in your arms away from imminent danger and death.  The responsibility of warning a brother or sister in their sin becomes a joyful privilege when we see that sinner repent of their sin, turn away from their sin, and so be saved for eternal life and salvation.

No we aren’t the military, but God has placed us into an incredible network of fellow believers whom we not only look after, but who look after us and the safety of our eternal souls.  Imagine what the church would look like if each one of us saw ourselves as integral part of this network of believers, helping, encouraging, supporting, and yes, confronting each other.  Be a watch man or woman, be your brother’s keeper.  Have a sincere concern for the eternity of your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Amen.

 

Rejoice in Your True Shepherd!

Christ the King

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, dear friends in Christ, Can it really be so? “Nearly 10,000 People Evacuated from Nevada Wildfire,” “Deficit Gridlock Looms,” “Occupy Protest Turns Bloody,” “Protesters Amass in the Thousands,” etc. etc. And there are certainly plenty more news headlines that could be added in. It really makes you wonder, can it really be so? This Sunday, out of all the Sundays in the year, we set aside to remind ourselves of the reality and to acknowledge this absolute fact: Christ is King. Really? Pastor, where did you just come from? Are you seriously so far in the dark? Look at the world! Rottenness, corruption, filth, perversity of every kind, arrogance, murder, deception, injustice, and on and on and on. Christ is King? Can it really be so?
Perhaps the Israelites some 2,500 years ago were asking essentially the same question: Is God really in control? Can it really be? Ezekiel lived at a time when the nation of Israel was in bad shape. Often times their leaders were referred to as “shepherds.” Well during Ezekiel’s time their “shepherds,” their political leaders of the nation cared only about themselves, their glory, their riches, their prestige, their honor and they got whatever they wanted at the expense of the people, the sheep. The nation’s religious leaders were for the most part just as bad. They also led only for themselves, they promoted false teachings and false gods, they taught the people to rely in other gods for help instead of the true God and told the people everything was just fine when in fact it wasn’t. Israelites leaders, their shepherds, were very wicked in God’s eyes. They fleeced the flock. They were like shepherds who cared nothing about the flock, they let their sheep wander off cliffs, starve from lack of food or nourishment, drink polluted water, let wolves or predators come and kill the sheep, and if that wasn’t enough they were like shepherds who would then kill their sheep so that they could have a dinner. And many people were deceived by these worthless shepherds.
But then it happened. In the year 586 B.C. God sent the Babylonian army to the nation of Judah and it completely decimated it. They destroyed the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, destroyed the people’s homes, and carried off a good portion of the people back to Babylon. One of those who exiled was the prophet Ezekiel. Now imagine you’re one of those Israelites. What are you thinking? “My leaders, my shepherds, deceived me, my city has been completely destroyed, my God’s temple has been demolished, and my own home has been obliterated. Has God forsaken me? Is God really in control?” They were devastated.
It was to these Israelites whom Ezekiel spoke God’s message. And what was God’s message for them? “Completely opposite of your “shepherds” I, I, the Sovereign Lord will be your shepherd. I will search for my sheep, I will look for them, I will rescue them, I will bring them to their own land, I will pasture them, I will tend them, I will search for the lost and bring back the strays, I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, I will destroy the sleek and the strong.” Did you notice the subject of all of this? It’s God Himself!! Notice that God is speaking in picture language here. He’s not going to come to find a bunch of four-legged animals; rather He will come for His people. He will come to shepherd His people once for all. Then God gave the Israelites a few more details: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will be their shepherd.” At Ezekiel’s time David had been dead for some 400 years. But what had God promised to David? God promised to great king David that one day one of his descendants would come and God would place Him on the throne forever. Great David would have an even greater Son. Just from this prophecy what do we know about this coming Shepherd? God Himself will be the Shepherd who will tend His flock and this Shepherd will also be from one of David’s descendants and like David will rule on a throne, but His rule will have no end.
There’s a principle of understanding these OT prophecies that we have to keep in mind here. Many of these OT prophecies have 3 fulfillments. The first: God is telling the Israelites who are in captivity up in Babylon that He’s going to lead them back to their land, the land of Judah. Why would this be important? For the second fulfillment: This was extremely important so that the conditions might be right for a certain someone to be born in that land, in fact, in the small city of David called Bethlehem. This certain person would at one and the same time be a descendant of David and God Himself. After this Shepherd has tended His flock on earth He will bring all of His sheep in one flock to a rich pastureland where they will live forever in peace and security. That’s the third fulfillment. We get the advantage of being able to look at history and see how God fit all of this together. For the OT Israelite hearing this prophecy from the first time would hear something like this: One day God Himself will come as the promised Savior, the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, to rescue His flock of people and rule them forever. Yes, trust in God, He’s still in control!
So what does this prophecy mean for us today in the 21st Century? No, we’re not in exile in some foreign country wondering if God has abandoned us. No, our city, home, and church have not been demolished by a foreign army. And no our leaders for the most part are not “fleecing” us. And most of us probably haven’t spent a whole lot of time with sheep or seen shepherds at work with a flock. Yet, that picture still communicates to us today.
Sheep are really interesting animals. It’s my understanding that sheep are essentially defenseless on their own. They have little to no means of self-defense. Without a shepherd they are an easy target for any animal of prey. It’s also my understanding that sheep are very feeble and timid and are easily spooked. I suppose it must be because they are essentially defenseless that at the first sign of danger and without a shepherd they will immediately run for their lives. And it seems that the only way to get a sheep to lie down in peace is if their bellies are full and they are free from fear. That’s why it’s essential for sheep to have a caring shepherd who leads them to lush green pasture to graze in.
In this prophecy we as God’s people are pictured as sheep. And there are several parallels, aren’t there? In the grand scheme of things we have to admit that we are pretty much defenseless, right? We live in a world that’s full of uncertainties, don’t we? Any hour can bring disaster, danger, and distress from the unknown. Life is full of hazards. No one can tell what a day will produce in new trouble. Who knows what will happen with the economy? Who knows what will happen when the next terrorist attack will come? Who knows what nation will rise up and incite a new war? Who knows what will happen with the financial mess the world seems to be in? Who knows when the next protest or riot will happen? And even more closer to home: who knows what our next medical checkup will reveal? Who knows what next big financial burden we may have to bear? Who knows what next big temptation the devil will throw our way? We live in a world full of uncertainties. And these uncertainties can fill us with fear. We fear the unknown and the uncertain. We take a look at the world scene and the horrendous consequences of sin being present in the world and we have to ask the question: Can God really be in control? Can Christ really be the King? Our lives are also full of uncertainty. Is Christ really the King? Perhaps in fear and fright we like sheep find ourselves running to empty and desolate pastures of this world. When we question God’s ultimate control over all things and doubt Christ’s rule over this whole world we sin against God. Indeed, we all like sheep have gone astray.
But we have a Shepherd who didn’t leave us on our own to be devoured by the prowling lion, the devil. We may see great injustice happen in our world around us, but it all pales in comparison to the greatest injustice, the greatest crime of history, which we heard earlier in our service. A crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head, he was beaten, mocked, and spit upon and finally crucified. He endured all of that not because He couldn’t escape. He had the power to strike those soldiers dead on the spot, He certainly had the power to come from the cross, a piece of wood which He had created. The wonder of wonders is this: he didn’t. In incomprehensible love and grace the Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep. That was the battle our Shepherd won for us. And since He rose from the dead that proves He won the greatest battle of the world: victory over sin, death, and the devil that certainly makes Him the King of all things.
Although we may not see it with our eyes He does indeed rule the physical world around us. No evil, no disaster can happen unless He allows it. He stands far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion. He holds the devil on a chain and works all things- even the evil- for the good of His people. And He rules our lives spiritually through His Word and Sacraments. He gives us churches to be a part of and He promises to work through our church. It is here where he washes us clean from all of our sins through the living waters of baptism. Here He feeds us with the living food of His Word and the life-giving nourishment of the Lord’s Supper. Through His Word He strengthens our faith in Him and prepares us for the day-to-day battles against sin and temptations. No longer are we like defenseless sheep because God Himself gives us the armor we need: His Word and His Sacraments.
Is God in control? Is Christ really the King? When in doubt, remember His promises to you: “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age. I will strengthen you and help you and uphold you by my righteous right hand. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for you are with me your rod and staff they comfort me. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed. Do not be afraid little flock for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” No matter what happens on this earth you know with absolute confidence that your Good Shepherd will continually lead you on the path to your heavenly pastureland. So yes, rejoice, Jesus is your True Shepherd and your ultimate King. He rules all things for the good of you, His flock, now and always! Amen.

