If you are searching for things to include under the heading “The Oddities of Scripture,” you likely could do no better than perusing the various chapters of Ezekiel. The book opens with a vision so strange that not a few people in the last century concluded that Ezekiel witnessed a UFO replete with extraterrestrials. (Back in the 1970s I was caught up as a kid in the UFO craze and so remember being intrigued by the “Ezekiel Saw UFOs” headline!)
Elsewhere in this book—in order to convey the various messages God asked him to depict for Israel—Ezekiel performed the following curious actions:
— He dug holes in many of the walls of his house.
–He gave himself a sidewalk haircut.
–He laid down on his couch and remained mute and prostrate for a very long time.
–He built a scale model of the city of Jerusalem (Legos?) and then pretended to lay siege to it.
–He put a big pot of stew on his stove and then proceeded to let it boil and simmer until the whole thing was a burnt mess.
–And at one point his wife died but—at God’s own instruction—Ezekiel did not weep or mourn her and did not put on the attire typical for grieving people.
What’s more, before the book is finished—in the one scene from Ezekiel that most everyone knows—he is brought to a horrific valley of dry bones and then, in that place resembling the grim killing fields of Cambodia or the mass graves of Buchenwald, Ezekiel stands up to preach a sermon. The result of his preaching was even more remarkable than the fact that he preached to the bones at all: in a scene that the special effects folks in Hollywood would surely love to depict, Ezekiel sees a reverse process of decay as organs and sinews and muscles and then skin return, step by step, to every skeleton in the valley.
A most curious book indeed!
And yet nestled about two-thirds of the way into this odd book is one of the most lyric of all Bible passages. It is the Year A Old Testament lection for the “Reign of Christ” Sunday—the last Sunday before Advent begins the church year all over again. As texts that point to Jesus as King go, this one is lovely. In an era when the leaders of Israel did what political leaders the world over have almost always tended to do—namely, take good care of the rich and shove aside the weak and the marginalized—Ezekiel looks ahead to a day when a new Shepherd would come from the line of David and do the exact opposite of what the world does: he’d make extra room for the weak, he’d deal tenderly with the disenfranchised, he’d seek high and low to bring back those who had been scattered for whatever the reason.
This would be a profoundly Good Shepherd whose very presence would bring Psalm 23 to life and then some. He’d be the kind of person who could and would look clean past a whole gaggle of celebrities and “beautiful people” so as to spy the lost and lonely one on the fringes of the crowd. He’d be the kind of person who would not only seek out the marginalized and the disenfranchised but who would be just as much sought out by such lonely and overlooked folks. He would be a magnet for those whom the world shoves aside as losers and ne’r-do-wells and those who are deemed to be of no account.
If we want to celebrate the Reign of Christ, then we must do so by remembering the kind of king Jesus is but also the kind of king he adamantly and repeatedly refused to become. Jesus wanted nothing to do with power, glitz, glamour, or privilege. He did not want a throne as much as a place—any place would do—where he could simply be with the poor, the sad, the sick, the lonely, the misunderstood. And when he was with them, he said things and did things that re-made their whole world. He treated them with a love and a grace that made those who had been of no account suddenly realized they did count. Those who had been lonely found a friend who felt, oddly enough, that he might just be an eternal friend. Losers were made to feel like winners after all and the invisible people whom everyone else routinely overlooked came to realize that Someone did see them, notice them, and was interested even to find out their names and to hear their stories.
That is the kind of Shepherd Ezekiel foresaw, and that same Shepherd is now also the cosmic King of kings. He reigns, he rules, his kingdom knows no bounds and will one day be all in all. But it will be a kingdom unlike any we’ve ever known. Because it won’t have a single lost sheep in it. It won’t have a single invisible or marginalized person, any lonely people, any people who will have even a moment’s cause to wonder whether or not they count.
“I, the LORD, will be their God” Yahweh said to Ezekiel. “I the LORD have spoken.”
Yes, he has. Long live that King!
In the New Testament, whenever Jesus uses the pastoral image of a shepherd for himself—in fulfillment of passages like Ezekiel 34—the point is nearly always the same: as the good shepherd of his sheep, he will risk his life and even temporarily abandon the flock if that’s what it takes to save the one lost sheep. As the true shepherd who loves his sheep, he will let himself be killed rather than see one single sheep harmed. In every image of the flock which Jesus employs it is always clear that as important as the whole flock is, each individual sheep is as important to him as is the larger collective.
But many folks today don’t think that way at all. Instead we hear about giant corporations which do cost-benefit analyses for their products. They calculate how much risk they can get away with in an effort to pad the bottom line by not having to lay out any extra money for additional safeguards. So food companies have been known to let certain products hit the market despite their knowing right up front that there is a slight risk that certain people could well get sick from this food and maybe even die. But if the percentage of people at risk for that is small enough as to be statistically insignificant, then they forge ahead. Politicians often live by polls and so base some pretty big decisions on projected outcomes. Even if some people may be disadvantaged by this or that program cut, if the majority will benefit (and so vote the right way once again at the next election), then those who will be harmed are back-handed aside as statistically irrelevant.
Ours is a world which looks to see how much it can get away with. Ours is a society where the majority rules and the minority had best just learn to live with it. We just don’t love every single sheep near enough. But that is only one-half of our modern-day problem with Jesus as our shepherd. The other difficulty is that in a world of so-called “self-made individuals,” many people are not exactly looking for someone else to lead them around.
Instead, ours is a time where we expect others to meet us where we are. The customer mentality has now taken over everything from college campuses to church sanctuaries. “I want it my way right way (and by the way, I alone will determine what ‘my way’ is.”) Even our concept of a pastor has changed. Of course, the very word “pastor” means “shepherd” but as many observers of the American church scene have noted, pastors today don’t lead so much as they follow. What people want in a pastor today, David Wells claims, is a pollster who holds up two moist fingers to see which way the congregational wind is blowing. He does not take the congregation anywhere but instead goes to where people already are so as to meets their felt needs. What kind of worship service should we have? What kinds of topics need to be addressed in sermons? Well, take a survey and then design liturgies and sermons around the poll results.
So the imagery of shepherds and of sheep, of being led so that we do not scatter out into our own little individual directions: all of this kind of language seems like an echo from another time, another world. It’s a little like what you hear whenever a teenager says he is going to “dial” his friend’s phone number. Because in truth very few people under the age of 18 have ever used a rotary phone that you really do have to dial. To speak of “dialing” a phone is to employ a linguistic anachronism–that phrase is an echo of a bygone world that did not yet know about touch tone phones and digital keypads.
Maybe good shepherds are too. But as the Bible makes everywhere clear: we still need that shepherd. Probably now more than ever.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 26, 2017
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Commentary