Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 (CEB)
11 The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 12 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. 13 I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. 15 I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says. 16 I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep[a] with justice.
20 So the Lord God proclaims to them: I will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. 21 You shove with shoulder and flank, and with your horns you ram all the weak sheep until you’ve scattered them outside. 22 But I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey. I will even judge between the sheep! 23 I will appoint for them a single shepherd, and he will feed them. My servant David will feed them. He will be their shepherd. 24 I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be their prince. I, the Lord, have spoken.
This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Season of the Saints – Part IV – Shepherd of the Saints
Today is Christ the King Sunday. And there’s a fascinating story behind how this day came to be part of the church’s calendar. This Sunday was first added to the church’s calendar in 1925 by the Roman Catholic church in response to the world becoming more worldly and less God-focused. But this special Sunday also came about because of a very particular problem going on in Mexico where Mexican Christians were suffering persecution. You see the Mexican government was telling the Christians that they owed all their allegiance to the government and not to their God. The church in Mexico remained faithful to God, though, and held public parades throughout the land even though there was significant pushback from the government. During these parades the people would proclaim “Cristo Rey.” “Christ is King!” They were really saying not only that Christ is King, but that Christ is the only King! And so, Pope Pius XI declared that these events would be the basis of a holy day to be observed throughout the Roman Catholic Church – and Pope Pius said that this day would be a day to recognize and remember that Christ is King of the Universe! Eventually, many protestants, including United Methodists adopted this day into their church calendars as well.
And so today with the memory of saints who suffered hardship in Mexico, we come to wrap up our season of the saints series by considering who is this king of the saints. In the past few weeks, we have learned how the saints are clothed in white robes, in the blood of the Lamb, we have learned to remember the stories of the saints, we have thought about the life of thanksgiving that saints live out, and now we come to the core of the lives of the saints—we come to the focus of the saints of God — the one who leads and guides the saints, the one who loves and saves the saints—we come to worship Christ the king.
But there is a surprising twist in the story of Christ who is our King. How shocking is it to think that Christ our King, the one whose majesty we worship is not the kind of king we would normally expect in our worldly world, right? Christ does not come robed in velvet, wearing a golden crown and adorned with jewels. Christ is not the mighty, powerful warrior the Israelites expected or that we would imagine. Instead the image that Ezekiel prophesies for us is Christ our King as a shepherd. Ezekiel prophesies the Messiah who is a shepherd! So today, I invite you to consider what this text means in our lives – and how we are called to be saints of God – how we are called into a relationship with the King of King and Lord of Lords who is an unusual kind of king — a shepherd.
First, I want to set the stage historically for you with this scripture. Ezekiel is writing during some of the hardest of times for God’s people. Ezekiel was a prophet raised up by God at a time when the Babylonians had captured the Israelites and taken them away from Jerusalem to live in exile in Babylon. And in this particular text, Ezekiel is speaking the word of God against the leaders of Israel. If we go back to the beginning of chapter 34, we can see that Ezekiel is condemning Israel’s leaders for feeding themselves instead of their sheep. Ezekiel says in verse 2 “Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves.” One of my study Bibles says that “since time immemorial, persons in the biblical world spoke of leaders, especially kings, as shepherds.” (Wesley Study Bible). And so he’s saying that the leaders have failed to heal the sick and to see the lost; they have ruled harshly. And the sheep have been scattered and have become food for wild animals.
And then in today’s particular text, starting in verse 11, Ezekiel says since you leaders of Israel have failed to care for the people, God will take over. And God becomes the shepherd:
The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some 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. I will gather and lead them out… I will bring them to fertile land. I will feed them. They will lie down in a secure fold and feed in green pastures. I will seek out the lost, bind up the wounded and strengthen the weak.
The leaders have failed to care for the people, and so God becomes the shepherd — seeking the people who have been carried away to a foreign land to Babylon, and God promises to bring them back to Jerusalem, to their homeland.
But God the Father is not the only shepherd Ezekiel talks about. Because in verse 23 Jesus becomes the shepherd. Ezekiel prophesies this: “I will appoint for them a single shepherd, and he will feed them. My servant David will feed them. He will be their shepherd.” Now at this time in history King David had already died. But Ezekiel is prophesying another shepherd – he was promising that someone who comes from the line of David, an ancestor of David, will be their shepherd. Jesus, ancestor of David, will become the people’s shepherd.
This image of our God as a shepherd is a very powerful one if we think about what it really means. Some surprising characteristics of God are revealed in this scripture – we can learn a lot about who God is and how God cares for us by this scripture. Through Ezekiel’s words, we learn that God is seeking us out. God is looking for us when we are lost. In fact, God is searching for us when we are scattered so far from God that we can’t even remember where home is or what home was like. God says:
I will seek you when you are lost.
