There is only one flag that is permitted by law to fly above the stars and stripes of the flag of the United States. That is the flag of a United States naval chaplain. When religious services are being conducted onboard a ship, the United States flag is lowered, the chaplain’s flag is raised, and then the United States flag is raised beneath it. The chaplain’s flag continues to fly in such prominence until the worship service is concluded. Then once again the United States flag receives the highest standing.
Professionals, such as physicians, veterinarians, lawyers, and chaplains (to name a few), receive direct commissions into the United States military as officers. But there is a difference, a very big difference, between chaplains and all others who receive direct commissions. Chaplains, although they are kept separate as a group from enlisted personnel, must attend basic training. Chaplains are required to go through the same basic training rigors as anyone who enlists in the military. The reason for this is that (theoretically) all other professionals serve considerably behind the front lines in relative safety. Chaplains, on the other hand, are expected to be on the frontlines where the troops are dug in — places of conflict and horror where a chaplain’s spiritual counseling and comfort are in dire need.
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel 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 ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: ‘Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
This is an interesting scripture that the Lord revealed to Ezekiel. It is about his responsibility as a prophet, assigned to be a watchman, but I think also about our responsibility as a community to watch out for and warn and help each other. Not sitting in judgment and condemning, but more like we are all in a Sinners Anonymous meeting together, reminding and helping each other with our own experiences and examples, knowing how dangerous the addiction to sin can be.
A few verses after this God explains that he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and asks “why will ye die?” … I think that makes it clear that God is trying to help us, getting us to warn and assist each other. He is assigning people (and in some measure, all of us) to this work, and doing everything that he can, but often we insist on continuing and dying in our iniquities. Sometimes, instead of helping, we draw others after us into sin, endangering their souls as well as our own.
Today, I am going to give three points that will help us think about our responsibility as members of a community and a family–our responsibility to each other, to help rather than hinder. To heal rather than hurt. Let’s do what we can to watch out for and warn and help each other and be careful with the souls that we touch.
1. Listen to The Lord
In bizarre (Ezekiel 1), devastating (Ezekiel 15), and even graphic (Ezekiel 16 and 23) terms, the prophet has spoken words of judgment against Judah. The astonishing rhetoric and poetics have intended to startle the people to attention. The warnings to Judah dominate chapters 1-24. The closing line of chapter 24, before the beginning of the oracles against the nations in 25, reveals the divine intention for all of the stark warnings and denunciations: “they shall know that I am the LORD.” Ezekiel does not present a deity on an ego trip, but a God who wants faithful people who form a good relationship between themselves and God (Ezekiel 11:20).
All of the harsh language and shocking metaphors constitute God’s strategy to awaken the people to their estrangement from God and their own true identity. Chapter 33 begins a transition in the book of Ezekiel. Verse 21 reports the fall of Jerusalem. This event exposed the false confidence and complacency of the people (Ezekiel 33:24). Amid this utter defeat, the words of Ezekiel turn from primary judgment to restoration. Although Ezekiel had reported God’s word of restoration before chapter 33 (Ezekiel 11:19, 18:31), the predominant theme becomes healing and hope after this chapter.
Although Ezekiel does not present as tender a God as Hosea (see Hosea 11), God will reform the community (Ezekiel 37), and work within the people, as a community and individually to enable them to form a relationship with God. This transition passage contains both threat and compassion. The passage employs the metaphor of a sentinel or lookout. Chapter 33 opens with a kind of extended rhetorical question. If a sentinel warns a people about an invasion, and they do nothing, whose fault is it? God had appointed Ezekiel as a sentinel in 3:16-21. The passage works in two ways. The Babylonians had indeed invaded Jerusalem and overrun it. The metaphor of an invading army also evokes God’s judgment. The people cannot say that no one warned them.
So let’s ask the question. What kind of ears do we have when it comes to listening to the LORD? When God calls are we ready to jump at a moment’s notice? Do we say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening”? Or have we begun to say, “Listen, LORD, your servant is speaking”?
