Ezekiel 18 is a critical moment in the book where God reminds everyone that: “All lives are mine” (verse 4). While this reminder is in the face of His judgment, God then does something beautiful. In grace He comes to sinners and clearly states: “I do not desire the death of anyone... so repent and live” (verse 32). There are two distinct movements in chapter 18. Verses 1–20 ask what influence one individual has on another in the eyes of God. Verses 21–32 ask what influence an individual has on themselves in the eyes of God. The whole idea revolves around whether or not we can have a way out of a situation which seems impossible to escape. Ezekiel says, “Yes,” but it is only something God can grant to us by grace.
Here you have a text where Ezekiel is put in between God’s wrath for sin and the sinful people who are in need of grace. This is not the only time Ezekiel has to do this. Later in chapter 22:30 it says: “I sought for a man among them who should... stand in the breach before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it.” This image of “standing in the breach” is a potent gospel image that would serve nicely as the turn for a message on this text. In fact, “standing in the breach” will be the image we use throughout the sermon to structure our homiletical work. So, now consider what it would mean to mediate this dispute between the people and God, to hedge God’s character of grace which is known to Israel against His sincere wrath for sin?
To admit that grace, at this point in the narrative, lacks fairness could lead us nicely to the mercy of God. One classic example of this in another part of scripture is the story of Abraham as he stands between the just wrath of God for the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. He “stands in the breach” and pleads with God for mercy and grace for those who do not deserve it. If you develop the image of Abraham in Genesis 18:22-33 and use it as an illustration for your sermon, you can then move to the similarity it shares with Ezekiel 18. From there you can make the move to Jesus as the image and prophet par excellence, the one who is better than all others, who “stands in the breach” for us between God’s wrath for our sin and the mercy He pleaded on our behalf by His shed blood on the cross. Unpacking grace this way can emphasize the nature of grace as the changed attitude of God towards sinners like Ezekiel’s hearers and us. The person who “stands in the breach” for us is the agent of repentance who moves us from sin to salvation.
The person who “stands in the breach” for us is the agent of repentance who moves us from sin to salvation.
Since we are using the image of “standing in the breach” to guide our preaching task, let us simply use that structure for our sermon. Here is a summary of the Central Image Structure:
“This sermon structure uses a single image throughout the sermon and fosters devotional contemplation of an image.
In the opening of the sermon, the preacher describes the image for the hearers. The preacher then uses that image as a source for continuing devotional contemplation throughout the sermon. The image serves as a lens through which one views the textual exposition, the theological confession, the evangelical proclamation, and the hearer interpretation of the sermon. Having a single image lends coherence to the sermon.
With a single focus, the image remains the same throughout the sermon. The preacher may approach that image from a variety of perspectives (for example, viewing the same image from the perspective of different people who come into contact with it), but the image itself remains the same.
The sermon can develop or unfold the theme. For example, the first encounter with the image could evoke an interpretation that will later be expanded or even corrected in the sermon. By changing how the image is seen, the hearers are able to track the basic development of a larger theme in the sermon. Each stage of development (for example, moving from repentance to forgiveness and finally to restoration) is captured by preaching the image through a different perspective.”
In order to develop the image of “standing in the breech” as the central image for the sermon, there are a few things to consider. How does mediating a dispute work in Ezekiel? Does it use a “common goal” tactic like modern negotiators where both parties share an end result? Perhaps this could work in Ezekiel. Both God and Ezekiel agree that the people are sinful (a sentiment which is true in the Abraham story), and God’s greatness is displayed in His mercy. This could be the way to bring the negotiation to an agreeable end. However, it would still leave the debt unsettled and the negotiation one-sided in terms of fairness. It would be better if we could “tease out” the notion that God will defer collection on this particular debt until a later time. This moment, of course, is when Jesus paid for all debts and sins once for all on the cross (1 Peter 3:18), sealing the payment by His shed blood and glorious resurrection. This fits nicely with our reading because God takes “no pleasure in the death of anyone” (verse 32), making Jesus’ resurrection “life” the desired shared goal and pleasant end to the situation. Ezekiel’s problem ends with a question of how to achieve life from debt and death. The only answer is Jesus Christ. He is the only one whose “standing in the breach” satisfied God’s just wrath for debts and sins while at the same time bringing the saving mercy and life which God desires for all people.
God’s answer is always grace. God is willing to remove the consequence of death from those who have “considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed” (verse 28). Those who would receive grace must have someone “stand in the breach” for them, who could be the agent to have them: “Turn, then, and live” (verse 32). It was not Abraham who gave this to us, but it was the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). It was not Ezekiel’s word that gave this to us, but it was the prophet greater than Ezekiel, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), Jesus Christ.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!