First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-9
7“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 9But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.”
1Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! 2Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile! 3While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. 4For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer. 5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. 6I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
Second Reading: Romans 13:1-10
1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. 8Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Gospel: Matthew 18:1-20
1At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 15If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Why We Can’t Sleep in Church
I seriously doubt anyone here today would argue that our children are our pride and joy. Solomon in Proverbs spilled much ink talking about the joy of children and of the need to raise and nurture them properly. And as we see from our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus, when talking about what the kingdom of God is like, and who is the greatest in the kingdom, took a child and used them as an example for us. Children, as they say, are our future, so we need to guard, protect, and raise them in a Godly way.
Yet sadly, one of the most exploited groups in the world, throughout time, has been our children. Everything from child sacrifices, to being trained as child soldiers, to child labor, to sex trafficking, our most vulnerable are our most exploited. These, of course, are just the overt ways our children are abused. If you pay attention to the less noticed headlines that fill our computer screens, you’ll find that our children are being exploited in other, more subtle, ways as well.
Through news reports, we’ve been made aware of sexual predators who use social media to lure victims into a relationship with them. We also hear reports of people being convicted of child pornography and these are placed on sex offender lists and are not allowed to be near children or schools. But what we don’t hear often enough, is the reports of the social grooming of our children. This grooming happens when our children are young and easily manipulated. And this social engineering isn’t limited to those in Middle schools, High schools, and universities. There are those who are pushing their agendas not only in the elementary schools, but in the pre-schools as well.
This past week there was an article that caught my attention. The news story was titled, ‘Horrified’ hospital employee leaks DEI training pushing 3-year-olds identifying as transgender. The article said that “a “horrified” hospital employee at Kaiser Permanente leaked a sex change training for diversity, equity, and inclusion, which promoted the idea that a 3-year-old can be transgender. The employee, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, was horrified, according to the report from Libs of TikTok. As part of the hospital system’s DEI training, medical employees were expected to watch a video with children explaining they knew they were transgender at age 3 and 4.”
I’m fully aware that some will say this is a political issue and the church needs to stay away from politics. However, the issue of exploiting our children is a sin and an issue that the church cannot ignore. God has placed these children in our care, and we must speak out against any program or policy that can harm the most vulnerable in our society. We must be on guard and be willing to speak out against such things, and we must be willing to pay whatever price must be paid to protect our children. As members of the Body of Christ, we must be the watchmen, standing ready to sound the alarm.
As I was preparing for today, I ran across a very interesting survey. The title may interest some of you. The survey asked church goers for reasons why they feel like it’s okay to sleep in church. Apparently, there are more reasons than I thought and some of the reasons are better than others; here’s is a sampling. I hope that some of these were given tongue and cheek. I’ll let you decide. When asked, respondents said they sleep in church because: a. They’re tired after working all week. b. They stayed up too late the night before. c. They know more than the preacher does. d. The pews are too comfortable. e. It’s too stuffy or warm. f. It’s boring and there’s nothing else to do. g. They trust the preacher won’t say anything interesting. After listening to the beginning of today’s sermon, I doubt I’ll be accused of that!
Now on the flip side, there are also some very good reasons why people cannot sleep in church. Again, you can decide which reasons are better than others. Again, here’s a sampling. People can’t sleep in church because: a. They have insomnia. They can’t even sleep at home. b. Their morning coffee was too strong. c. They have a child crawling all over them. d. They’re too busy thinking of which restaurant they will go to after the service, or how to entertain their company coming on Tuesday, or about the test tomorrow, or what’s next on their to-do list. e. The pews are too uncomfortable. And f. It’s colder than they thought it would be. As I said, you can decide whether or not these are good or bad reasons. Now to be fair, and in my defense, let me give you a response from a pastor’s viewpoint of why it’s important to stay awake in church.
Every pastor has heard the classic description of a preacher’s job. The pastor’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Even though that description has become somewhat worn-out over the years, it still has a kernel of truth in it. We are called to preach both the law and the gospel. And as members of the priesthood of all believers, the same description applies to members of the church. The church too, is here to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. The first of these two functions is always more popular and well received. Honestly, just like it’s our task to protect our children, who can argue with a mission of mercy and compassion? However, the second function of the church is, of course, more controversial.
Certainly no one who is comfortable wants to be disturbed or afflicted. We don’t mind our routines being disrupted if there’s a true emergency, like a fire; but we don’t like false alarms, and we don’t like change. Often, if we cannot immediately determine if the danger is real or imagined, we don’t like to be afflicted needlessly. It’s this second function of the church that I want to explore today. Despite what society and the talking heads tell you, it absolutely is the church’s responsibility to watch and warn the people of wrongdoing, of false gods, of dangerous tendencies, and of outright sin. If you think this sounds like a tall order, it is. With all that’s going on around us, it’s important that none of us sleep in church!
