For thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest," declares the Lord GOD. "I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment."
Sermon for Misericordias Domini Sunday 4/26/20
The Good Shepherd
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
One of our favorite images in all of Scripture is the Good Shepherd. Many people and many congregations have beautiful pictures, often by Warner Salmon, of Jesus carrying the lamb tenderly in His arms. And everyone loves the Psalm appointed for Misericordias Domini Sunday, the Twenty-third Psalm, particularly in the King James Version we all memorized so long ago. It is a comforting and warm image of protection and care. It takes us back to our childhood and reminds us intimately of the good things about being a child with parents caring for you.
That is an image God has chosen for Himself. He has repeatedly cultivated the image and the thought. He wants us to see Him as the Good Shepherd, the one who will not let us down, that will not lose us, that will not let us hurt ourselves. Each of our lessons for the week speak of the Good Shepherd. Today we will look at one of the Old Testament Scriptures that speak of our relationship with God in such terms and view for our comfort and blessing the Good Shepherd.
What a beautiful image God gives us in the midst of a book of heavy condemnation and stern judgement. Those who have studied the book of Ezekiel will tell you that it is striking in the anger and judgement of God. God finds so many ways to describe the great horror He is bringing upon Jerusalem for her unfaithfulness, her idolatry, her political stupidity, and her desire to be like those who do not know God. Yet in a book of powerful judgement, even in the blackest of condemnation, yet God holds out the promise of the gospel for those who are His and who must witness or endure because of proximity the great sufferings of the ungodly.
He says that He will search Himself for His sheep. He does that too! We know that faith comes only by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God preached and proclaimed. God seeks out each of His people, calling them sweetly by the gospel of their forgiveness and of the free gift of eternal life. He enters them with His power and creates faith, He adopts them and welcomes them into His Holy family through Baptism and teaches them how to hear and believe and enables them to live for God in holiness.
God promises to gather them together from where they were scattered as on a cloudy and gloomy day. To the first hearers of Ezekiel, this promise sounded like it meant the gathering the scattered who had been exiled by Nebuchadnezzar in the Babylonian Captivity. To believers today, it is the promise of the Church, in which we are called together out of the world and fed on the rich pasture of His Word. In actuality, it was the same promise then as now. This is the promise of the Good Shepherd to bring His people together to hear His Word clearly and purely proclaimed, and to give them lives which will please Him in holiness.
He speaks of lying in good pasture and grazing on the mountain heights of Israel. This is a life of abundance and purity – but the abundance is in God's Word, and the purity is in the doctrine heard and lives lived by the people of God. The mountain heights of Israel are as close as you can get to God in this world – and you can get no closer than where you hear the Word of God taught clearly, taught plainly, and taught honestly.
Then the prophet records one of the most beautiful and most terrifying visions in all of Scripture. The Good Shepherd promises to feed His flock and lead them to rest. The rest spoken of here is that eternal rest in heaven. What a glorious vision! Listen: "I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick;" God will tend to us personally. He will find us even if we are lost. He will fix what is wrong, and bind up our broken hearts. He will comfort and calm. He will heal the sick and strengthen them. There is no pain, no sorrow, no sickness, no weakness, no death in heaven. God Himself will see to that, and we shall know Him and rejoice in that knowledge at last. That's the beautiful part.
The terrifying part comes next: "but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment." The fat and the strong He will destroy. He will feed them with His displeasure and with eternal damnation – for that is what "judgment" means. What is terrifying is that we are the fat and the strong. Not Christians in general, us. We have every advantage. We have the Word of God, clear and plain and in abundance. We enjoy the rich blessings of the earth in abundance. We have the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood before us three weeks out of four. We are fat and lazy spiritually. And we are what the Bible refers to so often as strong. We are the ones who feel no need and fear no evil. Maybe not every one of us, but too many of us.
The strong don't need help – so they don't pray much. The strong don't need any more power or knowledge – so they don't study much. The strong are wise and capable – so they don't let God's Word or their faith interfere with their thinking or decision making. The strong have no compassion – so they take care of themselves first – and last, if the truth be known. Spiritual pride and spiritual apathy mark the fat and the strong. Modern American Christianity is marked by Spiritual Pride and Spiritual Apathy.
Spiritual Pride is when you think you have it made and need no more. It rises when you feel confident that missing worship and standing aloof from the fellowship of the church isn't going to hurt you. Such people feel that they don't need the Lord's Supper, for example. They may take it because it is available, but they don't need it! Spiritual Pride is present in those who say they can worship just as well out in nature as in church. That's a lie, of course, but they believe it because they are so strong and healthy spiritually that missing here and there is no danger and no concern. Spiritual Pride is at work when one believes and behaves as though faith were a personal thing between them and God and had nothing to do with others, or with church, or which church they associate themselves with. They are too puffed up to fellowship, to share in the work, or give of themselves so others may benefit.
Spiritual Apathy is almost indistinguishable from spiritual pride. It looks the same, at times, because both are so inactive. Spiritual Apathy, however, is inactive because it just doesn't care. Spiritual apathy keeps people from Bible Study – it isn't important and they don't care. It isn't worth getting out for. Spiritual matters always take a back seat to other things. First there is family, then there are sports, then there are vacations, then there is the Covid19 shutdown and the fear that God will not take care of them if they risk coming to church. There are just so many important things to do that we don't make it to church for weeks, then months.
The fat and the strong – those who cannot take the time and effort, and those who feel no danger, no need to take the time and the effort – face the wrath of God and the stern warning of judgment in this Good Shepherd text. We are the fat and the strong!
Our Voters' Meetings are one place we show up and get involved. Some behave in ways, at times, that don't always reflect our faith or our humility. We generally do nothing special to spread the word. We do nothing special to build up the church. Some speak evil about our neighbor, our congregation, or our pastor, which is negative evangelism. We seem to do that well, complaining about our church or our pastor or our fellow-members. And we gossip – the phone lines hum sometimes! We look like those who have gotten over-confident or just plain who-cares-lazy about our gospel riches from God.
That's why this prophecy is also terrifying. God has gathered His people in this prophecy. Then He destroys the fat and the strong among them. He is dealing with those who are fat and strong among His people, not the outsiders. God came to seek and save the lost, to bind up the wounded, to comfort the broken-hearted. Those who are comfortable, who are confident, who are strong and capable on their own have no part in Him, no matter what they think.
Even Jesus makes a point of telling us, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
But for those who are sick, who have sinned and fear the coming judgement God has a promise. He has forgiven us in Jesus, paid for our sins by His death on the cross, and announced His love and His will to save us by the Easter resurrection of Jesus. Those who are humble He will feed and lead to His eternal rest.
He feeds us even now. He lays before us the heavenly feast in earthly clothing, giving us the true body and blood of Jesus in, with, and under the form of the bread and the wine. He calls to those who know Him and believe His Word and trust in His promises to come here and receive Christ Himself in the mystery of the Sacrament. Here, in this precious Sacrament, is forgiveness and life and salvation and everything which Christ has won for us. This meal, and this fellowship and this gathering about the Word and Sacrament is what the Good Shepherd promised when He promised to gather, bind up, heal and comfort. It is true that there will be more and greater in heaven, but it begins here.
The Good Shepherd. He feeds and heals, He finds and strengthens, He gives them forgiveness and eternal life. But He also culls the flock. These are two sides, both real views of the same Good Shepherd. Come hear and feed. Come to the Good Shepherd in Word and in Sacrament regularly.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)