If you look behind me on an evening like this, you can see a project that I would like get done in the not too distant future here at Good Shepherd. The most distinctive feature here in our sanctuary is, of course, the window with Jesus the Good Shepherd that is located behind and above the altar. The Good Shepherd window is the logo for our congregation – we have it on our sign; on our letterhead and envelopes; on t-shirts; … it’s even on my business cards.
The window is a great feature of our congregation … except when you come to a service at night. At night it is a little difficult to make out – it certainly doesn’t stand out. With no light coming in, you really can’t see the window. That is why it has been so nice when, from time to time, temporary lighting has been set up outside that shines in through the window. Now when that happens, the church is itself is darker than it is during the daytime, and the illuminated window just looks great. It is very striking. And so I would like to see us put in a permanent light source that could be turned on for every evening service. After all, in addition to mid-week Advent and Lent services and the Divine Service in the evening on some Feast days, there are a number of us who are here every Wednesday for Learn by Heart and the Catechumenate. It would be great to have the illumined Good Shepherd window for all the evening services.
During Advent we have been listening to a series of Old Testament texts that speak about the Messiah. In 2 Samuel chapter 7 he was called a son of Yahweh. Last week, in Isaiah chapter 11 he was called a shoot from the stump of Jesse. Tonight, in Ezekiel chapter 34, he is called a shepherd. This particular text is a key one that provides the background for Jesus’ designation of himself as the “Good Shepherd,” and therefore for the name of our congregation. But as we reflect upon this metaphor in its Old Testament background we encounter the surprise that this shepherd is born in a stable and gives his life for the sheep.
Ezekiel wrote during the sixth century B.C. He was part of a second small group of exiles that were taken to Babylon in 597 B.C. – people from the upper levels of society in Judah. Ezekiel’s prophecy falls into two halves. Up through chapter 31 he condemns Judah because of her idolatry and sin. He says that destruction is coming as he speaks Law. Then, in chapter 31, a survivor arrives from Jerusalem who reports that the city has been taken by the Babylonians and destroyed. From that point on, Ezekiel delivers a message of hope and restoration – he speaks Gospel.
The Gospel in chapter 34 is expressed using the metaphor of a shepherd. The people are described as sheep that have been scattered and the prophet says that God will seek them out. Ezekiel writes, “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.”
Ezekiel says that the people need to be rescued from the place where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. He refers to the exiles – the deportations – that had come upon the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Yahweh had used the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C. and the Babylonians in the sixth century in order to exact judgment upon his people. Because of their sin they were now scattered and removed from the promised land.
Scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. Now none of us has been sent into exile, but we do experience how our sin tosses life into confusion and uncertainty. We do experience clouds and thick darkness of our own making as our words and actions hurt and alienate our friends. We suffer from doubt and uncertainty about God’s continuing love and care because things don’t go the way we want them to.
In our text, Yahweh promises that he will seek out his people and rescue them. He says, “And 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 ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.” God says that he will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak.
Yahweh promises that he will bring salvation to his people. And he provides a very specific promise about this future. He 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 promises a king descended from David who would rule and care for his people.
God promised to bring his people back. He began to do this in 538 B.C. when the Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and issued a decree that they could return to Judah. But the gathering of all of God’s people and the arrival of God’s servant David as the shepherd did not take place at that time. The results God promised were not an immediate and all at once event.
All of texts we have looked at during Advent have focused on the Messiah as the descendant of David. This one does too, and if we aren’t careful we will miss what “shepherd” means in this setting and how it helps to put the birth and ministry of Jesus Christ into the correct perspective.
In the near eastern world, “shepherd” was a metaphor that was applied to kings. There was nothing humble about it. It was used to describe the one who had power and wealth, and who was charged with the welfare of the people.
It was natural to describe the Davidic king – the Messiah – as a shepherd. Yet the fulfillment of this promise in Jesus Christ brings unexpected details. This Davidic shepherd is not born in a palace. Instead he is born in a stable with animals and placed in a feeding trough. During his ministry he will have no place to lay his head.
Jesus will describe himself as a shepherd – as the Good Shepherd. Yet rather than using the metaphor to describe royal oversight, he will take things in a completely different direction. He will say, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
The royal shepherd of the near eastern world doesn’t give his life for the sheep. But that is what this Jesus the Christ does. He gives his life in order to take away the sins of the world. Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
During Advent we prepare to celebrate the birth of this shepherd who lay down his life and then took it up again for our salvation. And in that resurrection we begin to see how the words of our text will be fulfilled. For the Lord who rose and ascended will return in glory on the Last Day. He will raise us up and transform us to be like his resurrected body. He will renew creation so that it is freed from the slavery of corruption brought by sin.
On that day he will gather together all of his people to live with him in the new creation. Israel will be gathered form the ends of the earth. Yet now this Israel will not be just the northern tribes and the southern tribe, but instead it will be all tribes people who have believed and have been baptized. And then, the Son, the shoot will be the shepherd for all his people. For as Yahweh promises in our text tonight: “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.”