Sink or Swim

Read Ezekiel 33:1-9 to start.

We all know what today is, which is Father’s Day. Do you know what tomorrow is, though? Anyone have a guess? It’s the last day of spring. Which means Tuesday is the first day of summer. Now, we’ve already had some days that feel like full on summer, because the start and end of the season on the calendar is based on the position of sun in the sky, and the weather may not exactly reflect that. In any case, summer is basically here. And summer, in my mind, includes going to the beach. I’m not a big beach person myself, but if I don’t get to the beach at least a time or three in the summer then it wasn’t really summer so far as I’m concerned.

The beach means sand, and the beach means water, and swimming, or more realistically in my experience, splashing and playing in the water. At least that is the case for kids, or younger people in general. Myself, I’m mostly content to sit on a blanket or a folding chair and keep an eye on my children.

And keeping an eye on people in the water, especially young children, is important at the beach. There are risks associated with the ocean and swimming. We are human beings, we live in and breathe ir, we don’t live in or breathe water, because if we do, we die. Drowning is a real risk when you are in the ocean, so you have to be vigilant. Every summer there is usually a fatality or two at beaches in this province, and in most of those cases those drownings could have been prevented if people had been more careful or been more closely watched.

In order to reduce the likelihood of this happening, in order to save lives, there are lifeguards stationed at many popular beaches. These people have been hired by the community, the province, or in the case of the national park, by the federal government, to keep people safe on the beaches and at swimming pools. They are there to watch and to help prevent tragedies. That is their job, and it’s an important one. You only really notice the lifeguards when things go wrong though. If everything is going smoothly and safely, then people don’t really appreciate lifeguards.

The passage that I read to start talks about watchmen. If there was a possibility of war or invasion, if there were potential threats about, then the people would put someone in the position of being the watchman. It would be their job to keep a constant eye out for danger, for hostile forces, and then they would sound the alarm. It wasn’t their job to go out and fight the invaders, or to bring people to safety, but rather to make sure that everyone was warned. That was their obligation. They did not eliminate the danger, but they did make sure that danger did not come as a surprise.

When there was no imminent danger, people likely didn’t notice the watchmen or think about them much at all. But when things went wrong, when there were enemies about, then the job of watchman became very important indeed. Lives would be saved if the people were warned. Should the watchman not do his job, or fail in his role, then lives, perhaps many lives, would be lost.

The parallel between a watchman looking for invaders and a lifeguard watching for swimmers in distress is a clear one in my view. Both watch for danger, both warn when trouble comes, and both have a heavy responsibility, one that they would feel most keenly should they fail. And while we don’t have the same sort of imminent threat of invasion looming over our heads as they did in ancient Israel, at least not in this part of the world, we do have other threats to worry about. Our responsibility is more like that of Ezekiel, who was appointed by God to warn Israel of the danger they were in; a danger not from outside invaders but from wickedness within.

There’s an expression you may have heard, what you don’t know can’t hurt you. This is false. What you don’t know can absolutely hurt you. It can weaken you, cripple you, destroy you. That is the whole point of the watchman, to warn of unexpected and unknown dangers. That is the job of the lifeguard as well.

In this province, there are many places where it is quite safe to swim. And then there are other places it’s so dangerous that it more than makes up for it. We have places with strong currents that even the best swimmers cannot possibly overcome, we have places with steep drop-offs where the unwary could find themselves in deep water and not be prepared for it. And most notoriously, we have rip tides or more accurately, rip currents, where water becomes pushed up between the sandbars and the shoreline, and when the tide or the wind changes the water will rush back out to sea, dragging anything or anyone along with it. When I was a kid two of my friends were caught in such a rip current and might well have drowned if their father had not been right there and rushed out to grab them and pull them back to safety.

This was at an unsupervised beach with no lifeguard. There was nothing there to warn to unwary of the potential threat. They did not know of the danger, and had their father not been vigilant, what they did not know could have killed them. There’s a warning sign at that beach now, but back then there was nothing to alert anyone to the danger.

What you do not know can absolutely hurt you.

I don’t know the hearts of everyone here this morning, truly, I don’t really know the heart of anyone here, only God knows what is in the heart of a person. But I know that many people here have professed faith in Christ, and strive to live accordingly. To what degree you have succeeded in your walk, I do not know, that is ultimately between you and your creator. But I can watch, and I can warn. As someone on this platform, as someone who preaches from the Word of God, that is part of my responsibility. And so I want to let you know, very plainly, very clearly, you are in danger.

If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour, if you have not trusted in His completed work on the cross of Calvary to pay the price for your sins, then you are on the broad road to destruction. Your soul is in imminent peril, because should you pass into eternity not knowing Him, then your fate is already decided. This morning it was not my original intention to preach a gospel message, but I would be negligent if I did not issue a clear warning of the danger ahead. It is appointed unto man once to die, then after this, the judgement. There are no excuses, no exceptions, no do-overs. Make no mistake, you have been warned.

If you do know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour, and I pray that you do, then then your eternal soul is safe from the threat of death and hell. But you should be aware that there is still danger.