Why will you die?

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Dear friends in Christ, “No, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong…here let me show you.”  How often have you heard those words?  If we’re honest with ourselves each one of us has to admit that at some point we’ve probably heard words like those.  About 2 years ago in my intern year I remember the first bible study I wrote.  I spent at least 20 hours working on it.  I handed it in to my supervising pastor and after looking at it he handed it back to me and said, “You’ll have to redo it.  You wrote a good study for Seminary students.  Instead of asking people what the theological significance of Jesus being called “the Word” in John 1, ask how it impacts their lives to know that God has communicated His love to us through Jesus.”  Am I glad he told me I was wrong?  Yea, because I know better how to make God’s word more meaningful to people instead of impersonal truths.  Yet, how many of us really enjoy being told we’re wrong?  Anyone?  It’s not much fun, is it?

But many times when we are told we are wrong it is actually for our good.  For example, you’re working on a project at work and you think it’s supposed to be done one way and a coworker comes along and tells you that you’re doing it wrong and shows you what you’re really supposed to be doing, well, then you’d appreciate their warning- they saved your job!  Yet, sometimes we are told we are wrong when there’s danger involved those are called warnings.  Just think about it.  If you are golfing and someone yells, “Fore!”  You duck down because you don’t want to be hit by a golf ball.  Or if you’re standing in a street not realizing a semi is barreling down the road toward you, you are glad when someone warns you or the truck honks its horn.  Same goes for a train whistle, or a smoke alarm in your home, there are warnings all around us to keep us from danger.  Whether or not we admit it, we do all appreciate warnings because they keep us from danger.

