Preached at Alger First UMC on 11/23/2014
Scripture: Ezekiel 34:1-16, 20-24
Well I preached on Ezekiel back in September, and I kind of went pretty in depth with the background behind the book, so let me give you kind of the Cliff’s Notes version of it, alright?
Ezekiel was a prophet called by God to preach to the Israelites. Do you know where the Israelites were when Ezekiel was preaching to them? They had been exiled to Babylon. The nation of Babylon had come in and taken over the nation of Israel and all of the land surrounding it. It’s this whole long story of how it happened, filled with war and politics and all that kind of stuff that I won’t bore you with. Babylon came in, attacked Jerusalem, and subdued it. Then they took about 10,000 Jews with them back to Babylon, just to completely kill the morale of the Jewish people.
Ezekiel was with these 10,000 Jews who were taken back to Babylon. So that’s the first thing we need to know that will affect how we hear this passage. Ezekiel was preaching to the exiled. Ezekiel was preaching to this group of Jewish people who had been uprooted from their homes and families and friends and jobs and lives and had been forced to relocate hundreds of miles away from their homes, less than 100 miles away from the actual city of Babylon. Their God, Yahweh had said that he would protect them and would keep them in this land that he had given them, but here they are, supposedly God’s chosen people, captured and taken away from the Promised Land into the accursed nation of Babylon. Dejected, broke, homeless, hopeless.
But while the situation seemed pretty bad for these 10,000 Jews that Ezekiel was preaching to, there was some hope: Jerusalem hadn’t been destroyed, the Babylonians had just taken it over. The Temple was still standing. There was still hope that they could return after a few years of exile.
But then the Babylonians destroy the temple. They tear it to the ground. The house of God, the place that the Israelites believed that Yahweh, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Holiest of Holies, the Creator of everything, the place where God lived, that Temple was destroyed. And the Israelites are scattered to all the surrounding nations, out of the Promised Land.
So obviously a big question during this time was “Why is all of this happening to us? Where is our God?” Do we ever have those questions? Do we ever wonder where God is in this big mess called life?
Ezekiel starts off his preaching by answering all of those questions that people are asking with the answers that God gives him. Ezekiel says “You’ve been exiled because you have been unfaithful. You haven’t kept the Law, you haven’t kept the covenant with your God, you have not been faithful to God or each other, and you won’t listen to God no matter who God sends to you. So God sent the Babylonians to punish you for your disobedience and stubbornness.” Now, do you think that’s really something the Israelites wanted to hear? Would you want to hear that?
But Ezekiel doesn’t stop there. He says “But wait, it’s not just you all who are to blame for this. Your leaders have done a horrible job of leading you.” In ancient Israel, their kings and monarchs didn’t look much like how we picture kings and queens. When we think of kings and queens, we think of Great Britain and the Royal Family there, right? With all of the pomp and frills and excitement, but not really much power, right? That’s not what Israelite kings were about. Israelite kings and queens were not just called to provide guidance in matters of the city and state and country. They were also called to be spiritual leaders. They were seen as shepherds, and the people as sheep. That’s one of the primary pictures of their rulers
Now, if you read through the books of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles, you’ll see that the spiritual leadership of the king wasn’t emphasized very much. If you read through the records of the rules, you’ll see this phrase pop up a lot: “They did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The kings did not follow the Lord, they did not lead the nation closer to God. In fact, many of the kings actively pulled the nation away from Yahweh and toward some fake God that they’d found in one of the surrounding countries. They weren’t shepherding the people at all. They were caring for themselves and not the flock. And what happens to a flock of sheep without a shepherd? The sheep scatter everywhere. So that’s what had happened to the Israelites.
So we come to our passage for today and we see that God isn’t happy with these shepherds at all. There’s some real righteous anger going on here. God completely lambasts the shepherds. Do we know what that word means? It means to reprimand, to rebuke, to scold harshly. One definition I found said “to flay verbally”-to beat someone with your words. I think that’s a pretty good image of what’s going on here.
And when I read this passage, I kind of see this story happening. The shepherds are off eating, drinking, partying. They say that they’re just taking a break from tending their flocks, everybody has to take a break sometime. And besides, the sheep aren’t going to go anywhere. But then they keep on eating and drinking and partying until it’s dark outside. And the sheep are still alone in the fields. But the shepherds don’t really care, sheep is the last thing they have on their mind. They’ve even taken it further-they decided they were still hungry, so they had one of their own sheep brought in, slaughtered, and made into a nice lamb dinner.
But then, God comes in. Yahweh enters the room. And Yahweh sees the shepherds not tending their flocks. They’re partying with all their friends, having a great time, while their flocks are alone out in the dark without anyone to guide or protect them. And God sees all of this and he lets his righteous anger spill out. “Where are my sheep?! What are you doing here?! You’re shepherds, why aren’t you out caring for my sheep? That’s why I gave you the flock, so you could care for them. But you’re here, inside, eating and drinking and partying with your friends. What in the world are you doing?!”
And the room goes silent. It’s like when a teenager’s parents leave for the weekend so they throw a party, but then their parents come home early and catch them in it. The room goes silent, then the shepherds try to stammer out some kind of excuse. But God shuts them up and says “I gave you these flocks to take care of and you’ve left them alone in the darkness. They’ve wandered off from their fields and have gone everywhere. They’re defenseless sheep, and you left them alone out there with wolves and bears and coyote and all these other bigger animals that would eat them in a second.
