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Monday, October 27, 2014

God, the Good Shepherd

God, The Good Shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11-16)

            I have mentioned this before, but I bring it up again because I continue to find the question tricky.  What is God’s job?  Steven Colbert posed the question to his guest, a Catholic clergyman, and the priest responded, “God’s job is to sustain the universe.”  I thought it was brilliant. 
            It though a very general way of answering the question, and general works in the setting of a talk show, especially a comedy show like the Colbert Report.  But when you and I are living our very real, day-to-day lives, what answer to that question will help us?  What knowledge of God will inspire us to push ourselves through the challenges we face?  What reality about God will carry us when we can push ourselves no farther?  The specifics of the priest’s general observation that God is the great Sustainer are varied and go in countless directions.  We find one thread of God’s sustenance, God’s upholding of everything, in these words of the Prophet Ezekiel which we have read.
            To get to this, I look to another passage, one familiar to some readers, Psalm 23, and I compare Psalm 23 to opening verses of Ezekiel 34.  In Psalm 23, between the years 1000 and 930 BC,[i] David who was a shepherd sang about the ways God took care of him in the midst of trying circumstances.  God often, not always, but very often works through people.  This includes God working through his chosen people Israel.  Ezekiel 34 opens with prophetic condemnation of Israel’s leaders who failed to lead the nation to trust in God’s provision in the face of difficult times. 
            Ezekiel fires off his prophecy.  “You shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!  Should not the shepherds feed the sheep?  You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.  You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:2-4).
            Ezekiel speaks 400 years after David wrote his shepherd poems in the wilderness of Israel.  David could not see what would become of the nation.  It is quite possible that when he first imagined the words that eventually became what we now call the 23rd Psalm, he did not even know he would become Israel’s king.  Surely the poem went through many versions in his own singing of it.  Verses 5-6 make more sense from the lips of a king than a shepherd.  But however removed, David was from Ezekiel and even more from us, there is a constant that draws him and the prophet and you and me together.  God is watching over us with a big picture perspective that takes into account the experience of every human being simultaneously.   At the same time, God is with each person individually.
            We just read Ezekiel’s condemnation of the leaders of the Israel, the king and the leaders in the temple.  In summation, they neglected the needy of society as they used their privilege to advance their own wealth and well-being.  There can be no more damning words of someone with privilege than to say they who already have everything take what little the poor have.  They who are strong load the backs of the lower class with taxes, high prices, endless work on back-breaking tasks.  This can apply in numerous ways in countless situations, but the principle is someone in power using that power to exploit someone without power.  Think of what’s happening in Hong Kong right now, or the imposed conformity in North Korea of the past 65 years.
            In Ezekiel’s day, God’s nation, the people of Israel in the southern Kingdom of Judah, had survived intact during the terrifying Assyrian empire.  Then, a new power arose, Babylon.  With Egypt to her east and Babylon advancing, why did Judah fail to stand?  Ezekiel’s prophecy, time and time again, declares that the exile imposed by Babylon was permitted by God not because of Babylon’s might but because of Israel and Judah’s sin.  In chapter 34, Ezekiel specifically cites the leaders of Israel for failing to care for the nation. 
            In contrast to their self-serving, heavy-handed leadership, David tells of how God does thing.  The leaders scattered Israel and did not seek the lost.  They left the lost out in the cold to whatever hazards the wilds would present.  David said that God as a shepherd led him to green pastures and still waters.  When all David had in the wilderness to rely upon were his wits, his staff, and prayer, he never felt safer.  He could feel that he was in God’s hands.  There was no lion or enemy warrior that could pose a credible threat.  God held him.
            It was not always easy.  He says in the Psalm, “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”  But he does not stop there.  He does not die in that shadow.  He walks through and without fear because God is with him.  This is the extent of faith that David declares.  He’s not trying to teach it.  He does not offer four steps so that if you follow these you too can have a David-type faith.  He simply sings.  I walk through the valley … and I fear no evil.  Nothing could happen that was scarier or mightier or as powerful as the God who held him.
            In verse 4, Ezekiel rattles off a succession of specific failures.  “You did not strengthen, you did not heal, you did not bind wounded limbs, you did not gather the distracted, you did not seek the lost.”  Leadership comes with responsibility which is magnified 100 fold when your leadership is in God’s name.  In God’s name leaders are to point people to God.  Those falling under Ezekiel’s condemnation may indeed have spoken God’s name and recited temple prayers and led sacrifices in worship and done it all quite eloquently.  But their actions involved gathering all the food, property and money for themselves.  When they came across the broken, the broke them even more.
            David saw God in the Shepherd’s role do the opposite.  He said of God, “He restores my soul.  He leads me in paths of righteousness.”  He restores my soul.  Because of this, David could conclude him poem by saying, “Goodness and mercy will follow me and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
            The God who protected David in this way was still in business 400 years later.  When Ezekiel blurted out his seething invectives, it was not God’s way of stomping Israel into the grave.  God had not stopped being the good shepherd.  All the divine anger leading up to Ezekiel 34, anger at Judah and at foreign nations that deal in exploitation and injustice, came to a head in Ezekiel 34:11.  God’s demand for justice would not blot out God’s mercy. 
            As I again read the promise that comes in these verses take this to heart.  Just as the good shepherd of Psalm 23 was still a good shepherd 100’s of years later for Ezekiel, that same good shepherd came to walk in the skin of the sheep when God became a human himself in Jesus of Nazareth.  The God of David and of Ezekiel, the God who walk the dusty roads of Nazareth in human skin and died on a Roman cross, is as much a good shepherd today as God ever was.  Ezekiel spoke and wrote his prophecy at the beginning of the 6th century BC.  The words, breathed into his heart by the Holy Spirit, still speak today.