The action of listening to someone is often an expression of love and respect for that person. Just as love can’t be forced or demanded from someone. It is a response freely given. So too, listening can’t be forced or demanded from someone either. Even if I tied you to your pew I couldn’t force you to listen to me. If you didn’t want to listen you could still ignore me even if the sound of my voice was forced into your ears.
So to give us the ears of a servant God first extends his love to us. He breaks the bonds of sin that bind us. Through the blood of Jesus he redeems us—he buys us back—from slavery to Satan. Now we have every reason to be attentive to what he has to say. It is in a response of love that we now say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening”?
Having the ears of a servant also implies that we are willing to listen closely and carefully to the LORD. We don’t assume that we know what he says. Even if we have read the Bible many times and studied it often, with the ears of a servant we gladly listen to our LORD once again.
I heard about a minister who was visiting the home of some of his members. The lady of the house was trying to impress her pastor about how devout she was by pointing out the large Bible on the bookshelf and talking in a very reverential way of it as “the Word of God.” Her young son interrupted the conversation and said, “Well, if that’s God’s book we better send it back to him because we never read it!” Having the ears of a servant is one thing but using them to listen to our LORD is quite another.
2.Warn the Wicked
Ezekiel gives us another slant on the difficulties inherent in being one of God’s prophets. (We have seen aspects of this already in Elijah and Jeremiah.) One of the functions of a prophet is to be a sentinel, a watchman, a lookout who sees the danger coming and tries to rouse people out of their doldrums before it is too late. As we saw with Jeremiah, reluctant listeners will not take kindly to the bad news and may blame the messenger and make his life miserable (and even kill him if they get the chance). Since this is true, it would not be unusual for the prophet to draw back from the harsh message to avoid this difficult confrontation. Tell people good news, what they want to hear. Find out what their needs are and cater to those needs. Don’t tell them something that will put them off or they will find another church where they won’t be offended. This word from Ezekiel seems to be addressed to the messenger who is balking, who doesn’t want to speak the word of warning. God makes it clear that the sentinel is called to warn the people. If she or he does not do that, then he or she is responsible for their fate. On the other hand, if the sentinel does speak the word of warning, then, whether people heed it or not is their own business, not the responsibility of the sentinel.
You and I sin. We say mean things to people we love. We look at others and we judge them to be less than us. Maybe we look down on people in certain professions. Maybe we have latent prejudice toward people of certain ethnic backgrounds. This is uncomfortable to face because we know that all people of all races are beloved in God’s eyes. We know from scripture that we are not to judge or despise anyone. But when we look honestly into our hearts, we know we do. We may try not to. But those feelings are in there and they come either bluntly or subtly in our words and our actions. It may not be a judgmental attitude. It may not be a deep-seated prejudice. Maybe the sins that keep recurring are related to rage, excess, greed, or omission. That’s one on which Jesus hit the Pharisees pretty hard. We know what God wants us to do and who God wants us to help, but we don’t help because we don’t want to. That is a sin as grievous to God as theft or adultery or even murder. To us, it’s not that bad. But to God, it is someone taking the name ‘disciple of Jesus Christ’ and then acting by the world’s values instead of kingdom values. This is not being said to beat us up. We simply have to be honest and specific in acknowledging that sin is a reality in our lives.
God doesn’t want to punish us for our sins. It’s not His preference. Ezekiel, writing in chapter 33, has spent much time and exhausted many words in calling out the disregard for God of the people of God. They’ve sinned and Ezekiel has pointed it out. It can’t be missed. They’re sitting as slaves in exile. Ezekiel is set in Babylon in time after invading armies have ravaged the land God promised to Abraham. The temple has been destroyed. Sin and the results of sin, brokenness, and utter defeat are apparent. And yet, after all, he has said and written, God tells Ezekiel to write this. “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from their wicked ways and live” (33:11b).
