Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
People say that sheep are stupid animals. There’s kind of this old wives’ tale that you can take a sheep and turn it facing into a corner, leave it there, and it won’t move. It turns out, according a study done by the University of Illinois, that sheep are not incredibly stupid. Instead, their intelligence is generally just below that of pigs and on the level of cattle. But sheep are herd animals. They generally flock together, making them among the first domesticated animals because they naturally follow a leader. They can also be hefted, which means that they can be raised to stay in one area when there are no fences separating fields. They flock and want to be together, and when separated they become stressed. There have been experiments where scientists have separated a sheep to induce stress and then put a mirror in front of it. The sheep, thinking that it is not alone, calms down.
Sheep want to be with sheep; they belong with other sheep. That’s the job of a shepherd: to take care of the sheep. The Lord speaks against the shepherds of the people of Israel, “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” The rulers of the house of Israel, both the civil rulers and the spiritual leaders, led the people astray. They were evil, seeking after only their own interests, and God’s sheep were scattered and separated. God laments, “My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” And so He seeks out His sheep Himself. Contrary to the evil shepherds, Jesus came to seek out the lost. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when they have been scattered, so does Jesus seek out and save His flock.
We’ve now reached the end of the church year and next week we will start anew with the Triumphal Entry. On that day Jesus processed into Jerusalem knowing full-well that it was to His own suffering and brutal death, a death that He did not deserve. Today we learn why He suffered. The reading chosen for the lectionary cuts out the first part of Ezekiel 34, which I think we need to provide some context for our reading – especially since the imagery of a shepherd with his sheep is so fundamental to how we understand Christ’s work for us. Chapter 34 begins with the Lord’s speaking against the rulers of Israel, both in the government and in the Church. Their job was to seek the best for God’s people. They were to care for the weak and sick, to feed them with the word of God. Instead, God says, the shepherds fed off the sheep.
They fed off the sheep and clothed themselves with their wool. They did not strengthen the weak, did not heal the sick, did not help the injured, didn’t bring back the strayed, nor did they seek the lost. Instead, those placed in authority by God to care for the people ruled with force and harshness. Ultimately this would result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. and the exile of God’s people. It also resulted in two consequences that were even more personal than the destruction of God’s house: many sheep were injured and scattered, and the ones that remained became fat like their shepherds.
The wicked priests were probably the worst. They were the ones who were supposed to feed God’s people His pure Word, to comfort them with the promise of the forgiveness of sins through faith in the Messiah, and they didn’t. Instead, they were concerned only about themselves. They didn’t care about the people, and God’s children became prey for the wild beasts. All around them were pagan nations who had all sorts of wicked practices that enticed them. God said that His sheep were scattered and they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. Instead of worshipping God on the one mountain of Israel, Mt. Zion, His children were scattered and began to worship on the hills. The hills were where all the pagan temples were. And no one sought to bring them back.
The sheep that weren’t scattered became fat like their wicked shepherds. God asks, “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?” The sheep that remained were corrupted by their shepherds into caring only about themselves. Instead of growing strong through the preaching of the Gospel, they grew fat on the Law, only caring about themselves. The text says that they pushed with side and shoulder and thrust their horns at the weak, until they scattered the other sheep.
We can see the application in Old Testament Judaism, but it applies today as well. Our natural tendency as humans is to cling to the Law. For pastors, this means that it’s very easy to hammer people. It’s easy to get up in the pulpit and destroy people with God’s condemnation against sin and drive them either to despair or out the door. The opposite temptation, then, is to avoid speaking (rightly) about sin and change our message into moralism – which, actually, ends the same way. Moralism is all Law and no Gospel. If we don’t speak about sin, then we don’t speak about our need for Jesus Christ. He alone is our salvation, our hope, the redeemer of our souls through His precious death.
But also, it’s very easy to sit in the pew and wonder if I’m just a little bit less of a sinner than that person across the aisle. Maybe there’s someone new to church, and I just know how they behave outside these walls. And so we thrust them aside with our horns, instead of sharing the love of Christ with our fellow sinners in need. God says later in chapter 34, “You are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.” But it’s so easy to think we’re better than others.
Therefore, “thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” This text used to be the Old Testament reading for Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th after Easter. It was paired with one of the most comforting texts in all Scripture: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” God looked out on the earth and saw that there was no one. There was no one righteous; no one was good, not even the shepherds, nor the sheep. No one. “So,” God says, “I’ll do it myself.”
Because there was no one to do it, no one that could do it, Jesus became the Good Shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and lays down His life for them. He came to seek the lost, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, to strengthen the weak. This He did by becoming man, taking the sin of all mankind upon Himself. He took our sin, our guilt, the anxiety that we have because our lives are not how we envisioned them to be, the anger we have against our brothers or sisters in Christ, and He died. He was flogged, punched, spit upon, and crucified to make payment for our sin, to save us, lost and condemned sinners.
“And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.” This is God the Father’s promise: that He will set His servant David as the shepherd of His people. This is Jesus. A prophesied title for Jesus is Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” or “God with His people.” Jesus is our eternal Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us, but He is also among us here. He promised to be with us always, and He is faithful. He is always here in His Word and upon our lips. He continually feeds us His forgiveness through His body and blood. By these things He strengthens us to bring His Word to those around us and in the community. We bring His Word that, in Him, all sins are forgiven and that life finds its fulfillment in the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
They say that sheep aren’t as stupid as they’re made out to be. But I know that, as a sheep myself, I wouldn’t be so sure. Daily we are tossed to and fro, scattered by our own sinfulness and the wicked shepherds that still roam God’s fields on earth. Therefore Christ says, “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered.” This Christ did for us through His death on the cross and He will continue to do so through the preaching of His Word until He returns to bring us to Himself.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ezek. 34:2.
 Ezek. 34:6
 Ezek. 34:18
 Ezek. 34:31
 Ezek. 34:11, 16
 Jn. 10:11
 Ezek. 34:23–24
 Ezek. 34:12