God wanted the prophet Ezekiel to give a warning to the people of Israel.  Ezekiel lived at a time in Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, when the nation had wandered far from God.  Many people were wicked.  What is it that made them “wicked”?  Well, in Ezekiel 18 we’re given a sampling of who these “wicked” people are: “He eats at the mountain shrines.  He defiles his neighbor’s wife.  He oppresses the poor and needy.  He commits robbery.  He does not return what he took in pledge.  He looks to the idols.  He does detestable things.  He lends at usury and takes excessive interest” (Ezekiel 18:11-13).  Its people who lived in unrepentant sin and their sins were done in public for everyone to see.  It’s these people whom God wanted Ezekiel to warn.  To tell them that because of their unrepentant wickedness they would die.  God’s warning to these people was serious and God’s warning to their watchman was just as serious.

Speaking to Ezekiel God said, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.  When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.”  Did you hear it?  God is deadly serious about people listening to him and doing what He tells them.  At the same time God is deadly serious about His watch men and women who speak God’s words of warning.  If they know of someone’s sin and yet do nothing, don’t warn them, leave them in eternal danger, then God will hold the watchman accountable.

In our world God has set up three institutions to address people’s sin and God says He will demand an accounting from each.  It is interesting that each one of our readings today addresses each.  One is the government.  God requires those in authority to govern wisely keeping law and order and punishing those who do evil.  Everyone who has a position of authority in government will be asked to give a special accounting to God for the way they ruled.  That’s why God directs us to give them honor and pay our taxes.  God has also called people to positions of authority in the church.  That includes the pastor.  As your pastor you have called me to do certain forms of ministry publicly in your name and on your behalf.  As a pastor it is part of my called duty to lovingly warn someone who is unrepentant and living in sin.  God will ask me to give a special accounting.  If I don’t warn someone who is stuck in sin, my silence condones that sin and God will hold me accountable for that sin.  That’s why if you are stuck in a sin and I come and knock on your door to address that sin to you, don’t be upset because a. I’m doing my duty as a pastor and b. the warning is for your eternal benefit.  Finally, God is also addressing all Christians (Matthew 18).  It is the loving duty for every Christian to have the eternal welfare of their fellow Christians as a top priority.  If someone you know is living in unrepentant sin, it is your loving duty to warn them.  If you do not warn them your silence condones their sin, they continue on their path to eternal death, and God will demand an accounting from you as to why you didn’t warn them.  This is serious stuff!  When it comes to matters of eternal life or death- God is absolutely serious!

Yet, what if they don’t listen to our warning?  Will God still hold us accountable?  God says, “But if you warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.”  You see, we are not held accountable whether or not the person listens to us; it is our job to warn someone, we are not responsible for the results.

But what does the devil like to whisper in our ears when we consider warning someone caught in sin?  He says, “You’re going to warn someone?  Why that’s just plain mean, cruel, hypocritical, narcissistic, and unloving!  It’d sure be much easier to say nothing.  It’d sure be easier to look the other way!”  Yet, God’s words are words of warning for us too.  God has in fact made us our brother and sister’s keeper.  God has told us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  God has told us the most loving thing we can do is to be concerned about someone’s eternal welfare.  God wants us to speak the truth in love, to warn those in danger.  It’s not cruel to lovingly and gently confront someone living in sin.  Rather it is cruel, mean, and unloving to let someone continue on their path to hell!

But what is God’s point with all of this warning?  Why is it important for us to speak God’s words of warning?  Why is it important for us to see how serious God is that those stuck in sin be warned?  What’s the purpose?  It’s for the law to do its work: “Son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what you are saying: ‘Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them.  How then can we live?’”  This acknowledgement of sin, this realization of complete inadequacy on our own before God, this repentance, is what God is looking for.  God is serious about His warning because He is absolutely serious about His desire.

God says, “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?

God made this oath and He backed it up.  How?  He backed this oath up by sacrificing His own Son Jesus Christ on the cross as the full payment of all sins of all time.  He sent His Son to death for the life of the world.  God is the only one who can provide the way out of eternal death.  It’s God’s sincere desire that the judgment that is prepared for all those who have rejected Him, who obstinately live contrary to God’s Word, it is God’s desire that they turn, repent, and live.  That they acknowledge their sinfulness and rely and trust in God for salvation.  God’s arms are open wide.  He has provided the forgiveness of sins and the free gift of life to all who trust in Him.

And that includes you!  God has completely cleansed you from all of your sins, including those times when you and I have failed to properly warn someone caught in sin and those times when we have been caught in sin- God has forgiven you!  And in His gracious love He includes you and me in His work of spreading this news, with the law to warn the unrepentant sinner and the gospel, the news of complete forgiveness in Jesus, to all who repent and turn from their ways.  Are warnings a good thing?  God’s warnings always are!  Thank the Lord for His warnings of law.  Thank the Lord for His life-giving words of Gospel!  Amen.