A New Heart and a New Spirit

**The audio for this sermon may be found here:https://www.spreaker.com/user/trinitystjohn/2016-05-08-exaudi-sermon**

Text: Ezekiel 36:22-28

Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations…I will sprinkle clean water on you…and I will give you a new heart.” Such were the words of the Lord God that Ezekiel preached beside the Chebar canal in southern Babylon to anyone who would listen. The nation of Israel was his audience, which, during his ministry, was carried off into exile in a number of waves and ultimately destroyed through the Fall of Jerusalem. The ones standing immediately before him were the ones carried off to Babylon early in the exile and they had just heard that Jerusalem had indeed fallen. The walls were torn down and the temple destroyed. What hope could be left?

It is good that our fathers in the faith placed this text here in the lectionary, the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost. We heard from Jesus in the Gospel how the world will react after His Ascension. Some will claim to be worshipping God by killing Jesus’ disciples. St. Peter likewise reminded us in our Epistle not to be surprised when faced with trial and tribulation. In the Collect of the Day we prayed to our ascended Lord Jesus that He would not leave us without consolation, but send us His Holy Spirit. That is what God tells Ezekiel to prophesy about in our Old Testament text. God promised that He would do something marvelous. Even to those poor, dejected exiles, and to us in our suffering, God promised that He was actively at work to vindicate His name and remove their plight. From our text we’ll learn about God’s work, including the work of His Son. Today we’ll especially celebrate His work in Holy Baptism, for it is in the washing of Holy Baptism that God gives us the new heart and Spirit that He promises in our text.

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Before we go any further, we should talk a little bit about what’s going on in our text. Long story, short: Israel is in exile in Babylon. Now for the longer story: When we study the Old Testament we usually divide it up into two categories, the Law and the Prophets. We can also divide the Prophets into two categories, the Major and Minor Prophets. The Major Prophets are called that because their writings are longer (try reading the 66 chapters of Isaiah), the Minor because they’re shorter. Ezekiel is one of the Major Prophets with Isaiah and Jeremiah. The Fall of Jerusalem happened in 587 B.C. Isaiah prophesied about 100 years earlier. Jeremiah and Ezekiel preached at the same time around, during, and (in Ezekiel’s case) after the Fall of Jerusalem – Jeremiah in Jerusalem, and Ezekiel in Babylon.

Ezekiel prophesied to a people displaced and removed from their homeland. God gave the land of Israel to His chosen nation as gift promised to Abraham, but now they have been driven out of it because of their sinfulness. For generations God spoke to His people through the prophets that Jerusalem would fall unless they repent of their sin and be forgiven. Remember when God sent Jonah to Nineveh with that same message? Nineveh was a pagan city, and they repented and believed. But Jerusalem, the city of God, rejected Him. Instead of living in faithfulness to God and love toward one another, the people were altogether corrupt, hating each other and being hated in return, cheating everyone they could, worshipping false gods, and putting themselves first in all things. Even when they did come to worship God, it was tainted by sin and false pretense. God said through the mouth of Isaiah, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

But, now, God says in our text, this is all going to stop. Israel’s uncleanness, its disregard for God and His Word led to the Fall of Jerusalem and the Exile – but even then it didn’t stop. The Fall was meant to lead to repentance, but instead, God’s name continued to be profaned. The nations surrounding Israel gloated at their demise rather than repent of their own sinfulness. And Israel, instead of being sorry for their sin, just continued to sin in Babylon. But now God has had enough. He is going to do something radical. He’s going to do something amazing to purify Israel from their iniquity and vindicate His name among the nations. What is He going to do? He’s going to send His Son. That’s what God is talking about in our text. Already His plan is in motion, just as He promised to Adam and Eve to send them a savior. This Savior would be the Son of God who would bear the weight of the world’s sin on the cross to redeem us from our guilt. And, not because we are particularly special or good or merit salvation, but as God says, “It is not for your sake…but for the sake of My Holy Name.”

In our text we get the joyous opportunity to touch on one of the distinctives of our Lutheran faith. We call them the Solas: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura. In our text we get a beautiful picture of God’s grace. Even in the mire of Israel’s iniquity, even in the despair of the exile – the just consequence of their sin – God promises to save. He promises to purify them from their sin and rescue them from death, not through any works of their own, but by His grace alone. God also promises in our text to save us and to cleanse us from our iniquity, and in fact He has through the washing of Holy Baptism.

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God says these beautiful words in our text, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove your heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you.” In the midst of their iniquity and sinfulness, their depravity and darkness, God promised to sprinkle His people with water, and this water will make them clean. That is what Baptism does. You might remember this question from the Small Catechism. “What Benefits Does Baptism Give? It works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.”

God promised to His people our text that He would sprinkle them with water and make them clean. In doing so He would remove their callous hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. And, this is what makes our text fitting for this Sunday, the Sunday after the Ascension. As He ascended into heaven, Jesus promised to put His Holy Spirit within His people. This happens in Holy Baptism when the Triune God puts to death the sinful nature within us and makes us new creations. In Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ’s death and burial, so that we too die to sin and rise to righteousness.

In our text from Ezekiel God promised to His people that He was going to vindicate His name. No longer would Israel’s sinfulness be in the spotlight. Instead, God is going to wash it away. He did this by sending His Son Jesus to die for the sin of the world, both for Israel in Ezekiel’s time and for us now. Then, in Holy Baptism, washes us clean. He rips out our hearts of stone and gives us beating hearts of flesh. In Baptism He gives us each His Holy Spirit. And what does the Holy Spirit do? Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “When the Helper comes…He will bear witness about me.” That is, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make us Christians through the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, and to keep us Christians through the same. And, having received a new heart of flesh and God’s Holy Spirit, we are led outside of ourselves.

In the washing of Holy Baptism, we are made new creations. We no longer live seeking to serve our own flesh and passions, but we live for those around us, serving those in need in response to the love we receive from Christ. That is what St. Peter exhorts us to do. This is how he said it, “Keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another.”

This week we stand with the Holy Apostles. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, has ascended into heaven to be with us always and everywhere. Two thousand years ago the Apostles waited for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and we likewise are expecting Christ’s return. In our texts this week we learn about how God operates. He spoke through Ezekiel that He was going to vindicate His name and remove the iniquity of His people. He did this by sending His Son to die for the forgiveness of our sins, which He gives to us by grace alone. Then, in Holy Baptism He gives us clean hearts of flesh and puts His Holy Spirit within us. May He ever continue to grant us His Holy Spirit that we be led to live in love toward Him and our neighbor.

To Seek and to Save the Lost

Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

People say that sheep are stupid animals. There’s kind of this old wives’ tale that you can take a sheep and turn it facing into a corner, leave it there, and it won’t move. It turns out, according a study done by the University of Illinois, that sheep are not incredibly stupid. Instead, their intelligence is generally just below that of pigs and on the level of cattle.[1] But sheep are herd animals. They generally flock together, making them among the first domesticated animals because they naturally follow a leader. They can also be hefted, which means that they can be raised to stay in one area when there are no fences separating fields. They flock and want to be together, and when separated they become stressed. There have been experiments where scientists have separated a sheep to induce stress and then put a mirror in front of it. The sheep, thinking that it is not alone, calms down.

Sheep want to be with sheep; they belong with other sheep. That’s the job of a shepherd: to take care of the sheep. The Lord speaks against the shepherds of the people of Israel, “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”[2] The rulers of the house of Israel, both the civil rulers and the spiritual leaders, led the people astray. They were evil, seeking after only their own interests, and God’s sheep were scattered and separated. God laments, “My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”[3] And so He seeks out His sheep Himself. Contrary to the evil shepherds, Jesus came to seek out the lost. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when they have been scattered, so does Jesus seek out and save His flock.

I.

We’ve now reached the end of the church year and next week we will start anew with the Triumphal Entry. On that day Jesus processed into Jerusalem knowing full-well that it was to His own suffering and brutal death, a death that He did not deserve. Today we learn why He suffered. The reading chosen for the lectionary cuts out the first part of Ezekiel 34, which I think we need to provide some context for our reading – especially since the imagery of a shepherd with his sheep is so fundamental to how we understand Christ’s work for us. Chapter 34 begins with the Lord’s speaking against the rulers of Israel, both in the government and in the Church. Their job was to seek the best for God’s people. They were to care for the weak and sick, to feed them with the word of God. Instead, God says, the shepherds fed off the sheep.

