26 November 2014

Sermon – “A King Like No Other” (Ezekiel 34:11-24)

In southeastern Iraq there is a town named al-Kifl. Located not far from the ruins of ancient Babylon, it boasts no great fame, no great attractions, except that it is the site of an ancient tomb, believed to be the grave of none other than the prophet Ezekiel. For more than a thousand years, al-Kifl was a place where Jews gathered on special occasions for worship. Given the events of current times, it is hard to believe that until relatively recently Iraq was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Middle East. In al-Kifl there was a market run by local Jews for the pilgrims who came to pray at Ezekiel’s shrine. They were housed in the rooms surrounding the adjoining courtyard. Today very little evidence of that Jewish presence remains and the shrine itself is a ruin.
Fortunately that is not all that is left of Ezekiel. Far more valuable than any shrine, we have the forty-eight chapters of his prophecy in the Bible. Along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel, Ezekiel is considered one of the four major prophets of the Old Testament. Of all the prophets, Ezekiel is perhaps the most pictorial. It is to Ezekiel that we owe the vision of the mysterious whirling wheels within wheels. Above them stood the throne of God in all his glory. Ezekiel’s prophecy ends with the prophet standing at the entrance of the temple, with water trickling down from its threshold. As the prophet is led farther and farther from the temple, the water becomes deeper and deeper, at first up to his ankles, then to his knees, his waist, and finally so deep and so wide that it cannot be crossed. On either side of the river are flourishing trees, whose leaves do not wither nor their fruit fail—a picture of the abundant life that flows from the presence of the living God. Aside from these two vivid images Ezekiel also gives us the arresting account of the valley of dry bones, which, as Ezekiel obeys God’s command to prophesy to them, miraculously start to move and take on flesh to become living beings—the promise of resurrection and a passage which for that reason we read every year at the Easter sunrise vigil.

The false shepherds of Israel

In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament we are exposed to another of Ezekiel’s visions, this time of shepherds and sheep. For ancient Israelites sheep and shepherds were a familiar sight in a way that they just aren’t to us modern city dwellers. Not only that, but the notion of a leader as a kind of shepherd was one that had an immediacy and a relevance that we cannot replicate today. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the founders of the nation, had all been shepherds. Moses had spent forty years of his life as a shepherd. David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, had grown up as a shepherd.
Thus, in the opening verses of chapter 34, when the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds, everyone knew against whom his words were directed: the leaders of the nation.
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.
It was a telling condemnation. Yet in his infinite compassion towards his people God was not prepared to allow them simply to be scattered, gradually to disappear altogether. No, he himself would both be their shepherd and send them a true shepherd—and in this morning’s passage we have a description what the Lord would do for his sheep.

