Ezekiel 34:11-16; 20-24
11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
Happy last week of the year to you all! Next Sunday we will turn the page on the calendar and begin a new year.
Those of you who are paying attention are probably wondering if I forgot or you missed the month of December. How long was that post-turkey, tryptophan-induced nap? True, there is one more month of 2017, but today marks the last Sunday of the lectionary calendar. Today is the last Sunday of “Year A,” which means next week we will start “Year B.” I never said that they were creative names, and as you can probably guess, the next year is “Year C.”
You see, the lectionary calendar does something different and a little weird, but I like it. The lectionary year always begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which is December 3 this year. The church isn’t unique in celebrating a different beginning and ending of the year. Many businesses, particularly seasonal ones, often use “fiscal years” for their bookkeeping. Perhaps the best example of this is the school system, which begins its year at the end of the summer and ends in the spring.
A school year makes good sense to me, but why does the lectionary cycle start with Advent? Because we are about to enter into the season surrounding the single-largest event in human history. We start the year with Advent, a celebration of the one born king of the Jews, and we end the year today with what is commonly known as “Christ the King Sunday.”
Christ the King Sunday finds its roots in the early 1900’s in Mexico. During this time a form of Communism known as Marxism was sweeping through this nation and the Marxist leaders were moving quickly into positions of power. If you know your political systems, you may recall that Marxism encourages atheism. It was Marx who said that religion is the opium of the people or the opioid of the masses. It makes you feel good and kind of numb to your surroundings.
In the 1920’s, the Mexican government declared that all citizens must declare their ultimate allegiance to the Mexican government. But the Christians in Mexico pushed back, marching in the streets, proclaiming, “Cristo Rey!”
Christ is King.
This led to persecution of the church by the governing authorities, but the church remained faithful. And in 1925, Christ the King Sunday became the newest official holiday on the church calendar. Christ the King Sunday is a day to remember those who have been faithful in the face of government-sanctioned persecution, and those who have been forgotten or neglected by the rulers of a nation.
Our scripture from Ezekiel this morning brings with it some familiar language and familiar metaphors. Specifically, we read about shepherds and their sheep. One of the challenges with familiar metaphors is that we can read over them quickly and assume we know what is going on only to miss the point. The different authors of the Bible use metaphors differently, and sometimes they mix their metaphors a bit. So it is important to start with a little context.
The Prophet Ezekiel begins his work with a warning to the people of Israel: their land has been taken from them and all that they had worked so hard to build and develop would be ruined. Their homes would be lived in by strangers, their fields would be worked by new owners, and their temple would be stripped of its precious jewels and metals. The people were in exile, and Ezekiel does not mince words: life was going to be hard. And it would go from bad to worse.
In chapter 33 we are told that Ezekiel’s prophesy comes true. Verse 21, “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has fallen.’” Then, as we enter chapter 34, our chapter for today, we find Ezekiel blaming a particular group for the exile and destruction of their city. Let’s pick up in the second half of verse 2 through verse 4:
‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.’
Who is Ezekiel blaming? The shepherds. Hopefully we realize that this is a metaphor, though Ezekiel never explains who these shepherds are. And this is where things can get a little confusing. The New Testament often uses the metaphor of shepherd for the religious leaders who care for a group of Christians. In fact, the Latin word for Shepherd is simply the word “pastor,” from which we get the English word…pastor! My job is to shepherd the people.
But Ezekiel is using the metaphor a bit differently. He is criticizing the political leaders of Israel. The Bible notes several bad kings that led Israel in the years leading up to the exile, names which I will not try to pronounce. We read that these leaders did not know God, did not fear God, and did not care for God’s people. And in the text leading up to our scripture for this morning, Ezekiel speaks about how these leaders, these shepherds, have abused their power at the expense of their people. The shepherds got fat and clothed their selves with the wool of the sheep, while the sheep suffered. And then notice how Ezekiel talks about the exile in the last line of the passage I quoted above: the people in exile are represented as sheep who have wandered off and gone astray. Keep that in mind as we work through this.
So we pick up where our scripture begins this morning with God taking over the role of shepherd. “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.”
