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Shepherd and sheep

"The new life of the kingdom is conditional on our acceptance of the need to change. Only then can we discover something of the treasure that awaits us both now and in the future."

Ezekiel 34

It's useful sometimes to put the Old Testament stories in perspective, as it can make them that little bit easier to understand. After all, it happened a very long time ago and to a people with a very different lifestyle to that which we enjoy in the 20th Century.

Ezekiel was a Jew in exile in Babylon. He'd been taken there in 597BC, and there's no indication that he ever returned to his native country, Judah. He was called to be a prophet in 593BC, just five or so years before the city of Jerusalem was overrun and destroyed.

The chapter that we're looking at is quite a way into Ezekiel's message, and in 20 of the previous chapters he's been painting a picture of the state of the nation - and to be honest it's not a particularly pretty picture. There are visions, warnings and predictions about the consequences of the continuing guilt of the nation and of the terrible destruction of Jerusalem. He then pronounces judgements upon the seven surrounding nations - just in case the people of Israel thought God was just picking on them.

Now having got all this off his chest, Ezekiel must have felt that the people were ready to sit up and take notice of what God had got planned for them because of their behaviour. After the stick comes the carrot - a message with hope as its conclusion.

So often in prophesies we have a mixture of the present and future, this is the problem now BUT if you do this.....THEN.......something better might follow. Scholars have always looked to understand the purpose of God through the prophesies of the scriptures. The NT writers were in no doubt that within many of the OT prophesies were glimpses of the life, purpose and death of Jesus.

Peter writes in one of his letters

"Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow."

In this lovely picture from Ezekiel, concerning the shepherds and their sheep, we start with contemporary bad farming practice and end with a description of a Good Shepherd that could have been taken from Jesus' own description of himself from the gospel of John.

The people of Israel understood about shepherds. They were farming folk, growing whatever they needed for food. They kept sheep, goats and cattle, and grew crops of olives, figs, grapes, barley, wheat and flax. Their whole year was tied to the changing seasons, and often disrupted by invading armies and marauding animals and pests.

The life of a shepherd changed little between the days of Ezekiel and that of Jesus. The shepherd led his sheep, knew each one of them and watched over them by day and night. There was a good reason for this, because the owner would demand recompense for any lost, and if any were attacked by wild animals evidence would have to be shown.

It was a very responsible job.

Ezekiel compares the rulers of the people with the role of shepherd. "Shouldn't shepherds take care of the flock?" he asks. "You're happy enough to exploit the flock under your control, but that's not really caring for them. There's no compassion, no love, no justice. You've let them run wild, and what happens when the sheep run off out of sight? They end up in the undesirable company of wolves."

What a contemporary message for us. Think of multi-national companies. The remoteness of the worker from the man (or woman) at the top, so-called "fat cat" salaries. What about the many thousands of youngsters who run off to seek the bright lights of the city and just disappear into the undesirable company of drug dealers and pimps. Surely someone somewhere has to accept responsibility for that tragedy.

Naturally enough, God says that he's not happy with the picture as painted by Ezekiel, and he's not going to let it continue. The solution is simple - God himself will take over the responsibility that had previously been delegated to the earthly shepherds.

"I will rescue them from all the places where they are scattered... and gather them from the countries and bring them into their own land."

The prophesy is of God the good shepherd bringing his people out of exile, but the language is messianic.......... "I will bind up the injured and strengthen the week...... I will shepherd the flock with justice.... I will search for the lost and bring back the strays."

Even if not originally intended - and who are we to say - what a picture of the life and purpose of Jesus, who would appear as the Good Shepherd some 400+ years after this prophesy. We read similar words in Isaiah "He tends His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart."

Peter took up the same theme in his first letter when he addressed the elders of the congregations to whom he had written. "Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under you care," he writes. "Serving as overseers - not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be, not greedy for money but eager to serve: not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away."

Power is a dangerous thing. To be given a position of authority, whether in the church or in the world, is something to be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter whether we’ve been given a congregation of believers to take under our wing and lead, teach and care for - or a workforce out of which we must achieve a particular level of productivity. We must treat them just the same - as Jesus treated all people - with respect, not exploiting our position as the leaders in Ezekiel’s day were doing, expecting much and giving little in return.

Our example must be that of Jesus, who called himself the good shepherd - who knew his sheep, cared for his sheep, and laid down his life for his sheep.

How much difference there would be in society today, if this was the way that business was run. How much better employers would feel if they thought that the directors and shareholders knew them by name, took an active interest in their welfare, and enabled each employee to feel that they were an important part of the whole enterprise.