This is not the danger of eternal judgement, but there are enemies to be wary of. The devil, that old liar and murderer, he would take great pleasure in undermining your faith and rendering you weak and ineffective. The world would have you crammed into its mould and conformed to suit its image. Your own selfish desires would have you be lazy, unproductive, and sinful, and would urge you to love pleasure rather than love God. These are enemies that will be with you, opposing you, seeking to bring you harm, until the day you leave this world.

For those who are young, this may be something you don’t really have a solid understanding about. You may not realize how real those dangers are, how they will so quickly cause you to stumble and fall. Those of us who have more mileage, we may appreciate the danger more thoroughly, but we are certainly not immune. We need a watchman as much as the youngest person here listening this morning, maybe even more sometimes.

As mentioned earlier, today is Father’s Day. As a father, I keep an eye on my children, because they are my responsibility, a responsibility that I share with my wife, and a responsibility that at times, frankly, I have been remiss at keeping. Those of you who are parents likely have similar feelings. None of us are perfect, none of us do as good a job as we should like to, or could were we not distracted and flawed. Ultimately, though, it is not my responsibility to raise obedient, God-fearing, perfect children who become pillars of the community and who serve the Lord without hesitation. That would be lovely, but it’s not entirely realistic, nor within my power. It is not my responsibility to shield my children from every possible harm, to shelter them so that the devil and the world can never get to them. That would be forcing them to live in a bubble, and that’s not realistic either, nor is it sustainable in the long run. There are people who have tried both of those approaches, and for as many as have tried there about almost exactly as many who have failed.

My responsibilities are to love my children, to provide for them, to be an example of how to live as a faithful husband and follower of Christ, and to be a watchman for them.

Will my children make mistakes? Yes. They have in the past, and they will in the future. I can warn them of likely threats and block them from some harmful and damaging choices, but I can only do so much, and only for so long. As much as I might want to, I cannot prevent them from messing up. I cannot stop them from ruining their lives and destroying their testimony. I cannot drag them, kicking and screaming, through the gates of Heaven if that is not the choice they make. But I can do my part to be sure that whatever choices they do make, they were well informed of the consequences. That is my responsibility.

This is not my responsibility alone, nor is it limited to my own children, to those of my own household. Ezekiel was set as a watchman to the nation of Israel, that reached far beyond his own family, or even his own town, his own tribe. We are not so different. We have been given the gospel of Christ unto salvation to all that believe. We have advance warning to flee from the wrath to come. We need to watch and warn others of their peril, both the lost and the saved.

We need to watch and warn one another, and we need to continue doing so. The job of a watchman is not a one-time thing, it’s not some special occasion. Trouble is never conveniently scheduled; it comes when it comes, and it does not often come when we would like it, because of course we would never like trouble. But the enemies mentioned before, the devil, the world, and our own flesh, they ever wait to drag us down.

We saw earlier the comparison of the watchman and the lifeguard. This is an apt comparison and it becomes more apparent the longer I consider it, because this life is very much like swimming. You can swim quickly, or you can swim slowly, you can swim with purpose and direction, or you can splash around making a lot of noise and not getting anywhere, but when you are swimming, you don’t get to stop. So long as you are in deep water, you have to keep swimming, or you drown.

The Christian life, as we have said, has obstacles and challenges, and these continue throughout the day and years we spend on this earth. There are times when things are more difficult than others, but at no point does the believer get to say “I’ve made it, it’s all easy from here on out.” Because the moment that you start living like that, then you will start to sink.

When you are swimming, when you are in deep water, you don’t get to take a break when things get tough or you get tired. You have to continue, or things are going to get much worse. It’s a good thing that there are lifeguards who can assist when things go wrong.

When you follow Christ, when you serve Him and walk in His ways, at times you may well be tempted to stop, to go your own way, because our natural selves do not want to serve, do not want to follow, do not want to obey. When that happens, and it will, much like swimming, you will start to sink, you will start to drown.

When I say drown, I do not mean immediate physical death, not in this context. Because the world will gladly drown you in its temptations and pleasures, will eagerly snuff out any desire you have to walk in holiness and newness of life. The world will drown you without hesitation, and it will not shed a tear for your demise. That’s why it’s needful that there are watchmen who can point you back to Christ when things go wrong.

Sink or swim, those are the choices. This is not fun and games, this is serious. This is your life, and the lives of the people around you. Look around at the other people here today. They care about you. They want you to succeed, they want you to have a profitable walk with God, they want you to live an abundant Christian life. Like I said earlier, I don’t know everyone’s heart here today, but I’m pretty confident that I can say this for most everyone here. I care about you, I care about how you are doing, not in the casual “How’s it going?” sort of small talk way, but how you are doing spiritually. Is your walk with God strong or middling, or are you just barely keeping your head above water?

God has appointed us all to be watchmen for one another. This is not the same as our obligation to a lost world to share the gospel that souls might be saved, but it is no less vital. You might think that this is a job for the elders, those in positions of oversight, or maybe also including those who preach from the platform, and certainly there is a specific duty in those roles, but this is for every believer to do.

