SERMON for the Festival of Christ the King (Proper 29; Series A) November 26, 2017

Ezekiel 34:11-24 (The King as Our Shepherd)

Sheep at Canyon de Chelly

Sheep at Canyon de Chelly

In Nomine Iesu
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. …” By the time of the prophet Ezekiel, those words of King David had already been on the lips of the people of God for at least four hundred years. They would have most likely sung those familiar verses many times in the liturgy of both the temple and the synagogue. The metaphor of shepherd and sheep was certainly not new or foreign to the people of Israel. Even in their faraway land of Babylonian exile many could still recall their former lives of following the flocks and raising the animals that they relied upon for food and religious sacrifice. Today, on the other hand, and especially with our fast-paced, technological lives, you can run into someone who has no idea how a shepherd might lead his sheep to pasture, protect them from danger, or search them out when they run astray. But with a little help, and some of the most familiar words that are found in Scripture—namely, the Twenty-third Psalm—the image can quite easily become greatly comforting—and prophetic of the future at the same time.

However, before Ezekiel can posit the comforting shepherd image for their good, he needs to correct first what had been going wrong among the people of God, the people whom He called the sheep of His pasture. What was going wrong? The Lord had him start with the shepherds, the leaders whom He had placed among them to teach them God’s Word and lead them in the path of His Commandments. They had been given a pastoral task, that is, reveal to them the will of the one, true Shepherd, and keep them diligent in faith as they awaited His prophesied coming in the fullness of time. But instead of preparing the people for Jesus’ arrival, they were taking advantage of these so-called “sheep” for their own benefit. Instead of teaching and preaching God’s Word, they exploited their positions of authority. Rather than humbly leading the people to trust in the promises of the coming Christ, they turned them aside to the favorite gods and idols of their day.

This is not to exempt the sheep from their own guilt, however. The people themselves should have known better, since they have heard God’s Word for themselves. Parents were commanded then, as they are even now, to teach the Commandments, impress them like a seal on their children, to ensure that they would not turn from them to the right nor to the left. But what did these sheep do? They trampled through the pure drinking water with their feet, making it muddy and impossible to drink without getting sick.

What does that mean? It means mixing in falsehoods with the pure truth that gives life straight from God. They made the promise of free forgiveness that is sweet to the believer’s taste, and turned it into a bitter swill of required works that Christians are told to do for themselves, and that leaves a horrible residue of doubt on the conscience. Instead of showing love toward one another and caring for each other’s needs, these sheep preferred to bite and devour at their fellow members of the flock, pushing them away with a selfish shoulder thrust, misusing the horns of their God-given authority and talents that were originally intended to serve and protect instead. Both pastors and people, shepherds and sheep disobeyed the Lord, and they faced a severe judgment, to be rendered from the mouth of the Chief Shepherd Himself at His appearing.

This is the judgment that God’s Law hangs over your head, too. You have resisted the gentle lead of Jesus as you live your day-to-day life. Even if it was only an impure thought in your mind or a little word from your mouth, it still poisons the well for those around you. If you refuse to forgive and assume the worst will always come from your neighbor, then you have become no better yourself. You didn’t have to murder somebody or worship another god—you still stand before the throne guilty in sin. Your heavenly Father means for you to hear about the coming Judgment Day, the magnificent appearance of Christ our King and our Judge, not merely to “scare you into submission,” but to reveal to you how serious He really is about your sin. You must repent, and turn back to the meek voice of Jesus, while He is still available to you as your merciful Savior who sacrificed Himself for you. It’s not that He’s going to change, but the free standing Gospel offer of salvation and the accompanying renewal of forgiveness will one day come to an end. You and I are seldom aware of the great damage that sin causes in our lives, our church, and our families. And when we try our human, imperfect solutions and excuses, our pitiful coping and compensating mechanisms, we make our own lives even worse than they were before.

Look up with great encouragement, however, at Christ your King! Behold the Shepherd who sacrificed Himself on the cross for the sake of you, His sheep. “Behold, I, I myself, will search for my sheep and seek them out.” Before you could even realize for yourself that you were lost, your Lord came to rescue you. “I will bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak.”

This is quite the dramatic twist, even for Ezekiel, and he was inspired to reveal something more, something beyond all the doom and judgment. “I, (emphasize I) myself, will feed My sheep.” Really? God is going to come and do those shepherd jobs that His appointed representatives refused to do? Yes—He will bring to perfect fulfillment Psalm 23’s little “prophecy:” when God Himself comes into human flesh among us to be our Good Shepherd. This arrival of the Messiah, whom the Lord names here, “My servant David,” will inaugurate a new covenant of peace and a new, secure existence for the human sheep who by faith know the Voice of Jesus and follow Him.

When the time comes for judgment, the Lord reveals to us how that will look. He will take His flock and make distinctions between fat and lean sheep, between those of His people who truly believe, and those who inhibit the faith of the rest. They trample the grass and muddy the drinking water with their feet, but the true shepherds, that is, worthy servants of the Lord, the preachers who have “beautiful feet,” will preach the Gospel of peace.

Yes, judgment will happen, and the fat sheep who are bloated on their own self-righteousness, those who assert their own rules for morality and reject what Jesus says will bring peace on earth, goodwill to men, those imposters will be destroyed. You, however, have no fear for the appearance of Christ the King on Judgment Day—not because you have managed to escape your just judgment, but rather because the Lord, your Shepherd has restored your soul, and led you on the paths of His righteousness.

“For His name’s sake” in the Psalm means that you have received a perfect standing before the throne of God simply and solely because Jesus died and rose to achieve that gift for you. The promised servant David, whom Ezekiel preached to the exiles in Babylon 500 years ahead of time, was actually Jesus, the Son of David, born in David’s hometown Bethlehem, whom we will welcome again in grand procession next week, and one day we will shout Hosanna to our King when He trades in that lowly Palm Sunday donkey for His glorious, fiery chariot. He will usher in the kingdom that He purchased with His blood and rose to triumph in ascension when all became complete.

The entire church year has been laid out for us in a big circle. Today, at the end of the church year, we now see to where Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost have been leading us all along. The Lord who was always true God and in the fullness of time became true and perfect Man will return again to give that same perfection to you. The excitement and expectation that Advent brings to Christmas is part and parcel of the Christian’s eager anticipation of the glory that has been promised at the end of the world. When wise men from all nations worship the Christ Child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they foreshadow a gathering of believers from all nations before the throne of Christ the King. He who once was transfigured on the mountaintop in the sight of His disciples will once again appear bright as the sunlight to bring us to His eternal dwelling place. His suffering, death and resurrection that are revisited every church year are the precise evidence that acquits us of all wrongdoing before the presence of our mighty Judge. And Pentecost also comes to fulfillment at Christ’s return because the Holy Spirit’s work to spread the faith and make the Church grow will finally reach its completion on the Last Day.

Till that time, listen for your Savior’s voice, the Good Shepherd. He will feed you with His Word, forgive your sins and strengthen you in body and soul to life everlasting. Your King does not rule by forcing you to do things that show honor to Him. He prefers to serve others instead, using your loving service as His means to bring blessing to everyone around you. And when your neighbors hear the Word of your Shepherd, they too shall enjoy together with you the Kingdom of glory that will never end.

In the Name of the Father, and of the ✝ Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant sdg
Pastor, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Yucaipa, California

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