A sermon on Ezekiel 3:16-27 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 7 August 2022.
Signs can be reassuring or funny or even confusing. But sometimes they can be confronting. They tell us to slow down, to keep left, or no right turn, which is really inconvenient when you really really need to turn right.
This sign, for example, has an extremely confronting message. “Go back, you are going the wrong way.” Nobody wants to hear that. Nobody wants to be told that. I might have shared before, I can’t remember, but I once saw that sign taking what I thought was an on ramp to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But I’d turned onto an off ramp. Any second traffic could start coming the opposite way. The sign screamed at me. “Go back, you are going the wrong way.” You may not want to see that. But you need to. I pulled over. I checked there was no oncoming traffic and I turned around. Like I like to say, whatever does not kill you will make a great sermon illustration.
God had a confronting message that Ezekiel needed to give to the people of Israel in their exile. It’s message was the same one that I saw on the Harbour Bridge. “Go back, you are going the wrong way.”
God called Ezekiel to be a watchman. A watchman has a difficult job. He works at night when others are asleep. He works in the dark when it is hard to see. His job is very, very boring. Nothing to see. Nothing to see. Nothing to see. Until it suddenly becomes too interesting. And then he must deliver a confronting message. The enemy is coming. It is time for the city’s defenders to wake up and run to the walls and fight for their lives. For all their lives. No one wants to hear that message, but they need to.
So the watchman has a difficult decision to make. If he wakes everyone up and the enemy isn’t there and he’s just seeing things, he looks a fool, and they’ll take his job away from him. But if the enemy is really there and nobody wakes up then everyone dies.
God said to Ezekiel,
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself.
It’s a confronting message for Ezekiel to say to a wicked man, “you will surely die.” No one wants to hear that. No one would thank Ezekiel for saying it. No one would make him an honorary member of the family. But it was part of his job as a prophet.
Now it’s important for me to stress, as I’ve done so before, that prophecy like this is not a prediction or a curse. God is not expecting Ezekiel to curse the wicked man to death like the kadaitcha man of Central Australia who points the bone at someone and then they die. The message is not, “You will surely die and there is nothing you can do about it.” It’s not a prediction or a curse, it is a warning. The message is, “You will surely die if you don’t do something about it.”
The Lord makes this abundantly clear in another part of Ezekiel, where he says,
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 wicked ways and live. Turn! Turn from you evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?
As surely as the Lord lives there is something the wicked can do about their dire circumstances. They can turn. They can turn from their wicked ways and live. Yes, it is a confronting message. As confronting as hearing the horn blowing in the middle of the night as the watchman warns that the enemy is coming. But it is not the signal that the citizens are doomed but that they should get out of bed and defend themselves so that they may live. Yes, it is a confronting message. As confronting as seeing the sign that you are going the wrong way. But it is not a sign that you can’t do anything about it but that the time to do something about it is right now.
Turn from your wicked ways. It is not bad news but an important part of the good news. For our wickedness, our injustice, our cruelty, our self-centredness, our callous disregard for others and treating them like things rather than people, is not life. It is life without colour or joy or meaning or purpose or direction. It is a joyless existence, a kind of living death. Dealing death to others, robbing them of the life God made them for, and bringing death upon ourselves.
Many people put a brave face on it, even convince themselves that they are happy and living the best life now. But inside they are dying, adrift from their purpose of knowing their creator and embracing his love in his Son Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit. Turn from your wicked ways. Forsake them. Reject them. Renounce them. Turn around 180 degrees and commit yourself to a life like Jesus, who left everything for us, and even died that we might live. Change all your attitudes and motives and ambitions that bring death to ones that promote life. Turn from your wicked ways and live.
And the message is not just for the wicked but for the righteous as well. As God said to Ezekiel,
When a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before him, he will die. Since you did not warn him, he will die for his sin. The righteous things he did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the righteous man not to sin and he does not sin, he will surely live because he took warning, and you will have saved yourself.
Put together, these warnings to the wicked and to the righteous mean that the past doesn’t count. The wicked aren’t doomed for all eternity for yesterday’s sins and the righteous cannot rest on the laurels of yesterday’s good deeds. All that matters is the present. Right now. Today. When you hear the watchman’s trumpet calling you to action, confronting you with the wrong turn you’ve made, it doesn’t matter how many right or wrong turns you’ve made in the past. All that matters is what you do right now. Today. Because life and death hang in the balance in the choice you make. Either to wilfully go your own way to destruction, or to seek God’s face in the mercy of his Son’s precious cross and to realign your life in accordance with the Lord’s will.
Life or death. It’s not nice news. It’s confronting and challenging. It exposes our hidden motives and desires to the searching gaze of the Lord’s holy and all seeing eye. But it is good news, because it can save our life.
What I’ve been trying to show you up till now can be summed up in my second point. It’s not about us. God is not calling us to be the watchman. Ezekiel chapter 3 is not giving us permission to go around checking on everyone else’s sins. Nor do we have to feel guilty about not going on about the evils of underage drinking or domestic violence or child neglect. We don’t have to season every conversation with our friends and neighbours with our negative comments about the direction the world is heading. Like if we didn’t warn them their blood would be upon our head. No, we can be good neighbours without electing ourselves to the neighbourhood watch.
Ezekiel’s job as watchman was tied to his calling to be the Lord’s prophet. His trumpet call of warning was not his own word, but the Lord’s Word to the Lord’s people. Their own choices and actions had led them into their exile in Babylon and he was calling them, challenging them to return to where they belonged in his will.
So if we are looking for how to apply this passage to our life, if we are looking for ourselves in Ezekiel chapter 3, then from what I know about most of you, we are the righteous person, who has taken many right turns in life which won’t count when we take that one massive wrong turn and we need to heed the warning of God’s prophetic word in the Scriptures, calling us, challenging us, summoning us to return to the Lord’s will revealed in Christ.
If the watchman is among us today in this room it is in the message of this book. Which is not always nice and sometimes confronting and challenging.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Ezekiel chapter 3 is not primarily about us being the watchman over other people’s lives. It is primarily about what we will do when we hear the call to action from God’s holy Word. Will we choose life or death?
And yet, thirdly, maybe it is a bit about us. As your pastor, there is a prophetic side to my ministry in my preaching. My calling is not to preach my own word, but to put God’s Word in today’s words so that you can understand and hear it and act on it. That’s all I’m trying to do this morning and every Sunday morning. And isn’t that what you want to hear? Not me sharing my own opinions, but God’s life giving Word. I don’t enjoy telling people what to do. And I’d rather say nice things than challenging and confronting things, but it is part of my job not to stand between you and what God wants to say to you. So that you might see my mouth opening and closing, but what you hear is God speaking right to your heart.
And as brothers and sisters in the family of Christ, we are called to love each other enough not to spare each other the encouragement we need. Because if you knew that there was something in my life that was causing offense or that was contradictory to the truth of the gospel, I would want you to love me enough to let me know. And I hope you would want me to love you enough to let you know too.
This kind of prophetic ministry, however, must be exercised with wisdom and grace. When we challenge someone to change it must be done in the clear understanding that none of us are perfect and that we are all great sinners who have found a great saviour. Because when it is done well it can be life-saving, but when done badly, even with the best of intentions and with all the love of Christ in your heart, it is damaging and destructive. Just remember, when you point a finger at someone else, there are three others pointing back at you.
As the prophet of God Ezekiel was called to be a watchman. That prophetic summons to action is heard today in the challenging message of the Bible. What we must do is to obey that summons in our own life before we dare to apply it to someone else’s. And only then with wisdom and tact and love in the full knowledge that we are all great sinners who have found a great saviour.