The true Shepherd

That description is structured around eight strong verbs and they are these: seek, rescue, bring back, feed, bind up, strengthen, judge and finally, in verse 22, save. I want us to take a few moments now to look briefly at each of them.
First of all then, seek (or search). Just as in English we have two words with overlapping meanings, the same is true in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and they are often found together in parallel. They bring with them the sense of single-mindedness, of earnestness. It is the word that David uses in the psalms: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after… ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face. Lord, do I seek” (Psalm 27:4,8). Elsewhere we have the image of the young lion roaring as it seeks its prey (Psalm 104:21). And in Proverbs (2:4), “If you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures—then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” Or again, in Psalm 119:2, “Happy are those … who seek [the Lord] with their whole heart…”
All of those verses have to do with our seeking the Lord. Yet far more wonderful is the truth that Ezekiel shares in this passage: that we have a God who seeks out you and me with infinitely greater diligence and compassion. Our Lord Jesus brings that out for us in his parable of the lost sheep in Luke’s gospel. The shepherd leaves his whole flock behind in order to search for the one that has been lost.
Ezekiel’s next verb is “rescue”. It’s the same word that is used in the opening chapters of Exodus, as God sees the plight of his people, oppressed for generations as slaves in Egypt. “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings, and I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7,8). And rescue them he did—and so he will do again for all his lost and scattered sheep.
Thirdly, God promises that he will bring them back. The word literally means to turn around and you’ll find it more than six hundred times in the Old Testament. It can mean a literal turning around, like doing a uey in your car when you realize you’re headed in the wrong direction. Yet as often as not it refers to a moral and spiritual change of direction. God turns us around, brings us back from the edge of disaster.
God our shepherd not only brings us back to himself. He also nourishes and feeds us. We give physical expression to this every time we come forward to the communion rail and kneel to outstretch our empty hands and bring the cup to our lips. Jesus told his disciples that he had food to eat that they did not know about. It is he who feeds us with food that endures to eternal life as we come to him in trust.
Next Ezekiel speaks of binding up. It is the word that Jesus used when he read from the scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth, from the opening verses of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted…” So many of us find ourselves battered, bruised and wounded. And like the good Samaritan with the injured traveler at the side of the road, the Lord comes to us in mercy. He pours oil on our wounds, binds them up and brings us to safety.
Ezekiel’s sixth verb is “strengthen”. Can you see the progression here? The word can also mean to stiffen or to harden. Ezekiel’s is the same word the prophet Isaiah used when he wrote, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…” (Isaiah 35:3,4a). A few weeks ago my mother-in-law fell and broke her hip. So the surgeon placed a pin in it to strengthen it and by the next day she was beginning to walk again. In the same way God is able to give us strength in times of weakness, courage in times of fear, faith in times of doubt, hope in times of discouragement.
The second-to-last verb that Ezekiel uses is “judge”. The Bible assures us again and again that God is a righteous judge, that he judges the people with equity. He upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow; he is a stronghold for the oppressed. And though the world may be fraught with injustice almost anywhere we care to look, we can be assured that God’s justice will be the final word.

The Shepherd who gives his life

All of that brings us to our final word, which is “save”. “I will save my flock” (22). In many ways this one word incorporates everything that has gone before: searching, rescuing, bringing back, feeding, binding up, strengthening, judging. Yet it takes us far beyond them as well. The word in Hebrew is yasha. It’s where we get the name Jesus: “You shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise comes in Jesus, who not only deigns to take the humble role of a shepherd, but surrenders his very life for his sheep.
As I was flying back and forth between here and Nova Scotia, I spent some of the time reading a book that was given to me a month or so ago, entitled A Wind in the House of Islam. It tells the stories of some of the many thousands of Muslims all over the world who have become followers of Jesus. One that particularly caught my attention was of a very talented musician and composer named Rafiq in North Africa. One day as Rafiq was wandering through the streets of Paris, it began to pour and he ducked into a doorway for shelter. He turned around to see that it was the entrance to a Catholic church. He stepped inside, the first time he had ever entered a church. Above the flickering votive candles he saw an image of Jesus holding a lamb. Beneath it were the words, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This set him thinking, “What kind of person was this, who would lay down his life for others?” He obtained a copy of the four gospels and read them over and over. He began to have dreams filled with Jesus and wrote a two-and-a-half hour musical about him. In the process, Jesus became his whole life and he found himself being transformed from within. “I stopped smoking and drinking. I no longer wanted to spend time in the bars or partying. Instead, I wanted to return to North Africa to tell my wife and family about the one who had come into my life.”[1]
Later, David Garrison, the author, writes,
Traveling through the villages of the Berber mountains, visiting homes and churches of the believers, I often noticed the framed pictures of Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd. Written beneath these images were the same words that Rafiq had seen in the Catholic sanctuary in Paris: The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Only this time they were written in Berber… These Berbers were no longer sheep without a shepherd. They had found their Shepherd and were attuned to his voice.[2]
Today, on this festival of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the church’s year, may we rejoice in the King who is also our Shepherd, who searches for us, rescues us, brings us back, nourishes us, binds us up, strengthens us, judges us and saves us. This is our God. May we listen to his voice.

[1]     page 85
[2]     page 97

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