I ummed and ahhed about sharing this here as a sermon written down isn’t the same as one preached in a service. However, lots of my friends couldn’t come along to the service and also I like to be a ‘reflective practitioner’ – meaning that I reflect on what I do and one of the ways I do that is through blogging so that I can get feedback from others and grow and learn.
So I have decided to post it here along with some of the visuals I used as well. Feel free to comment and feed back any thoughts. God Bless you.
The readings were:
Please do read these passages in your bible or by clicking on the links above before reading on!
Do any of you know what these are (at this point I held up some 3D specs)? They’re actually a pair of 3D cinema specs – the modern kind, not like the old green and red ones. I don’t know if any of you have been to see a modern 3D film? I remember Paul and I going to a matinee of the cartoon Monsters vs Aliens in 3D. It was really funny because the auditorium was full of small children with these big specs on – it looked like a special outing for gifted and talented children!
Well, in reading this Ezekiel passage today from the Old Testament, it’s kind of like helping us to see the New Testament in 3D. When we read the Old Testament and we learn from it, it makes the New Testament come to life even more for us – it makes certain passages really jump out of the page as if they’re in 3D. We see new depths and new colours and have an altogether deeper experience. I think this passage that we heard today does this for us.
Just before we dive into the passage it is helpful for us to understand who Ezekiel is talking to.
Who knows who this is a picture of?
Can you guess why I’ve put a picture of Boney M up here?! Well they had a hit back in the 70s – By the rivers of Babylon – which is probably the strangest psalm ever chosen for a pop song!
The song is based on Psalm 137 which reads in the first verse:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
Ezekiel had been taken to Babylon when he was 25, he spent a lot of time preaching to the Jews there that Jerusalem would fall but no one believed him. When Jerusalem finally did fall there was a wave of refugees and exiles who had come from Jerusalem to Babylon. These were a devastated group of people. It is these people Ezekiel is speaking to. People who were grieving and far from home.
The picture that Ezekiel puts into 3D for us is something that is quite familiar – that of shepherds and sheep.
Shepherds and sheep are probably one of the first things we all encounter in church in our lives. That’s quite strange really when you think about it, especially if you live in an suburban area like we do!
We’ve all at some point in our lives worn a tea towel on our heads in a ridiculous attempt to look like a first century shepherd! At the time of Ezekiel, the idea of a leader of people being described as a shepherd was well known both in the middle east in general but especially for the Jews. There are two major leaders of Israel who were real shepherds of sheep before they became shepherds of people. The first was Moses who was looking after sheep in the desert when he first heard God’s call from the burning bush. The second was David, who was also out looking after sheep when Samuel came to choose the next king of Israel. So for the Jews of Ezekiel’s time, the shepherds of Israel were their leaders – their kings. The ‘shepherds of Israel’ that Ezekiel is talking about are the kings of Judah, the leaders of the people.
These leaders of God’s people are expected not only to be good administrative leaders but also good spiritual leaders – we tend to separate the two now in our society – David Cameron is the Prime Minister and he looks after matters of State, Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury and he looks after matters of Faith. This wasn’t the case in Ezekiel’s day. If you want to see what the Kings of Israel and Judah were like, have a look in the 2 books of Kings in the Old Testament – the judgements on them are more about whether they led the people towards God or away from Him.
So what is Ezekiel saying about these shepherds, these recent kings of Judah? What have they done wrong?
There are 3 main things Ezekiel accuses them of, using the metaphor of a shepherd: exploiting the people; not defending the weak and finally allowing the flock to scatter.
They’ve taken advantage of their position. It was normal for a shepherd to live off what the sheep provided – milk, wool and meat, but these shepherds are only taking that and not actually caring for the welfare of the sheep. They’ve got it the wrong way around, they should be caring for the sheep so that they produce good milk, wool and meat. They’ve forgotten that the sheep aren’t there for their benefit – that they’re only looking after them on behalf of God.
Secondly, the shepherds have not looked out for the weakest in their flock or healed them when they were sick. They’ve not been counting all the sheep and making sure everyone’s safe. They’ve let the sheep wander off and get lost.
Finally, they’ve ‘allowed the flock to scatter’ – here Ezekiel is referring to the number of times the Jewish people have been exiled – at different times the Jewish people have scattered away from Jerusalem to Babylon and Egypt and other surrounding countries. In the passage read last week, Ezekiel used this word ‘scattered’ again – it’s used throughout the book of Ezekiel and it refers to the scattered people of God, they’ve moved away from the tabernacle – the place of God’s presence. The way that the shepherds have led Israel means that they’ve lost most of their sheep.
We all know, even us townies, that the basic job of a shepherd is to make sure the flock stays together. Some years ago I was on a Ranger Guides trip to the Lake District and we spent some time with a shepherdess. You’ll notice when out and about that sheep you see have different coloured marks on their backs? The shepherdess showed us a book that all sheep farmers hold which has in it the ID marks of all the local farmers. This shows which farm the sheep belong to so that they can be returned if they get lost. Successive shepherds of Israel clearly didn’t have such a system! They allowed the people to leave the sanctuary in Jerusalem and be ‘scattered to other farms’.
