Why Will You Die?
“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We pray in The Litany: “From all sin, from all error, from all evil; From the crafts and assaults of the devil; from sudden and evil death; From pestilence and famine; from war and bloodshed; from sedition and from rebellion; From lightning and tempest; from all calamity by fire and water; and from everlasting death; Good Lord, deliver us.” In one of our funeral hymns we sing: “All trials and all griefs are past, A blessed end has come at last, Christ’s yoke was borne with ready will; Who dieth thus is living still” (LSB #759). There is such a thing as an “evil death” and such a thing as a “blessed death.” What makes the difference?
In the book of Numbers, we read of the Word the Lord put into the mouth of Balaam regarding the blessedness of Jacob who was saved by the grace of God through faith in the Lord and who departed this life in peace. Balaam said of such a death and of such a man, “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10). We hear the same Spirit led prayer of faithful Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word.”
Ah, to die the death of the upright, to die in faithful peace, to have a blessed end. That is dying unto eternal life. But alas, not all deaths are like this. Many are horribly tragic because they are so unnecessary and they end in everlasting destruction. For example, we think of Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus, died in despair, and entered into eternal death. His was an evil death, accomplishing nothing but the opposite of God’s intended purpose of salvation. There are far too many Judases in this world, dying unto eternal death.
If, somehow, you were able to identify and speak to a person who was heading to eternal death; that is, if you were able to talk to that person before physical death—the separation of body and soul—took place, you would try to warn him or her, wouldn’t you? And if that person would not listen and would not heed the warning, would you not plead with him or her: “Why, why will you die? There is hope and righteousness and peace forever for you. Why will you die unto eternal death?” That, my dear friends, is God’s question in our text: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
Now, before we can get the Word out, we must get the Word straight. So let’s begin by having the answer to God’s question given right away. Why will you die? There is one reason why anyone dies—sin! Death entered the world as a consequence of sin, and death is the just punishment for sin. “For the wages of sin is death,” St. Paul declares. Then He adds, “but the free gift of God is eternal life is Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 23). Christ’s death paid the penalty for all sin, for every sinner. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Therefore, there is only one reason why people die eternally: Unbelief, which is not having the God-given gift of faith in Christ as your Savior. And there are two basic reasons why people depart this life in unbelief. The first is because the person has never heard that Jesus is the Redeemer and Savior. The second is because the person has heard this Good News, but rejects it.
Consider the people of New Orleans a few days before Hurricane Katrina reached the city. Imagine that there was one person in charge of getting the word out to the people. What word? A two-fold proclamation—the warning of a deadly storm and the promise of the evacuation to life. That was the “law and gospel” of what was to be proclaimed to the people.
But suppose the word doesn’t get out to the people. Katrina devastates the city and people die. The called messenger, who is authorized and obligated to speak the word to the people, neither warns of the coming death nor tells the people of the way to life. People die in unbelief because they do not hear the message. The messenger, however, is and will be held accountable.
Now imagine instead that the messenger does do what he was called, authorized, and obligated to do, and that the word of warning and the word of escape are declared. The message goes out to the citizens. The storm is approaching and the way to escape the death and destruction is to evacuate the city. In short, if you stay you will die; if you leave you will live.
Suppose some of those who heard this death and life message ignore it. The called messenger does what he was called to do; he is not responsible, nor will he be held accountable. Such people die because they reject the message. They do not believe the warning or trust in the promise of rescue.
In our text, Ezekiel’s warning is not about an approaching hurricane or an impending flood or even a powerful earthquake, but something much more devastating. It is about the end of the world on the Day of Reckoning and applies to those who die the second death, which is the lake of fire. Compared to that Day, the category 5 Katrina was but a gentle breeze. The floodwaters in New Orleans were but a trickle. And the tremors that killed more than 100,000 people in the 2010 7.0 earthquake in Haiti were a nervous twitch. Though these events may end life for people in this world, they are not able to touch anyone’s soul for eternity.