In John chapter 21, the Lord told Peter to watch over the flock, to feed His sheep. Peter, who a week or so before that had denied Him thrice, and who had tried to kill a man earlier that same night, and who had decided that with his Lord gone that he would go back to fishing. Peter was so far from perfect that it’s astounding to consider how the Lord later used him so mightily and effectively to both share the gospel and to minister to the early church. It wasn’t because Peter was skilled and perfect, he clearly was neither of those things. If a misfit like Peter can look after and watch the flock, then why can’t you?

On the topic of watching for others, we’re going back to the beach now. Some years ago, at the very same beach where two of my friends nearly drowned as children, one of my children very nearly drowned. We were there with another family, all having fun, not in deep water or anything, and suddenly the other dad went running over to one of my kids. They were face down in the water, not moving. He pulled them up and out and we went back to shore right away. A bit of coughing and everything was fine, but if another thirty seconds had passed face down in the water? Who knows? I didn’t see notice anything, and so I didn’t do anything. But he noticed, and he reacted. This wasn’t his child, his specific responsibility. But he saw someone in danger and he responded without hesitation.

How often can quick action at the right moment make all the difference! In that case, it made the difference between an ordinary summer day at the beach and a tragedy. Watching and intervening when the need arises, that was the correct thing to do.

That’s how we should be with one another. Not that we should be all nosy and prying and spying, but we should keep an eye, and we should say something when we see something. Not just something wrong, either, because an encouraging word likely does more to help someone and build them up then does a word of correction when someone is already going off the rails.

Thinking of how I act as a father, it’s unfortunately more common that I scold, correct, and remind my children than it is that I commend and praise them. That’s something for me to work on, and maybe for you as well.

As much as we do need to be encouraged, and it is true that we all need to be encouraged and urged forward, we do sometimes need correction and direction as well. Think of any sport, from hockey to football to figure skating, there might not be a cheerleading squad, but there’s always a coach. A coach watches and says where you are doing well, and points out what needs to be worked on, where improvement could happen, and what that improvement should be. Often these changes are small and not apparent unless you are paying attention, but in the long run they make a big difference.

You might barely notice that something is wrong. Maybe it looks like someone has lost focus, or that they are seeming a bit off. And maybe it’s nothing, maybe they slept poorly or are not feeling 100%, and so they are not as they usually are. But maybe it is something after all. That’s why it’s important to watch, and to sound the alarm, as it were. Not that every little thing is a cause for panic, but we shouldn’t ignore every little thing either. Sometimes those so-called little things are a call for help. Sometimes they are the precursor for much larger problems. A quick word may be the difference between an awkward moment and a ruined life.

Not long ago, someone on this very platform talked in his sermon about drowning, and painted a picture of someone struggling to stay afloat, but instead going down for the third time and needing help. Some drownings happen like that, but more often drownings are quiet. In the story I told earlier, when my child almost drowned at the beach, there were no shouts, no flailing about. No drama, no alarm. There was nothing to call attention to the problem if you were not watching.

That’s how it is in the Christian life most often when someone goes astray. It’s not every day that someone publicly renounces their faith and makes a big deal out of it. It does happen, and it gets noticed, and it can cause considerable distress and doubt among others. I can think of a few relatively recent examples, people like author Joshua Harris, singer Ray Boltz, YouTube duo Rhett and Link. Charles Templeton is a well-known example from a previous generation. You might look at them and ask how did people who worked in Christian ministry lose their faith so thoroughly and completely? It should not happen. But it can, and it does. Those three enemies I mentioned earlier, the devil, the world, and our own desires, they work against each and every one of us. Whatever knowledge you may have gained, whatever work you may have done, whatever faith you may have, if you ignore those threats and allow them to grow and fester, then they will win.

If we see others starting to show signs of doubt, show indications that their faith is not where it should be, or not where it was once was, we should not ignore it. Because the more common thing, rather than a grand proclamation of apostasy, is a slow and quiet fading away. Watching and speaking up can make a big difference when someone’s faith is faltering. But only if we are willing to accept the job of watchman and actually act when we see danger approaching.

We also need to keep an eye on ourselves, and accept that others are watching out for us. When someone comes alongside and asks us how are we doing, if something is the matter, we should not be quick to dismiss them and say that everything is all good. Because maybe it’s not good. Maybe we don’t realize it. Or maybe we do realize, and don’t want to admit that we’re not where we should be. This may be the hardest part of all, because it’s so easy to dismiss and excuse your own shortcomings. It’s easy, and it’s natural to be defensive when we feel threatened, when our errors and our perhaps our sins are called out. But pretending to be okay, when we are not, we do that at our peril.

It’s like I said about the water, in you’re in deep water, you have to keep swimming, or you sink. And remember, the water is so very deep in this life, and it doesn’t get shallower as you go along.

If we ignore the help of others, those who care for us, those who are watching out for us and are concerned for our souls, we do that at our peril as well. This life is challenging at the best of times, we should accept whatever help we can, and provide whatever help we can, because sadly, there are too few people who are willing to be faithful watchmen.