Jesus is Your Good Shepherd, Ezekiel 34:11–24, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19), September 15, 2019
In our Old Testament Reading, the Lord God says that He shall seek out sheep that have been scattered over the mountains and ravines of Israel. He shall shepherd the flock with justice and not allow the fat and the strong sheep to lord it over the weak. He shall place over them one shepherd, His servant David. That promise is fulfilled in David’s descendant, an even greater Son.
Very few sections of the Old Testament are as rich and prolific as is Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a great prophet with his promise of a future servant from the house of David, and with his extended vision of a new temple. The people whom God caused to be scattered, because of their idolatry, would be cleansed and sanctified with a new heart and a new Spirit. This restoration is depicted as a birth of the new Adam and as a resurrection from the dead.
Ezekiel saw Babylon depose the Davidic king and tear God’s people away from their earthly home in 587 B.C. Therefore his vision of the future restoration under a new Shepherd is appropriate for the church today, as we are nothing more than scattered exiles awaiting the glorious return of our Shepherd, who will lead us into our Promised Land.
When God tells us that David will be our shepherd, He is not talking about the King David of old. That David was long dead by the time of this prophecy. Instead, he is talking about David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ. He is telling the people of old about the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one.
This future Davidic Shepherd will feed and govern the people in perfect unity with God, perfectly carrying out God’s will, not placing Himself in opposition to God, as the evil shepherds tend to do. Jesus is indeed the true Shepherd who seeks after the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He will establish a united flock of which He will be their one true Shepherd.
We often ignore the guidance of our one true Shepherd. By nature we are a rebellious house, just like those to whom Ezekiel preached. When we do not follow the Shepherd, too often our lives are empty, without direction and purpose, lacking joy. That rebellion can even eventually cause us to be lost forever in hell.
We all know what it means to be lost. Every sin makes us lost. Our own death can lose us in the grave’s corruption. Our ailments of body, soul, society, and work all are symptoms of our lost-ness. This is not just moral, but our whole condition reflects our lost-ness.
We sheep are just that way. We get lost one blade of grass at a time, we nibble our way into sin’s lost-ness; rarely do we intentionally go running off. Our inattentiveness to our own lives has often been the problem. We have not listened to the Shepherd and as a result often we find ourselves surrounded by wolves, or wandering off and falling into some pit. What is so stupid is that if we just listened to those Ten Commandments and tried our best to keep them, most of the world’s problems and our own problems really would go away.
We are like coins that sit there in dark corners and often don’t know why we are lost and can’t do anything about it anyway. Voiceless and unfeeling, we are lethargic in our lost-ness. That old penny found in our lawn didn’t even know it was dirty and lost. It had to be found.
Too often we have looked just like the Pharisees. God has been about some great, gracious work and we find ourselves peering through heaven’s fence, angry that they are having fun and wondering why we are stuck out here. Lost in our own self-righteousness we think we are found, not even thinking about the fact that our own decisions and attitudes have brought us here.
Our pharisaical attitude is not approved of by God. Quite to the contrary, we will be held accountable. God’s will is clear in this regard. He wants all to be saved. If our doors are not open to all, our heart is not in line with God’s heart and the doors of heavenly joy will be closed to us.
A king has the right to assert his authority by force. But a good shepherd gains the flock’s trust by caring for them and leading them to good pasture. Similarly, through the Word and Sacraments our Shepherd does not just claim sovereign authority; He also forgives our sins, ministers to our hurts, and leads us to life everlasting. Under His care, our daily life is more meaningful, joyful, and purposeful. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, is our only hope for this life and the life to come.
A young boy lived in a New England seaport. He loved to watch the boats come in with their daily catch. One day he decided to build a little sailboat all his own. He worked for weeks, making sure each detail was just right. Finally, the big day arrived. He went down to the wharf and proudly put his boat into the water. As he triumphantly observed his new sailboat, the wind suddenly changed and the tiny boat was swept out toward sea.