I will bring you back when you go astray.
I will bind up your wounds.
I will make you strong when you are weak.
And so I hope this scripture helps you know today that Christ is King. But I hope you will know that Christ is no typical King. Christ is a king who is powerful yet personal. Christ has the power to heal but pays enough attention to the sheep to notice when even one is injured and hurting. Jesus Christ is the shepherd of the saints – gathering us up, leading us, bringing us out of danger, feeding us and leading us to places of peace. That is an amazing thing to think about!
When you are lost – know that God is still seeking you.
When you stray far away from the God who loves you – know that God is working to bring you back.
When your body is wounded – when your heart or your soul is wounded – the shepherd will bind up your wounds and care for you.
When you feel so weak that you can’t imagine surviving, the shepherd will give you his strength.
But like all prophets Ezekiel comes not just with a word of hope but also with a word of challenge and a warning to change. Because beginning with verse 20, Ezekiel tells us that the Lord will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. Because God knows that once we have been brought into the green pasture and after we have fattened up because we have been living the good life, then we tend to forget the weaker sheep. Verse 21 says, “you shove with shoulder and flank, and with your horns you ram all the weak sheep until you’ve scattered them outside.” The fat sheep represent those in power positions – those who had responsibility for seeing that the flock was fed, the leaders of Israel — but instead the fat sheep cared for themselves. The lost, strayed, injured and weak are those who are powerless and who have suffered at the hands of those who are powerful. The scriptures often reveal God’s special concern for those who are weak and vulnerable. Jesus will spend a disproportionate amount of his time ministering to the sick, the grieving, and other vulnerable people. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in the flock just to search out and find the one in need. And when the one is found Jesus carries it home on his shoulders, and he talks about how a great celebration breaks out when that one is saved. “As so often happens, though, privileged people – people with power and money—have used their privilege to further their own welfare – in total disregard for those who are weak.” (Dick Donovan). We pay no attention to that one in need. Sometimes we do it purposely, and sometimes we just don’t notice how we are pushing and shoving others to get our own way.
And so, Ezekiel warns that when we come into the flock, then we have a duty of discipleship. When we are followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility not to use our power or position or prosperity to push others around. We are called to open our eyes to see the needs of others and take on that role of shepherd in imitation of Christ the King. We are called to Jesus’ mission to care for the least of these.
And so I want to share another one of the scriptures assigned for this day. It’s also about how we will be judged by God.
Matthew 25:31-46 (CEB)
Judgment of the nations
31 “Now when the Human One[a] comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 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. 36 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.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘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.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
This is the Shepherd of the saints. This is Christ the King, and this is the way this King’s kingdom works in the world. These weak, outcast, damaged, diseased, abandoned and marginalized people – these are the saints that Christ the King, Shepherd of the saints tends to.
And if we are his people, we have to acknowledge who we are and what we’ve done. We are the sheep in this scripture, right? “We’re weak, not self-sufficient. We’re outcasts in one way or another, even if we don’t want to admit it. We’re damaged, and we damage others. We’re diseased and riddled with sin. We have been abandoned and marginalized, and we have been the ones who abandon and marginalize others.
But there is a shepherd who is seeking you for a better way of life.” (Sermon notes from series).
Now, if you don’t want to be found by the shepherd, and you want to be strong and self-sufficient and continue to do life on your own then that is your prerogative. God gave you free will to make that choice, and we can each carry on without letting Christ be the king of our lives.
But personally, I can’t do it. I need the presence of this Shepherd King in my life, and I need God more and more each day.
And so, if you do, too:
“Let him find you.
Let him tend your wounds.
Let him love you with divine love.
Let him unmask you for how weak and vulnerable you really are; let him reveal to you how much you need others, especially those we’ve been content to ignore.
Let him open your eyes to the least of these. Then let him put new clothes on you. Let him reshape your story and weave it into the rest of the story of the saints of God. Let him turn your self-reliance into humility and your boasting into thanksgiving.
Christ is King!
And Amen!” (Sermon notes from series).
Let us pray.
Mighty God and Christ our King, it blows our minds that you would seek us out even when we don’t want to be found. We can’t comprehend how you would want to bind up our wounds and strengthen us when we are so weak we can’t go. We can’t believe that you would want to gather us up and lead us to green pastures where we can experience peace as your sheep. So help these words sink deeply into our hearts today. Help us to be transformed by these words and by the power of your Holy Spirit. Help us to set aside our constant struggling to survive without you. Teach us to be the sheep of your pasture. And remind us to love others as you love us. We give our lives to you this day, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.