In the name + of Jesus.
The prophet Ezekiel was among the very first residents of Jerusalem to be carried off into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar. The Lord called him to preach to his fellow exiles. In our reading, the Lord told Ezekiel to address a complaint that was circulating among the exiles.
“The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge”’” (Ezekiel 18:1-2)? If you have eaten a bad grape, your whole face puckers up. But the proverb is that the fathers eat the bad grapes and the children’s faces pucker up. So, here’s the complaint: Why is it that one group does something stupid or wicked and another group has to pay the price for it?
We utter similar complaints today. We observe people who do all sorts of wicked things—in government, in businesses, in neighborhoods, or even in our family. And they never seem to pay a price for it. They get rich. They remain popular and influential. You don’t dare confront them lest you suffer for it. God doesn’t stop it, either; and then others suffer as a result of it.
The opposite is true, too. Faithful Christians seem to receive no visible benefits for their faithfulness. The drunk driver kills someone but walks away with minor injuries. People waste away because of cancer or cancer treatments. They bury their children at a tender age. On the other end of the spectrum, the minds of the elderly deteriorate from Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s like God either does not know or does not care what is going on. God’s ways are unpredictable, unreasonable, or random. Our conclusion is the same as the Israelites’: “The way of the Lord is not just” (Ezekiel 18:29).
Understand the way of the Lord to live in hope. If you think the Christian faith should result in a long, healthy life of riches and ease, you will be sorely disappointed. Those things are blessings to be sure. But even if God should bless you with long life, great wealth, and robust health, they will all come to an end. The goal of the Christian faith is what we confess in the Nicene Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” That is what we pray for and long for. Understand the way of the Lord so that you live in hope.
Ezekiel was called to address this complaint and to declare God’s ways to the people. Through his prophet, the Lord declared, “As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel” (Ezekiel 18:3). At the final judgment, no one will pay the price for someone else’s sin. Everyone answers for himself. You cannot vouch for your loved ones no matter how much you love them. Likewise, you cannot influence God to banish people to hell no matter how much you think they deserve it. At the same time, no one can convince God to render a particular judgment about you. Your loved ones cannot get you in, and your enemies cannot keep you out. Ezekiel stated it plainly: “I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 18:30).
Understand the way of the Lord so that you live in hope. Do not judge by your own observations; they will deceive you. Whether your life is prosperous or pitiful, neither proves what God thinks of you. Not even behavior can tell you about God’s judgment. There are atheists who are honest and noble. There are Christians who cannot control their anger, their alcohol, or their passions. Based purely on observations, who does God favor? Our best answer is this: We don’t know.
The Lord, however, puts everyone in the same category: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). Who would be arrogant enough to say that he has not sinned? Even though people experience different levels of triumphs and tragedies in life, every life ends the same—death and then judgment before God. Therefore, the Lord implores all people, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:30-31)!
Understand the way of the Lord to live in hope. Our hope is Jesus Christ. He has taken from us all the sins that stand against us. He made our sin his own, and then he suffered what sinners deserve. “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4); and so, Jesus died for us.
From an earthly viewpoint, the sufferings and death of Jesus appear to be unjust, unreasonable, and random acts of violence. Although Jesus was always honest, generous, and receptive to all kinds of people, he was slandered, falsely accused, and unjustly sentenced. He was beaten to a bloody pulp by religious leaders and Roman soldiers. He was brutally flogged so that his back was one, giant, open wound. Then he was stripped naked and mocked as he was being crucified. Isaiah foretold how it all appeared: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man who knew grief, who was well acquainted with suffering. … We thought it was because of God that he was stricken, smitten, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:3-4).
But understand the way of the Lord so that you will live in hope. The Lord has revealed the reason for Jesus’ sufferings and death so that we do not see it as a tragic act of injustice which reduces our meditations to, “Oh, poor Jesus!” Rather, the reason for Jesus’ sufferings and death so that we would live in hope. This suffering was for our sins. This death paid the price to deliver us out of death and hell. Yes, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4), but Jesus assumed all our sins upon himself. Jesus did not go to the cross because we experience misery. No one goes to hell because he is crippled by a car accident, has a heart attack, or dies in battle. “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, emphasis added). Sin is the reason we die. Sin brings down God’s curse and wrath. Our sin is the real problem which results in all the other problems. Sin has corrupted the whole world and makes life unjust, unpredictable, unreasonable, and random. So, Jesus came to deliver us out of that to a life of glory and perfection.
Understand the way of the Lord so that you live in hope. And praise God for the hope that you have. No one is so far gone that he is without hope. No one. This is what the Lord says: “When a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:27-28).
No matter how much wickedness someone has done, it is all washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not endure hell on the cross for mistakes, but for sins. And since it is the Lord who died for sinners, all sinners are covered. All sins, regardless of how many or how bad, have been paid for. Those who repent of their sins, believe in Jesus, and are baptized into his name are made pure in God’s sight. Now, you are robed in garments of salvation. The world may not think you look any better, but God says you are beautiful because Jesus Christ covers you.
Ezekiel also issued a warning for any who would turn away from the Lord. “When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die” (Ezekiel 18:26). No one should dare trust that his confirmation vow or even his baptism will save him if he abandons Christ. Outside of Christ, there is only sin, death, and judgment. In Christ alone is there hope and forgiveness.
The way of the world, however, still appears to be unjust, unreasonable, unpredictable, and random. Ezekiel preached to people in exile to give them hope in their upended lives. Those people were never going to return home. They would all die in exile. However, that did not negate God’s promises. Those who believed God’s promises remained God’s people. The Jews who had remained in Jerusalem did not have it any easier. Many died by starvation, disease, or sword. None of those options were good, but those who believed God’s promises remained God’s people. Whether they died peacefully or violently, they still would be given the glories of heaven. And that, after all, remains the goal of our faith.
Understand the way of the Lord so that you live in hope. Like the believers of Ezekiel’s day, we still experience misery and tragedy. Christians are still maimed in car accidents. Christians still succumb to cancer. Christian parents may bury their young at a tender age. Aged Christians may be victims of Alzheimer’s and dementia. If you should suffer these or similar hardships, understand the way of the Lord so that your hope sustains you. The Lord has given you a new heart and new spirit which knows God’s promises. The promises are not that you would be bullet-proof, but that you would receive heavenly glory.
Therefore, in all the uncertainties of life, your hope remains sure. In the grief of death, you still have joy, knowing that there is a resurrection of the dead. And if your life should be cut short on earth, eternal peace and glory in God’s presence shall never be cut short. The goal of the Christian faith is the same whether you die at age nine or ninety-nine: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
Understand the way of the Lord so that you live in hope. Many people do not have the hope that you have. People may work feverishly to make this world a better place. But a world broken by sin will never be fixed by sinners. Even if people make gains in making their own lives better, that can all be upended in a moment by a phone call with tragic news. But you have the hope they need; and whether they think so or not, you need to tell them about your hope. You have the only comfort that is dependable in an unpredictable world. The Lord Jesus will deliver his people out of a world of sorrow to the glories of heaven. And his mercy sustains us through all our sorrows until we get there.
Understand the way of the Lord so that you live in hope. And your hope will not be disappointed.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.