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 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 watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

            In Jesus, God has extended the invitation originally given to Israel.  All who come to Jesus acknowledging sin and complete need for God’s forgiveness and leadership will be received, forgiven, made new, and adopted as a son or daughter of God.  Jesus welcomes every person who comes in genuine repentance and sorrow for sin by.
            Once we are we in Christ, we are his church, and much of the work God does in the world today is done through the church.  We are not in the same position as the leaders of Israel in Ezekiel’s day.  The world is clearly a different place.  But we do have a calling to tell the world about Jesus, to invite the world into God’s Kingdom, and to show God’s goodness by using all our talents to do things God promises in  Ezekiel’s prophecy. 
            God says, “I will seek, I will rescue, I will bring my people together, I will feed them with good pasture.  I will bind up the wounded and heal the sick.  I will give justice, peace, and rest.”  We are beneficiaries.  As we have received these things from God, we are made new and then we are called to do these very things – seek, rescue, feed, heal.  We are commissioned by the word and empowered by the Spirit to be bringers of justice, peace, and rest.   
What’s God job?  God does many things.  Included is God’s provision.  This is no denial that we go through tough times and followers will face trials and difficulties, but never alone.  The good shepherd never leaves us alone. 
            This is a special day for our church. Today we enter into partnership with Pastor Lucio Moreno and Iglesia del Amor de Dios (the Love-of-God Church).  HillSong joins our efforts to other English-speaking congregations throughout our town and area in pointing the world toward the Good Shepherd God.  And Iglesia del Amor de Dios under Pastor Moreno’s leadership will join with us and with the other Spanish-speaking churches around to point the world toward our loving God.
            With God working through us, people will be drawn from the dangers of the wilderness of sin, disappointment, grief and loss into his love.  And together, in Spanish and English, we can truly say.
La bondad y el amor me seguirán
  todos los días de mi vida;
y en la casa del Señor
  habitaré para siempre.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us
All the days of our lives;
And we will dwell in the house of the Lord


[i] Gottwald, Norman (1985).  The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, p.601-602.

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