Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 26, 2023
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Commentary
In the US context, the day after Thanksgiving begins the Christmas season. But this is one of those years where a fluke of the calendar means the church won’t be celebrating Advent (let alone Christmas) yet. We have one last Sunday in Ordinary Time. Liturgically, the first Sunday of Advent begins a brand new year, which makes this the last Sunday of the old year, a day the church has dubbed “Christ the King Sunday.” This year, not only are the readings far removed from the holiday cheer some in the congregation may be expecting, they seem to lean toward a celebration of Christ the Shepherd rather than Christ the King:
- “Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Psalm 100
- “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” Psalm 95
- “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” Matthew 25
While some will be ready for the angels’ announcement to the shepherds in Luke 2, we have a very different kind of shepherd in our text for this Sunday.
A Shepherd King
Shepherds in general are an anomaly to those of us in 21st century urban and suburban settings. Even in rural areas of the US, sheep are not the most common livestock. But shepherds, and even shepherd kings, were not unheard of in the ancient near-east. Babylonian and Egyptian hymns regularly praise their leaders as great shepherds and image the people as sheep.
However, this prophecy in Ezekiel distinguishes itself for its hope not in a current king but, rather, in an event that it still in the future, even for us. A prophecy with remarkable parallels in this week’s Gospel text. A prophecy that one day, justice will be delivered to God’s people. In the preceding verses, Ezekiel has called out the faithless leaders of Israel, those who effectively drove the people into exile. But, as we read this lectionary passage, we realize their failure is the set up for God’s redemption. Verse 16 directly answers for the people’s failures with God’s triumph: seeking, bringing back, binding up and strengthening.
Can you imagine the hope such an image would bring to God’s people who receive it while they are in exile in Babylon? As one commentary puts it, “Indeed, the Lord will make a new exodus with them: bringing them from the places of their captivity, leading them into the land, and caring for them there.”
This is not the first time Ezekiel has referenced the exodus in his prophecy to the exiled people of God. Earlier, in chapter 20, he references the people’s wandering in the wilderness due to their lack of faithfulness and trust. He drew a much less flattering and welcome comparison between the self-inflicted trouble of God’s people in the wilderness then and the self-inflicted trouble of God’s people in exile now. One imagines the people hearing this text flinching when exodus is brought up again this time but then resting in the hope of the promise: just as God did not abandon their ancestors in the Sinai then, so God will not abandon them in Babylon now. For those of us listening in, neither will God abandon us to the oppression, injustice and warfare of our world today.
Looking back to David and forward to Jesus
Here we might be able to satisfy our festive folks after all. A Shepherd King would not have seemed absurd to the Israelites in exile. After all, they’ve already had one of those! Young David, the runt of the litter, brought in from the fields, anointed by Samuel, went back to the fields to bide his time and wait his turn. But, of course, David is more to the people than a former King. He is, if you believe the prophecy, the ancestor to the coming Messiah. This is the explicit claim made in the final verses of the lectionary reading from Ezekiel. One in the line of David to tend the flock, to be their shepherd, to guard them from the bullies, to heal them and bring them into rest.
So this text looks backward to David in order that it might also look forward to Jesus. His genealogy and birth in Bethlehem tie him to his several times great-grandfather David. Jesus calls himself the Great Shepherd in John 10. But, in a foretaste of Advent a week early, we join the readings in longing, waiting and expectation, not for an earthly Shepherd but a cosmic King.
Ezekiel’s language of gathering and bringing the sheep to him resonates with other descriptors of Jesus the Good Shepherd, particularly in John 10 where the sheep hear and follow his voice. In the Middle East today shepherds regularly talk to and play music for their sheep. At night, multiple flocks will bed down together in the pen. In the morning, when it’s time to leave for the grazing fields, the shepherds fan out from each other and each sings or plays their song. As the sheep leave the pen, they lock on to *their* shepherds song.
For a children’s message or a sermon illustration you could invite some children to participate along with a familiar grown-up. There are many ways to do this. You could invite all the adults to close their eyes and have the children take turns saying something like, “I love you.” Each adult must raise their hand when their child has spoken. You could have the children do the same while the adults take their turn.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!