And then God ends with this “Fine. I’ll take care of this myself. I’ll come down and take care of these sheep myself. You obviously are not able to do that.” And God runs out into the night to search for his scattered flock. And God rescues his sheep from all the places they were scattered in the darkness. God gathers and leads the sheep out from the far-off foreign lands they had wandered to and brings them to their own land. God rushes up mountains and hills and down into the valleys, searching for his sheep. He snatches them up, just as they are about to be attacked by wolves, taking the claws and teeth on his own skin. And God leads the sheep into their own land. He feeds them in good pasture and keeps their sheepfold there in Israel’s highlands. He makes them lie down in a secure pasture. God in Godself will feed the flock and protect them and care for them. God in Godself will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak.
See, it’s all God. That’s the message in all of this. God does everything here. Did the sheep stay where they were supposed to? Did the sheep find their way back when they wandered off? Did the sheep fight off all the predators and everything else that would have eaten them? Did the sheep put forth any effort in saving themselves in this? No! It was all God. That’s grace. It’s always God to us, calling us the sheep back to God, back to our shepherd and breathing into us the breath of salvation. It’s never us saying “Yeah, I’m in kind of a tough situation here, but I got this God. You sit back and relax, I’ve got this one.” No! It’s God rushing out into the dark, searching tirelessly for where we’ve gotten ourselves lost and stuck in the mud, about ready to be eaten by the wolves. It’s always God searching for us, seeking us out, never stopping.
It’s God coming down saying “I’ll take care of this myself.” Advent starts next week, right? Advent is that time of the year, in the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, that we remember this great truth. We remember that day that God said “I’ll take care of this myself.” We remember that day when God saw how awful the shepherds were at taking care of the flock. We remember that day that God saw how lost and broken and in danger the flock was. God said “No more of this. I’m coming down there. I’m sending myself down into the world, into the dirt and filth and sin, putting on human skin, and taking care of these problems myself.” That’s what we point to today.
And now we come to my favorite part of the message. So what? So what that God has come down and rescued us? So what that God has gathered us the sheep in from everywhere we’d been scattered? So what God came down and took care of this himself? What does this grace mean for us?
Let me read some of this passage to you again. I want to read verses 17-24. I didn’t have Lauren read all of those verses because it would’ve gotten too long, but let me read them now.
Read Ezekiel 34:17-24
This is where God turns away from the shepherds and turns to the flock and has some words with them. God basically says “I have done all of this for you. I’ve brought you back from the wilderness, from the darkness, I’ve led you to lie down in good grazing land, and feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I have given you all of this. So why in the world are you ruining it for everyone else? You’ve eaten the grass, you’ve drank the water from the stream, but now you’ve trampled the grass and muddied the water. The strong ones are pushing the weak ones out and scaring them away. Why are you ruining it for everyone else?
So often, we receive God’s grace, but we think we are the only ones worthy enough to receive grace. Somehow we think that God’s grace makes us into something great. We are the sheep who have been found, so now we’re going to stay in our fenced-in pastures and we’re not going to let anyone else in. We’re just going to sit here, thanking God for what God gave us, eating the food, drinking the water, but not letting anyone else in. In fact, we’re going to have the shepherd erect an electric fence so that there’s no hope of other unsaved, unworthy sheep come in here and ruin everything.
God’s grace was given to be shared, not hoarded away, not kept inside the church building. God’s grace was given to us so that we could extend it to others, anyone else we meet. It was given so that we could extend it out into the community. That is the big “so what” of this message.
So how can we do that? What are some practical ways we can extend grace out into this community? There’s a great opportunity that the Missions Committee has offered this congregation. You know that we’ve been working on the Community Outreach Center down Main Street. You know that we have enough money to put everything up to the concrete foundation and floor in. But we’re going to need more money beyond that. And last week, it was announced that the Missions Committee was giving the challenge to the congregation. For every dollar that is given specifically to the Building Fund for the Community Outreach Center, that dollar will be matched for up to $5,000 with the money available in the Beard Estate from now until December 28. So if you as a congregation give $5,000, the Beard Estate will also give $5,000. If you give $4,000, the Beard Estate will also give $4,000. Understand? Side note-If everyone here gave around $83 to the Building Fund between now and December 28, we would be pretty close to that $5,000.
I threw a lot of figures and numbers and information at you last week that might have seemed a little boring and mundane. But it was important to communicate that to all of you. Why? Because this is another way that we extend the grace of God to the community around us. God has said “I’m going to take care of this myself” and God in Godself has found us here and brought us back into the sheepfold from where we were lost. But God is not done yet. God is still out searching for his lost sheep. The grace of God is still moving, calling the other lost sheep back home. When you give money to the Building Fund, you’re not just writing a check, you’re allowing the grace of God to move through you and out into the community. The money you give is going to help this building get finished, and when it is finished, we will have such a great opportunity to offer God’s grace to this community through the Community Outreach Center. We will have such a great opportunity to allow the grace of God to move through the Community Outreach Center and find the lost sheep in this community. Don’t you want to help with that? Because we can’t do it alone. The Missions Committee can’t do it on their own. Tom and Sharon can’t do it on their own. We need all of you. We need the whole congregation to pitch in.
Now, I realize there are some who can’t really give any more money. That’s totally fine. I’m a poor college student, I can understand being strapped for cash. There’s another great way to do extend grace into this community, especially around this time of year. Every year around Christmas, it seems like people are more likely to come to church. And they’re a whole lot more likely to come to church when they’re invited. So one great way that you can extend grace out into this community is by simply inviting people to church. Do your neighbors go to church? If you don’t know, find out, and if they don’t go to church, invite them here! What’s the worst that can happen? They might say no, and you say that’s fine, and you keep praying for them. This is such a great way to extend the grace that we have been given by God out into the community. And it’s super easy, right? Just invite people to church.
Those are the challenges I’m giving you this week church to extend God’s grace into this community. Give to the building fund or invite people to church. You could even do both of them (gasp)!