4th Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018
To understand what Jesus means in John 10, listen to the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 34. In this prophecy, it seems God is quite angry.
What made God so mad? When God looks at the world today, how humans treat each other, is He still as mad?
34 The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you 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 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.
11 For thus says the Lord : I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.
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. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 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.
Ezekiel wrote his prophecy in Babylon, modern day Iraq. Why was this Jewish prophet in Babylon? He was with the exiles in the 6th century B.C. The Babylonians would not let him or any of the educated Jews return home. Bible scholar James Ward commented on Ezekiel’s scathing rebuke of the leaders of Judah and Israel. “According to the prophet, it was the failure of Israel’s rulers to be true shepherds” that brought about exile.[i] “Instead of using their power for the benefit of the people the [kings of Israel] fed themselves.” Before he anointed Saul as the first King of Israel 100’s of years earlier, the prophet and judge Samuel warned this would happen. The rulers served themselves at the expense of the people. Samuel’s prescient statement proved true.
This picture of failed leadership at the level of national government, depicted as shepherds who did not protect the sheep, the people of the nation – this is the picture to keep in mind when Jesus says he is the good shepherd.
One of the gripes that pastors hear often is church is too political. I don’t go to church to hear about politics! Another frequent comment from worshipers is that they want the pastor to preach the Bible. Stick with the word, preacher! That’s spoken as a command. Well, we can’t have it both ways. I completely agree. We preachers have to preach the word! But, the word, the Bible, is thoroughly political. In Ezekiel 34 the prophet comments directly about Israel’s bad governance. In John 10, Jesus, using the same imagery, contrasts bad leadership with himself, the good shepherd.
What mistakes of the kings of Judah and Israel lead to the fall of the nation? They did not strengthen the weak, or heal the sick. They did not bind the injured or bring back the strayed. They did not seek the lost. Instead they ruled with harshness, fattening up themselves, while the poor suffered.
In their failures, we clearly see what God expects of leaders. What kind of leaders do we follow? In our church family, we have people who make a political sport of lampooning the liberals (read: anything related to the Democratic Party). In our church family, we have people who cannot say a single good thing about Republicans. I find blind partisan thinking uninteresting and inherently harmful. Are we following leaders who strengthen the weak and heal the sick? That’s what God says the nation’s shepherds should do.
Look at your own life, your own voting history, opinions you have stated or tweeted or posted or blogged. Would the leaders you support match up, or would they fall under Ezekiel’s prophetic hammer of justice? I have not espoused any position here. I simply ask questions we must ask if we choose to read Ezekiel 34 and John 10 together. I pose the question that must considered if we sit before the open Bible and take what it says seriously.
Who are we, as a people? We hear Jesus, and we have to come to grips with this. At the end of the service we all go out from here, back to the places of our lives. We return to our homes and relax; it’s Sunday afternoon; maybe watch some TV; maybe meet some friends downtown at a favorite Franklin Street spot; maybe mow the lawn. Tomorrow, it’s back to work; maybe you drive your child and spend a few moments together in the carpool line; maybe you have an important meeting some night this week; maybe someone you love is in the hospital and you’ll visit, maybe Tuesday. In this normal stuff of life, you may not think about John chapter 10 at all.
If we are truly Christ-followers, we stay connected to Him, mindful of His ways, even in the midst of the normal flow of life, on a busy, banal Tuesday, when Sunday seems as far away as Christmas. We might forget Sunday’s sermon, but the message contained in it continues to shape our psyche. In unspiritual places, we remember Jesus is there. The Holy Spirit with us. We live in his promise, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Because he is, whether we are mowing the lawn, at the office coffee pot, or sitting at home at the kitchen table, we are pushed to ask ourselves, who am I?
Jesus declares, “I am the Good Shepherd,” the one who does strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and seek the lost.”
He contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hand who flees at the first sign of danger, leaving the sheep – people, us – on their own.
He restates his claim and expands on it. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and they know me. … I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). Three times in his description of himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus makes the point that he lays his life down. This mustn’t be missed. Not long after this statement, Jesus did what he said. After talking the talk, he walked the walk. He went to the cross, took death on himself, the penalty for sin. He shouldered it, taking it off us. He gave his life for us.
The death of Jesus in our place and the forgiveness of our sins: we call this the Gospel, the good news of salvation. Even this is a thoroughly political act. Jesus, the Gospels insisted, and not Caesar, is Lord. Jesus is Lord. No one else can be. Not Napolean. Not Hitler. Not Kim Jun Un. Not Obama. Not Trump.
Through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, God condemned failed shepherds, kings of Israel who neglected the poor, served themselves, and ignored justice. The prophet also voiced God’s promise “I will be the shepherd of my sheep.” It was promise and prophecy. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was promise and prophecy fulfillment. He stood in the flesh as the good shepherd God promised to be in the days of Babylonian exile.
We belong to Him. A follower of Christ does not say, I’m a Republican or I’m a Democrat. You or I might vote for the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate or the Green Party candidate. But when we listen to the Bible, which as Baptist Christians we claim to believe is an authority in our lives, then we hear our shepherd’s voice. And if we listen to our shepherd’s voice, then we aren’t listening to other voices. When asked, who are you? Or what are you? We respond, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I follow Jesus. He defines me and gives me my identity. In all places and times, I am tuned in to the voice of my shepherd.
Jesus defines us. He also shows us how to live. Throughout the four gospels, he did all the things the failed kings in Ezekiel 34 did not do. He strengthened the weak. Following our shepherd, we look at the world around us. Are people suffering from poverty and injustice? We come alongside them because Jesus did so in his day and because where the poor are, there Jesus is. On the margins, to which the socially disadvantaged have been pushed, Jesus sits. He’s never aligned with the privileged. Go through the Gospels with a fine tooth comb. He is with the weak, so in our day and time, we work to help the weak.
Following our shepherd, we look at the world around us. Are people sick? We come alongside them. We pray for cures. We offer care and comfort. We uplift the human dignity of those society marginalizes under epithets like “special needs,” “handicapped,” and “disabled.” We bring love and grace to the ailing.
Following our shepherd, we look at the world around us. Are people lost? The isolating loneliness plaguing our virtual reality age, the lie that sex equals intimacy and companionship, and the mixing and matching of ideas from various religions shows how far people are from life in Christ. We speak the truth, all are sinners, destined for death. We speak the good news, God, through his son Jesus Christ, has made a way for forgiveness and eternal life.
We hear our shepherds tell us who we are. We follow our shepherd forward as He shows us how to live. Supposedly the two things not to be discussed in polite company are religion and politics. But we cannot avoid that the world is political. And in all places, we live our lives in Christ, of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We live life under his protection, following his lead. At the beginning of this message, we read prophecy from Ezekiel in which it was clear that God was frustrated with His people. And I asked, is God still that angry with the world? No.
God sent Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecy, and Jesus came to guide people into life. In the Good Shepherd, there is hope for the world and for each one of us.
[i] J. Ward (1991), Thus Says the Lord: the Message of the Prophets, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.190.