On Tuesday, one of the pastors shared with the group a conversation he had with a young employee at Home Depot the other day. Pastor Henry said he had gone to Home Depot to purchase a riding lawnmower and was looking at one that had been marked down. As he was looking it over, he noticed that etched on the back of the mower was the word “refurbished”. He asked the employee why they engraved refurbished on the mower. The employee said that in the past they simply marked the lawn tractor down, but people were pulling the sales tag off the item and attaching it to a new mower and were insisting that they be given the lower price. In response, Pastor Henry remarked that people now days will do anything to cheat the system. He said the employee simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “it isn’t wrong if you don’t get caught.” To this Henry said that as a Christian, right and wrong are clear and we learn this in church.
I won’t regale you with the rest of the story. To summarize Henry said he talked to the young man for a long time and during the conversation, he found out the young man had never been in church, and he simply believed the way he did because that was what he was taught in the home and in the community. Today, Christians are needed more than ever to be looking for opportunities to witness and to challenge sinful behaviors that can be damaging to our children, to us, and to society.
For years, there have been those who try to convince us that there is such a thing as victimless crimes. That it isn’t theft, for example, if it’s stolen from a store because the insurance company will reimburse the store, or that some behaviors are a person’s own business and no one else’s. Sin is never victimless; sin always has a price, and that price, far too often, must be borne by society. I read a second article the other day that speaks to what happens when we refuse to speak out, or sound the alarm against questionable policies.
San Fransisco and parts of Philadelphia seem to be constantly in the news these days because of homelessness, drug abuse, and crime. Now Austin, Texas which has followed much the same policies concerning drugs, policing, and punishment for illegal activities, is also suffering as well. In an article titled, Austin police ask robbery victims to call 311 amid staffing shortage, crime crisis, the police in Austin are advising people to call the non-emergency number to report being robbed at an ATM rather than 911 due to staffing shortages. This new protocol comes as the Texas capital grapples with an increase in crime.
The article cited crime statistics from 2020 and compared them to mid-year 2023. During that timeframe, Austin has seen a 77% increase in auto thefts, an 18% increase in aggravated assaults, and a 30% increase in murders. The Austin Police Association President said that in August the department is sorely lacking the resources it needs to tackle crime. I bring these two articles to your attention not to delve into the ins and outs of policies, but to highlight the fact that it’s hard to ignore the effects from the decisions that have led up to the current situation.
You and I are called to be the watchmen in our world and Christians have failed to address the root cause of the problems, sinful behaviors. Church leaders, and the people of God, must do a better job of publicly acknowledging and then addressing sin and calling people into account. In our Old Testament reading, this is the message Ezekiel is highlighting. Ezekiel makes it clear that there are some important matters that the church, or its spokespersons, need to emphasize. The first is the need to watch. Ezekiel told his people of the need for a watchman.
Over the years I’ve known folks who have worked as watchmen or security guards. Sometimes they wear a uniform, to look more official. They oftentimes carry a lot of keys. Some of them are armed, or have K9s with them for security purposes. If anything happens, it’s the watchman’s job to call for help and/or do what they can. There is one very important rule, one expectation of the watchman that cannot be compromised, they must stay awake. They must remain ever vigilant for things that might present a threat.
If a watchman falls asleep, they have committed the worst sin. Their job is to watch, to warn, to be alert and to stay ready on the job. In Old Testament times, the watchman had a trumpet. They were the ones who stood on the city’s wall and kept a lookout for any possible threats. If they saw something suspicious, they were expected to blow the trumpet, to sound the alarm, to give the warning call. Watchmen are the first line of defense against the enemy.
Near Chelan, Washington, there’s a retreat center hidden away in the Cascade mountains known as Holden Village. It was once a mining camp. In order to reach Holden, visitors must travel part of the way by boat on Lake Chelan. The rest of the trip is made via a school bus which climbs the steep mountainside by cutbacks, and then becomes a gravel road through the forest. One couple shared their experience while visiting Lake Chelan not many years ago.
Upon reaching the boat landing on the other side of the lake, the couple said they were directed to the school bus they would ride in for the remaining part of the trip. However, before leaving the dock, the driver took a few minutes to point out that the area was experiencing a dry spell. No rain had fallen for several weeks, and the forest was very dry. He stressed the restriction against smoking, and then appointed two passengers to be official “fire watchers” to be on the lookout for any signs of forest fires. Moreover, everyone was being urged to be on the lookout and was encouraged to report any signs of smoke to the driver, or to staff personnel immediately. He said fire is the worst enemy of those who make their home in the area.
The driver, they said, was an impressive young man of 25. The couple said what impressed them most was that he wasn’t simply reciting a pre-prepared speech, like an airline attendant. It sounded as though he really meant it and really cared. Without saying it directly, they knew that he loved and respected the forest far more than the casual admirer. That couple shared how that lesson about watching for fires stayed with them during their entire stay at Holden. They said they were much more aware of the dry forest and the dangers it could present because of that young man. We, as God’s people, are called to be watchmen, it’s one of our main responsibilities.