How much more effective is a church where each member feels wanted, and where the problems, sickness and joys of one are shared by the many. This is not only the responsibility of the minister, but all who share positions of leadership within the church.

Ezekiel has a lot to say about the leadership, and the picture of a minister as shepherd of his or her flock is perhaps a fairly familiar one. But what of the flock themselves - that mixed bag of sheep and goats, small ones, big ones, black ones, white ones, quiet ones, loud ones, cute an cuddly lambs, proud and aggressive rams. Ezekiel has a word from the Lord about the sheep as well, and yes, just like the first half of the chapter, it starts off with criticism.

What a wonderful picture of all too common failings - selfishness and greed.

Just as leaders are reprimanded for taking advantage of their position in life, so the ordinary people are asked to sit up and take stock of their lives, and see how low they’ve stooped. We’re talking again about a total disregard of the rights of others - "Blow you, I’m OK Jack!"

The bible has quite a bit to say about selfishness and greed. Think of the story of Cain and Abel, of the disciples James and John asking Jesus to save them the best seats in the house, and of those righteous folk who passed by on the other side of the road when there was an injured man lying there needing help. Think of Jesus’ own words "I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you didn’t clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you didn’t look after me."

Listen to a lesser known passage from the prophet Isaiah. "Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field til no space is left and you live alone in the land." Perhaps not so much around this area, but rich farmers and land-owners have, in recent history mopped up huge acreages, and altered many a farming community not always for the better - but always in the quest for profit.

Then the prophet turns his attention to those who through force of personality or bullying, always seem to get their own way - to the detriment of others who are less able to stand their ground.

Ezekiel 34:20,21

and what does God say he will do? He says again that he will intervene. He will judge between one sheep and another, and place a shepherd over them.

Ezekiel 34:22-24

There then follows a lovely passage with a description of a new covenant between God and his flock, which echoes the words of Hebrews chapter 8 - read it if you have time - and which the writer certainly saw as pointing to Jesus.

Although the Jews did indeed enjoy God’s blessing on their return from exile, the language here carries us into the sorts of metaphors that the NT uses to describe the New Covenant that both Jews and Gentiles enjoy in Christ.

What in fact we’re talking about in this whole chapter is a new way of living - a turning away from the worldly values of the tabloids and soap operas of today, and a return to the values that God set down a while before Ezekiel in tablets of stone for Moses. We’re talking about life in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom which has its origins in Jesus’ first coming to His people.

"The time has come, the Kingdom of God is near!" announces Jesus in Mark’s gospel.

The Kingdom of God is a bit of a mystery. Jesus told stories about it, and invited his hearers to look around and try to discover it. It was a bit like going on a treasure hunt without a map to help you. But in essence it is all that Ezekiel would have us understand in this chapter.

1) It’s about demands. Jesus having announced the Good News of his coming says ‘Repent and believe’ So there are conditions before it can be entered into. A recognition that the lifestyle described by Ezekiel is wrong, and a desire to look for something radical and new.

2) It’s about a topsy turvy world, where the first are last, the least are the greatest, the poor are rich, and justice is seen to be done.

3) It’s a Kingdom where the people are given far more then they deserve, bursting with vitality, and where potential is limitless (Read Ephesians chapter one which talks of the riches of God’s grace that he lavished upon us with all wisdom and understanding.)

4) It is a kingdom which is the product of liberation, justice, reconciliation and healing for all - of changed lived and changed relationships both with God and fellow man. Ezekiel looked forward to this under the shepherding of God, Jesus showed it in his life and death.

5) It is a kingdom which looks to the cross of Easter and sees that through that which was despised and rejected, weak and broken, comes new life.

Listen again to the words of the prophet, writing 500 years before the birth of Christ and see how the NT picture of the new life that Jesus heralded was seen, however dimly, through this prophesy to the people of Israel as they looked for salvation from their years of exile.

Read vs 27ff of Ezekiel 34

God’s saving power, which was evident through the whole of the OT - from the first rainbow promise to Noah, did not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. God continues to show us the same picture as he showed the people of Israel - a reminder that the ways of the world are not the ways of God - and continues to show the world that there is a better way, rooted in the love of God, and with Jesus’ own words from John's Gospel to comfort and strengthen us.

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep...........I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me - just as the Father knows me and I know the Father - and I lay down my life for the sheep.........there shall be one flock and one shepherd."

But like the people who listened to Ezekiel, a warning comes before the promise. The new life of the kingdom is conditional on our acceptance of the need to change. Only then can we discover something of the treasure that awaits us both now and in the future.

‘You my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are people, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’

 

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