Ezekiel 34:1-24, (Ps 137, Ps 42 and Ps 43, John 10:11, Luke 19:10)
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 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. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.
God, the True Shepherd
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
17 As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
Our reading is written at a time when Ezekiel the prophet and God’s people are in forced exile in the land of Babylon. They were in deep grief because of their exile from the land God had promised them through Abraham and from the temple of God in Jerusalem. Their trauma is expressed well in the Bony M song from the 80’s (based on Ps 137), ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion’.
This year we are having a taste of exile due to the COVID pandemic. Some of you are exiled from family members interstate or oversees. Some of you are in exile from the familiarity of your work place, or from the workforce altogether. We are in exile from church as we knew it in the past and wonder how we will worship in the future. People in nursing homes have died in exile from their family. Infants have been exiled from parents in hospital interstate. Some of you have not been able to attend the funerals of loved ones and mourn with family and friends. Tens of thousands of Australians living overseas are in exile. They book flights that are then cancelled and must wait and hope to be home in their own country again.
Bad Shepherds, bad virus
Our COVID exile is due to a virus. The exile of God’s people in Babylon was due to a different type of virus, a much more destructive virus than COVID. A virus that kills the soul as well as the body. The virus of trusting in bad gods and worshipping them. Ezekiel’s job was to announce doom to the kings who had promoted the worship of false gods. ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel’ Ezekiel calls out.
The kings of Israel had failed their people whom they are meant to protect. These shepherds did not care for their sheep, but ruled brutally and greedily. They did not uphold the rights of the fatherless and the poor. Instead they profited from the sheep, eating the yoghurt from the sheep’s milk, clothing themselves with the wool and slaughtering the finest sheep for meat.
There was a nasty virus driving these bad shepherd kings. The virus of leading their people astray after false gods. They ruled a tiny nation with the superpower of Babylon on the north with Egypt to the south. God’s shepherd kings felt strong pressure to adopt the religious customs of these nations that exercised power over their land.
The kings of Judah made the temple unholy by allowing idols and images into the temple. There were altars to the stars on the temple roof. There was worship of the god and goddess of fertility in shrines on high hills in Judah. Ezekiel says the sheep were scattered on the mountains and hills. It was the king’s job to stop these practices.
The gods being worshiped promised power over nature. They presented a way for people to manipulate the seasons and crops to their own advantage. People had sex with sacred prostitutes to act out the union of the god and goddess of fertility to make their crops good. People sacrificed their children to the god Molech. These religious practices were popular and addictive but they were destructive to the heart and soul of God’s people.
We know gods like that. Our destructive gods of ever growing wealth and greed are crumbling. We have made science into a god that is meant to keep us safe, cure all diseases and cause us all to live long lives. COVID is teaching us the limits of science, and that it is no stronger than the smartest human being.
Following these gods is easier than trusting the true God who is a mysterious and invisible God. You and I can’t manipulate the living God with ceremonies or rituals. Nor can we conjure up God. The Living God has no idol to represent him. In fact an idol is an insult to God who sustains all of life and continues to be active in history until the end of time. God’s power is so often in his in invisibility and his weakness rather than in his strength.
C.S. Lewis in his Narnia children’s books portrays God as a Lion called Aslan. This mysterious Lion remains invisible to all but the pure of heart. C.S Lewis says Aslan is not a tame lion. Nor is our living God a tame god. He can’t be manipulated or conjured, and no one will stop him in what he purposes to do.
The mysterious living God evicted from his own temple by his own people. The bad worship and the injustice, the greed and murder that sprang from it filled the temple and the infected the whole country. God was deep in grief and anger over his lost people and the virus of evil that had infected their bad shepherds/kings and the people. In a vision Ezekiel saw God’s presence leave the temple. And God’s people were ejected from the land of Judah to exile in Babylon. In a way God himself was evicted with them. God was certainly with his people into exile. Woe to the shepherds Ezekiel says.
But what about the sheep? Were they innocent? The strong sheep have been knocking around the weak sheep. God will judge between the strong bullying sheep and the weak sheep. Ezekiel says, ‘Is it enough for you to drink the clean water must you muddy the rest with your feet.’ We all know what power struggles are. We have them at work as people manipulate others for more money or to get a better position. We have power struggles in marriages and relationship. Here we are talking about power struggles among God’s people. The stronger push aside the weak and the water is muddied for the lost people who are searching for God. People who are seeking God’s forgiveness and comfort.
The Good Shepherd, the ‘justice’ he brings is a promise of rescue.
What a mess, bad shepherds and bad sheep who have caught the virus of bad worship. What will God’s solution be? Ezekiel says God himself will be the Shepherd of his sheep. The Lord God says ‘I myself will enquire after my sheep and I will tend to them.’ God’s will judge between the sheep justly. But what does God’s justice look like? God’s justice here means something that is closer to the word ‘rescue’ than anything else. It is not justice as we know it (which we often think of as revenge), it is God himself the good Shepherd rescuing his sheep. God himself will look for the scattered sheep and lost sheep, he will rescue them and gather them from their worship of destructive gods. God will seek and enquire after his sheep. He will find his lost sheep and carefully inspect his sheep because he cares for them. He will put an end to those who exploit the weak sheep. God will personally intervene to make things right. He himself will establish the rights of the sheep.
God’s idea of Justice or Rescue is even bigger than this, Ezekiel says, God will unite all his people under one shepherd David. King David trusted God above all else and unlike many of the other kings of Israel and Judah did not foster the worship of other gods.
We know that the new king David, Ezekiel speaks of here, is Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is the rescuing and saving Shepherd. Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep’, John 10:11. Jesus the true shepherd has laid down his life for the sheep and rescued them. His death on the cross has killed the virus of bad worship that has infected God’s shepherds and sheep.
When God’s own Son Jesus died and rose again the virus of wrong worship that we call sin is cured. Jesus reinvents justice by taking our failures on himself. Jesus entered into exile with us and took our failure as shepherds and sheep on himself. In Jesus’ cross and resurrection he forgive you and me all we have done wrong and all our wrong worship of gods other than him.
This evil virus ends at Jesus’ cross. We are not alone in our COVID exiles. As much as we may be in exile from familiar things and people we are no longer in exile from God. It is at the foot of this cross today that I invite you today to lay down all that burdens you. Leave there all the griefs and regrets you carry. Leave all your fears at his cross tonight. He is your true Shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside still waters he restores my soul.
Even though I walk through the darkest exile I will fear no evil for your rod and staff comfort me.