Now, it’s always easy when reading Bible passages like this to assume that this doesn’t apply to me or to the times we’re living in. So I’d like us to have a bit of a deeper look into ourselves and our society.
(This was a cafe service with people sitting around tables in groups so there was some time for discussion).
On your tables I’d like you to discuss this question:
- What makes us (people today) feel exploited or taken advantage of?
It’s sadly not that difficult is it to see parallels between Ezekiel’s day and ours?
Let me read to you the next part of Ezekiel 34 which wasn’t included in today’s reading but is actually the best bit of this chapter!
11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 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….
22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.
Remember the situation that the Jews were in at this time when Ezekiel was preaching – they were alone and hopeless in a foreign land with foreign gods and no opportunity to go back home to Jerusalem. What a message of hope this must have been for them to hear!
But! What about us? How fortunate are we? We know who Ezekiel is talking about don’t we? It’s Jesus!
You can see that Jesus must have known the book of Ezekiel well as he is clearly referring to this passage when he famously says ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. Do you see what I mean about the 3D specs now?!
Jesus was also preaching a similar message to Ezekiel’s to the disciples in today’s gospel reading from Mark. The disciples were getting a little over excited about their new responsibilities that Jesus was giving them (he was basically training them up to be shepherds of the people) and Jesus has to remind them that the role of a shepherd is to seek and save the lost, to bind up the sick and above all to serve – Jesus says:
‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’
It is interesting that in verse 24 the Ezekiel passage says I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them.– the word ‘among’ is significant there. The leader is not aloof and set apart but among his people. This is what God did in sending Jesus to be Immanuel, God with us, among us.
How is Jesus unlike these bad shepherds Ezekiel was talking about?
Firstly, he doesn’t exploit us. He does not expect or need anything from us – his love for us is unconditional. I love the quote from a famous sermon given by Archbishop Desmond Tutu where he says that Jesus says to us: ‘There is nothing you can do to make me love you more, there is nothing you can do to make me love you less’. That is what’s so amazing about grace! That was a real realisation for me in my own faith when I realised that I didn’t have to try and be this perfect person for Jesus to like me, that He accepts me as I am and whilst I was still a sinner, He still chose to die for me.
Secondly Jesus binds us up when we’re hurting and comes looking for us when we run away. I have seen people physically healed through prayer, I know that our God is a God who heals – my mum has been clear of breast cancer for some years now – Jesus came alongside and healed her. But we know that God doesn’t only heal us physically. In my own life I’ve known God’s healing more of my battered emotions and psyche. Some years ago I was really stressed out at work and I’d somehow convinced myself that God wanted me to keep on battling through to support my colleagues through a redundancy process. Very gently, Jesus sent my friend Juliet to visit me, and I believe He spoke through her when she said to me ‘Bryony, you don’t have to work there any more’. It was like a door had been unlocked! The next day I went in applied for Voluntary Severance and the weight I had been carrying had been completely lifted. The Good Shepherd really does tend our wounds – whether they’re physical or psychological.
Finally, Jesus is what unites us as Christians, he doesn’t want his sheep to scatter. On the night before he died Jesus prayed that ‘let they be one as you and I are one’ – he prayed for unity. That night all the disciples scattered but as Jesus rose again, the disciples came back together and later received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Now you might say, hang on a minute Bryony, the church isn’t united. Well in my experience, when you’re speaking to other Christians, Christians who are perhaps very different from you, you do find that what we do have in common is our love for Jesus. I found this in my time at university in the Christian Union – we were from lots of different denominations but we were united around the fact that we all knew and loved the Lord Jesus and we wanted other people to know that too. We were learning about unity in the Romans passage last week – Jesus gives us a way to live together by not judging each other and considering each others’ needs first. When we focus on Jesus, it unites us.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
God never behaves in the way we would – and thank God that he doesn’t!
So if you’re feeling like you’re not good enough for God, know that what he does is come and choose you. Jesus is not like the bad shepherds, only paying attention to the strong and healthy. Jesus leaves the strong and healthy to come and look for those who are weak and tired and have nothing left in them to give and he chooses us and loves us just as we are – not as what we should be. It’s Back to Church Sunday next week and on the invitations it says ‘come as you are’. That is Jesus’ invitation to you. You don’t have to be anything other than yourself to be welcome in his kingdom.
You might be need of physical healing or feeling far from God or trapped. Jesus the good shepherd won’t ever let you get lost – he will come and find you. Pray that Jesus would come and free you from your illness or free you from the situation you’re in. As Peter says in one of his letters ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’.
And what unites us? That Jesus died for us all and rose again. We will be celebrating this shortly in communion – acting out the truth that Jesus doesn’t let his sheep scatter but unites us all around one table.