Ezekiel 34:11-24 and John 10:14-16
Reign of Christ Sunday
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
11 The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. 15 I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says.16 I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.
17 As for you, my flock, the Lord God proclaims: I will judge between the rams and the bucks among the sheep and the goats. 18 Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet?19 But now my flock must feed on what your feet have trampled and drink water that your feet have muddied.
20 So the Lord God proclaims to them: I will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. 21 You shove with shoulder and flank, and with your horns you ram all the weak sheep until you’ve scattered them outside.22 But I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey. I will even judge between the sheep!23 I will appoint for them a single shepherd, and he will feed them. My servant David will feed them. He will be their shepherd. 24 I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be their prince. I, the Lord, have spoken. (Ezekiel 34:11-24 – CEB)
14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep.16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. (John 10:14-16— CEB)
Because of Psalm 23, when many of us hear the word shepherd, we conjure up images of being delivered from want and laid down in green pastures. Or, because of Christmas, we imagine “keeping watch over flocks by night.” Some historians tell us that ancient shepherds were, by and large, a grimy and bawdy lot. And surely among such ruffians were the ones Jesus called “hired hands,” men who were apt to abandon a flock in the face of threat.
Old Testament professor Wil Gafney also reminds us that shepherds were businessmen who held comprehensive interest in their flocks. Sheep, says Gafney, were “mobile currency and a primary source of nutrition [which shepherds would] regularly breed, sell, and eat.”1
That got me thinking. The word “pastor” derives from the Latin word meaning “shepherd,” or “to feed.” And since folks like me are often referred to as shepherdsof a flock, I’m contemplating a new pastoral initiative. All this will require session approval, of course, but come January, some of you, my flock, I will pair up for breeding. Then I’ll designate others of you as having either too much or too little value to keep, and I’ll trailer you off to market to sell or trade away. Finally, some of you…well, a man’s got to eat, right?
If the session approved that “pastoral” initiative, how would it change your concept of shepherd? Ezekiel’s description of the way self-serving kings treated their subjects was pretty close to what I just described. And the prophets made it clear to everyone that Yahweh had no intention of getting fleeced like that.
All you shepherds of Israel, you slaughter the lambs. You eat the fat. You clothe yourselves with wool, but you’re not feeding the sheep. You’re feeding yourselves!
Ezekiel hammers away at those who abuse, ignore, scatter, and otherwise “consume” God’s beloved flock.
While biblical scholars argue whether these violent shepherds are Israelite kings or foreign kings,2 the point is that regardless of one’s nationality, or party, or office, or religion or lack thereof, leaders cannot lead by feeding themselves at the expense of those whom they lead. They cannot maintain credibility, respect, and authority by fouling the sheep’s pastures and waters with their own filthy feet.
Over time, two ironies come to light. First, the sheep about whom Ezekiel speaks are never stronger than when, by a shepherd’s negligence, they find themselves lost, scattered, injured, and weak. Having nothing to lose, they’ll rise up, and they often prevail.
Second, when those sheep achieve freedom through the same violent means by which they were overcome and oppressed, they will, eventually, in spite of all good intentions, become abusive shepherds themselves.
Through Ezekiel, God makes a new promise:
“I will feed [the sheep].”
“I will seek out the lost.”
“I will bring back the strays.”
“I will bind up the wounded.”
“I will strengthen the weak.”
“I will tend them with justice.”
And there’s the difference: justice. In systems organized around perceived scarcity and greedy competition, true justice is the scarcest commodity. In such systems, justice gets reduced to getting even, to an-eye-for-an-eye retribution. That’s standard fare in the old realm; but Jesus—the Good Shepherd, the King of Kings—creates a new way of life. And he calls us to that life which isn’t only new and transformed, but one that becomes renewing and transforming for others. That’s what makes it truly just: The well-being of others becomes as important to us as our own well-being. As I’ve said to you before, my dad called this approach to life “practical thanksgiving.”
Practical thanksgiving means living, intentionally, with and for the sake ofothers. What makes this way of life challenging is that it asks us to be continually attentive to, responsive to, and grateful for the particular person in our presence right now, while also living with, and for the sake of all people and all Creation—all that is with us today and all that is to come.
The Greek word for these particular and ultimate concerns is eschaton, from which we get the word eschatology. Some Christian theology limits eschatology to doomsday discussions littered with citations from the book of Revelation and shouts of catastrophic Armageddon from fire-breathing preachers. And such individualistic theology tends to exile God to some far-off heaven. It ignores God’s innate presence in the Creation. It also tends to ignore and even excuse the crises of incivility and climate degradation we, right now, are imposing on future generations through fearful anger and entitled consumption. Ezekiel’s question is painfully relevant to this generation: “Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet?” (Ezekiel 34:18)
A more holistic biblical eschatology opens the door to both the already and the not-yet Kingdom of God. Modeling a life of practical thanksgiving, Jesus shows us that the joys and sufferings of the moment are portals into that realm. So, as the Good Shepherd:
Jesus welcomes the stranger.
He feeds the hungry.
He restores the outcast to community.
He celebrates the beauty of the lilies of the field.
He embraces the God-revealing holiness of Creation in all of its fragility and all of its resilience.
And as his flock, we participate in all of those things with him
Through his own life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates what is true for all of us: We and all things “live and move and have our being” in God. (Acts 17:28) We and all things are loved eternally and equally by God. The faithful response to that love is to love as we are loved. And that takes more than our own wits and wills. To live with and for one another in lives of practical thanksgiving means committing ourselves to the reign of Christ in this world.
St. Francis of Assisi took seriously Jesus’ call to live a life of practical thanksgiving. Among St. Francis’ many words of wisdom are these bits of advice: “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible…[And anyone who] will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion,” said St. Francis, “will deal likewise with their fellow [human beings].”3
Do you hear that blending of the particular and the ultimate? We touch eternity, and we live eschatologically by tending and feeding the people beside us right now, by caring for future generations and the future earth by committing ourselves to gratitude, generosity, and conservation today.
Living in the realm of Christ the King means so much more than walking on streets of gold with people who have “been good” and “done right.” It means, as the prophet Micah says, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God—today. It means, as Jesus says in his last words to Peter, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”
God of boundless grace, help us to continue following your Good Shepherd into lives of practical thanksgiving, lives of gratitude, generosity, and responsibility, lives that reflect his trust in you, and his willingness to risk living peaceably with and for the sake of all whom you love.
1 Wil Gafney, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 316.
2Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 319.
*This sermon is a re-work of my Reign of Christ sermon on November 24, 2019.