Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
The Prophet Ezekiel by Michelangelo (1510)
Today we hear from Ezekiel, a smart and kind of strange prophet from the late 6th century. That was a tough time to be an Israelite, because it was the period of the exile. The Northern Kingdom had been kicked out of their share of the Promised Land since 722 BC, when the Assyrians came to power. For the Southern Kingdom this exile is a fresher wound; the Babylonians took Jerusalem in 587 BC. Ezekiel lived in that southern kingdom… lived in the past tense, because now he’s been forcibly deported 600 miles east to modern-day Iraq.
Ezekiel has a message for God’s exiled people:
God is searching for you.
Ezekiel the prophet uses the image of the shepherd to explain this phenomenon. “I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out,” Ezekiel says for God (34:11). Imagine the sigh of relief this must have given the Israelites, to hear that God will find them and bring them home.
Yes, it’d surely give them relief… if they could make it through the first 33 chapters of Ezekiel’s message.
Chapters 1-24 of Ezekiel is a message of doom on a people who worshipped other gods not only near God’s temple, but in God’s temple. Ezekiel’s vision is of God’s presence leaving that temple. He compares Israel to an unfaithful spouse. After all that – like an angry man ready to snap at the next person who comes into view – Ezekiel spends chapters 25 through 32 judging the surrounding nations.
No one gets off the hook. Mistakes have been made and Ezekiel will not cover them up. Through Ezekiel, God condemns the past “shepherds” of Israel, so-called “kings” who neglected their duties. “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:4).
At this point, Ezekiel’s audience must have thought they were doomed forever. But then Ezekiel speaks a different message for God:
“I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out” (34:11).
Why would God do that?
I’ve never tended sheep, but once I tended a couple dogs. Some friends asked me to dog-sit while their family went to Disney world. There were two entrusted to my care: a high-energy golden retriever and a blind, wheezing cocker spaniel. “You’d better stay in our house,” they told me. “Better yet, you probably need to sleep in our bedroom, because the older dog has trouble sleeping without someone there.”
You can see what kind of dog-sitting gig this was going to be.
Actually, they were sweet pups. I have some happy memories from early in the week: throwing catch with the golden, giving some TLC to the geriatric spaniel.
And then they ran away.
I came back one night to discover that they had blown right through the electric fence. I called Alan, panicked – this was before we were married – and begged him to come help me. We drove around the large mountain-town neighborhood with its meandering streets and mercilessly large yards. I hung out Alan’s truck window, calling their names. It got dark. I felt panicked; I was the worst friend ever. I had lost their family dogs… and the old one had probably off and died somewhere to boot.
Searching for an animal that’s lost is a frenzied and frustrating thing. Animals don’t know the “stay put until someone finds you” rule. They’re moving targets, annoyingly oblivious to any efforts to help them. Usually they got themselves lost in the first place (they knew darn well they weren’t supposed to leave the yard…). After several hours, it becomes tempting to give up – even for a people-pleaser like me who could hardly stand the idea of delivering the bad news to my friends.
Searching for lost animals is not a job for the half-way committed. Only a good owner with a lot of love would keep searching as long as it takes.
“I myself will search for my sheep,” says God. God’s sheep have been poorly tended. God’s sheep have scattered themselves. So God will take on the frustrating, desperate, worry-ridden job of finding them.
We are not Ezekiel’s original audience, and yet we’re not so different from them. We’ve failed to worship God alone; we’ve worshiped money and reputation and pleasure instead. We’ve been poorly shepherded and the least among us has not been looked out for. We have been scattered; we have scattered ourselves.
God will search for us; God is searching for us. And when God finds us, God will care for us.
God the good shepherd will do everything the bad shepherds fail to do. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the week,” God says (34:16). God will even protect us from ourselves: “the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.” Ezekiel elaborates in vv. 20-21: God will judge between the fat and lean sheep; God sees that some are pushing and shoving and messing up the pasture for everyone.
God will be the good shepherd.
Actually: God will delegate that job to one shepherd, a human being.
There was one king, after all, who knew what it meant to be a truly good shepherd. He knew what it meant because before he was king, he was a shepherd.
When the boy David volunteers himself to take on the giant Goliath, he explains his qualifications like this: “I used to keep sheep for my dad. When a lion came, or a bear, and took one of the baby sheep, I’d chase after it and hunt it down. If it fought back, so did I” (see 1 Sam 17:34-35).
Look – I wanted to find those dogs that night, but if a lion or a bear stood in the way? Shoot.
Not David. David is a good shepherd. David is willing to risk his life to search out the sheep. “I will set up over them one Shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them…” (34:23).
This is who God wants in charge of his unruly, prone-to-wander flock.
Except that David is past-tense, buried in a tomb. So who do you turn to when you want another king to rule in the same spirit?
You follow the king’s family tree, of course.
Next week, as we begin Advent, we’ll turn to the story of Jesus’ birth in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. Both of them take care to tell us about Jesus’ family tree. Matthew traces it through Mary; Luke goes through Joseph. Both of them include a particular shepherd-turned-king as one of Jesus’ descendants.
You got it: David.
Jesus is a descendant of David, and like David, Jesus is willing to do whatever it takes for his lost sheep.
Growing up we had a beagle named Lucy Lee. She was a runner – if the front door was open, she was gone. I remember one day when she was gone for a terribly long time. We lived on the water, and my mom became very concerned that she had fallen off the sea wall. Mom drove up and down our street looking for her. Finally she cruised past a home under construction, one where they were building a little pond out front. As she rolled by she caught just a quick glimpse of a little beagle head popping up from that cement pit.
It turns out, Lucy had wandered down there to eat some of the delicious fast food scraps tossed in by the construction crew. Once inside she was trapped – she could jump down, but not back out. It was her own darn fault that she got lost, her own darn fault that she got trapped – but thanks to my patient and loving mother who did not give up on her, Lucy was found. Mom picked her up and carried her back home where she belonged.
If you have gotten yourself lost, then Ezekiel has a message for you. This message was once spoken to a people whose sins were so terrible it got them thrown into generations of exile. Now it comes to you:
God is searching for you.
God has not given up on you. God is a good shepherd. God will not be scared off by lions or bears or the worst of sins.
Take a deep breath and let yourself be found… found by the forgiveness made possible through our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.