Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (July 5, 2009)
“Rebels!” (Ezekiel 2:1-5)
If you had been an American colonist living in 1776, chafing under the heavy hand of King George III and the British Parliament, what would you have been called? It all depends on your perspective, doesn't it? Would you be called a patriot? A revolutionary? A traitor? A rebel?
As far as King George of England was concerned, the colonists who were dumping tea into Boston Harbor, joining up to serve in local militias, and writing up declarations of independence, were all a bunch of traitors and rebels. They had turned their back on jolly old England. They refused to submit to the authority of Parliament. They were in open defiance of the sovereignty of the king.
In our text today, the prophet Ezekiel is sent to a nation of rebels. That's what the Lord calls the people of Israel. In chapter 1, Ezekiel is in Babylon, having been taken away with the second batch of exiles from Judah. Sitting beside the Chebar canal, Ezekiel sees an amazing vision of four fiery angelic creatures with assorted features, riding upon glistening wheels, supporting the sapphire throne of Almighty God. Ezekiel falls on his face. But then a voice calls to him, saying, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you … Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are also impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God.' And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.”
From his exile in Babylon, Ezekiel was sent to preach to the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah. He was to call them to repentance for the ways in which they had turned their back on God. They refused to submit to God's authority. They were in open defiance of God's sovereignty. They did not obey the Law of God. They had resorted to the worship of idols. They were steeped in the immoral behavior of the other nations around them. They were rebels.
After the War of Independence was over, King George said to the U.S. Ambassador to Britain John Adams, “I was the last to consent to the separation [of the colonies from England]; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.” Well, we went to war one more time with England in 1812. But following that, we have had peaceful, friendly relations ever since. If King George were alive today, I assume he would have good things to say about us former “rebels.”
I'm not so sure the same would be true of Ezekiel. A sermon by Ezekiel preached to our nation today might sound similar to what he preached to the people of Israel. In spite of the fact that the Ten Commandments are posted in assorted places in our land, people still disobey them, much less even know them. But even if people can't recite the commandments, the Law is written on everyone's heart, so people should naturally know right from wrong. But what happens? They choose the wrong. Our American idols are not singers on a reality show. No, the people of our land worship the gods of convenience and comfort, the gods of self and success. Sadly, even many modern preachers have bought into this and pander to our American idols when they preach what is called the “prosperity gospel” … that God wants you to be rich and successful and healthy and happy all the time. That's a huge lie. God never promised us a rose garden. Rather, he has promised to use the rotten things that happen to us in this fallen world for our good. Even St. Paul was willing to gladly boast of and be content with “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” As he said, “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” because the power of Christ rested upon him. (2 Cor. 12)
But before we get too involved in criticizing our national sins, let's look at our own hearts. Let's recognize the rebel in each one of us. It's the Old Man, the Old Adam … that old sinful nature which clings so tenaciously to us and which clings so tenaciously to those things which God despises. Here's how Luther puts it in his Large Catechism: “But what is the old man? It is what is born in human beings from Adam: anger, hate, envy, unchastity, stinginess, laziness, arrogance – yes, unbelief. The old man is infected with all vices and has by nature nothing good in him.” (Large Catechism, IV.66) Now that's a hard-hearted and flint-faced rebel. God's Word is clear, but we have refused to hear. Our sins are evidence that you and I have turned our backs on our good and gracious Creator. We have refused to submit to his authority. We have been in open defiance of the sovereignty of the King of the Universe.
You know, some say that Jesus was a “rebel.” That was pretty rebellious when he overturned the moneychangers' tables in the temple. That was pretty rebellious when he called the most religious people of his day “whitewashed tombs.” Jackson Browne even wrote a Christmas song a number of years ago called “The Rebel Jesus.” In a certain sense, it's not wrong to call Jesus a rebel and a revolutionary. He hung out with some pretty shady people. The so-called righteous people of the world called him a glutton and a drunkard because of his associations. He didn't come with a militia. He didn't fight any battles with weapons of war. But he did come to stand up against the status quo of this sinful world where people think they are basically good and that all you have to do is simply keep a certain set of rules and regulations and that makes you okay in God's sight. Jesus battled with the devil in the wilderness, withstanding the temptations he threw at him. Jesus invaded the territory which that rebel Satan had claimed and cast out demons, healed the sick, and above all else called people to repentance and trust in him as Savior. And finally, Jesus did battle with death and hell itself as he hung on the cross, suffering and dying for the rebellion of the whole world, and after three days proving his victory over death when he came forth from the grave, never to die again.
Jesus was put on trial for treason against the Roman Empire. The original accusation was blasphemy, since he claimed to be the Christ, the Son of God. The Romans could have cared less about a little religious squabble among the Jews. And so, the Jewish leaders had to trump up some charges and told Pontius Pilate that this Jesus was no friend of Caesar. He had called himself a King, after all. (John 19:12) He was indeed a King – the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – but the people refused to believe in him. Jesus was condemned to die. A real rebel and traitor went free, a man by the name of Barabbas. And through the death and resurrection of Jesus, all of us rebels go free. All who trust in the shed blood of Jesus are forgiven and given the gift of everlasting life.
Christianity is pretty rebellious and radical when you think about it. In a world where power and prestige is glamorized, Jesus taught us to be meek and humble. In a world where people think that all roads lead to the same path, Jesus taught us that he is the only way to heaven. In a world where people are taught to get even, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek. In a world where we want all the thorns in our flesh taken away, Jesus says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And just the idea of God dying on a cross is pretty radical enough. But that's exactly what happened. Jesus, True God and True Man, died on the cross to bring forgiveness, life, and salvation to the world.
In our Baptism, God calls us daily to rebel against our Old Adam, our old sinful nature. Again, in the Large Catechism, Luther says that Baptism is “nothing other than putting to death the old Adam and affecting the new man's resurrection after that (Romans 6:4-6). Both of these things must take place in us all our lives. So a truly Christian life is nothing other than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. For this must be done without ceasing, that we always keep purging away whatever belongs to the Old Adam. Then what belongs to the new man may come forth … The longer we live the more we become gentle, patient, meek, and ever turn away from unbelief, greed, hatred, envy, and arrogance … What else is repentance but a serious attack on the old man, that his lusts be restrained, and an entering into a new life? Therefore, if you live in repentance, you walk in Baptism.” (Large Catechism, IV.65, 67, 75)
So be a rebel. Not one that rebels against God's commandments because they impinge on your freedom. Rather, one that is already free in Christ. You are forgiven of all your sins. You are free to live as God intended, enjoying the gifts that God bestows upon us, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to rebel against the status quo of this world and its values that are contrary to God's holy will.