When someone goes out and drinks and then drives, God doesn’t want that person to get in an accident and live as a paraplegic for the rest of his life; or to live with the guilt of knowing he killed someone while driving under the influence. When two friends speak words in anger and the result is the end of the friendship, God doesn’t want them to each live in pain and loss and bitterness. The language God tells Ezekiel to use his oath language. “As I live,” God says. He’s pledging to people. The Almighty isn’t obligated to do that, but He does it to get through to us. He promises the depths of the diving heart, he doesn’t want us to hurt from our sins. Sometimes we will even though God doesn’t want that. But, there is a way to cope with our sins and even grow past them.
Turn! We must honestly face the sins in our life. We must confess them. We must turn from those sins and the lifestyle that ends in making mistakes and hurting others and ourselves. We turn away from that life and those bad choices, and we turn to God. Five times in the NRSV translation of Ezekiel 33:7-11, God implores his wayward people to turn. We, because of Christ, are counted among the people of God. In verse 11, he pleads with us. “Turn back; turn back from your evil ways. Why will you die?”
Sin leads to death and destruction. As long as we live in sin and with sin clinging to us, our souls are in decay. Death lurks in the corners and even hovers over us. But God asks, why? Why accept such a spiritually dark, depressing existence. Turn to me and live. Jesus said the type of life we have when we follow Him and obey the Father. He offers right now abundant life, joy-filled life, exciting life. There is though work involved. One aspect of the work of a disciple is regular repentance. Regularly we examine ourselves, identify where our hearts are oriented toward values of the world, and turn. We turn from sin to God. This is not easy work, but it is necessary work.
These pointed words to the sentinel make clear that God takes no pleasure in bringing punishment. God wants people to live and not die. God wants people to make choices that will enhance their life and not lead to terrible consequences for themselves or others. So God depends on sentinels who will do their job of speaking the truth, even if unpopular, to persuade their listeners to do what is necessary to prevent disaster. These are not the words of a judgmental God who can’t wait to punish disobedient people. Rather, this is the pleading of a loving God who wants people to succeed, be happy, live. So who is God calling to be sentinels in our day? Is this the task of the preacher? Can the one who is hired by a community of people to preach the good news, make them feel good, help them through their trials and life transitions, also be a sentinel who warns them when it is apparent that continuation of destructive behavior will lead to great unpleasantness? What is tough love? Who carries on the prophetic functions of the church? Is this properly a lay rather than priestly function? The Ezekiel text should raise all of us the question of whether or not we are called to such a task. If we are so-called and do not act, then responsibility for the fate of those who never had a chance to hear the warning falls on us.
3. Relieve the Repentant
The journey of Israel, God’s chosen people, from Abraham to Joseph to slavery in Egypt to Moses and exodus, and Moses and law to the monarchy and the golden days of David and Solomon to slavery again, this time exile in Babylon is a study in the hard work of repentance. At times, leaders like David and Solomon and Hezekiah and Josiah did things to call the people to God. They shined as His people, chosen to represent Him in the world. But as soon as the nation seemed to get it together and start to move toward holiness, human values instead of heavenly values would begin to take over the corporate mindset. Israel would fall into the worship of statues, idols representing foreign gods. Israel would look to strong foreign nations for security instead of putting her trust in God. By the time Ezekiel came along, it seemed all was lost. They weren’t even in Israel anymore. They were the property of their Babylonian conquerors.
Yet God forgave the past. Through Ezekiel God told them the past is in the past. God implored them to turn back and live. How could they live the faith and the identity of God’s chosen while wallowing in servitude? God would take care of things. Their only concern was to faithfully turn back. Repent and turn once again to God and He would lovingly accept them.
This is a story with two sides, whether we are talking about ancient Israelites or the present-day church. On our side is the burden of repentance. God gives us free will. He will not force us to turn to Him. We must choose. If we choose to reject God we will continually suffer the painful consequences of our sins and we face eternal destruction, eternal death. God’s side of the story is grace. If we turn back to Him, he forgives all and gives us abundant life and the promise of eternal life.