Monday, November 24, 2008

Proper 29 of Series A (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24)

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from Ezekiel chapter thirty-four. Dear friends in Christ, just because someone has been given authority does not mean that they will do a faithful job. That is probably no surprise to any of you. You have all encountered employers or political leaders that have fallen down on the job, who maybe even have abused those who they were supposed to care for. In Ezekiel chapter 34, God begins by railing against the shepherds who were supposed to care for His chosen flock, the people of Israel. “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” All that God says in our text for today is in response to those shepherds and their mismanagement of the flock. God has appointed people to shepherd His flock throughout history, and in many cases, those shepherds have let Him down.

The shepherds of Israel have not only neglected the flock, but they have actively persecuted it. God says in verse sixteen that “I will bring back the strayed.” The word used here for ‘strayed’ has the sense of being driven away, of being banished from. These shepherds actively drove away the flock they were entrusted with! By their sinful living, by their overbearing rules and regulations, and by their neglect, these men entrusted with leadership drove the people of Israel into sin and despair. The flock was driven into sin by the example and prodding of the very ones who were to protect God’s Law! We too are driven away from God and His Word through many things in this life. Secular rulers in this world try to separate our faith from our lives, and encourage sin. Satan is constantly working through our own sinful nature to drive us from God, to send us in the wilderness of this sinful world. We are surrounded by influences that drive us away from God- all you have to do is turn on a television or log onto the Internet. Finally, though we hope and pray that this does not happen intentionally, even pastors and vicars can drive people into sin and away from God through their teachings or their life.

The sheep- you, me, and all Israel- have much to complain about. There are many things in this world that are driving us away from God, that are driving us into sin. But the sheep are not innocent. “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: 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.” We are as much to blame for wandering away as sin, Satan, and our leaders are for driving us away. We separate ourselves from God, we get ourselves lost every time that we sin. Very often we get satisfied with our sin, we soak up our sinful lives, even if it is a ‘minor’ sin. We feed on our sin and become like the fat sheep in our text, dwelling comfortably in the muddy fields of sin. Like a sheep who has forgotten what green pastures look like, we prefer to graze in the filth of this world, we encourage our ‘shepherds’ to lead us astray. When we do this, we lead others astray, we encourage them to wander off as well, we encourage them to be separated from God and His Word. We often have no regard for the weak sheep, those who are most susceptible to wandering into sin. Through our own wanderings, we drive them out into the wilderness, our own sin helps to separate them from God. We forget that we are all examples to one another, whether we are parents, teachers, or simply Christians.

God promises in our text that He will “judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” Those who have become filled up with sin, those who have grazed on the pastures of sin, will be judged. Jesus speaks of that terrible day in our Gospel lesson for today. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Those who are separated from God, and have even helped to separate others from God will be judged- “And these will go away into eternal punishment.” When we wander in our sins, when we allow sin, Satan, and the world to drive us away from God, that is all that we deserve.

But God did not leave His flock scattered. He declares in our text for today, “I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey.” He was not willing to leave His flock in the wilderness of sin, subjected to eternal death. His love for us moved Him to do something about our wandering. “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and He shall feed them: He shall feed them and be their shepherd.” All the shepherds that try to take over our lives- secular rulers, TV preachers, sin, Satan, and our own sinful mind- will be replaced by one Shepherd, the Shepherd, who will truly take care of God’s flock. This one Shepherd will be ‘set up’ by God, He will not be chosen by the sheep in a popular election, He will not be a sheep who decides to take on this role. Instead He will be a Shepherd risen up by God from amongst the sheep, He will be one of them, but one that does not feast on the pastures of sin. This Shepherd will be the promised Messiah of God, the one who came from the line of David, the one foretold in all of Scripture. He will be David’s Son according to the flesh, one of the sheep, but yet David’s Lord, God in the flesh, God in the form of one of His sheep. This man, born of David’s line, is named Jesus Christ, and where He is, there you have salvation! He was appointed from before creation as God’s agent of rescue and salvation for sheep who have wandered. The mismanagement of our shepherds had put us at risk, our own wanderings deserved punishment, but in the person of Jesus Christ God dealt with our sin and rescued us from its bonds. He came as the Shepherd, as God’s servant David, the location of God’s presence among His people. “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.” In Jesus Christ, the prince from the line of David, God was present with His people, and He was present to rescue.
For the Shepherd and the Prince was also the Lamb, the Lamb whose blood would be shed for a wandering flock. Those shepherds of Israel, those who had been appointed by God to care for His flock, did not recognize God’s presence among them, they did not recognize the Chief Shepherd. Instead they put Him to death, they hung Him on the cross. But there the Lamb’s blood cleansed us of all our sin, His death forgave us for every time that we have wandered or caused others to wander. Those who drove us away from God did not have the final victory, because God acted to restore wandering sheep, He acted to gather His flock.

When the Shepherd, Prince, and Lamb- Jesus Christ- rose from the grave on Easter Sunday, God began to gather His flock again. “For thus says the Lord God: 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.” For the past two thousand years He has been gathering His flock through His Church. He has been seeking out these sheep, calling to people in each and every age, bringing them back into His fold. The Church can only be this instrument because the Shepherd remains among His sheep. Jesus Christ is God’s servant David, who “shall be prince among them.” We cannot see Him, but He is present among His sheep invisibly through the Word and the Sacraments. In the Word read and proclaimed, in the washing of water with the Word in Holy Baptism, and in the feast of the Lamb’s very own Body and Blood, the Prince is still present among His people, the Shepherd still seeks out His sheep. Wherever Christ’s presence is, there God is gathering sheep, and He has gathered us into His flock through those gifts.
God tells us that “I will 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.” On the Last Day, when Christ comes again in glory, God will gather all of His sheep, living and dead, together forever. It is on that Day that the rescue which our Shepherd and Prince affected with His blood will be completely fulfilled. We are the ones God is speaking about when He says “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.”

Our own land is the inheritance promised to us, the heavenly pastures that Christ’s shed blood delivers to we who as sheep have wandered. “And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.” We will dwell in safety and security for eternity in the heavenly pastures. We will no longer be led astray and driven away by false shepherds and the ways of this world, because we will have a new Shepherd, as God declares: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured.”

We have this promise and carry it with us because we know that Jesus Christ has died for our sins, and we know that God has accepted the sacrifice of the Shepherd, of His Prince, because He raised Jesus from the dead. Without the resurrection, none of what God described in our text belongs to us, and we are still in our wanderings, doomed to be separated from God forever. But as Paul reminds us in our Epistle lesson: “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” We place our confidence in the resurrection, that just as the Shepherd was raised, so we too shall be raised and will dwell forever in heavenly pastures. May the Lord preserve you in that faith and confidence until that Day when He gathers you to Himself to dwell as members of His flock forever, Amen.

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