I love the Old Testament prophets. I Love them because they will say ANYTHING. They are the guys who say what everybody else is thinking – but lack the courage to say. But they also say crazy stuff. Stuff that nobody understands. Stuff that seems to be about one thing but it is really about something else.
Ezekiel was a Hebrew prophet born some 622 before Christ. He is revered within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a prophet of God. Ezekiel is thought to be descended from Joshua and was born in the Hebrew line of Judah. Ezekiel describes his calling in Ezekiel 1 – and describes receiving a vision of God riding in a chariot pulled by cherubs. The OT book of Ezekiel is a collection of his prophetic ministry and speaks primarily of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
In Ezekiel 34 he begins with a strong rebuke of Israel’s shepherds. He condemns their self-serving leadership and their lack of compassion and real care for the people. In verse 11, God promises to replace these shepherds and to establish Himself as caregiver and shepherd of Israel.
Ezekiel 34:11-24 - New Living Translation (NLT)
11 “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search and find my sheep. 12 I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day. 13 I will bring them back home to their own land of Israel from among the peoples and nations. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel and by the rivers and in all the places where people live. 14 Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak. But I will destroy those who are fat and powerful. I will feed them, yes—feed them justice!
In verse 16, the prophesy hints at what is coming next as God turns his attention from the shepherds to the sheep. This is today’s reading and it is aimed squarely at us!
17 “And as for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says to his people: I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats. 18 Isn’t it enough for you to keep the best of the pastures for yourselves? Must you also trample down the rest? Isn’t it enough for you to drink clear water for yourselves? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Why must my flock eat what you have trampled down and drink water you have fouled? 20 “Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. 21For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded my sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands. 22 So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another. 23 And I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David will be a prince among my people. I, the LORD, have spoken!
I have heard a lot of sermons about sheep and goats. Not so many about sheep and sheep. I think we prefer the “sheep and goats” stories because it is another “us vs. them” type of story. Also interesting to note that, when those stories are told, the story teller is almost always in the sheep family and the goats are the “other” in the story.
Ezekiel’s prophecy – which we are to believe comes directly from God himself – gives us less wiggle room. It is not us and them… it is us and us. Sheep and sheep.
In the narrative view of scripture – the practice of reading the bible as story rather than instruction manual – Israel is both a literal nation of people and also a type for all the people of God - the vessel for God’s story. NT Wright says that the Creation story is Israel’s story and that Israel’s story is the story of all mankind – all creation. In this context we see creation – fall – exile – and reconciliation in all of these stories, each smaller story point to the larger. And so… some 2600 years removed from Ezekiel’s prophecy, we read the story of Israel and look within to find our own story.
To that end I don’t want so much to tell you with any absolute assurance what these verses mean or how they SHOULD be interpreted. Instead, I want to just share how they hit me… at this moment in my story and in our story. I am not attempting to proof text or to establish any definitive word on these passages… only to share the thoughts they stir in me.
In verse 17, God says that he will judge between those of the same flock. Not us and them… us and us! The SAME flock. Think about that. His words are not meant to draw a line to determine who is in and who is out. Instead, everyone seems to be “in” but there seems to be trouble in the flock. Some of the sheep have gotten fat… gotten fat by pushing and shoving the weaker sheep aside. They have fouled the water by drinking with such gluttony that by the time they are finished… the water is no longer clear and good to drink. The water is muddy and cloudy. The good grass has been trampled into the dirt, leaving nothing for those too weak or timid to push their way to the front. and the weak, hungry and thirsty sheep are scattered… driven away by their own family and forced to try and survive alone.
Remember… not us and them… us and us.
Anybody here a sheep farmer? Maybe descended from a long line of sheep farmers Even without much expertise we should be able to answer these questions. On a sheep farm; which sheep are most valuable; fat or scrawny? Whether we are making wool socks or mutton stew… the fat, well fed and watered sheep are the most valuable, right?
What about in our society… in America?
Who is more valued? The healthy, wealthy, and wise or to sick, poor, and marginalized?
Maybe we are better than that. Maybe we are more enlightened.
What about the gifted? The artist, the musician, the writer? Do we value them more than the mentally challenged guy who bags our groceries?
And what about the church… not just here but everywhere. Do we prefer those with the most to offer? Do we tend to promote those who push to the front and rarely even see the quiet and timid souls who hang back?
If we are honest, we do these things because it makes sense. Of course we promote the most gifted, the most worthy. Of course we give preference to the best and the brightest.
Anyone here ever see the movie “Frankie and Johnny”? The film starred Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer and was about an ex-con who falls in love with a waitress in a diner where he is bussing tables. The movie is based on a stage play entitled “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” The play made a point that these two lovers were just regular schlubs – over 40 - Not attractive or glamorous – just two lonely folks who find each other beyond all hope. The roll of Frankie was played, on Broadway, by Kathy Bates. She lobbied hard for the film role and was eventually passed over for the lovely and 33 year old Michelle Pfeiffer. Bates said this…
"I thought it was wonderful to see a love story about people over forty, ordinary people who were trying to connect... I don`t think we will see it with this movie."
It’s who we are. Kathy Bates can play a psychotic, homicidal Romance Novel fan in “Misery” but she could never play a romantic lead opposite Al Pacino.
This attitude, this value system is so pervasive we are scarcely even aware. In our work place, in our social connections, even in our families. The gifted, the beautiful, the precocious get noticed and get loved. The quiet and introverted simply become invisible.
This is what our world looks bike - But this is not what the kingdom looks like.
In today’s passage we see what we see again and again in scripture. We see a God, a shepherd whose heart beats for the scrawny sheep. Who loves, most of all, the hungry, the thirsty, and the scattered.
We have two rat terriers. They are sisters – litter mates. Queenie is the dominant of the two and she regularly pushes Pepper away at meal time. In fact, Pepper has sort of given up and will stand back until Queenie is finished. Only when Queenie leaves the food bowl will Pepper approach. Maybe it is time to let Pepper eat first…
20 “Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. 21For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded my sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands. 22 So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another. 23 And I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them.
I think we are at a moment of historic change in the church. Smarter people than me have noticed and commented. The church is beginning to hear the words of Ezekiel and to realize that some of us have fattened ourselves at the expense of others. We have made such a splash as we approach church as consumers… we have muddied the water and made it unfit to drink. We have branded Christianity and forgotten that to be like Jesus, we must love those HE loves… the scrawny sheep. The hungry, the thirsty, the scattered.
This community is, in many ways, a group of scattered sheep. Most of us could not find a place at the watering hole and we ended up here. We know what it is to be spiritually hungry, left out, marginalized. But we have to work hard to remember and to guard against the temptation to fatten up at our new trough. There are folks here… in this room… who still feel pushed to the back; who still feel invisible. And there are those out there – in our neighborhood and in our city who are hungry and thirsty and scattered. Some are hungry for actual food, out in the camps or street corners where Aaron and the van go – in search of “the one”. Others are thirsty for acceptance – for love. Some are scattered by broken families, divorce, death, addiction.
And he loves them. He cares for them. He wants to rescue them and bring them home; where they will no longer be hungry or abused.
So… is R Street home? Is it home for you… and is it home for them? Is this a place where everyone is loved, everyone is treasured; everyone eats and drinks and rests? Is this a home where Jesus is shepherd… where HE will feed us and comfort us and care for us? Is R Street HIS home?
May we always make room for all who hunger and thirst. May we never forget that we have known hunger and thirst. May we seek the scattered, feed the hungry, bind the broken hearted, and love as we have been loved.
His Kingdom Come…