“Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from Ezekiel eighteen. Dear friends in Christ, we all have little phrases that we use for a variety of situations. Some simply don’t make sense, like “A stitch in time saves nine.” Just who is taking the needle to our clocks and why do we only save nine? Wouldn’t ten be better? Others do make good sense, like “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Well, maybe not in this economy. In our text today, we hear about a phrase that the Israelites spoke amongst themselves: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Huh? At first glance, it seems like the Israelites are as crazy as we are. But if we look closer, the meaning becomes apparent. The Israelites are saying that when the fathers sin, their children are punished. The fathers are the ones who eat the sour grapes, but who takes the consequences? Their offspring. The children are punished for the sins of their parents. Something seems wrong here.
God quotes this saying in our text because the people of Israel are using it to make an accusation against God. They are saying that God’s judgment is arbitrary, that He is punishing people no matter whether they are wicked or righteous. The Israelites are asserting that God does not care who bears the brunt of His wrath, just so that He gets angry at someone. God’s punishment hits the wicked and righteous in a pattern that seems random, and when you get down to it, that is unfair. We in the Christian Church today say many of the same things. You pray, you go to church, you read your Bible, but still, bad things happen to you. Meanwhile, your neighbor, who is probably still sleeping right now, doesn’t even own a bible, and only uses the Lord’s name in vain, is living pretty well. Trouble does not seem to strike him, despite how much he must be ticking off God with his life. How can this possibly be fair? The bad things of this life, the consequences of living in a sinful world, hit believer and unbeliever alike, and there seems to be no pattern to it. Like the Israelites, we call out God, perhaps by using a phrase like we find in our text. But when you make an accusation about God, you had better be ready for Him to defend Himself.
And God’s reply does thunder forth: “Hear now O Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” He points the arrow back squarely at us. We are the sinful ones, we are the ones who messed up His perfect creation, and now we have the guts to stand up and tell Him that His ways are not right? Our ways are unjust, we wallow in sin each and every day, and for that we deserve only punishment, eternal punishment. But God is not a teenager who simply passes the blame onto someone else. He has something to say about His ways: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” Every soul belongs to Him, and He judges them one at a time. His judgment comes to each person, wicked or righteous, and that judgment is not based on our parents or on our past. It comes to each person at the time of death, as God says, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God.” Our accusation against God is answered by a terrible pronouncement. God’s judgment is not arbitrary or random. It does not come in this life, but instead upon death, and as our text states, “the soul who sins shall die.” We have all sinned, we have all broken God’s Law, and God’s judgment is announced here for us- death.
And so God has a message to each and every one of you- repent! “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.” Our sin will be our ruin unless we turn away from it, and instead follow the path that God has laid out for us in His Law. Sin has become a burden for us, weighing us down and carrying us to the grave in disobedience to God’s will. God speaks to us, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed.” Unless we turn from our sin and cast it away from us, a holy God cannot abide with us. “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. Again, 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.” There is only one problem. None of us can do that on our own. We are dead in our sins, we cannot turn from them or cast them off by ourselves. But God has yet one more message for us in our text. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God.” He will show His love and His grace so fully that we will never have a need to complain about His arbitrary judgment.
God’s judgment was death, and we did deserve it, but God’s desire is life, and life with Him. And so God sent His Son into the world, the only truly righteous person (as we heard last week), who had no sin to turn from or cast off. Instead of casting off sin, He took sin onto His own shoulders. As St. Paul puts it so beautifully in our Epistle lesson for today, Jesus Christ was the One “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, most especially His one and only Son. But it was only through death that His divine judgment could be satisfied, and so Christ was given to die. The Lord of heaven and earth then poured out the wrath we deserved on Jesus Christ, punishing Him as God mourned. The entire earth shook in mourning on the Good Friday, as God in the flesh was sacrificed for sinful man. It was on the cross that God showed all people that His judgment is not arbitrary or random, but instead it was focused on one person, the only one who could take all of our sin away. But it was also on the cross that God showed all people that His grace and love for His sinful creation is so powerful, so overflowing that He was willing to give up His very own Son to save us, to save you! Even though He has no pleasure in the death of anyone, He still put His Son to death for your sins! And when Christ stepped forth from the tomb on Easter Sunday, God declared all of you righteous through His blood. Only one thing remained- as God told the Israelites in our text, you must “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.”
And it is here that we run up against another brick wall. If we could not turn from our sin and cast it off by ourselves, how can we make ourselves a new heart and a new spirit? As I told you earlier, we are dead in our trespasses and sins, and as a dead person cannot become alive by himself, so we could not repent or make a new spirit. And without a new heart and a new spirit, Christ’s death and resurrection means nothing to us- they are simply interesting historical events. Thanks be to God that this is a weak translation! Another way to take this verse is “get for yourself a new heart and a new spirit,” and the only way we ‘get for ourselves’ a new heart and a new spirit is through the work of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit! God’s grace overflows once again! Christ does not only pay the price that we could not, but He delivers His gifts to us, renewing our hearts and spirits to receive those gifts in faith. He does this through the Word, but He especially does this through the washing of water with the Word. In your Baptism God gave you a new heart and a new spirit, putting to death your sinful heart and spirit, drowning them with all of their corruption. Now, with this new heart and spirit, we can receive the gifts of God, and he delivers them to us, the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. In our text, God spoke of how He judges each person individually. “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God.” Because of Christ’s death on your behalf, this judgment is ‘not guilty,’ you are declared righteous for His sake.
God asked Israel in our text, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Israel does not have to die because God will show forth His grace on the cross, saving all Israel and all humanity from the punishment we deserved. He asks the same question to us today. We can confidently answer Him, “No, we will not die, because you have paid the price for us!” God’s desire for you is now life, not a life free from troubles on this earth, but instead life, in heaven, life forever, life with Him! “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live!”
And now that we have been claimed by Christ, now that we have been saved by His cross and washed by the waters which give to us life, we live a life of repentance. Each and every day we live out our Baptism, dying to sin and rising to Christ. As our text says, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” Each and every day the Holy Spirit works within us to enable us to repent of our sin, and He works to renew our heart and spirit. We live a life shaped by our baptism, shaped by the cross, and strengthened by His Word and the Lord’s Supper. When we come forward to the communion rail, we will receive life, we will eat at the banquet of life, we are dining at the table of heaven. God desires life for each and every one of you, and He brings it to you here today, once again in this place, as He did on your Baptism day. May He strengthen and sustain you in your Baptismal life until He brings you from temporal life to eternal life, Amen.