Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4th, A + D 2011
Ezekiel 33:7-9 and Matthew 18:1-20
Funny how the Holy Spirit works. If you have received and read your newsletter already, then you may know about my ‘Seven Year Itch.’ You see, August 8th was the 7 year anniversary of my ordination and installation as your pastor, and, perhaps due to that divinely numbered occasion, or perhaps for other, less numerological reasons, I have been feeling an itch lately. Now, some of you may be thinking, unhappily or maybe happily, that I am referring to an itch to move, to seek new pastures, new, not greener, this Forsyth boy being unable to imagine greener pastures than the ones we’ve enjoyed this very wet year. No, whether to your relief or disappointment, my itch has nothing to do with moving. Truth be told, due to our experiences with the Marine Corps early in our marriage, Shelee and I actually feel an itch to move at about two and half to three years into a new place. Living in one place for seven years is completely uncharted waters for us, more than twice our normal stay. But still, I can tell you the itch I’m feeling isn’t about moving.
No, my itch is about today’s Old Testament reading. That’s the Holy Spirit part. I didn’t know our reading from Ezekiel was coming up when I sent in my newsletter article. Actually, I tried to send in this month’s Pastor’s letter at the end of July, but somehow forgot to click ‘send’ on my e-mail, leaving Pat and Mike with next to nothing for content, resulting in an August with no newsletter, an absence I hope you noticed. Anyway, I intended, but failed to send my message at the end of July, so now my letter about my ‘Seven Year Itch’ is just coming out, just as we have this particular reading from Ezekiel before us: "So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and 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. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.”
My itch is a renewed desire to fulfill my calling to speak what God has said, without compromise, about everything, forthrightly and carefully laying out the truth of God’s Word as it relates to a number of issues which I have, from time to time over the last seven years skirted around. Which is pretty much what the Lord tells Ezekiel not to do. No skirting, Ezekiel is to unflinchingly speak the Lord’s Word, His warnings to Israel, every time. If Ezekiel fails, the Lord will hold him accountable for the blood of the perishing wicked person. If Ezekiel fulfills his calling to warn Israel, the wicked may turn from his evil way, or not, but regardless, Ezekiel will have delivered his soul. Which makes it pretty clear why James warns: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.” And also we can see why the preacher who wrote the book of Hebrews begged them to “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.”
God puts a heavy burden on His called public servants, the men whom, through His direct call in the case of the prophets and apostles, and through the call of His congregations in the case of pastors, God places in the position of Ezekiel, the place of one with a special responsibility to say what God has given him to say, no more, and no less, no matter the consequences. To pursue this calling more faithfully, that’s my itch.
Right about now, more of you may be wishing I was feeling an itch to move instead. I mean come on, Pastor Warner, we already practice closed communion, actually asking visitors, along with our young people, to learn and confess publicly the teaching of the Church before coming to the altar for the Lord’s Supper, a practice many people hate. We speak up for life, which means speaking against abortion, against the supposed right to choose to end the life of an innocent unborn child. We take a stand for traditional marriage, and against the teaching of evolution, all in the face of a culture that increasingly sees the traditional, historic Christian Church as a bunch of narrow, legalistic nut-jobs. How much harder do you want to make life? What unaddressed sins must we be forced to face, now?
All of them. God’s will is that His warning against sin be sounded, His warning against all sin. As Jesus told His Apostles, in a passage that echoes with Ezekiel, the temptation to sin will come, but woe to the one who causes one of the Father’s little ones to sin. Better to have a millstone, that is a giant rock, tied around your neck and be thrown into the ocean, than to lead a believer in Jesus into sin. The Church, that is the gathered believers in Jesus Christ, is to be cared for and protected by God’s called preachers, not led into sinning. And that is what the preacher does who fails to teach faithfully, or who fails to speak the whole counsel of God. The Lord is so concerned for this that He attaches a remarkable promise to His command to Ezekiel: Speak my warning to Israel, every time, and you will deliver your soul. It sounds like an alternate route to salvation, for the called preachers of God at least: Unflinchingly proclaim God’s warnings to God’s people, every time, and you will deliver your soul. So I better get busy, to deliver my own soul. Sorry for the discomfort, but I must.
