Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
The Rev. Adele K. Langworthy, preaching
November 26, 2023

God so wants His ‘sheep’ – that is, us — to safely graze.  He wants you and me (and everyone) to be protected from what will do us in and not wander off into needless danger, to not find ourselves lost and alone.  God wants us to be able to say with surety:  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.

God’s desire certainly wasn’t reality when it came to the leaders in Ezekiel’s time, entrusted with the responsibility to shepherd the people.  Ezekiel calls the leaders out as false leaders.  He accuses them of not being good shepherds of those entrusted to their care, of being selfish, of not serving or caring for the people.

Good shepherds care for their flock; they did not.  Good shepherds go to find their lost sheep; they did not do what they could for the “lost” in their charge.  They were the epitome of ‘bad shepherds’.  They were slaughtering their sheep for their own gain rather than feeding them.  They did not search for or seek the lost, but rather allowed them to become prey for every beast.

The image of shepherds was common throughout the ancient Near East.  Those hearing the words of God delivered by Ezekiel would have understood what God was saying as the sheep/shepherd images were relevant and more transferable than they might be to us urban folk.  Perhaps the following more- modern day stories might help us to understand as we reflect upon this passage by illustrating in modern settings the contrast between good and bad shepherds —

Story # 1:  On January 15th, 2009, US Airways flight #1549 departed New York City’s LaGuardia’s Airport.  Within a few minutes, the plane collided with a flock of geese, taking out both engines.  Captain Sully Sullenberg made an emergency landing in the chilly waters of the Hudson River.  After everyone was evacuated, but before he left the plane and got to safety, Sully walked the plane twice to make sure no one was onboard.  As the captain, he knew that he must be the last person on the plane. “Sully” became a national hero.

Story # 2:  Three years later—almost to the date—on January 13th, 2012, a massive Italian cruise ship called the Costa Concordia crashed into some rocks and started to sink.  An investigation would determine the cause of the crash: the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, was trying to impress a younger female dancer on board when he veered too close to danger.  The ship started sinking with its 4,000-plus passengers on board.

In the confusion and chaos, Francesco escaped on to a lifeboat before everyone else had made it off the ship.  A coast guard member angrily told him on the phone to “Get back on board, [d— it].”  Francesco later claimed that he fell into a lifeboat because the ship was listing to one side.  But the court didn’t believe that story.  Instead, he was found guilty of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning the ship with passengers on board.  He was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Sully exemplified what it means to be a good shepherd, caring for his flock — his passengers and crew; while Francesco demonstrated exactly what it means to be a bad shepherd — only looking out for his own desires and safety.

Just as Sully went over his plane twice to make sure everyone had made it to safety, God needed to let the people of Israel know in no uncertain terms that he was not leaving them behind.  God knew he needed to care for his flock, get them to safety and see to their care.  He was their God and he would not let any stone go unturned in seeking to reach them.  The Lord God says … I will search … I will rescue …I will gather … I will feed … I will shepherd …  I will make you lie down … I will seek the lost … I will bring back strays … I will bind up the injured .. I will strengthen the weak … I will destroy the fat … I will feed with justice … I will judge … I will save … I will send them one shepherd … I will be their God.

Now, God knew his flock was made up of imperfect people. And God even knew, that the one whom he was at the time calling forth to be the shepherd over the lost people of Israel, under his Lordship, was imperfect.  But that did not deter God from putting David on the throne of Israel.  David was who God needed at the time, even though he was far from perfect.  God knew the time would come for the world to have its perfect shepherd, its perfect king.  But for the time being, as it was written in verses 23 and 24, I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them … And I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. 

As the story unfolds, David is good king, and a shepherd who leads and cares for the people entrusted to him — most of the time.  Even though he was quick to dismiss human opinion and more often than not to demonstrate obedience to God, he did give into lust and exhibit a lack of self-control — for instance, as he committed adultery with Bathsheba, and after conceiving a child with her, he chose not to confess or to beg for mercy, but rather to cover his actions up at all costs.

Even as the Bible begins, we read accounts of how those whom God called forth as leaders showed weakness and imperfection.  David was not alone — that is, until the coming of the Messiah, God’s own Son.  God knew all along the only fully effective saving grace for an imperfect people was through a perfect Shepherd King.  And at the right time, the world would come to know him; it was Jesus Christ.  In a lowly manger, born to a teenage girl, was the anointed one, the Shepherd King, known as Jesus, the Christ.

Jesus said (as recorded in John 10), “I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father.”

Perfectly, Jesus walked the earth; perfectly, he carried out the will of his Father; perfectly, he went to Calvary and died so that he might rise and we would know life in heaven.  And of his victory we know for sure, as recorded in Revelation, that he has on his robe and on this thigh inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

As Lord of lords, King of kings, as the Shepherd King, Jesus is the perfect leader.  He not only governs with justice and mercy, but also with grace and encouragement.  And we, the imperfect people that we are, so need that.

Perhaps you’ve seen the show, ‘The Voice’.  On the show, there are four coaches in the ‘power’ coaching seats whose purpose is to work with musical artists, speaking the truth kindly and coaching each artist to become the best version of themselves.  Their goal is not to tear anyone down, but rather to start with the artists in their raw form and to help them develop their skill set.

Isn’t that why God sent his Son, Jesus to earth?  To meet us in our raw imperfectness, to save us from ourselves, that we might know the richness of a relationship with Him that lasts forever, beyond our earthly life?

I am so glad that I benefit from Jesus’ perfect leadership.  I may doubt myself, get myself into mental messes, feel overwhelmed and as though I am unable to make headway in certain areas of my life, knowing full well of my imperfections—but in the midst of it all — I know joy and have hope because I know that my Jesus is there to shepherd me through life.

As King, Jesus sees to it that God wins out over evil.  As Shepherd, Jesus loves you and me into a life-changing, life-giving, life-saving, loving relationship with him.

I invite you to join with me, in all our imperfections, to follow the lead of the Perfect Leader, our Shepherd-Savior-King ever more faithfully today than yesterday and even more so tomorrow.

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