Beckett: Sermon – Christ the Appointed Shepherd

Date: September 11, 2022
Festival: 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Zion Homecoming)
Text: Ezekiel 34:11-24
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Appointed Scriptures: Ezekiel 34:11-24; 1 Timothy 1:5-17; Luke 15:1-10
Sermon Hymn: LSB #864 Shepherd of Tender Youth

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Malady

There’s a reason I had chosen Ezekiel 34:1-24 as the Old Testament reading for my ordination last year. The word “pastor” comes from the Latin word spelled the same way, pastor, which means “shepherd.” So, I had chosen this text as a stark reminder to myself of the weighty task of the pastoral office to shepherd this congregation as well as the sharper reminder that the true Shepherd of this congregation is Christ, the Son of David. The text selected for today follows on the heels of God’s judgement against the shepherds, that is leaders, of Israel who failed to lead and care for God’s people.

In the preceding verses (1-10), God angrily says to them, “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed 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. So, they were scattered, because there was no shepherd” [Ezk. 34:2-5]. Then He pronounces His harsh judgement against them, “Behold, I am against the shepherds… I will rescue My sheep from their mouths” [v. 10]. It’s as if the people of Israel were trapped in the jaws of lions rather than following the safe footsteps of their caring shepherds.

Because Israel’s shepherds have failed them and even oppressed them, God endeavours to become the shepherd Himself. Like the shepherd in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, God says, “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 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” [vv. 11-12]. Like the psalmist says in Psalm 23[:2], God declares, “I myself will make them lie down” [v. 15]. And again, like the shepherd in the parable, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed” [v. 16]. Then He repeats His judgement against the shepherds, “Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? And must My sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” [vv. 17-19].

On these verses, Pope Gregory I in the 6th century said this, “The shepherds drink most pure water, when with a right understanding they imbibe the streams of truth. But to foul the same water with their feet is to corrupt the studies of holy meditation by evil living. And verily the sheep drink the water fouled by their feet, when any of those subject to them follow not the words which they hear, but only imitate the bad examples which they see. Thirsting for the things said, but perverted by the works observed, they take in mud with their draughts, as from polluted fountains” [NPNF2 12:2b].[1]

The shepherds of Israel led their people astray through selfish, oppressive, and tyrannical government, as well as the worship of false gods. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish leaders—the scribes and Pharisees—were deeply offended that Jesus dined and socialised with sinners. Now, in Jewish thought, a “sinner” was not simply a person who committed acts of sin; a sinner was a person outside God’s covenant. They were not part of God’s chosen people. As a result, they became the marginalised of Roman society since the Jews had political favour with Rome. Yet Jesus received these people and ate with them. He identified Himself with the very people who were drinking the muddied water of the Pharisees. He became friends with filthy sinners, and even dared to forgive their sins.

And after Jesus ascended and delegated His ministry to His Apostles, who then delegated the ministry to their selected pastors like Timothy, shepherds still failed to lead and care for God’s people. As Paul begins his first letter to Timothy, he is troubled by the fact that leaders began teaching a reliance on the Law rather than the Gospel. It’s not that the Law is bad. In fact, Paul says, the Law is good if it’s used rightly. The Law is good because it tells us how to live rightly, and it tells us to turn from our sins and toward Christ our Saviour in repentance. The Law might make us feel bad, but that doesn’t mean it is bad but that we are bad. Because the Law reveals our sin, it is for the disobedient and sinners, and Paul lists some examples of evil living: those who strike their parents, the sexually immoral, homosexual living, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and other sins “contrary to sound doctrine” [1 Tim. 1:9-10]. In our day, we have our own shepherds—leaders, teachers, and even pastors—who use several of these sins to muddy the waters of the Gospel and lead people astray into the mud they have trodden.

Means

But not all hope is lost. The people of Israel may have been scattered because they didn’t have a shepherd, but God says to the diaspora, “Behold, I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out… I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” [Ezk. 34:11-12]. Or as Jesus says in the parable, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the 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… Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” [Luke 15:3-5, 7]. What’s weird about this parable is that no earthly shepherd would do what Jesus said, which is really the point of His parable. What shepherd would leave his entire flock unprotected to seek after one sheep that was naïve enough to wander away from the flock? So, why would Jesus tell this impractical parable?

Because again, that’s the point. The Pharisees and scribes would never do this—like their ancestral predecessors, they were concerned with fattening themselves up rather than feeding sinners. But Jesus is that Shepherd. He is the One who leaves the 99 to go after the 1 who wandered away into muddied waters. With His face set toward Jerusalem, Jesus does the impractical thing, and He is so good at it that He brings back more than one sheep because He didn’t just go after one sheep but the whole world, which means He went after each and every one of you. As He said earlier, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” [5:32]. If you’re a sinner—and we all are—this means Jesus came for you.

Jesus is Yahweh’s promised fulfilled. Remember what God said to the Israelites, “I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” What day was that? It was the day of the crucifixion. As we continue reading Luke’s Gospel, he records, “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed” [23:44-45a]. On this day of clouds and thick darkness, when Yahweh incarnate died, a scattered people from all over the earth was gathered to the cross, gazing upon the Shepherd of Israel who died for them. Mary, John, and other believing Jews gazed upon the death of their God and Saviour, and a Gentile centurion—a non-Jewish man—“praised God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’” [23:47].

… “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed… I will rescue My flock… And I will set up over them one shepherd, My servant David” [Ezk. 34:16, 22, 23]. Jesus, the Son of David, was set over God’s people as Shepherd, and He was set over them in a literal sense as He hung naked and dead on the cross over them, and for them—for you. On this dark day, people from all over the world—Jew and Gentile—gathered to Him, and it happened again on the Day of Pentecost, just as our Risen Lord had said. And to this day, people continue to gather to the God and Saviour who laid down His life for them. This is why we have crucifixes such as this in our churches—to signify the Shepherd of Israel who was set over you to die with all your sins laid upon Him on the cross and left them dead in the tomb when He rose from the dead.

His servant Paul writes beautiful, comforting words to Timothy in his letter, “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” [1 Tim. 1:13-15]. Paul knew how great a sinner he was. He came to terms with it. He was a blasphemer, a persecutor, a murderer, and an insolent opponent of Christ’s Church—sins that the Law spoke against, but he chose to ignore as he muddied the waters in his sins and oppressed and murdered the people of God as a shepherd of Israel. But still, he was not above the grace and mercy of Christ because Christ is a greater Saviour.

How much more, then, is this true for you. You know what your sins are. You know the thorn in your flesh. You know the sins you like to do that God’s Law condemns. Like Paul, you may think yourself the foremost of sinners. But the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is overflowing. Like pouring His love and grace into a cup, He doesn’t fill it halfway, or just to the brim, but He overfills it so that it overflows and pours over everyone whom it touches, even you. No sin is too wide or great that His overflowing blood has not washed over. His blood covers the stain of your sin so much that all God sees is the innocent, holy, and pure blood of His only-begotten Son, which means He sees you as innocent, holy, and pure. And today He offers this giving of His blood for you in the Sacrament of the Altar. As you all will later be scattered throughout your various places as you leave these doors, you always have a place here where you can gather to Christ your Shepherd. Therefore, come to the Lord’s Table to drink the outpouring of His blood that was shed for you on Calvary’s cross for the forgiveness of all your sins.

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen” [1 Tim. 1:17].


[1] Philip Schaff, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series 1, 14 vols, New York: The Christian Literature Series, 1890-1899, Reprint (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952, 1961).

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