Then in verse 16, “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
God, the good shepherd, will seek out the lost, heal the hurting, feed the hungry, and strike down the powerful. God will be their king, and a good king at that. When I read this, I am drawn to all sorts of New Testament passages. And these passages seem all the more blasphemous now that I look at the New Testament passages alongside this passage from Ezekiel. In John 10:11, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story about lost things that are found. He tells a parable about a lost coin, about a lost son, and a lost sheep. The good shepherd leaves the 99 behind to go find the one who has wandered off.
And of course there is the passage from today’s lectionary gospel reading, Matthew 25, the separating of the sheep and the goats. In this passage, the king acts as a shepherd, separating those who have cared for those in need from those who have neglected them. The sheep, those who care for the needy, go into eternal reward. The goats, those who neglected the ones in need, are met with eternal punishment.
Here’s what I can glean from all of these sheep/shepherd/goats metaphors. One: those in positions of power and authority, rulers of nations, have the responsibility to care for what Jesus calls “The least of these.” And two: so do we.
When we look at the prophetic tradition, we see prophets like Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Elijah critiquing the leaders of their times. Who can forget the Prophet Nathan telling King David a parable about a man and his sheep, David’s outrage over the injustice, and Nathan turning around saying, “You are the man!”?
There is a biblical precedent for critiquing our political leaders. Now I’m not talking about those divisive little sayings about our presidents like those who add an “N” to the beginning of President Obama’s name, making it “Nobama.” Nor am I speaking of those who won’t say the current president’s name and instead call him “Number 45,” as if he were Voldemort or something like that. This isn’t any better. I’m not encouraging these divisive practices, but I think we as Christians can and should be speaking out about how quickly President Obama ramped up the drone warfare program and we should be raising questions about President Trump’s abusive practices towards women. And though it seems messy, I’m kind of glad that people are asking questions about allegations made about Bill Clinton 20 years ago. This isn’t about criticizing the other side. It isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing. This is about holding leaders accountable. That’s exactly what the Christians in Mexico were doing in the early 20th century when they spoke out against the Marxists’ attempts to snuff out Christianity. And that’s why we commemorate Christ the King Sunday.
But here’s the part that we often don’t like. We like to critique the leaders of our nation. That comes easily and naturally. But as we connect Ezekiel 34 with Matthew 25, we also see that we are responsible for caring for the least of these as well.
Matthew 25:35-36, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
There’s nothing in there about voting for a pro-life or anti-war president. There’s nothing in there about foreign relations or the presidential-ity of a leader. Yes, we are to hold leaders accountable, but we too are held accountable. I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I’m very thankful that people tend to help more and give more around the holidays. I am thankful that you have to schedule months in advance to serve a meal at the Valley Mission around Thanksgiving and Christmas. My hope is that we can continue to be generous, helping those who can’t help themselves, throughout the year.
I want to come back to what I said about Karl Marx earlier. It was Marx who said that religion is the opium of the people or the opioid of the masses. It makes you feel good and kind of numb to your surroundings.
My friends, if your religion makes you numb to your surroundings, it isn’t the religion of Jesus. Religion shouldn’t make you numb to your community, it should make you passionate about your community.
I can get a little jealous of my Methodist friends here in Staunton from time to time. There are a lot of Methodist churches in town, something like 2 million, I think. There are a few, and I’m glad to call some of the pastors my friends. I’m a little jealous because these pastors work together on projects and seem to have such a great working relationship. The Staunton pastors just completed a sermon series where a lot of the churches looked at the same scripture and same topic every week. The pastors preached their own unique sermons, but they were all on the theme of what it means to be “For Staunton.” You may have even seen the bumper sticker #forstaunton. Together through this series, these churches completed a series of youth missions trips, they worked on a Habitat for Humanity house, they hosted a community trunk or treat, they served food at the Valley Mission. And consider this your formal invitation to attend their Wednesday Advent Bible Study, 11 am, each Wednesday of Advent at the Habitat store.
This Christ the King Sunday, I want to challenge us all to be for Staunton. Be for our community, be for our nation, and be for our species, and for the world that God so loved that he sent his one and only son. May we work together as faithful servants of our Lord, Savior, and King Jesus Christ.