Sunday, May 7, 2017

New Shepherd for the Flock: Sermon on Ezekiel 34

It's been a few years since he saw it... the angels, the wheels-within-wheels, the crystal firmament, the blazing fire, the rainbow light, the rolling throne – the throne that proved that God went into exile with his people so that they could sing his songs even in a foreign land. And now the years have passed. If Jerusalem isn't already fallen, it's on the verge of falling. The bulk of the people have either already joined Ezekiel in exile, or are in grave denial that they'll be on their way soon.

And now Ezekiel, a more seasoned prophet than he once was, sits and meditates on just what happened. He looks back over the long line of kings they've had since David died – looks back on Solomon, who had such promising wisdom but acted a bit like Pharaoh; looks back on Solomon's kid Rehoboam, whose promise to be harsher drove the northern tribes away under Jeroboam's rule; looks back on the string of northern kings of Israel, none of whom were good; looks over a string of southern kings of Judah, most of whom did evil in the sight of the LORD.

Ezekiel had been born in the days of one of the few good eggs, Josiah, the faithful reformer. But before him, there was his dad Amon, and his dad Manasseh, and a whole line of terrors. And ever since? Jehoahaz, and that puppet Jehoiakim, then Jehoiachin, and finally the stupid puppet Zedekiah who's been running Jerusalem into the ground, him and all his blasphemous priests and dreadful officials.

And where does that leave the people of either house? Lost in the lurch, with the agenda set by abusive, neglectful leaders whose example leaves so much to be desired and who just don't do their jobs. As Ezekiel thought about the people, running to and fro in their lives, he thought about sheep lost in the desert, escaped from incompetent, self-serving shepherds but now stranded and helpless.

Eureka! The Word of God came to Ezekiel, expanding on the thoughts he was thinking. That's exactly the problem that got them into this mess – the kings of Israel and Judah, and the officials and priests even in the recent days of Zedekiah's pitiful rebellion, were like shepherds whom God had tasked with caring for his flock, a mixed flock of rams and ewes and even some strong-willed goats for good measure.

But the problem is, the shepherds were more concerned with feeding themselves than with feeding the sheep. They've been living off their rightful gain – clothing themselves in the sheeps' wool, God says, and feeding themselves – but the sheep have been going unfed, neglected (Ezekiel 34:2-3). What's more, they've been slaughtering some of God's flock for their own meat, treating them as food to be enjoyed at the shepherds' pleasure (Ezekiel 34:10).

And did the shepherds keep order and justice within the flock as it stood? Hardly – they let the stronger rams and the goats trample down the fields, stomp mud through the water supply, and damage the rest of the pasture even after they'd had their fill, leaving only meager and defiled food and drink for the rest of the flock – and the shepherds did little to nothing about it (Ezekiel 34:18-19).

And they cared nothing for the health and life of the sheep: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:4). All the things any decent shepherd does for a flock, they failed to do; and all the things a shepherd should never do with a flock, they did.

And in the process of this neglect, these lousy shepherds have put the sheep in mortal danger: “They were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. … Surely my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:5-6, 8). The sheep have been scattered – exiled to Babylon and its lands. That was why Ezekiel was here – he was one of those sheep, out in the wilderness because his shepherd was selfish and incompetent. Centuries later, when Jesus said that those who came before him were “thieves and robbers,” shepherds like these are what he meant (John 10:8).

But the sad truth is, it's not just a historical reality we read about in the Books of the Kings and the Chronicles. We're familiar with bad shepherding, aren't we? We're familiar with bad shepherding as a nation. Look at the state of political leadership in recent years and even now. Presidents, governors, legislators, judges – think of them as shepherds. What kind of leadership are they providing? Are they keeping the pasture clean for the rest of us to feed on? Are they preventing the strong from traipsing their muddy feet through the creeks? Are they acting in our interest, feeding us? Are they bringing back the strayed, strengthening the week, tending to the wounded, ruling with a gentle touch even while fending off wild beasts on the attack? Are they bringing a sense of unity to the flock? Are they setting a good example? For my part, I can't think of too many who've had their day in office who quite fit that bill.

But we know about bad shepherding in the home, in the family, too. Maybe some of you grew up with one or both of the co-shepherds of your household absent. Maybe a shepherd just abandoned you entirely. Maybe a shepherd was weak, failing to fend off beasts, failing to come look for you and guide you when you were lost. Maybe a shepherd was unwise, failing to lead you to good pastures where you had enough to get by. Maybe a shepherd was downright mean, cruel, vicious, more concerned with feeding himself – or herself – than with tending you when you were injured or imparting strength to you when you were weak. Maybe the shepherd who was supposed to care for you even sated his or her desires at your expense. And now that you've grown, now that many of you have tended a little lamb or two or three of your own, maybe some of you aren't sure that you shepherded well, either.

