Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter - Misericordias Domini

                                                                                                            Easter 3
                                                                                                            Ez 34:11-16

            I got glasses when I was thirteen years old.  In my case, it was baseball that revealed there was a problem.  During the summer I began to perceive that it didn’t seem like I was seeing the baseball as well when I was hitting.  I also realized that when I sat in the dugout and looked out at the scoreboard, the numbers seemed fuzzy in a way that they had not in the past.  I could tell that there was a difference, and so my parents took me to the optometrist where we learned that sure enough, I needed glasses.
            Both my brother and I needed glasses when we were in our early teens, and so I have always told my kids that they shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that they need them too.  However, it never occurred to Amy or me that the need might arise earlier.
            This school year we had to take Michael to the optometrist so that he could receive the eye screening that is now required for all kindergarten students.  And in his case, it turned out that the state requirement was a good thing because the tests revealed that he needed glasses.  His vision had been off since a very young age, and so apparently he had no basis for comparison.  Unlike my case where I knew my vision had changed and gotten worse, he just thought that this was what things looked like.
            Glasses have fixed this.  However, they have created a new problem.  As you may have noticed Michael is an athletic and active child.  He loves sports and always wants to be playing.  Now he is very good about being careful with his glasses – he knows that we don’t want them broken.  And so if he decides that he is going to do something active in the house or is about to go play outside, wherever he is at he takes his glasses off and lays them aside.
            The problem is that often they don’t go back on his face when he is done.  And so, at some point later in the day Michael and his parents – and sometimes his brothers and sister too – end up playing the game: “Where are Michael’s glasses?” The search commences as we scour the house, looking high and low trying to find them.  Thus far we have always found them – though there was one time when days went by and all attempts failed.  Finally, mom came through as she pulled out the cushion from a couch and found the glasses wedged in below.
            In our Old Testament lesson for today, God describes how he will seek out his sheep who have been scattered.  He himself will be their shepherd and will bring them into good grazing land.  He will bring back the lost, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak.  On this Good Shepherd Sunday we rejoice in the good news that in his Son, Jesus Christ, he has done just that.
            Our text addresses a time not long after 587 B.C. Ezekiel was a part of the group of people – those from the upper crust of society – who were taken into exile by the Babylonians in 597 B.C. This was in fact the second group taken away by the Babylonians. The first had occurred eight years earlier in 605.  Ezekiel lived with these exiles in the land of Babylon, and in the first thirty-three chapters of his prophecy he condemned the nation Judah for their unfaithfulness to Yahweh.  They had worshipped the pagan gods of the surrounding people, even bringing idolatry into the temple itself in Jerusalem.
            Now this wasn’t the way things were supposed to be.  God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and had given them a good land in which to live. Earlier in this book Yahweh speaks of how, “I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands.”
            Yahweh had taken them into a covenant with himself.  He said, “I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them.”  Yet again, and again, and again Israel rebelled against God.  They did not keep his Torah.  They did not keep the Sabbath. They did not remain faithful to Yahweh and instead they worshipped other gods.
            This unfaithfulness had caused some of the people to be taken in to exile.  And now, something even worse was coming.  Yahweh’s presence, his glory had dwelt in the temple. But in a vision, Ezekiel saw this glory depart from the temple.  Yahweh was abandoning the temple because of their idolatry and unfaithfulness.  He was going to use the Babylonians to destroy the temple and bring devastation to the city.  The Babylonians were going to be the instrument of his judgment.
            The story of Israel’s sin is the story of your sin as well.  Like Israel, you have received God’s command, “You shall have no other gods.”  And yet you never cease to follow the culture in finding other things that you put first in your life; other things that give you a sense of security and value.  Like Israel, you have received God’s command, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  And yet you give those Means of Grace by which God sanctifies you a miniscule place in your life compared to what you allot to sports, entertainment and hobbies.  Like Israel, you have received God’s command, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  And yet, your first inclination is to share that piece of news that casts your neighbor in the worst possible light.
            We know these things to be true.  And if we knew nothing about God except his law and judgment of our sin we would have no hope.  But the good news is that God is a God who wants to save.  In the previous chapter, Yahweh instructs Ezekiel, “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”  God wants to save.  And because he wants to save he has acted in his Son Jesus Christ to give forgiveness and salvation to you who could do nothing to save yourselves.
            In the book of Ezekiel, the turning point occurs in chapter 33 – the chapter just before our text, - when a refugee arrives from Jerusalem with the news, “The city has been struck down.”  God’s judgment had come upon the city.  Yet from that point on, the rest of Ezekiel’s prophecy is one of hope and restoration – it is one of Gospel. 
            We hear that clearly in our text this morning.  The people who were supposed to be shepherds for God’s people – the kings – had in fact led the people into idolatry and unfaithfulness.  Just before our text Yahweh says, “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 none to search or seek for them.”
            But now, Yahweh was going to change this.  As he says in our text, “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”  God was going to seek them out and bring them to a land of good pasture.
            God began this when he used King Cyrus and the Persians to defeat the Babylonians and grant release for the people of God to return to their land.  But the language of this chapter points to something more – something even bigger.  Later in chapter 34 God says, “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.”  God promised his servant David – the Messiah – who would be the shepherd of his people. 
            In our text God says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 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.” 
This is what God has done not just for Israel, but for all people in his Son, Jesus the Messiah.  As we saw during Holy Week, Jesus is the good shepherd who lay down his life for the sheep.  By his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead on Easter            he has given us forgiveness.  He receives those who are injured and weak because of sin, and he gives healing and strength. He provides the peace of knowing now that we are justified – that we have been reconciled to God.  We have peace with God now because of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection, and we know the verdict that will be spoken on the Last Day.  We know that it will be not guilty, innocent.
            We know this because we already hear that verdict now.  That’s what happens every time Holy Absolution is spoken.  You hear the called servant of Christ say by the authority of the Lord, “I forgive you all your sins.”  This word from Christ is the same word that he the judge will speak on the Last Day as he declares you innocent because he lay down his life on the cross of Good Friday and then took it up again on Easter.
            Jesus the Good Shepherd has gathered you his sheep into the flock of his Church.  And here he feeds you so that you may be strengthened.  Here he gives you his true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  He nourishes and sustains you in the faith as you look for the day of his return when you will see with your eyes what you now know by faith – that there is one flock and one Shepherd.

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