At last we have arrived at the end of our journey through Ordinary Time. We have walked with ancient Israel through the geography and history of the Near East—from paganism in Haran and now back to pagan Babylon, with long stays in Egypt and the Promised Land in between, a long march through a trackless wilderness and a prolonged battle to conquer Palestine and make it home. That long journey parallels the Christian life in so many ways, so we have benefitted from following Israel.
Now, before we begin the liturgical year again, it is time to celebrate the kingship of Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of the faith by which we have walked. What kind of King is the Christ? All of our readings for Christ the King Sunday point in the same direction, but Ezekiel is the clearest and most comprehensive. Christ is a Shepherd King.
That is both a surprising and a familiar metaphor. There were, of course, other models of kingship all around Israel, not least of which was the oriental potentate surrounded by luxury and feared for his absolute power. The King of Babylon was a very visible example. And there were the feckless, fumbling kings of Israel’s recent history (as described in verses 1-10 of this chapter), more interested in fleecing their flock that in taking care of them. That recent history is why God chose to reveal himself here as a Shepherd King. That image was well known in the ancient Near East, but as those recent Jewish kings had illustrated, living up to the image was a rare thing.
Israel desperately needed a Shepherd King, because they had no king, were scattered in the Babylonian Exile, and were hurting in multiple ways because of their own sin and because of the injustice under which they suffered. The prophet Ezekiel was one of those exiled sheep. God had sent him along with one part of the flock, so that the Word of the Lord would be heard even in that God-forsaken place.
Ezekiel didn’t always speak words of comfort to God’s hurting flock. Indeed, for the first 32 chapters, Ezekiel has pronounced judgement and punishment in harsh terms, until Jerusalem fell and was burned back home. Then the tone of the prophet changes and he begins to speak words of hope and comfort. Now that the worst has happened, Israel will stop hoping in Jerusalem and the Temple. They are ready to hear about their God, their King, their Shepherd.
There are three things worthy of special note in these verses: care, justice, and the Prince. Unlike those Israelite kings (and priests and prophets) who were only interested in taking care of themselves (34:2), Yahweh will take care of his flock. In view of their failure, says God, “I myself” will do the shepherding.
This care will begin with a search and rescue mission. “I will search for my sheep and look after them.” Israel has been scattered throughout the Babylonian kingdom and beyond, going back to the days of the Assyrian invasion. Heaven knew where they were, and heaven will go to them, and “look after” them. The word “look after” means to “take stock, to investigate,” to see what each one needs. And their Shepherd King will take care of each one as he/she needs.
First, I will bring them home “from all the places where they have been scattered, out of the nations, and I will bring them to their own land.” After years of wandering, they will come home again.
Second, in their own land, I will give them all the sustenance they need—pasture, rich pasture on the mountains and in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. No longer will they scrabble for food, scrounging for a morsel of nourishment. “I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down,” echoing the opening verses of Psalm 23.
Third, the Shepherd King will take care of the most needy. Those who are lost, I will search for. In other Scriptures, God’s people are told to seek the Lord while he may be found (Isaiah 55:6 for example). Here God promises to seek the lost who aren’t looking for him, because they are too lost.
Those who are injured, I will bind up and heal. And those who are weak, I will strengthen. The Good Shepherd will do everything necessary to get his scattered and wandering flock back home. His care will know no limits. Jesus, of course, took this care to its eternal limits, when he laid down his life for his sheep. (But I’m getting ahead of the text.)
We’ve come to verse 16b now, where the care of the Shepherd King is augmented by something else. Not only will he care for his hurting flock, but he will also bring justice against those who have hurt them. For a good shepherd, it is not enough to heal hurts; he must also ensure that the causes of that hurt are removed. So, says verse 16b, “the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
God is talking there not only about the external enemies of Israel (Babylon and its predecessors and successors). He is also talking about Israelites who have gotten fat off their brothers and sisters, Jews who have shoved and butted their fellow Jews away from their rightful green pastures and still waters. Verses 17-19 also speak about muddying those still waters by trampling through them in heedless living.
Clearly, God is talking about social injustice and environmental abuse. That’s not the only reason Israel was sent into Exile; idolatry played a huge role. But here God says that he cares about injustice in all its forms and he promises to bring judgment upon those who have unjustly treated their fellows. That’s part of salvation. “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.”
In the contemporary church, there is a division between those who pursue compassion ministries and those who pursue social justice ministries. Here the Shepherd King of Israel says that he cares about both. On the one hand, we must only seek the lost and bind up the wounded, but we must also bring justice to those people and systems that caused people to get lost and become wounded in the first place. On the other hand, it’s not enough to seek justice; we must also seek and save the lost. It’s not either/or. The Shepherd King says that he will do both.
That brings me to the third thing worthy of note in this text, namely, the Prince. How will the Sovereign Yahweh shepherd his people? “I will place over them one Shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God and my servant David will be the Prince among them.”
Obviously, the original David was long dead and gone. But God had promised that David would always have someone on his throne. God is not talking resurrecting David; he is talking about raising up that Someone to sit on that throne as the Shepherd King who would do everything God promises to do here in Ezekiel 34. I am giving this short shrift here, but in your sermon on this text, you should spend much time showing how Jesus is the Son of David promised here.
So, today we celebrate the reign of Christ the Shepherd King, who came to seek and save the lost, who binds up the wounded and carries the weak in his arms, who came to bring justice and peace to his world, not just by teaching and doing miracles, but preeminently by laying down his life for his flock. He is our hope in this hurting world.
We’ve just gone through a bruising political campaign. There were many issues, but the central one was leadership. What kind of leader do you want? A tough law and order King? Or a kinder more caring King? By now we probably know who was elected “King.” And we already know that neither human candidate can do what we need. Only King Jesus can shepherd the scattered masses of the earth, because he is the shepherd who cares deeply for the lost and wounded and who has the strength to bring justice against the sleek and strong who shove and butt their way to dominance. Christ is King. Be comforted. And beware.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 22, 2020
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Commentary