Christ the King Sunday
November 22, 2015
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 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. 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. 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.
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
The first time I saw a pasture of sheep, I was driving through Yadkin County, North Carolina. There, in the rolling hills of that part of my home state, I spotted sheep dotting the green landscape of someone’s pasture. They made me smile. Why do sheep make us smile?
Years later, on a trip to Wales, we checked into a bed and breakfast for the night. Directly across the narrow, two-lane road was a craggy pasture full of sheep. It was April, lambing season. Have you ever seen lambs frolic? They made me laugh out loud.
We tend to think of sheep as stupid animals, maybe because they always seem to be following each other around. Susan Schoenian, sheep and goat specialist at the University of Maryland’s Western Maryland Research & Education Center, has a different perspective. Susan says sheep have a strong flocking instinct and become very agitated if they are separated from the rest of the flock. They do not act independently of one another, and for that reason, sheep have been universally branded “stupid.” But sheep are not stupid. Their only protection from predators is to band together and follow the sheep in front of them. If a predator is threatening the flock, this is not the time to act independently.
In our Old Testament passage this morning, the prophet Ezekiel proclaims a word from the Lord GOD for the people of Israel. Because of the neglect of their rulers, the people are living in exile. They have scattered, strayed, like lost sheep. For this reason, the Lord GOD proclaims, “I myself” will seek them out. Their own kings have not looked out for them, have not protected them, have not provided for them. Now God will be their shepherd.
The people hearing Ezekiel’s proclamation from God would have understood that, in promising to serve as their shepherd, God was promising to lead them. God’s own self would govern them. God would be their shepherd/king. But in promising that, God does not promise to overthrow governments or rebuild desolated cities. God does not promise to raise up new authorities or restore fortunes. No, Yahweh will exhibit the character of true pastoring as the shepherd cares for the flock.
As shepherd, God seeks out scattered sheep, rescues them, brings them out from the peoples and countries, brings them into their own land, feeds them. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.”
Three times God tells the people that he will feed them; twice he tells them he will make them lie down. What is God saying? Listen to these familiar verses:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
In Psalm 23, the shepherd David speaks of the great LORD God as a shepherd. Because the LORD is his shepherd, David knows that he shall not want for anything. In fact, he will be so secure, so comfortable – so safe – that he can lie down in the open in green pastures without fear, because the great Jehovah will be attending to him. That is what the Lord GOD promises to the people of Israel in these words from Ezekiel. God will be their shepherd, watching over them, and they will be so secure under God’s watch that they will lie down. Sheep that are in danger flee; that is the path to safety. They run for their lives, trying to escape their predators. Now, God promises, God’s own self will shepherd these sheep, making them to lie down in safety.
God also reverses the injustices the flock has suffered. Injustice and oppression has caused fragmentation within the flock. God now focuses on seeking the lost, binding up the injured, strengthening the weak. The weak prevail; the fat and strong, God destroys. God feeds them all with justice. Theologian Maryann Dana asks, “Could it be that the disobedient sheep must be transformed in order to be saved? Perhaps a meal of justice will satisfy a hunger they never knew they had. … They feast of God’s just and liberating self. Perhaps this is the good news for us ‘fat sheep.’”
This new community is founded on justice, equity, and law. God establishes David as the human leader to feed his sheep, and ultimately Jesus is the new king in the Davidic line who will engage in restorative leadership. Jesus forgives, cleanses, heals, and feeds.(1)
We Presbyterians don’t tend to spend much time in the book of Revelation. We turn to its verses at times of deep sorrow, when we feel in need of some reassurance that God will care for us at the end of our days. But the verses we’ve read this morning remind us who we are in the current age. Jesus, who loved us and freed us from our sins, “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6). How are we serving God? How are we following the example set before us by Jesus Christ, the one who sits on the throne at the right hand of God Almighty? How are we living sanctified lives?
Jesus foretells a time when he will gather all the nations and he will bless those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, nurse the sick, visit the prisoner. In time, Christ will come again to bring justice to a hurting world. But until he comes, will we be servants, or will we sit on the sidelines, leaving such work to someone else, resting in our assurance of grace and forgiveness?
I don’t want to be a fat sheep. I don’t think you do either.
(1) Walter Brueggemann, “Failed Kings and the Good Shepherd,” Nov. 6,2011