Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Imitating the Shepherd
2 December 2018, Advent 1
The prophet Ezekiel was originally a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Babylonian Empire took control of Jerusalem, and eventually destroyed the Temple and the surrounding city, Ezekiel was taken into exile in Babylon. There the people believed that they were separated from God, cut off from hope. In today’s reading of Ezekiel 34, which can be found on page ___, we hear God’s word to the kings, who are called shepherds, and God’s promise to the people to again be their shepherd, their king.
The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed those who are ill or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
‘“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
‘“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
‘“As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
‘“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: see, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
‘“I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety. I will make them and the places surrounding my hill a blessing. I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing. The trees will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land. They will know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They will no longer be plundered by the nations, nor will wild animals devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid. I will provide for them a land renowned for its crops, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land or bear the scorn of the nations. Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them and that they, the Israelites, are my people, declares the Sovereign Lord. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.”’
Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent—a season in which we watch and wait and prepare for the coming of Christ into the world. Advent is a season of shadows and light, of hope in the midst of despair, a season of promise becoming reality, growing day by day.
The prophet Ezekiel spoke to people who were certain the promise was lost. Their despair was larger than their hope, and they walked in the valley of shadows. They had lost everything, their Temple and cities were destroyed, they had been taken into exile in a foreign land. It seemed that God had left them to the whims of the world, and they were alone.
Into that feeling of loneliness and anxiety and sadness, God speaks. At first it doesn’t sound like a very comforting message, but I imagine that if they thought God had abandoned them, any word from the Lord might have felt hopeful, even this one!
In the ancient world, kings and other leaders were often called shepherds. They were meant to lead the people the way shepherds lead sheep—going ahead of them to show the way, protecting them from danger, providing green pastures and still waters. Shepherds sleep with their flocks, keep an eye on them on the hills, and ensure they have enough to eat. The shepherd knows their sheep.
Except the leaders had instead chosen to use the people rather than guide and guard and provide for them. “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed those who are ill or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly” says the prophet.
And then he turns to the flock, the people, lamenting that they have followed the example of their leaders. Is it not enough to eat and drink, do you have to ruin it for those who come after you? Those who have enjoyed the green pastures and good waters have trampled them with their feet, leaving nothing but mud and waste for the rest. The culture of taking, using, and caring nothing for the consequences others will have to bear has trickled down in a way that wealth never will. The behaviour of the leaders emboldens others to follow suit, and so the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the leaders build their power on the backs of the masses.
I wonder if Ezekiel realised that his words would still sound a note of truth thousands of years after he spoke them.
Then, as now, the note of hope is like one candle flickering in the shadows, seemingly small yet impossible to take our eyes from: God says “I myself” will be their shepherd.
God’s own self will come among us, close enough to take care of the flock, to bind up the wounded, to feed us and bring us to water, to sleep with us at night and lead us through the day. God will take on flesh and live with us.
Then the promises fall faster than the rain, with sentence after sentence beginning with God saying “I will”...I will make a covenant of peace, I will provide for them, I will rescue them, I will protect them, I will feed and water them, I will make them a blessing. I will be with them.
God will be with us.
Advent is a season of waiting for this promise...but it is also a season when we remember and celebrate that God has already fulfilled it. It is a season of already and not-yet, of looking at how God incarnate, in the flesh, living among us, is a reality we have known for thousands of years and yet somehow manage to forget so often, and also of looking forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. While the world is dark, hope still shines. God’s promise is still true. God is, and will be, our good shepherd—and it is God in the flesh we should emulate as our ruler. Not the earthly leaders who encourage us to get what we can and ignore the ruin our pursuit of pleasure causes, not the culture that allows us to mistreat or ignore the vulnerable, but the God who personally comes among us to take care, lead, heal, teach, protect, and provide.
Imagine if, even while we are waiting for the fullness of God’s promise to be revealed, we imitated our good shepherd. We might just find that the light of hope grows, day by day, until all can see the glory of God With Us.
May it be so. Amen.