Date: September 15, 2019 (Proper 19, 14th Sunday after Pentecost)
Text: Ezekiel 34:11-24
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Exegetical Statement: In this prophecy, Ezekiel delivers God’s promise to Israel that because their previous shepherds have failed them, God will raise up a single shepherd to be their Shepherd. This Shepherd will be His servant David, as well as God Himself. This Shepherd, then, will be none other than Jesus Christ, the Son of David and Immanuel. This Shepherd will gather His scattered sheep (the lost and strayed), He will bind up the injured, strengthen the weak, and destroy the fat and strong who have mistreated the flock. He will be the Shepherd of these lean and weak sheep and feed them.
Focus Statement: God has become the one true Shepherd in Jesus Christ.
Function Statement: That my hearers, enlightened by the Gospel, will treat their brothers and sisters in Christ (who are sheep) with the love of Christ rather than mistreatment.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever gotten lost? Maybe you were driving somewhere and you thought you were taking a shortcut or you thought you knew where you were going but ended up getting lost. Or maybe you were hiking on a nature trail and somehow got yourself turned around and got lost.
I’ve gotten lost a couple times before. I remember one time when I was maybe 10-years-old and my older brother and I went riding our bikes in the neighbourhood. I was dependent on my brother; he was the guide and he knew where he was going. We were just riding our bikes, the cool summer breeze blowing in our faces when the school bus for summer school passed us and my brother recognised one of his friends in it and he took off to follow the bus, leaving me all alone.
I was lost. I had no idea where I was because I was following my brother. Asking for directions was pointless because I didn’t know the name of the street we lived on. I was scared, tears raining down my cheeks as I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, my brother returned and found me. He saw how upset I was and he apologised, promising he’d never do that again. And he kept his word.
That’s being lost in a temporal sense, but what about being spiritually lost? Sometimes getting lost might be our own fault, but most of the time, I think, getting lost is at the fault of someone else—someone who was supposed to guide us and protect us, much like my older brother had failed to do that one time. Let’s consider the story of Emily.
Emily grew up Lutheran. She was baptised as a baby, graduated from catechism, and was always involved in church. She went to youth group, she went on mission trips, she volunteered at the local soup kitchen, and she went to adult Bible studies once she was college age. But in the back of her mind was a troubling question.
All these mass shootings led her to think, “How could a God who is good allow such evil to happen?” She was afraid to ask this question at church because if she asked it, people might question her faith or think she’s stupid or laugh at her. For months this question has been eating away at her until finally, she swallows her fear and sees her pastor privately.
She asks, “Pastor, how could a God who is good allow such evil like mass shootings to happen?” The pastor furrows his brow, accenting the wrinkles on his forehead, and says, “How can you ask such a question? Don’t you believe? We all deserve to die. Stuff like this happens. Just accept it.” Stunned by her pastor’s answer, she’s had enough with Christianity. So, she leaves the church and starts looking for answers elsewhere, like Buddhism, Hinduism, evolution, and other pagan things.
Emily’s shepherd failed her and she went astray into devilish lies, becoming lost in the darkness of unbelief and pagan practices. Unfortunately, stories like Emily’s are not uncommon in American Christianity. They’re not only common today, but we even read stories like this in Scripture.
Trouble in the Text
We read such a story in Ezekiel. Ezekiel tells the story of Israel’s exile in Babylon. In the verses before our Old Testament text for today, God pronounces His judgement over the shepherds who led His sheep astray. These shepherds—their kings and religious leaders—led God’s sheep astray into idolatry. The flock of Israel has become lost, both temporally and spiritually.
Israel was exiled from their land into the land of Babylon, lost from their land; and they were lost from their God, who chose them for salvation and delivered them from Egypt. Their exile in Babylon is their just punishment for their idolatry. Now here, God pronounces judgement upon the shepherds who led the flock of Israel to be lost in spiritual darkness.