But what's more, we know about bad shepherding in the church, too. Some of you, I'm sure, could tell me some horror stories about things you've seen. Maybe you've been part of a church flock where the shepherd didn't lead you to the good pastures of the word of God. Maybe they fed you instead on a mishmash of thin teaching, or even the poison plants of false doctrine. Maybe they didn't defend you well against wild beasts like that hissing serpent who came whispering unhealthy notions in the ear of your heart. Or maybe they took more than the wool for their wages – started living high off the meat as well, hurting and exploiting the flock. Maybe they neglected you when you were hurt, failed to ever come bind you up when you were wounded by life's woes, failed to help you recuperate while you were ill with grief or sin, failed to come seek you when you were lost in life, failed to bring you back to a good pasture again. Maybe you've seen a church setting where the shepherd didn't lead in love, didn't bother to build you up from weakness to strength.

Oh yes – we have a sense of what Ezekiel meant. We have a sense of what Ezekiel felt. Because in our own lives, we've become sadly acquainted with what it looks like for a shepherd to fail – to be unqualified and to put his own gain, his own wants, over the real needs of the flock. And if that were all that this chapter says, well, it would be a stirring and somber meditation on the injustice of life. It would move us to tears, maybe. It would at least fill us with a sense of melancholy. And we might just kick the dust and mutter, “Well, ain't that life for you? That's just the way it goes.”

But this prophecy is filled with so much more. We live in a world where Jesus Christ is risen! Amen? And because he lives, we have hope. Because he lives, he offers us a new thing! Just look at what Ezekiel shares with us – take a gander at this, check this out, hear these words: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 34:15).

Isn't that good news? The God of heaven and earth, the God who built mountains and carved valleys, the God of justice and mercy, looks at the wreckage of mismanagement that the kings and priests have left his chosen people, and he looks at the hurt and pain that you and I have suffered at the hands of bad shepherds, and he says, “I myself will be the shepherd” – he'll tend to us personally, tend to you personally.

But then he goes on to say, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them – he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken” (Ezekiel 34:23-24). And when Ezekiel writes the name 'David' here, you should understand he means the Greater David Who Was To Come: the Messiah, the promised Son of David and David's Lord, who would be a better shepherd even than the historical David was. Jesus tells us flat out that he's the one Ezekiel meant: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).

God will shepherd us personally, but Jesus will be our Shepherd – you can't separate the two, can't drive a wedge between them. And this is no failed shepherding here – Jesus, through whom God shepherds us, is the Good Shepherd – he's able, he's competent, he's no fool like the thieves and robbers who came before him; and he's good in the sense of being unfathomably good to his flock. We catch a glimpse of his shepherding style in the Psalms, where he wields an iron rod to keep us in line and maintain our defense (Psalm 2:9), but also in the words of Isaiah, where we read, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11). Strong and nurturing – that's the Jesus I know. Do you know him, too?

What's more, God our Shepherd tells us, through the Prophet Ezekiel, that he won't be content to leave his flock scattered over all the mountains and on every high hill, over all the face of the earth. He would come and take them back from their exile: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. … I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy [or, 'watch over']. I will feed them with justice” (Ezekiel 34:11-16). And as a fact of history, God did seek out his people who were scattered in the provinces of Babylon's rule – he did bring them back to their own land – but under the thumb of the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, things didn't turn out so rosy. There must be something more.

But we know that God's message isn't just for Ezekiel's band of refugees. It's for us, too. If we're God's flock, he won't be content to let us scatter. Jesus, through whom he shepherds us, will seek the lost and bring back the strayed. Jesus told us that himself – remember? “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, doesn't leave the ninety-nine in open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:4-5). “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

When you're lost in your sin, he comes looking for you! When you're lost in life and unsure where to turn, he comes looking for you! Stop running and watch for his approach; let him lift you on his shoulders and carry you in your time of need. When you're injured, he'll bind you up; when you're weak and don't know how you can make it, he'll lend you strength. He's the Shepherd who seeks the lost and brings back the strayed.

What's more, God our Shepherd tells us, through the Prophet Ezekiel, that he will judge between the different elements in his mixed flock: “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. … Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep” (Ezekiel 34:17-22).

