Text: Ezekiel 36:22-28
“Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merit, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith.” (Augsburg Confession IV from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions) These words from the Augsburg Confession, short of the Holy Scriptures, are our bread and butter in the Lutheran Church. We teach, according to the holy and true Word of God, that people cannot be saved – we cannot receive forgiveness from God – based upon our own good works, or anything that is within us. Instead, we are saved freely and purely by God’s grace through faith in Christ, which itself is a work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, our salvation is based entirely upon God’s actions alone. It has only come about because He decided to act Himself on our behalf. This is something we gladly confess this Easter season.
This truth, that the actions of God alone bring about our salvation, is found throughout the Scriptures. Our text today from the prophet Ezekiel is a good example. Here the Lord promised to bring His people into their own land. He promised to cleanse them from all their uncleanness and dwell among them as their God. He wouldn’t do these things because of their worthiness, but because of His own love. All His people ever do is profane the name of the Lord, therefore He Himself acts to vindicate His name and provide forgiveness to His people; ourselves, included.
The text opens with the Lord speaking to His people. He said, “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 to which you came.” (Ezekiel 36:22 English Standard Version) The context of our Lord’s words is that He is speaking of the exile of the children of Israel, both what brought it about and what will bring it to an end. By now, the destruction of Jerusalem should be a topic we’re aware of – both the one by the Romans in the New Testament and the one by the Babylonians in the Old Testament. The reason for both was the same: the unfaithfulness of God’s people. For generations, they lived in violence among themselves, idolatry, adultery, and so on. Every evil thing they saw in the world, they adopted and embraced. And the result was that God’s name was profaned. The Catechism teaches us what it means to profane the name of God. It says, “God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it…But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God.”
Such was the behavior of the children of Israel. They continually profaned the name of God by unfaithful living, and so they received the discipline of their Lord in their exile. But, even in exile, their sinful behavior continued. They continued to profane God’s name among the nations to which they came. One would think that such a discipline as being forced from their own land into another while others take and occupy their home would bring a people to repentance, but it didn’t. Instead, the people in exile continued to live idolatrous, adulterous lives. They worshipped the sun, moon, and stars. They embraced the pagan way of life, all the while being known as the worshippers of the God of Israel. They were supposed to live holy and decent lives in what they said and did, but when anyone looked to the children of Israel, they seemed no different from the world. And that profanes God’s name.
We should not claim to be unaware of such behavior among ourselves. We also bear the holy name of God in our Baptism. We, too, have been called out of the sinful world: to be in it, but not of it. Yet, we, too, have behaved as if that is of little consequence. Jesus said once that a little yeast leavens the whole lump. So, also, does a little sin infect the whole self. We, too, have behaved in ways that reflect poorly on our Christian name and our Father in heaven. We have profaned His name by living in ways that are contrary to His Word. At times, we have tolerated false teaching to dwell in our hearts and on our lips. From time to time when our Lord has disciplined us for this, we’ve acted as if we had done no wrong and been critical of the Lord’s will for our lives. There is a reason why we cannot merit salvation by our works, and it’s because we are sinners. All we ever do, by nature, is profane our Lord’s name.
“It is not for your sake…that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy name…I will take you from the nations…and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you…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.” (vv. 22, 24-26) I said at the start that God working for the benefit of His people is found throughout Scripture. Notice who is doing what in our text. The people profane, but God saves. Here God speaks about the full cleansing that will come at our Lord’s return on the Last Day. At His return, the Lord will raise His people from their graves and gather them together from all creation. They will be fully cleansed from all sin and evil, and all profaning of His name will cease.
As is often the case when God speaks through His prophets, He is able to speak about more than one thing at a time. At other times we call this idea, “now but not yet.” Here, we gladly confess that the full cleansing which the Lord will work upon His people on the Last Day is already at work among us. The Lord promised that He would act, and He has acted in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Because we, by nature, are incapable of doing a single good thing, Jesus took our human flesh upon Himself. At every point where we have profaned the name of God among us, He hallowed it. At every point where we have transgressed, Jesus kept the Law of God. As payment for all our evil deeds, the Lord took our sins into Himself and bore them in His body on the tree. With His stripes we are healed, the prophet said.
The Lord promises in the text to sprinkle clean water on His people and to place a new heart of flesh in them. Such has He done to us in our Baptism. When you were baptized, you were sprinkled clean from your sin when the forgiveness Christ won was applied to you. The Holy Spirit took out your old stony heart of sin and gave you a new heart of flesh when He created in you the gift of faith. When you fall into sin and find yourself profaning the name of God by word or deed, let it be confessed and so return to the waters of your Baptism anew. In this way, our Baptism stands every day until the Last, when it shall be completed as we are made completely pure in the Resurrection.
The Latin title for this Sunday is Exaudi, which means “hear.” The Lord hears our cries for forgiveness and salvation. He has acted Himself to bring it about through His work on our behalf. By Jesus’ blood our sins are for. His cleansing blood sprinkles us clean in Baptism. Through the same we receive a new heart which lives to love and serve both God and neighbor. Let us praise the Lord who promised to act for our salvation, and did; and pray that He might bless our new hearts of flesh to live faithfully in this life until we shall see Him face-to-face in the Resurrection.