There’s just one problem. I can’t do it. I haven’t done it. As itchy as I am to do it better, I don’t imagine that I will suddenly change so drastically. I can, and should, pour great energy into rightly and consistently proclaiming God’s truth, both publicly and privately, but I don’t always understand God’s Word, let alone how to apply it. Nor am I strong enough to bear up, every time, under the pressure.
Which puts me in a quandary. The Lord has laid out a way for me, the called watchman of this congregation, to deliver my soul, but I can’t do it. And oh, by the way, He has done the same for you. As Jesus told the rich young man, keep every one of God’s commandments, every time, and you will earn eternal life. But you don’t, do you? You can’t, your sinful nature has defeated you before you even start.
I at times avoid speaking the plain truth of God’s Word for a variety of self-serving reasons, but you are often all too eager to let me off the hook, to not ask about the elephant in the room that you and I both are ignoring. We may do it to avoid conflict, or to protect a loved one from strife. We may even think we are helping someone, easing up on God’s truth just a little, in order to give them time to get comfortable with the Church, thinking with unfounded optimism that we will be able to correct our little spiritual fibs later. As much as I don’t want to preach God’s whole truth to you, you don’t want to hear His truth, let alone be called to act on it. God has set out a way for us to earn our salvation, but you and I cannot achieve it.
Nevertheless, I do have an itch to speak the truth more plainly, more consistently. I don’t mean go crazy, chasing after sin like the sky is falling. There is no need to chase after sin, it makes itself known plenty often without me beating the bushes for it. But rather, when something is said or done in our midst that contradicts a clear Word of God, I want to speak the truth to that lie. Why? Not because I think I can thereby earn God’s favor, but because the Truth will set you free. Indeed, it is only through the proclaimed Truth about our sin that you and I are made ready to hear the Good News about our true and faithful Watchman, our Savior Jesus Christ.
Why are preachers called to unflinchingly proclaim God’s warnings to His people? Why are all of us individual Christians supposed to go privately to our brother who sins against us, and tell him about his sin? It’s not to win an argument, or to get back what the sin of another has robbed from us. If you think Jesus’ words today about confronting sin in your Christian brother or sister are about you getting paid back for your injury or loss, then please just skip over this chapter on Church discipline. Because it’s not about getting back anything, except your sinning brother or sister. We confront sin, as preachers or members of the body of Christ, for the purpose of turning back sinners from the path that leads to destruction. We speak clearly and truthfully about sin in order to stop them short, to get their attention, that we might win back the sinner with the Good News of our True Watchman, Jesus, the overseer of all our souls, the Son of God who made Himself the Son of Man, for us.
We cannot, preacher or hearer, not Ezekiel, not Pastor Warner, not the greatest Bible student, not the sweetest little child, none of us can win our salvation with our faithfulness to God’s Word. But as we speak God’s Word, even ever so feebly as we may, as we speak His Truth, the Holy Spirit uses that Word to deliver the forgiveness of Christ to broken sinners, and this gift is sweet salvation. The sweetness of the gift is the reason we are moved to speak God’s Word in the first place. The life of sinless faithfulness that God requires, Jesus has lived, in our place. The death of unthinkable punishment that sinners deserve, Jesus has died, in our place. In Christ, there are no more good works required for you to earn entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus has done enough for all. In Christ, there is no more sin to be justified, Jesus has paid for it all. It is finished, all of it. And it is God’s free gift, to you.
When, by the crushing blows of God’s warnings, we are broken from our love for sin, or separated from our prideful fantasy of self-righteousness, when we know we have no hope in ourselves to reach God’s heaven, then Jesus says “Look to me, sinner.” “See my hands, my feet, the trophies of my victory; these are for you.” “In my blood, you are forgiven, and filled with new life, my life, the life of God, given and shed, dead, buried and resurrected, all for you.”
So hear O Israel. Hear O Church of Christ. You have gathered in His Name, and so true to His Word, your Watchman is here. Your true and only Savior Jesus is present with His gifts of forgiveness, life and eternal salvation, all for you. Repent and believe the Good News, taste and see that the Lord is good, Amen.