Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
Mid-day Worship - April 10, 2010
(with the ELCA Seminary Presidents)
Ezekiel 34:7-15 (and 37:1-14)
Grace and peace to you through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
You know that it’s always important to consider the literary context of any Scripture passage. It is important, but sometimes you may wish you hadn’t done it.
As I began to prepare for preaching today, I decided to re-read the book of Ezekiel start to end, to get the context for today’s reading from chapter 34. I’d not done that for a while.
Do you remember what’s there? The first 33 chapters are nearly full of unrelieved denunciations, woes, and pronouncements of doom, in very harsh language and bizarre images. It’s not bedtime reading.
Ezekiel ministered to the Israelites at the time Babylon conquered Jerusalem, killing many and taking a group into exile. Those 33 chapters cover some seven years of ministry – a first call, you might say.
Ezekiel was not a warm, comforting pastor. He insistently showed people their guilt. He said their sins caused their defeat. He scoffed at any hope that they could reclaim their land and freedom. He denounced their conduct, their immorality, their chasing other gods.
Some of the Israelites were encouraging one another by saying things would be OK. Ezekiel said, “No, they won’t be OK.” In dozens of ways he insisted that the people were doomed, and deserved it.
33 chapters of this. The people were in denial or despairing or both—and it’s rather clear that Ezekiel isn’t feeling like a successful pastor.
How would you react if you got a phone call from a bishop, “You assigned to this synod. Pleased to have you. I have a congregation in mind. It needs a little work. You’ll have to spend the first seven years preaching nothing but law, denouncing the people as harshly as you can.”
That’s the heavy context that precedes today’s text—a text that begins in a similar tone, this time denouncing the “shepherds.”
You know the word “pastor” means shepherd. Many of us are or intend to become pastors—so we may cringe at this denunciation. Here’s a small comfort – these verses likely were meant to denounce princes and kings. Ezekiel has some anti-monarchical tendencies.
Unfortunately, we pastors are still not off the hook. Elsewhere in Ezekiel there are also sharp denunciations of spiritual leaders who aren’t doing their job, who make up lies to please the people.
That’s the context – doom. Now at the end of page two of my manuscript I finally come to the center of the text, 34:10-11 The Lord God says, “I will rescue my sheep…. I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.”
Former Gettysburg prof Robert Jensen wrote of this verse, Ezekiel finally comes to an unadulterated promise of salvation, to what the Reformation tradition calls “gospel”…. And (it) reaches its climax in v. 15, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” Jenson concluded, The Lord will personally do what Israel’s rulers were supposed to do and did not….
God as shepherd of the sheep --we could and should think here of Psalm 23, and of Jesus’ self-description as the good shepherd who searches for the lost sheep and brings them home.
However, we can’t jump so readily and cleanly to grace and salvation because Ezekiel is not done with his pronouncements of doom. Biblical faithfulness requires that we consider the context again, the following sections. In the verse that immediately follows, God promises to bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the week…and to destroy the fat and the strong! I will feed them with justice, God says.
The next paragraph makes sharp distinctions between those who care about others and those who only care that they themselves are well fed and do consequent harm to others.
There’s no cheap grace in Ezekiel.
I invite you to hold on to that word from v. 11, “I myself will search for my sheep, and I will seek them out.” With our trust nourished by such a promise, let’s join Ezekiel in being honest about sin.
Ezekiel faced radical evil—evil to the roots. He did not tie himself in knots trying to be show how every individual could be saved. In Ezekiel’s account of justice, the evil doers perish. They are brutally wiped out, directly by the hand of God or by God’s strange agents in history.
For Ezekiel, the very goodness of God means there can be no acceptance of evil, no compromise. Obedience and righteousness are necessary, absolutely necessary for true acknowledgement of God.
How does this law hit you? What are you hearing? I quail before Ezekiel’s denunciations, fearing that I am overly attentive to my own needs, trampling on the pasture other sheep need in my haste to take care of myself. And I quail before this law as one who has been and is a shepherd. I am doubly culpable. Have I sinned and also tolerated sin, calling evil good?
My young friends, my presidential colleagues, our work is to take both God’s nature and human sin with utmost seriousness, to take both seriously for the same reason—for the sake of salvation. God’s desire is that all shall live.
Come back to that promise which operates under all of this – Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and I will seek them out.
And, again attending to context, remember what you heard last Sunday from Ezekiel 37 about dry bones – Mortal, can these bones live? Only you know that, God.
Here’s what I we can remember as we do the work of shepherds, God said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the bones.” He did, and through the words of Ezekiel, the bones came together, and sinew and muscles grew again, and finally the breath of God activated what was dead.”
God works in those words that God demands us to speak.
Have the people of God failed God? Yes, failed miserably. Have the pastors and diaconal ministers and associates in ministry and seminary presidents failed God? Yes, failed miserably.
Has God failed? No, indeed.
God’s fundamental action toward lost sheep is to seek them and to give life to the dead. God’s fundamental action toward failing shepherds is to seek them and to give life to the dead.
Thanks be to God!
God’s mercy endures for ever.