Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter - Misericordias Domini - Ez 34:11-16

                                                                                                Easter 3
                                                                                                Ez 34:11-16

            When things have gone well for a nation, or a sports team, or a business, but the person who has been responsible for leadership is about to be step down from the position, there is the need for a plan of succession.  If the leader reaches his term limit, or the coach, or CEO is about to retire the group needs a plan for choosing the successor.
            Now this sounds straight forward, but it isn’t so easy.  Great leaders stand out for a reason – they don’t grow on trees. The fact that a coach was on the staff of a great coach, provides no guarantee that he will be a great coach when out on his own. History is littered with succession plans that just didn’t turn out the way people hoped and expected.
            This is what had happened in ancient Israel. God had raised up Samuel as judge of Israel.  Samuel was a prophet of Yahweh, but also acted as the person who rendered judgment on matters for the people.  Every year he went on a circuit of cities in order to do this.  Samuel worked to keep the people in faith toward Yahweh, and also helped to administer an orderly and peaceful life among them.
            When Samuel became old, he set up his two sons as judges in Israel. The sons were going to succeed the father.  But it didn’t work out.  Samuel’s sons did not walk in Samuel’s ways.  Instead, they used their position for personal gain as they took brides and perverted justice. So the elders of Israel came to Samuel and said, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
            The Israelites wanted to be like all the other peoples.  Yet they were ignoring the fact that they already had a king.  Yahweh was their king. And as Yahweh told Samuel, “they have rejected me from being king over them.”  So Yahweh told Samuel to give them the king they wanted.  But he also told the people what kings would do to them. They would take their sons and daughter to be soldiers and servants.  They would take a tenth of their harvest and flocks, and in the end the people would become their slaves.
            The kings did exactly that.  But things would not have been nearly so bad if they had only done that.  Instead, the kings also became the greatest promoters of idolatry and pagan religion.  When the north and south split, all of the kings in the north were evil in this way.  And in the south, in Judah, with the exception of a handful like Hezekiah and Josiah, they did the same. In fact, they even brought pagan gods into the temple itself in Jerusalem.
            The ancient near eastern world used “shepherd” as a common metaphor for a king. In our text this morning, Yahweh has just been talking about what these kings – these so called shepherds – had done.  Yahweh said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”  God complained that these shepherds had not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured and brought the strays back,
            God declared about the people, “So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 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.”  The people had indeed been scattered – they had been scattered in the judgment of exile that had come upon them, and that was about to take place.
            Weak, injured, sick and straying – the description sounds very similar.  It continues to describe the flock which is God’s people the Church. Weak, injured and sick provide a literal description of some of us.  And of course, as metaphors, they convey the experiences and emotional state of congregation members as well.  We are indeed always tempted to stray from God’s will as we are enticed by the allurements and pressures of the world, along with our own sinful nature. And after our text, Ezekiel goes on to describe another way sin reveals itself: sheep harm other sheep.  It is the same thing that we see as Christians live together in marriage and families.
            In response to the situation of his people, Yahweh promised to act.  Ezekiel writes in our text: “For thus says Lord Yahweh: ‘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 promised to gather his flock that been scattered because of the unfaithful shepherds.
            He said that he would gather them and he would feed them as Ezekiel goes on to write in our text: “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.”   Yahweh himself would be their shepherd and he announced that he would seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. 
            When would Yahweh do this?  Certainly, God did provide a remarkable series of events when the Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians in 539 B.C., and then the next year issued an edict that the people of Judah could return to their land and rebuild the temple. But later in this chapter it becomes clear that God is talking about something much bigger. Through Ezekiel 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.”
            Yahweh said that he would set a descendant of King David shepherd over the people.  Now there had been a line of kings descending from David who had ruled Judah. But they were the very ones God condemns in this chapter.  Yahweh doesn’t speak here about just any descendant of David.  He speaks about the descendant.  He speaks about the Messiah – the Christ.  He speaks about Jesus.
            In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd.  The shepherds of Israel in the Old Testament – the kings – had used their position to serve their own interests.  They had lived the life of luxury at the people’s expense.  They had not cared for the people and watched out for them.  Most importantly, they had led the people away from Yahweh and into the worship of false gods.
            The idea of a king was not unknown before the people came to Samuel and asked for one.  In Deuteronomy Yahweh had described what a king was to do.  There he told Israel: “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment.”
            Jesus came as the shepherd who lived God’s law – his Torah. He feared, loved, and trusted in God above all things.  He kept all the words of Yahweh’s law.  His heart was not lifted up above his brothers.  Instead in keeping God’s will he did the exact opposite.  Jesus Christ says in today’s Gospel lesson, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
            As we saw during Holy Week, Jesus lay down his life as he was lifted up on the cross.  He lay it down in perfect submission to God’s will.  He loved us with this love.  He did this to free us from sin.  He did this to free us from death.
            Immediately after the Gospel lesson Jesus goes on to say, “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.”  On Easter Jesus fulfilled the charge given to him by the Father as he took up his life again.  In his resurrection we see that he has defeated death and is the source of life for us.  Our sins have been taken away, and so we are able to have life with God – fellowship with him.  And in Jesus’ resurrection we see the resurrection life that will be ours when he returns in glory on the Last Day.
            Now, as the risen and ascended Lord, Jesus Christ is the shepherd that Ezekiel describes.  He leads his Church and feeds us with good pasture.  He leads us to his Means of Grace, for through them he gives forgiveness and life.  He sustains us in the life of faith through his life giving Spirit.  He binds up the injured through his word of comfort and love – a love that has defeated death itself.
            And because we receive this from our Lord, we now also desire others to share in it as well.  We want them to be free from their sins; to know life with God; to know the living hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So consider the people in your life – the people with whom you interact – who need to hear about the Good Shepherd who laid down his life and took it up again for us. And then look for the opportunities the Lord provides to tell them about what Jesus Christ had done.
            In our text today, we hear God say, “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.”  In the Son of God, Jesus Christ, God has sought us out.  He has rescued us through the actions of the Good Shepherd he sent as our Savior.  Jesus lay down his life for the sheep – for us – on the cross.  He took it up again in his resurrection on Easter.  Now he feeds us in the pastures – he feeds us with his Word and his Sacrament – and gives us life that will never end.





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