I’m very grateful to live in rural Cheshire, especially in these times. My heart goes out to those trapped in urban areas during this current lockdown. Here in Ashton and Mouldsworth we’re so fortunate to have fresh air and space to stretch our legs.
But whether we live in the countryside or the city, Ezekiel employs a powerful farming metaphor today that’s helpful for everyone. Because in today’s passage he tells us that sinful shepherds have scattered God’s sheep, before introducing us to a Good Shepherd who will seek and save the lost.
Sinful shepherds scatter God’s sheep (v.1-10)
Firstly, then Ezekiel tells us that sinful shepherds have scattered God’s sheep (quite a tongue twister!). By describing God’s people as sheep, Ezekiel is deliberately echoing the language of Jeremiah, one of his prophetic predecessors. A few years before their exile into Babylon, Jeremiah had been the first prophet to describe the Jewish people as “the sheep of God’s pasture”. Ezekiel employs the same language today, and condemns the sinful “shepherds” who have caused God’s chosen people to be scattered far from home.
These shepherds are the kings and rulers of Israel who had failed God’s people. For decades these shepherds had abused their authority and misused their power. Listen again to God’s stinging rebuke of their behaviour in verse 2:
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says – Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed those who are ill or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”
In short, these wretched, failed leaders have been selfish, greedy, proud, lazy and cruel. Under their leadership the people of Israel have been exploited and exiled. Verse 6 says that the actions of these sinful leaders has led to God’s people being “scattered” among the surrounding nations.
As a church leader, I find God’s condemnation of these sinful shepherds a sobering warning for me today. It warns Christian leaders against the abuse of power in ministry. It warns us against misusing our own authority to accumulate money, possessions or status.
The Lord’s rebuke via Ezekiel is a reminder to those of us in church leadership that we are accountable to God for our actions. It is his flock we are leading. They belong to him. We are merely stewards and under-shepherds of his people.
The Lord makes this point painfully clear to the sinful leaders condemned in Ezekiel’s prophecy this morning. Repeatedly God stresses that the Jewish people are his. They are really “my” sheep, “my” flock, says the Lord – the rulers of Israel have only a delegated authority over God’s people.
And now, says Ezekiel, these faithless shepherds have been found wanting and are being stripped of their responsibilities.
Listen again to his words in verse 10: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”
To use Parliamentary language, God has passed a ‘vote of no confidence’ in the rulers of Israel and is removing them from office. Using the Babylonian army as his instrument, he is stripping authority from the unfaithful leaders in Jerusalem.
The Good Shepherd seeks & saves the lost (v.11-16)
Last year NASA held a press conference to launch the next generation of space suits. The American Space Agency showed off the hi-tech new suits that astronauts will be wearing in the years to come. Suits that will keep them alive as they travel back to the Moon and maybe even to Mars. In the vacuum of Space, human beings need help to survive.
In our passage this morning we encounter another vacuum. Not the vacuum of space, but a vacuum of leadership. A vacuum that might have seemed equally threatening to survival:
• With the sinful shepherds now dismissed, who will lead God’s people Israel?
• Who now will rescue them from spiritual (as well as physical) exile and restore their relationship with the Lord?
• Where can Ezekiel’s compatriots now look for leadership – for hope – for the future?
The answer Ezekiel gives is that God is about to take matters into his own hands. The Lord himself will be the new shepherd that Israel in exile needs. God himself will be the good shepherd who seeks and saves his lost sheep.
The good shepherd’s mission statement appears in verses 11 to 13: “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered…I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land”.
And in verse 16 he says “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
These verses could not be clearer – God himself will intervene to rescue and rebuild his people. They must have given great hope to all those who heard them.
Of course, as Christians we know how these promises were fulfilled, don’t we? When Jesus of Nazareth stood up on the stage of history and said “I am the Good Shepherd”, the prophecy of Ezekiel 34 was finally fulfilled. Five centuries after Ezekiel spoken, God showed up in person to shepherd his wayward people.
As we read about the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels we see Ezekiel’s prophecies come to fruition. We see a good shepherd with the power to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons and give sight to the blind. A good shepherd with authority over death and disease. A good shepherd whose mission was to seek and save the lost, by laying down his life at the cross. And a Good Shepherd whose death took away the sins of the world, ended our spiritual exile from God, and opened the way to eternal life.
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