Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
This week in the church is the final week of our Christian year. It has come to be celebrated as Christ the King Sunday or as the Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the week where we celebrate Christ’s reign and authority over us. In this time of year as we approach our celebration of Christ’s birth we take this Sunday to celebrate Christ’s authority over us. We understand the reason why Christ came to set us free from the shackles of sin, and begin to foundationalize the place that Christ should hold in our hearts. That is no more present than in our understanding of these two scriptures and how they relate to our lives. We often refer to Christ as the Great Shepherd, and today we will look at what that means and what it means in terms of our lives and the work we do in the world in terms of justice and care.
However, in order to understand what is happening in our Ezekiel text and to learn from our Matthew text lets look at the first 10 verses in Ezekiel 34, because this gives us our background needed to understand what else is being said. The first two verses in Ezekiel 34 say, “The Lord’s word came to me: Human one, prophesy against Israel’s shepherds. Prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims to the shepherds: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock?” As we begin it is important to note that as Ezekiel talks about shepherds he is referring to the old line of kings and the rulers over Israel and Judah. In this case the Lord is questioning the reign of those leaders over Israel.
So here in these verses and as Ezekiel continues on until verse 10 we have a question on the reign of the kings and leaders of Israel. Ezekiel is receiving this message from God that is criticizing to the Kings of Israel. Ezekiel continues on writing, “You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice.” These are the things the kings have done wrong.
As we read these first handful of verses we see that there is no justice in this world. The leaders are filling their own coffers and fattening themselves for their glory. Leaving nothing for the people who actually need it. And from this we see that the flock has been lost. The leaders looked after themselves and didn’t consider the people who needed help. This lead to the downfall of their society. This was written during the time of the Babylonian exile when the people of Babylon forced the Israelites out of Judah and moved them all across the region and away from their homes, and you see this imagery if you read the 10 verses that precede our reading for today, and this provides background as we consider both scriptures shared this morning.
This leads us to our verses from Ezekiel I read earlier. We now know that the Israelites are spread out and lost all across the land. They are seeking a shepherd who can lead them back to their promised land, and that is what they are promised. Verses 11 and 12 say, “The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 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.” God is going to go and rescue all of those who are lost. This passage is reminder for us of the parable Jesus tells in Luke 15 where a shepherd will leave the 99 sheep in search of the one who is lost. We understand this same mentality here in Ezekiel. God is going to go out a find each of his sheep one by one by whatever means necessary, and that means sending his son to be the Savior for all of those lost sheep.
This is where our celebration of Jesus’ authority comes into play, because God did send Jesus. And God sent Jesus to find and to save the lost sheep. And to reconcile the love between God and God’s people. Not necessarily in a physical way, but more so in a spiritual way. Jesus promises spiritual salvation when we follow him, and before we follow him we often identify ourselves as lost sheep and we are trying to find our Great Shepherd. And this is what God is promising through Ezekiel here. He is promising to be our Great Shepherd. To go out, to find us, and to rescue us and bring us into the arms of justice and peace.
However, God is not only going to find us and bring us into his arms, but he will seek justice for those who need justice sought for and he expects us to be justice doers for his name. We learn that God is seeking glory for those who need and deserve it, and that is the understanding we begin to see as we look at our Matthew passage.
Our Matthew passage is one that is fairly common and you might hear read quite often when it comes to talking about caring and compassion ministries done by the church. It also comes up in many situations of justice, and when we think about the actions that God judges us upon. Like Ezekiel there will be a gathering of people and the people are being separated and we see the separation is based on the works that they have done. We learn from both passages that God is looking at the work that we are doing, and as we look at Jesus’ words we see the example we are to live by. Jesus is saying that we should be treating others as if we ourselves are taking care of Jesus.
Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me…I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”
Last week we wrapped up our discussion on the church and numerous times we talked about the works we do out of showing our faith, and here we have a direct teaching of Jesus that talks about this. Jesus is simply saying that our faith should be presented in our actions and we should be seeking justice and care for those who need it.
This is a direct contrast to what the Kings and leaders in the time before Ezekiel writes were doing, and if we read those first 10 verses of chapter 34 it is what we understand that the kings were doing and how the sheep had become scattered. Now God has sought to correct the actions of the kings and between what Ezekiel teaches and what we learn from Jesus we enter this idea of God putting an emphasis on the justice we seek in our missional living.
Justice is a major part of our faith because we are to seek out ways to take care of those who are in need of help, those who are in need of the message that is offered through Christ, and those who are hurting and need redemption. The United Methodist Church takes justice fairly seriously and we see that in our social principles which are part of our Discipline and in the fact that we have a board of church and society. The purpose of this board is to oversee in our acts of justice. We go out and do missions where we help those who are in need of help. Those whom justice has not looked so favorably upon. We allow God to be the eyes of justice and wipe away our own preconceived notions of peoples faults.
As an undergraduate I helped serve meals to homeless people right in the heart of downtown Richmond. I went with a group of students from my college and youth who were members of the church on campus. We would gather together, pack lunches, and then go to Monroe Park in downtown Richmond and hand them out. But we wouldn’t just hand them out we would have conversations, and learn their stories, and understand who they are and sought ways to help them. This is justice. Justice is an acknowledgement of a wrong and seeking to help those who have been wronged.
We are called to be the justice seekers and care givers in our world. By nature of being followers of God’s word and Jesus’ teachings we are to seek out opportunities to do this work. So we take this word from Ezekiel and understand that Jesus is our Great Shepherd. And as the sheep in his pasture we are rescued and saved by Jesus. Now are we lean sheep or fat sheep if we are looking at Ezekiel? Or in Matthew’s terms are we sheep or goats? Ask yourself are you the kind of person who takes advantage of a system of power and becomes corrupted by greed and self-indulgence? Or do you actively seek justice. Do you seek to do the right thing and help the people need? Do you take how people have helped you and how you have been rescued to help others?
As we move into this time of preparation…this Advent season. This time where we begin to look and examine our readiness for Christ to come. Are we ready. This Advent we are going to have a series on getting ready and how people in the Bible call us to get ready and how they were preparing themselves. We are all getting ready for one thing. We are all getting ready for Jesus. Have you helped the person in need of help? Have you sought active ways to enact justice in the world?
Justice looks different to all of us, but Jesus makes it very clear what justice really is. Jesus makes it clear that it is care for those who need it. Those who often cannot care for themselves. Those in misfortune who truly need our help, and those who have been hurt…especially those who may have been hurt by those claiming to be doing God’s work. We have seen through Jesus that God uses us in his role of the Great Shepherd to help locate the lost sheep.
So go and be a lean sheep who is looking out for and helping others, and don’t allow all that the world tries to offer cloud the vision of the justice God is calling us to enact.