More specifically, the shepherds mistreated the flock. He calls these shepherds rams and male goats because they were also part of the flock, only different. They not only kept all the good pastures to themselves, but they also would hardly allow the flock to enjoy the leftovers. The flock was left with food the shepherds tread into the dirt and drink they had muddied. The shepherds not only led the flock spiritually astray, and they not only left for them dirty scraps of food and drink, but they also barely left enough for them to live on.
And it gets even worse. They thought they were doing no harm, and they even robbed the poor to make them poorer. God would not allow such mistreatment of His flock to continue, and so He would judge between the fat sheep—the shepherds who stole from the flock—and the lean sheep—the rest of the flock who were mistreated and led astray.
Trouble in the World
How do we mistreat one another, I wonder? As Christians, we must be vigilant in what we say and do. As a Christian, there is a spotlight on you. The Devil not only paints a target on your back in which he can throw his flaming darts at you, but there is also a spotlight on you for the entire world to see. After all, Jesus says, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” [Matthew 5:14].
As a Christian, people pay close attention to what you say and do. How do you treat the waiter or waitress who may not be doing their job very well? How do you treat them when they are doing it well? How do you treat the person working in retail? How do you treat people of different cultures and ethnicities? How do you treat the poor?
In this day and age, we even have to be careful with our online presence! When I see a post that upsets me and I really want to say something mean or snarky, should I actually say it? (This is really hard for me because I come from a snarky family.) And should I really share that meme to be passive-aggressive against that thing I hate? How do I comment on my friends’ posts who have a difference of opinion in politics and theology? Is a Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter thread really a good place for me to be contentious?
Even more, as was the case with Israel, how do we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ? Especially as leaders—whether pastor, vicar, teacher, parent, or grandparent? When there are points of disagreement or when we sin against one another, how do we treat one another? Do you seek reconciliation? When someone repents to you for what they did or they ask you to repent to them, how do you treat them? Do you forgive them as Jesus calls you to do? Or do you become hostile and spread rumours about them? Or do you go to talk to them about it?
When your parents ask you to do something or not do something, how do you treat them? Do you obey them? Or do you disrespect them? And when you disobey your parents, do you ask for their forgiveness?
How do you treat the people in your own flock?
When we live contrary to the Word, we end up treading upon the Word and muddying up the Gospel.
So, we must constantly ask ourselves, “Could what I’m saying, doing, or about to say and do possibly lead someone astray and become lost? Am I being a good Christian example? Am I living as Christ has called and enlightened me to live according to the Gospel?” We all fall short of living according to the Gospel, whether online or in person. I fail at this all the time. I know I have said and done some things that have caused people to doubt God and Christianity, and I repent of this often because I am in need of the Shepherd.
Grace in the Text
Israel was a flock lost and gone astray. Their shepherds failed them and no shepherd was seeking them out. So, what does God do? God does not leave His flock to fade away into their perishing. Instead, He promises to be their Shepherd. The shepherds God sent to them led them astray and they are now lost. Even the good shepherds God sent them—like Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah—were not good enough for Israel. These good shepherds were obedient to God and faithfully proclaimed His Word, but because Israel was already lost, they would not listen to their prophets—these good shepherds.
So, God promises He Himself will be their Shepherd. He will gather the scattered flock and return them to their land. He fulfilled this promise in a twofold way: (1) After their exile in Babylon, He brought them back to their land through His shepherds Ezra, Nehemiah, and others. (2) God gathered and still gathers people of all nations scattered throughout the earth to Himself through Jesus Christ.
The single Shepherd who would feed the flock, God says, is His servant David. But wait. How can the single shepherd be both David and God? David has been dead for a long time and David isn’t God. So, how can this be? Well, we don’t call Jesus the Son of David for no reason, for David is Jesus’ ancestor. Thus, as the Son of David and as the Son of God—Immanuel—Jesus reigns as King and serves as Shepherd as God with us.
Specifically, when will God become Israel’s Shepherd? “On a day of clouds and thick darkness,” He says [v. 12]. Whenever God visits His people, it is a day of darkness, whether for good or ill.