The boy was heartbroken. Every day for a month he went back to see if his boat had washed up on shore. One day in the market he saw his boat in a store window. He excitedly ran into the store and told the proprietress that it was his boat. The woman only responded by saying that the boat would cost him two dollars. After pleading with her to no avail, the boy finally pulled out the money and gave it to the store owner. As the boy was leaving the store, he said, “Little boat, you are twice mine. You are mine because I made you, and now you are mine because I bought you.”
Jesus Christ is our Shepherd, because He has made us and redeemed us, we belong to Him. His rightful claim covers every aspect of our lives. For some shepherds’ neglect is absolute. Therefore, the Lord Himself promises that He will free the flock from negligent, self-serving shepherds. He will be the true Shepherd, who will gather, care for, and feed His people.
At this point, it is good for us to look in two directions. First, we look back and realize that we have not always followed the gentle, wise, and beneficial guidance of our Shepherd. For this we ask forgiveness, trusting that because Jesus died for our sins, we are forgiven. Second, through God’s Word and Sacraments, our Good Shepherd daily calls us and will enable us, by His grace, to follow Him. True life now and forever consists of following our Good Shepherd!
Why would a Sovereign King, Lord of Lord, Creator of the universe humble Himself to be our Shepherd? The story is told of Peter the Great, King of Russia, who put aside his royal garments, dressed himself in the clothes of a common laborer, and went to Holland and England, where he hired himself out as a carpenter to learn for his people the art of building ships.
Our Sovereign King humbled Himself and became a servant for us. “He humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Our Good Shepherd searches for His sheep. He has the compassion and mercy to bring back the strays, to bind up the injured and strengthen the weak (v 16).
David was the youngest of eight sons. He was a mere shepherd boy. He was a most unlikely candidate to be king. Yet God chose to exalt him to the highest position of leadership over his precious people, Israel (1 Sam 16:1–13). “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler” (1 Chron 11:2). Jesus humbled Himself to death on a cross, but “God exalted Him to the highest place, and gave Him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9).
Though God’s people were exiled to captivity under the king of Babylon, God was still their true King, and He was still their Shepherd. He spoke to them through the prophet Ezekiel, seeking to gather them back to Himself. When we stray and sin, God still speaks to us through His Word. He seeks us, inviting us to return to Him for full and free forgiveness. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6).
Through Holy Baptism our Shepherd made us His sheep. Through our Lord’s Supper He feeds His sheep. He gives us all we need for body and soul. Our Shepherd protects us. Sheep are powerless and doomed without a more powerful and caring shepherd. The sleek and the strong of this world, the mighty oppressors and Satan’s deceivers, seek to mislead and ruin us. The forces of evil will be thwarted as God rescues His people and destroys the sleek and the strong (v 16). God will execute judgment upon those who oppress the poor and prey on the weak. He will carry out justice.
He will bring His sheep to the Promised Land, His own land. “Good pasture,” “mountain heights,” “rich pasture”, all are pictures and a glimpse of heaven! The best is yet to come for us as we make our pilgrimage through the desert of this world toward the land flowing with milk and honey.
Ezekiel sees a terrible time when shepherds were abusing the sheep, when the sheep themselves were cruelly treating one another. It was a grim situation. The person who was looking at such a time and place must have felt that God had abandoned them.
Ezekiel wants them, and us, to know this truth, God has never left His people. There are many things to which we can likely point to, which make it look like God is not here. Human sinfulness is real. Our enemy uses it to whisper in our ear that our God does not care for us, our trust in Him is foolish, and we should abandon any hope for His aid.
But Jesus overcame that foe on the darkest day of all, when the sun hid its face and the earth quaked, when nearly every friend fled and Roman soldiers pounded cruel nails into His hands and feet. He knows what that abandoned feeling is like. “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” He cried.
But God had not abandoned Jesus to the grave nor did he let His holy one see decay. God’s care and love for you is eternal, patient, and does not fail.
Our confidence is rooted in the divine assertion, “I the Lord have spoken. You can count on it.” We have His promise, His assurance, that what He states is absolutely true. He is the Shepherd, who loves us, and the King, who has the power to fulfill His promises.
What a wonderful Shepherd we have! Jesus, the Son of David, promised, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:15), and He kept that promise. And He did it for all people, including you and me! We follow Him, because He alone leads us to life eternal. Amen.