Being a watchman may not sound glamorous, but it serves a vital purpose. We may not need to watch out for the Philistines or the Amalekites, as did the early Israelites, but new threats have taken their place. We, as the church, need to constantly be on the lookout for the sins of injustice, exploitation, discrimination, suffering, and oppression. And it needs to be all of us; it cannot be left to a handful of people or even just one person. Russell Hoy, author of the “Country Parson” column in the magazine, The Ohio Farmer, told a story that emphasizes this.
“Behold a baseball team went forth to play. Just as the umpire was saying ‘Batter up!’, the catcher arrived and took his place. The center fielder didn’t show up, but sent his regrets. The third baseman didn’t come because he was up late the night before. The shortstop left his glove at home. Two infielders were away on a trip, but sent word that they were there in spirit. When the pitcher went to the box, he was discouraged, but he hoped for the best. He had to be pitcher, cover first, third and shortstop. When the absent players heard their team had lost, a decision was made to get a new pitcher.” Just as important as the need is for a watchman, we all must be willing to stand watch and to sound the warning when needed.
People in many parts of the country are familiar with the terms “Tornado Watch,” and “Tornado Warning.” When a watch is announced, this means that the conditions are right, and a tornado could occur. When a warning is given, this means that an actual tornado has been sighted in the area, and that residents should seek cover. Here on the east coast, we understand that anytime we hear of a hurricane forming in the Atlantic, we begin to follow the progression with greater attention. We begin to follow the weather on TV and on our weather apps, waiting for updates. We prepare for what’s to come, and we warn others of the dangers of not doing the same. Those who watch and warn are important because our lives are full of warnings, we depend on them to keep us safe.
Warnings like Danger! Keep out! Road closed ahead! Turn around, don’t drown! Stay back! Beware of the dog! No trespassing! School Zone ahead! Even though many warnings may sound negative, or seem trivial, they’re intended to protect people from harm or danger. Therefore, they have a positive intent. Warning labels on packaging, prescriptions, poisons, and cleansers are there to protect our health. And these warnings are there not only to protect us, but to protect our children as well.
Ezekiel was called to give a warning to God’s people so they might turn from their evil ways. Although his warning sounded negative, it was actually a positive sign that God loved Israel and didn’t want them to perish. Jonah’s mission to Nineveh was a warning to turn and repent. When they did, the city of Nineveh was spared. When you tell your child, “Don’t go out in the street,” it’s another way of saying, I love you and I care about you. God knows what things are harmful and dangerous for us.
Life itself could be said to have a label on it like the one you find on a box of glassware; “Fragile: Breakable.” Because of this, it’s clear that a warning needs to be heeded if it’s to be effective. How often do people go to the hospital for a procedure and the doctor caution them about limiting their activities, or of following rehabilitation instructions. After the procedure, they will often pester the doctor to let them go home before they’re ready. They’ll promise to faithfully follow the doctor’s instructions but once home, they’ll make excuses for why, or why not, they should listen to the doctor. Soon they find themselves back in the hospital, this time for twice as long as they were before, only to have to admit they should have heeded the doctor’s warnings.
The final thing we need to accept is that, as God’s people, we need to be willing to speak up. God’s Word to Ezekiel is an appeal to faithfulness. He says, “As I live, says 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?” (Vs. 11). Isn’t it reassuring to know that God cares!
The story is told that satan once had a meeting with some of his demons to work out a strategy to win more people. He asked his associates for their counsel. The first one said, “Let’s tell the people on earth that there is no heaven. If they have nothing to hope for, they might lose interest.” But Satan said, “That idea has merit, but I’m afraid the idea of heaven is too well ingrained in most peoples’ minds.” The second demon offered his suggestion. “Then why not tell them that there is no hell. If they have nothing to fear, and they believe everyone goes to heaven no matter what, we may gain some.” To this satan responded, “While that too has merit, I don’t think that will be universally accepted that either.”
The third demon offered his advice. He said, “Why don’t we keep heaven and hell, but tell the people that there’s no hurry to decide between them. People can wait until the last possible moment. There’s no need to heed the warnings given by the church. At that, satan smiled and said, “That’s it! That’s what we’ll do!” We’ll allow apathy to take root. Ever since then, that plan has met with great success. This is why we cannot sleep in church. What’s happening all around us is far too important to ignore. Sin always has consequences and far too often the price for sin must be paid by society.
As the people of God, as the Body of Christ in this world, we’ve been called to be the watchmen in our society, because satan is alive and well and is hard at work in both the big ways and in the small. He isn’t satisfied with just going after the adults, he’s also going after our children, and we must be willing to stay awake, to sound the alarm and to speak up.
We must be willing to speak out, and we must be willing to speak the truth, no matter the cost. Apathy is one of the best tools the devil has to prevent us from taking seriously our duties as watchmen. Jesus concluded our gospel lesson with an amazing promise. We don’t have to do this alone. Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”