At the first Passover, God visited His people as well as the Egyptians by killing the firstborn of those who did not have the blood of a lamb painted on their doorposts in order to save His people Israel. The day was dark in two ways, that it happened at night and the darkness that death had visited the Egyptians.
When God visited His people on Mt. Sinai, the visitation was filled with a thick, cloudy darkness—like a tempest, if you remember from my sermon a few weeks ago. When Jesus was born—God among His people in the flesh, Immanuel—He was born in the darkness of the night. When Jesus died on the cross, a thick darkness was cast over the land for three hours, the blood of the Lamb of God pouring upon the altar, Mt. Calvary.
Grace in the World
The single Shepherd, then, came to Israel on the night in which He was born and the day in which He died, for on that day He was lifted up for the whole world—for you. Jesus came and died for a people scattered throughout the earth and He gathers them together with the promise of the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins.
All people are without a shepherd, and this is a tragic thing in a real, practical sense. You see, sheep are stupid, defenceless, and quite easy to kill without a shepherd. They are purely domesticated animals that cannot survive on their own. They need a shepherd to protect them, feed them, care for them, and find them when they go astray from the flock and get lost.
It is not good for sheep to be scattered and it is not good for sheep to be alone. A sheep gathered in a single flock under a shepherd is its proper place. A Christian, then, gathered in a single church under a shepherd—their pastor—who points them to the Greater Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is your proper place.
Once, you were lost. Once, you were lost in the darkness of this world. Once, Jesus came to you in the Word and the Sacraments, and you believed. Now, therefore, you all gather together this Sunday to hear from the Shepherd in His Word through the liturgy, the reading of the Word, the proclamation of His Law and Gospel in this sermon, and in the Holy Sacrament. As sheep who were once astray, Christ has gathered you today to feed you with His Word and His body and blood.
These sheep are also called to live in harmony with one another. Do you think a shepherd puts up with his sheep fighting each other? No! So we, too, as sheep under our pastor and under Christ the Good Shepherd are called to live in harmony with one another. The people of Israel were mistreating one another. God does not put up with this. So then, let us treat one another as Christ our Shepherd calls us to do—with brotherly love and with the very love He has shown us.
This means that when you hear gossip about a brother or sister in Christ, you shut it down, and thus love your neighbour. This means that when a brother or sister comes to you to reconcile, you forgive them, since we are called to forgive those who trespass against us just as God forgives our trespasses against Him. This means that when a brother or sister needs a place to sleep, you offer them your hospitality, as some of you graciously do for my beloved fiancé and for one another.
This means to visit your brother or sister who is homebound, who is too weak to be with the flock. And this means that you obey your parents when they tell you to do something or not do something, even when you don’t agree.
The Gospel calls and enlightens us to do many things as Christ’s gathered sheep under His providential grace and mercy. Yes, you will fail. There will be times when you sin against your brother or sisters and mistreat one another. We are 100% saint and 100% sinner, remember?
As sinners, you are bound to mistreat one another. Yet as saints, you are no longer scattered Israel; you are now gathered under the promised single Shepherd, Jesus Christ. As such, you are called to repentance when you fail, and with repentance comes the promise of forgiveness in Christ. This is why the Divine Service begins with Confession and Absolution because every time you go out these doors, you run the risk of becoming lost in sin—and indeed, we sin daily—but every week we return here to forgive one another in Christ and to receive His forgiveness for ourselves.
God forbid, a teacher, mentor, pastor, parent, or sibling in Christ might fail you, but every day Christ calls you to gather to Himself. The Devil might use something more subtle to lead you astray—whether drugs, science, philosophy, false religion, or what-have-you—but Christ calls out to you with His Word. When you hear His Word, you are hearing the voice of the Shepherd calling you to gather near to Him.
Jesus is not content to leave one sheep astray. Like the woman searching for her lost coin, Jesus busies Himself with finding you under the darkness and dust of sin, that He may rejoice in you when He finds His beloved sheep. And when He has you—and He has you today—He promises you the richness of His pasture to feed you to the fullest with the mana of Heaven—which is the Word of God—and the sweetness of His grace for you in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.