Last Sunday of the Church Year (Prop 29 – A)
Ezekiel 34:16-20, 20-24
November 22, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel.
I am not going to encourage you to close your eyes; I know what happens when you do. Instead, imagine a flock of sheep. Young and old. Ewes and rams. Little lambs and yearlings. Some with lush coats of wool. Some ragged and mangy. Some short and stout. Some tall and lean. Do you see them? Thousands, millions of them. Now pick out one, just one and keep your eye on it. Watch where it goes and what it does, because that’s your sheep.
I don’t know if sheep stampede, they certainly scatter, and that’s exactly what just happened. Something scattered the flock. One goes north. Another south. One races east. Another west. One takes a few steps and falls with a broken leg. One runs until it can’t take another step. One falls into a hole. Another the river. One curls up in a ball. Another hides behind it. Thousands of sheep, millions of them, running in every direction. Do you know where yours went?
What scattered them? What are they running from? For each of these sheep it’s something different. Some are running from the same thing, but it’s also not the same because each of the rams, ewes, and lambs sees it differently. Each of them views the frightful thing through their own eyes and unique experiences.
Look at the sheep who races off to the south frightened by the prospect of getting old. Death seems to be drawing near and the sheep doesn’t know what that means for them. Is that sin, that really bad one, going to keep them from seeing the Good Shepherd. Maybe they’re hiding behind the tree of their good works, hoping that all the nice things they’ve done will be enough to offset the bad they’ve done.
Another sheep, at one time content with life, runs off chased by sorrow and a relentless grief. Bereft of a spouse, or even worse, a child, the sheep falls into a hole. In that hole, it feels all alone because none of the other sheep can truly understand what has happened to them or the depth of their sorrow.
A lamb runs and runs and runs, trying to escape the problems at school or home. The mocking leading to acting out. The isolation bringing on self-harm like cutting, or anorexia or suicidal thoughts. The loneliness, the feeling of not being understood by parents, teachers, or peers, makes the lamb wish that it could just disappear.
One sheep runs, or tries to run, but falls and breaks a leg. Life has been hard for this sheep, especially lately, as pain, disease, or illness takes a toll. The once energetic sheep is now hurt and can’t get away.
One sheep, who’s normally brave, runs and hides when confronted by a sin. A sin that threatens consequences of an unwelcome kind, consequences that may take a long time to run their course. A sin that is shameful, and yet one, that the sheep doesn’t want to give up, even though it knows what it’s doing is wrong.
Another sheep runs for the woods hoping to find protection. The depression, the anger, the isolation, the losses, the stress of the living in a world that’s completely sinful. A world that breeds violence, crime, chaos, riots, and disagreements. The sin that breeds disease, illness, mask mandates, unemployment, separation from friends at school, washed out family celebrations, and unvisited family in nursing homes. The frustration that makes the sheep throw its hoofs into the air in a meaningless gesture.
And then there are the rams, ewes, yearlings, and lambs that have been scattered by fear. Justifiably scared by frightening illness, they run off alone, hiding themselves in caves and crevices, hoping nothing bad finds them. But by hiding, they’re also hiding from those who can encourage them. They’re hiding from the Shepherd who wants them close by because they’re not sure if being near Him is safe or not. Fear leads to drastic actions and the inability to recapture lost moments. At the end of the day, fear has conquered everything.
Where’s your sheep? Did it run off in a panic? Or freeze in place? Is it sick or wounded? Is it sick and wounded? Is it lost? Is it hiding? Is it scared, angry, or depressed? Is it just done with everything that’s going wrong in this world? Where’s your sheep?
The next thing I want you to do is to pretend to close your eyes and see the shepherd. I don’t want you to see just any shepherd, see the Good Shepherd. See not a hired man, see your Owner. Picture the perfect loving Shepherd combing the forests, caves, crevices, holes, and barren fields for His scattered sheep. Listen as He says, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”
Listen as the Shepherd says to the sheep struggling with getting older: “Listen to me…[you] who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am He, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:3-4). Getting older isn’t often fun, and the negatives often outweigh the positives, but sheep aren’t left to age alone. The Shepherd comforts you with the promises of His presence and eternal life. He knew you in the womb and He’ll know you until your in the grave, and beyond.
The Shepherd listens for the plaintive cry of a grieving sheep. He finds the sorrowing sheep and says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:4-5) He is with the sheep in their overwhelming sorrow and promises you that, in time, He will give you comfort and He stands with you in your grief, shedding tears right alongside of you. He’ll do so until the words of our Epistle are fulfilled at the resurrection of the dead and a joyful reunion with those who have gone before.
Lambs, being small sheep, don’t always understand what’s going on. They may wonder why they’re teased and rejected. Other sheep may not know what the lamb is enduring, but the Shepherd knows because He knows His sheep and He says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:13-14). School and life can be hard for young sheep, for adolescent and young adult sheep, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re never alone. God walks with you, helping you, and reminding you that these hard times are only temporary. He promises you that He hears your prayers and will rescue you.
Some sheep didn’t get very far. They collapsed under the weight of broken legs, cancer, and constant pain. Saint Paul knew about never-ending physical troubles. He prayed three times and each time God says, “My grace is sufficient for you”. In other words, take heart. The Good Shepherd will shepherd you through the pain and suffering. And one day He’ll give you absolute freedom from the pain of your body. As He says: “And I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” (Ezekiel 34:16). He is the Good Shepherd, and He is the Great Physician of body and soul.
Sin makes the sheep runaway doesn’t it? The sheep are proud and don’t like to admit when they’ve done something wrong. Sometimes they avoid the shepherd. Sometimes they think the shepherd is going to beat them for their sin. They cower in holes in the ground and think that the Shepherd won’t be able to find them since they’re so dreadfully lost. And yet, what do you hear? The voice of the Shepherd: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). And what do you see? The compassionate, nail scarred hands of the Shepherd Savior, lifting them, lifting you out of the depths of sin.
There are some sheep who curl up in a ball, hoping that whatever startled them will just move on and ignore them. But regardless of how tightly they shut their eyes and plug their ears, there’s no escaping the horrible evidence of Satan’s attacks. Satan is running rampant in this world, causing so much anger, stress, anxiety, and so many other things that the world seems to be his. God seems to have lost control. The Good Shepherd doesn’t agree. He says, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD” (Proverbs 21:30). Then He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28-29). The Shepherd is your source of hope, help, and assurance in world that threatens to overwhelm you. As He says, the waters may roar and foam, but they will not overcome you, that’s His promise.
The Shepherd was afraid once, did you know that? He was. As He prayed in a garden, surrounded by temptation, He was terrified of what He knew was coming. But for you, He said to His Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” He swallowed His fear and went to His death trusting that following the darkest hours, the Father would be there. And by conquering His fear and Sin He saved you from everything frightful. Listen as He assures you: “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:9-10). The Shepherd was victorious over fear and Sin so you can look to Him trusting that there’s nothing in this life that can separate you from Him. Not life, not death, not Covid, not disease, not mask mandates, quarantines, or anything else. Fear not, little lambs, it’s the Father’s will to give you life and salvation. And really, what can we possibly fear that the Shepherd hasn’t already vanquished? Nothing, not a thing.
Now, in your imagination, look in a mirror. What do you see? Do you see a sheep? Do you see your sheep? You’re all like sheep that have gone astray, and yet, the Good Shepherd looks for you. He’ll keep looking for you, no matter how many times you get scared and run away. There is no crevice too deep, cave too dark, water too wild, or mountain too high that will keep the Good Shepherd from doing what He came to do. As He says to you, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 34:15).
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen