Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Turn, Then, and Live” (Ezekiel 18:30-32)
October 1, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I am going to begin today by juxtaposing the lyrics of two of my favorite songs.

The first is the title track of the 1965 album by The Byrds entitled Turn! Turn! Turn!  Based on a passage from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, it was written by Pete Seeger, and the magical guitars and vocals by Roger McGuinn and David Crosby created a huge hit.  You may remember these lyrics:

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together…

And the poignant yet hopeful final verse:

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

The second song is “On the Turning Away” by Pink Floyd.  It is on their 1987 album entitled A Momentary Lapse of Reason and features an epic guitar solo by David Gilmour.  Even if you have never heard of this song, consider these lyrics:

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say which we won’t understand
Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away

It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud…

And the final verse:

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away from the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?

Today’s Old Testament passage from the prophet Ezekiel, whose name means “God strengthens,” is about a different kind of turning.  Ezekiel was a priest in Israel when the Babylonians besieged and sacked Jerusalem in 597 BC.  Like many other Israelites, Ezekiel was carried away into exile in Babylon.  Imagine watching the city in which you grew up be destroyed—including the temple where you led worship services— and witnessing many people you know mistreated or killed, and then being marched with other survivors to live in a foreign country.

And yet, while in exile in Babylon, Ezekiel has many visions from God and obeys God’s call to warn his fellow Israelites about repentance, about turning—turning away from their sin and turning to God:

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God.  Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.  Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God.  Turn, then, and live (Ezekiel 18:30-32).

“Repent and turn from all your transgressions…Turn, then, and live”—inspired by the Holy Spirit the prophet Ezekiel was urging Israel to repent, to turn away from their sin and turn to God.  Why?  To avoid judgment and death.

And God’s call to repent is not only for the Israelites, but also for you and me.  In the New Testament this theme of repentance continues.  Scripture tells us “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4)—and after his baptism in the Jordan River and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus himself returns to Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15).

Although we may not like to talk about it, repentance is a primary way we are called to respond to the grace of God—as the Apostle Paul commended the Thessalonians for their repentance: “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God “(1 Thessalonians 1:9).

In the baptism service in The Book of Common Prayer the baptismal candidates are asked six questions that show us what repentance looks like.  The first three questions are about turning away from what Martin Luther called “the world, the flesh, and the devil”: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”, and “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”

The last three questions are about turning to God: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?”, “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?”, and “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” (302-303).  This expression of repentance is not just a one-and-done experience for the newly baptized, but a vital ongoing part of our relationship with God.

We also see what repentance looks like in today’s gospel passage.  While talking with “the chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matthew 21:23) Jesus tells them a brief parable about repentance:

A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”  He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went.  The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?”  They said, “The first” (Matthew 21:28-31).

Then Jesus shocks his hearers by continuing:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him (Matthew 21:31-32).

Jesus rebuked his listeners for not responding to God’s call to repentance, because he loved them and wanted them, as he does you, to “turn, then, and live.”

What about you today?  Is there something in your life from which you know God has called you to turn away, but you have not done it?  Or is there something in your life you know God has called you to do, but like the second son in Jesus’ parable, you have said, “I go, sir” but you have not gone anywhere?  The call to you to turn, turn, turn back to God remains—again, as Ezekiel preached, “Turn, then, and live.”  Repentance is literally a life and death issue.

Now if I ended here, you would not have heard a gospel sermon, because a gospel sermon is never centered on what you are supposed to do, but on what God has already done.  And here is where the gospel enters the scene…

To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven… scripture tells us “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5).  In a specific season God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, with the purpose of saving you.

As we read in today’s epistle passage, Jesus’ saving you meant he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” and “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).  Jesus took the judgment for your sins, the judgment of death, upon himself.  Though many have dismissed the gospel as “a momentary lapse of reason” on a cosmic scale, in Jesus’ death on the cross God revealed his power not in judging the world, but rather as we prayed in the collect for today, “chiefly in showing mercy and pity”—in fact, mercy and pity to a world that turned away from God again and again and again.

For Jesus Good Friday was a time to weep, a time to lose, and a time to die—but for you Good Friday was a time to heal, a time for peace, a time for love—unconditional love for “the pale and downtrodden,” unconditional love for those “driven on by a heart of stone”, unconditional love for “the weak and the weary”—unconditional love for you.

In other words, when it comes to how God relates to you, the gospel means there is “no more turning away.”

And scripture is clear that it is the kindness of God that leads you to repentance (Romans 2:4)—that the reason you can turn away from “the world, the flesh, and the devil” and turn to God is because God has already turned, turned, turned, to you.

To everything there is indeed a season and a time to every purpose under heaven… perhaps today the Holy Spirit is stirring in your heart to respond anew to the grace of God, to “turn, then, and live.”