In the writings of the prophets, community leaders within Israel, the relatively powerful, were often nicknamed 'rams' or 'goats' – animals that are strong-willed, that have leadership potential within a flock, but also have a tendency to disobey, to push the rest of the flock around, and to trample carelessly over the whole pasture. But God says he'll come to the defense of the weak. God says he'll come to the defense of the lean, those who haven't gotten enough to eat, who never seem to get first dibs.

Is that you? Then this is good news. God our Shepherd will hold accountable those in his flock who've pushed you around, or who've eaten up more of the blessings that were meant for you. And Jesus, through whom God shepherds us, told us that when he returned in glory with his angels, he'd sit on a throne of judgment over his mixed flock of all nations, “and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:31-33).

To the goats, who hoarded the resources of God to themselves rather than leave abundance for the lean and the weak, he'll render punishment alongside the devil (Matthew 25:41-45). But to the sheep, most especially the sheep who lived peacefully with other sheep, who shared the resources of God by consuming only what they needed and being kind to the lean and the weak, the Shepherd on the Throne will welcome them into everlasting pastures that grow without end (Matthew 25:34-40).

And what's more, God – through the One Shepherd, Jesus, who solves the problem of a whole line of many bad shepherds who came before him like thieves and robbers – will tend his flock with incomparable love, care, and blessing. Pay close attention to some of the words, some of the ways Ezekiel portrays what's coming, what we have access to. “I will feed them with good pasture” (Ezekiel 34:14). God will not let us stay forever in desert lands, where the growth of life is hard to come by. No, God will feed us with all we need. “I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, … I will feed them with justice” (Ezekiel 34:16). We will have God's tender care, directly, personally.

I will … banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. … They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid” (Ezekiel 34:25, 28). What an image of safety! There will come a day when you won't be downtrodden any more. There will come a day when you won't be in danger any more. Even in the night forests, you can sleep in safety. Physically, financially, emotionally, we'll be there some day. Spiritually, when we're in our Shepherd's presence, we're already living that life. He says that he'll make us “lie down in good grazing land” (Ezekiel 34:14; cf. Psalm 23:2) – when we come to Jesus, he'll give us rest (Matthew 11:28).

And God goes on to say, “I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land” (Ezekiel 34:26-27). Doesn't that sound beautiful – showers of blessing, bountiful fields, fruited trees, and everywhere around a safe haven and blessing? That's in store for us, but spiritually, when we're in our Shepherd's presence, his showers of blessing are already falling down on our souls.

God sums all these things up with this phrase: “I will make with them a covenant of peace” (Ezekiel 34:25). All these things are covenant-of-peace things – they're the promises of a covenant better than the old one, more powerful, more unbreakable. Without a covenant of peace, an agreement between the Shepherd and his sheep, we'd never have this. We'd never know rich pastures. We'd never see tender care. We'd never dwell in safety. We'd never feel showers of blessing come rushing down on us. Because we'd be scattered and lost and alone – without the covenant of peace.

And the covenant of peace is the new covenant – the one Jesus called, “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Without the sacrifice, there'd be no covenant of peace. The covenant of peace couldn't begin until the Shepherd had laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). Showers of blessing couldn't come 'til the cry from the cross tore the sky. Rich pastures weren't open 'til he gave his broken body for us to graze on. Healing was a lie 'til he bore the suffering – “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed,” we the sheep who had “gone astray” and “turned, every one, to his own way” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

But if the Shepherd stayed in the grave, we'd still be scattered with no one to seek us. If the Shepherd stayed in the grave, we'd be sheep without a shepherd. So this Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep – but he lives again to lead his flock. The Shepherd is risen! And because the Shepherd is risen, he can say to us, “You are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God” (Ezekiel 34:31), “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

So maybe we've seen bad shepherding in our nation, in our homes, in our churches. But God's judgment against bad shepherds is already passed, and the Good Shepherd is alive and well! He's alive to seek, alive to heal, alive to feed, alive to bless; and even if he leads us through shady valleys on the way to the “something more” awaiting us in the pasture-land of the kingdom, he's got a hefty rod of justice and a guiding staff of wisdom in his hands, and that's all the comfort we need (cf. Psalm 23:4). He banishes beasts by resurrection might! And he's gone ahead of us to make ready the “renowned plantations” whereof the prophet spake (Ezekiel 34:29).

Each of us, each of you, can say, “The LORD [Jesus] is my Shepherd … He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:1-3a). So when you're lost, when you're hurting, when you're weak and facing wolves, when the stream is dirty and the goats are uppity and you hunger and thirst for more – don't lose hope... and don't scatter away from a Shepherd as good as this. For his name's sake, follow the Good Shepherd's guidance wherever his paths of righteousness may lead (Psalm 23:3b). Amen.

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