Please remember: It is not only unbelievers who depart this life as a result of such catastrophes, Christians do as well. However, there is a difference: faithful children of God who die as a result of hurricane, terrorist attack, flooding, earthquake, accident, disease, or violence leave this world and enter into Paradise to be with the Lord. Theirs is a blessed end. They truly depart in peace.
The Lord God asks, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” This question is directed to the Church and it deals with eternal death: “Why will you die eternally, O My people?” God does not desire that anyone be lost forever, especially those who are numbered among His people. The Lord doesn’t punish and discipline because He likes to, but seeks to turn people from their wicked ways back to Him. He continues to call each of us to repentance, to shrug off death, and live eternally.
Why will you die? Only one reason, remember? Unbelief. It may be unbelief because the pastor does not warn with the accusing Law of God and/or because he does not comfort with the soothing Gospel of the forgiveness of all sins. The departure from preaching the Word of God in its truth and purity is an American epidemic. Pastors exchange their liturgical vestments for cheerleader outfits in order to encourage the flock with the chants of manageable law, rather than to kill and make alive by proclaiming the full counsel of God. They become the hawkers of this world’s therapeutic, moralistic deism, offering helpful hints on how to have your best life now, rather than preparing you for a blessed end and eternal life.
Such hirelings seduce with a conditional gospel, which is not the Gospel. Their messages are often no different than motivational speakers who ignore the reality of sin and who call for hope and change without Christ. Congregations subjected to this sort of pastoral malpractice are left hungering for the Word. They become more and more anemic as the cleansing blood of Jesus, both in sermon and in the cup, is withheld from them. Many members of such congregations have no idea what the Gospel is, or what the means of grace convey. And if they, perchance, would cry out like the house of Israel, “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” well, tragically, the preacher is all too often silent about Jesus’ forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. For the many lost because of the failure to preach Law and Gospel, the pastor will be held accountable on the Day of Reckoning.
The Lord God asks, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” This question is directed to the Church. God does not desire that anyone be lost forever. Rather, He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:4-6).
Why will you die? Again, only one reason, unbelief. It may be unbelief due to the fact that, while the pastor does preach the Word of God in its truth and purity, and does administer the Sacraments as Christ instituted them, the congregation will not receive the Word nor stand for the Absolution nor be catechized in the faith. In such a situation, while many are lost, the pastor will not be held accountable on the Day of Reckoning; each will stand for his or her own unbelief.
Now, since at the beginning of this sermon, we have heard the answer to God’s question, we will proceed to the end by hearing what is not the answer to God’s question, “Why will you die?”
You will not die eternally because you are a sinner, for “the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15).
You will not die eternally because you have sinned, for behold, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
You will not die eternally because of your lack of righteousness or failure to obey God’s commandments, for the Good News is that by Jesus’ “obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
You will not be lost forever because of what you owe God, because in Baptism the Lord God made you “alive together with Him, having forgiven [you] all [your] trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against [you] with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).
You will not die eternally because you feel so alone or because uncertainly assaults you, or because you face the end of this life, for though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord is with you to comfort you (Psalm 23).
You will not die eternally because of the grave that awaits you, for “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20), and all who have been baptized are baptized into the death of Christ and because Jesus lives you also shall live, and there will be a heavenly reunion of all those who have departed this life in Christ.
You will not suffer the second death and go to Satan’s hell because Christ has conquered hell and defeated the devil; and for you, dear child of God, no one shall take you out of the Lord’s hands (John 10).
You will not die eternally if you die this day or tomorrow or whenever, for Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life and he who believes in Christ; though he dies, yet shall he live; and whosoever lives and believes in Jesus shall never die (John 11:25-26).
In short, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). The only reason anyone is lost is unbelief. This is the Good News of God’s love in Christ Jesus and it’s not only for those hearing this message now, but for everyone. “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself” (Acts 2:39).
“What promise?” you ask. This promise: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
“What promise?” This promise: “Take, eat; this is My body which is given for you…. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
“What promise?” This promise: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:23).
“What promise?” This promise: “Behold, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Indeed, our Lord continues to come to you in His Word and Sacraments, bringing you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In these means of grace, through His called and ordained servant, He brings you this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.