They fed off the sheep and clothed themselves with their wool. They did not strengthen the weak, did not heal the sick, did not help the injured, didn’t bring back the strayed, nor did they seek the lost. Instead, those placed in authority by God to care for the people ruled with force and harshness. Ultimately this would result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. and the exile of God’s people. It also resulted in two consequences that were even more personal than the destruction of God’s house: many sheep were injured and scattered, and the ones that remained became fat like their shepherds.

The wicked priests were probably the worst. They were the ones who were supposed to feed God’s people His pure Word, to comfort them with the promise of the forgiveness of sins through faith in the Messiah, and they didn’t. Instead, they were concerned only about themselves. They didn’t care about the people, and God’s children became prey for the wild beasts. All around them were pagan nations who had all sorts of wicked practices that enticed them. God said that His sheep were scattered and they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. Instead of worshipping God on the one mountain of Israel, Mt. Zion, His children were scattered and began to worship on the hills. The hills were where all the pagan temples were. And no one sought to bring them back.

The sheep that weren’t scattered became fat like their wicked shepherds. God asks, “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?”[4] The sheep that remained were corrupted by their shepherds into caring only about themselves. Instead of growing strong through the preaching of the Gospel, they grew fat on the Law, only caring about themselves. The text says that they pushed with side and shoulder and thrust their horns at the weak, until they scattered the other sheep.

We can see the application in Old Testament Judaism, but it applies today as well. Our natural tendency as humans is to cling to the Law. For pastors, this means that it’s very easy to hammer people. It’s easy to get up in the pulpit and destroy people with God’s condemnation against sin and drive them either to despair or out the door. The opposite temptation, then, is to avoid speaking (rightly) about sin and change our message into moralism – which, actually, ends the same way. Moralism is all Law and no Gospel. If we don’t speak about sin, then we don’t speak about our need for Jesus Christ. He alone is our salvation, our hope, the redeemer of our souls through His precious death.

But also, it’s very easy to sit in the pew and wonder if I’m just a little bit less of a sinner than that person across the aisle. Maybe there’s someone new to church, and I just know how they behave outside these walls. And so we thrust them aside with our horns, instead of sharing the love of Christ with our fellow sinners in need. God says later in chapter 34, “You are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.”[5] But it’s so easy to think we’re better than others.

II.

Therefore, “thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”[6] This text used to be the Old Testament reading for Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th after Easter. It was paired with one of the most comforting texts in all Scripture: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”[7] God looked out on the earth and saw that there was no one. There was no one righteous; no one was good, not even the shepherds, nor the sheep. No one. “So,” God says, “I’ll do it myself.”

Because there was no one to do it, no one that could do it, Jesus became the Good Shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and lays down His life for them. He came to seek the lost, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, to strengthen the weak. This He did by becoming man, taking the sin of all mankind upon Himself. He took our sin, our guilt, the anxiety that we have because our lives are not how we envisioned them to be, the anger we have against our brothers or sisters in Christ, and He died. He was flogged, punched, spit upon, and crucified to make payment for our sin, to save us, lost and condemned sinners.

And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.”[8] This is God the Father’s promise: that He will set His servant David as the shepherd of His people. This is Jesus. A prophesied title for Jesus is Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” or “God with His people.” Jesus is our eternal Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us, but He is also among us here. He promised to be with us always, and He is faithful. He is always here in His Word and upon our lips. He continually feeds us His forgiveness through His body and blood. By these things He strengthens us to bring His Word to those around us and in the community. We bring His Word that, in Him, all sins are forgiven and that life finds its fulfillment in the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

They say that sheep aren’t as stupid as they’re made out to be. But I know that, as a sheep myself, I wouldn’t be so sure. Daily we are tossed to and fro, scattered by our own sinfulness and the wicked shepherds that still roam God’s fields on earth. Therefore Christ says, “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered.”[9] This Christ did for us through His death on the cross and He will continue to do so through the preaching of His Word until He returns to bring us to Himself.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep#Behavior

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ezek. 34:2.

[3] Ezek. 34:6

[4] Ezek. 34:18

[5] Ezek. 34:31

[6] Ezek. 34:11, 16

[7] Jn. 10:11

[8] Ezek. 34:23–24

[9] Ezek. 34:12