St. Luke's International Hospital Chapel
September 25, 2011– 10:30 a.m. Holy Eucharist
Both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel today talk about changing course.
Arguably one of the most important words in Bible is the word "turn". The Hebrew is shuv. Shuv can be translated turn, go home, return, reconsider, regret, repent. It means to change course, to face in a new direction.
The idea of shuv is at the heart of the message of all the prophets. Return to the Lord! Turn back from evil and return to His ways, and you will find life and peace.
And it's at the heart of the New Testament. Both John the Baptist and Jesus began their work with the same call to shuv: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
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The message God gave to Ezekiel is very straightforward: You sin? You die.
It's not rocket science. One thing follows the other, cause and effect.
Remember that "sin" in the biblical sense doesn't mean just the Big Stuff like murder, robbery, adultery. It means turning your back on the Lord, straying from His path.
Note also: It's not that we die because our parents or our ancestors sinned. God clearly rejects that line of thinking. In Ezekiel's time, the Jews had been taken captive and forcibly relocated to Babylon. They complained that they were being punished because of what their ancestors did, saying: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Ezek 18:2).
To that, God says, in effect, "gimme a break":
"Behold, all lives are mine; the life of the father as well as the life of the son is mine. The one who sins, he it is who shall die." (Ezek 18:4)
God isn't in the business of punishing the children of sinners. You sin? You die, not your children or your grandchildren.
We may--and, sadly, quite often do--suffer the fallout from the sins of our parents. A selfish father's adultery. An anxious mother's overprotectiveness. Abuse. A lack of affection. That's part of the tragedy of the world. But to say we suffer the fallout from someone else's sin is different from saying the sin and its punishment are ours.
You sin? You die. And this is not God's capriciousness, either. It's just cause and effect. St. Paul put it like this: "The wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). The recompense for working is money. The recompense for sin is death.
What kind of death are we talking about? Physical death, yes, evenutally, but even worse, spiritual death, which can begin even in life and which goes on…for all eternity.
So what is spiritual death? Many of you have probably tasted it already. The "symptoms" include:
A narrowing of the heart. A sense of distance from people around you, the world around you. The inability to make real connections. A loss of yourself, your identity. A loss of meaning and purpose. A sense of emptiness. Boredom even with the pleasures of life. Anxiety. Anger at others, at God, at yourself. Hopelessness. A slowly deepening darkness in your heart.This spiritual death can begin here, now. It begins whenever we sin--whenever we turn away from God, whenever we pull away from His good will for our lives.
And unless we turn back, it will go on forever and ever.
To become a Christian means to make this turn. To become a Christian involves turning away from darkness, from self-centeredness, from injustice, from emnity with God--away from everything that displeases God.
And it involves turning toward Jesus, toward life, toward justice, toward obedience, toward intimacy with the Father.
That is what Christian baptism is all about. Do you renounce the devil and all his ways? Do you turn toward Jesus and life in harmony with God's will?
The hitch is, we can't make this turn. We're like the Titanic heading toward the iceberg. Even knowing the danger was ahead, the huge ship couldn't turn enough to avoid it.
Human beings are actually worse off than the the Titanic. Because, given enough time, the Titanic was capable of changing course. But we're not. We don't have it in us to change ourselves.
Sure, we can change the clothes we wear, get a new haircut. We can train ourselves to take on new habits. We can learn to control ourselves and put on a presentable face.
But we can't change our hearts.
"Cast away from you all the transgressions you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!" (Ezek 18:31)
The people to whom Ezekiel relayed this message proved that they couldn't make a new heart and a new spirit for themselves. And neither can we. We are unable to save ourselves. Our wills are weakened, our hearts are bent. And we can't fix that.
But God can. God can make possible what was impossible. What God commands, He enables. God tells us to make new hearts; He gives us the grace to do it.
The Reformer John Calvin said "[God] invites all to repentance and rejects no one." (Calvin, Comm. Ezekiel 18:32). And because God invites all to repentence, He offers all the grace to enable such repentence.
St. Paul is on to this in today's letter to the Philippians: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Phil 2:12b-13)
It is God who works in us. If we allow Him to, God will work in us, healing our wills so that we WANT to do what pleases Him. Notice the all-important repeated clause in the baptismal vows:
- Do you turn away from all the powers of darkness?
I do, WITH GOD'S HELP.
- Do you turn toward Christ and toward the light?
I do, WITH GOD'S HELP.
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The first son in Jesus' parable changed course. He went from not doing the will of his father to doing the will of his father.
Jesus confronts every person with this same question. Jesus' whole mission, today as well as back then, is to summon every one of us to the same obedience: Today, go and work in the vineyard. Today, go and live a God-pleasing life in harmony with the Father's will.
Two thousand years ago, tax-collectors and prostitutes heard this call and they responded to it. Like the older brother, with their lives they had been saying "I will not" to God's will. But, like the older brother, they "changed their mind" and began to follow Jesus. They changed course. They discovered in Jesus the power to change course. The grace to stop living in sin. The grace to enter into fellowship with God.
To be a Christian is to change course. If we are still living pretty much like everybody else in the world--if we are making decisions pretty much on the same basis, if we are using our time and our money and our talents for the same ends, if we are thinking mostly about ourselves, if we are just as comfortable in our sinfulness--then maybe we haven't really become Christians yet. Maybe we're more like the younger brother who says "Yes" to his father but then goes on with business as usual.
Jesus offers us the power to change course. The power both to say "Yes" and to live a life that also says "Yes" to God.
And what happens when we change course?
"Why will you die, O house of Israel? Turn, and live!" (Ezek 18:31b, 32b)
The tax-collectors and prostitutes repented and followed Jesus into the Kingdom because they saw that that's where real life was. Real joy. Real community. Fellowship with the living God. The sweetness of heaven, here on earth, and forever.
Turn, and live!