“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirty-third chapter of the prophet Ezekiel. Dear friends in Christ, do we have watchmen today? Our cities don’t have high walls manned with watchmen who are supposed to keep alert for danger, so I guess in a sense the concept of a ‘watchman,’ as we have in our text, is a bit foreign to us. But are we really without watchmen? We have watchdogs, who are to warn the house when an intruder invades. We have weathermen, who are to tell us when to take cover from a storm. The thing with a watchman (or watchdog) is that he or she is obligated to raise up a warning when danger is sighted. When the warning has gone out, it is our job to listen. A dog who hears the intruder and refuses to bark will be to blame if its master is harmed, as a weatherman will be blamed if he doesn’t tell us about a tornado. But if they each do their job and warn us, then the blame is on us if we fail to listen. We can keep sleeping if the dog is barking, we can stand out on the deck when we are told a tornado is coming, but that isn’t the fault of the watcher. They have warned us, they have done their job: they have been faithful watchers.
Your pastor is a watchman; the commission given to Ezekiel is one that is given to every occupant of the Office of the Holy Ministry: “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.” This is a difficult task; bringing warnings from God won’t win you any popularity contests. In fact, the pastor who takes these words seriously will be hated by the world. He will stir up opposition, he will be dealing with people where they are the most sensitive and defensive. But that is what a pastor is called upon to do. Let’s take this text seriously: your pastor is commanded by God to call you out on your sin. He can’t avoid that task because you will get defensive and angry; you don’t give the orders, God does. And God says, “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.” When your pastor tells you that despising God’s gifts by not coming to worship is a sin, he is being a watchman. When he warns you from greed or sinful pride and ambition, he is being a watchman. When he tells you that living together outside marriage is sinful and must be repented of before you can commune or the church will host your wedding, he is being a watchman. In short, when he condemns any sin that you are committing, he is serving as a watchman. He isn’t commanded to give his own opinion, he is commanded, “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” His warnings should only come from God in His Word. You may not like it, you may not want to listen, you may go and find another church, but if he warns you according to God’s Word, then he has fulfilled his task; he has preserved his life.
The pastor who avoids this task, who doesn’t warn the wicked of their sin, will be completely and universally loved. He won’t make anyone defensive or uncomfortable. His church will be full, the money will flow in, conflict will cease. There will only be one problem: he has failed in the task given to him by God. “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.” If God’s Word condemns your sin, but your pastor doesn’t, the penalty falls upon him. If he fails to speak boldly to you from the pulpit or in private conversations to warn you from your sin, he has failed in his task. If he doesn’t exercise church discipline by withholding communion and the other privileges of the church from you to lead you to see the seriousness of your sin, God will require your penalty from him. He is a watchman; he is required by God to warn you from sin, and if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter how popular he is in this world or how much his church grows; in the eyes of God, his ministry is a failure.
Why would anyone become a pastor after reading these words? I have to tell you that there is perhaps no other text in all of Scripture that fills a pastor with as much fear and trembling as this text. It is like a hammer on my soul. I have been called to be your watchman, and while I have at times given warning, I confess before you today that out of fear of rejection, out of a desire to be liked, I have often failed to give warning as I ought. I beg for God’s forgiveness and for yours, and I pray with the Lord’s help to serve as a more faithful watchman in the future.
This is pretty strong stuff, for pastors and for hearers. Three verses into our text it seems like God is only concerned with pointing out sin, with condemning us to death. The people in Ezekiel’s day thought so, and they complained, “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” At this point in the sermon, you must be thinking the same thing: is the only reason we have a pastor so that he can run around condemning people? Does God just want us all to rot in hell? You might be getting ready to get up and leave, to find another church or another religion. But not so fast, God says. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
God doesn’t desire the death of a sinner. This phrase should be printed on every page of our Bibles, it should accompany every statement of condemnation that we read in God’s Word or hear from our pastors. God doesn’t desire the death of a sinner. God makes us that promise; in fact, He confirms it with an oath. He is so serious that He stakes His life on it. And when it came time to confirm that oath, to pay up on that promise, God didn’t hesitate. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” The life of God was given up to fulfill that oath, to prove its truth. Jesus Christ, true man and yet true God, died on the cross because God doesn’t desire the death of a sinner. When it came down to the life of God or the death of a sinner, God died so that man could live. God backed up his words, He ratified His oath, and in so doing provided life to the wicked, to you and me. God takes our salvation so seriously that he staked His life on it, and in giving up His Son into death, forgiveness, life, and salvation is now freely offered to all who heed the watchman’s call and repent.
That is what our text, this day, and this season is all about: repentance. Repentance is a turning, a turning away from sin and toward God. The Hebrew word for repentance describes the turning of our whole body in a completely different direction. It is a turn from sin and wickedness to God and righteousness. None of this is our own work; it is God’s work in us. His Law, proclaimed by His watchmen, shows us our great and many sins. In fact, His Law shows us what we could never figure out ourselves: that we are completely corrupted by sin. We don’t just commit sins, we are sinful. Repentance is realizing this and renouncing it with sorrow. But that is not the end of repentance. Repentance is turning away from sin and toward God in faith through Jesus Christ. That is the work of the Gospel. “Though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right…he shall surely live, he shall not die.” Repentance is seeing our great sin, renouncing it, and clinging to Christ for forgiveness. Repentance isn’t about feeling sorry, even though you will feel sorrow over your sin, repentance isn’t about never committing that sin again, even though the fruits of repentance are that your will seek to amend your sinful life. Repentance is all about forgiveness, clinging to Christ alone, being righteous only through His blood.
The reason that God proclaims the Law and commands His watchmen to proclaim the Law is so that we would turn away from our sin and live. The same One who is sending judgment gives us a watchman to warn us from that judgment. God bears the sword, but in His mercy and grace He sends watchmen to make that sword ineffective. Repentance is His goal, His aim, not death. He sends His watchmen to warn the wicked to turn toward righteousness and to warn the righteous to not turn back to wickedness. As Saint Paul says in our Epistle lesson, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” He is simply echoing our text: “When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it.” Each and every day is then to be a day of repentance for those made righteous by Christ. We should never be secure in our sins, but instead we should constantly be repenting of them and clinging to the Gospel. We need forgiveness every day, because we sin every day; we are both the wicked who need to be turned and the righteous who need to be warned against turning.
In the eyes of the world, repentance doesn’t seem fair; the wicked should die in his wickedness, and the righteous one should live in his righteousness. In fact, the people of Ezekiel’s day say, “The way of the Lord is not just.” But this is God’s justice, His amazing grace. God is all about giving wicked people life through His Son, turning them in repentance and faith. His oath, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live,” was confirmed and fulfilled by Christ’s own blood. His oath is a reality through the cross, through the empty tomb, through repentance and faith worked by Law and Gospel in the lives of His people, in your life and mine. Now, through repentance, and faith, as we hear in our text, “None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him.” Before God, our sins are no longer remembered; His memory has been wiped by the blood of His Son; life is our destination, eternal life, with our living Lord. In the Name of Jesus, the one who confirmed the Father’s oath with His own blood and death, Amen.