The 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2007)
“Lost and Found in the Crowd” (Ezekiel 34:11-24)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is the words of the Lord God to the people of Israel as they languished in captivity in Babylon. Their leaders—their shepherds—had failed them (Ez. 34:1-10). The priests had not preached God’s Word faithfully. The kings led the people to disobey God’s commandments. Therefore, the sheep—God’s people—were scattered (Ez. 34:6). They were lost in the wilderness of a foreign land. But Yahweh promised that he would not forget them. He himself would seek them in their lost condition and rescue them and bring them back to their own land ... a place of good pasture, a place of true nourishment. And in a very real way, the Lord God was not merely speaking of restoring the people to the land of Israel. As we will see, he was speaking of the way in which he rescued all of us from our lost condition by sending his Son. This Son is called “my servant David,” because he is a descendant of David...and not just any descendant, but the one whom God the Father had promised would be the Savior of the world. (2 Sam. 7:12-17)
Now, I’ve never tended sheep. But I am now in the business of herding a two-year old. It’s easy to do inside the house. Not so easy at the park. She’s a fast one. Before you know it, she’s spotted another piece of playground equipment that interests her, and she’s off and running. She bobs and weaves between metal poles and plastic slides. Next, she darts underneath a low-hanging bridge, one which is too low for dad to run under, and I’ve lost sight of her. I have to quickly dash around the equipment so I can zero in on her on the other side. But for a moment, there’s a second or two of panic until she comes back into my line of sight.
Just the other day, we were at Jennings Park. A mom was trying to keep track of several children amidst the 20 or so other kids. Some were climbing around like a mob of monkeys. The rest were running around like a bunch of banshees. After a while, the woman began running frantically around the playground, crying out, “Has anyone seen my little guy? I can’t find my little guy!” She soon found him crouched beneath the playground equipment in a space where only a “little guy” could fit. Her panic probably lasted no more than 30 seconds. But to that mother—and to all of the other parents who sympathized with her—I’m sure it felt like an eternity. Tears welled up in her eyes. She snatched her son up in her arms, hugged him, and said, “Oh, honey, I was so scared. Mommy couldn’t see you.”
Lost in the Crowd
It’s easy for little ones to get lost in the crowd. In fact, it’s easy for any of us to get lost in the crowd. Sometimes, even while we are in a crowd, we are alone. The people of Israel were surrounded by other people in their captivity. They lived in Babylon, after all. It was one of the greatest cities in the world of that time and the capital of the powerful Babylonian empire. Yet at the same time, the former inhabitants of Judea had heard the news that Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple was demolished. They must have felt as if God had abandoned them. They were lost and alone, even in the midst of the crowd.
Moreover, not only had God said he would judge Israel’s unfaithful leaders for their role in causing the captivity. He also promised that he would judge those among the people who were domineering and bullying. For example, when they were still in Israel, the rich used to oppress the poor. And so Yahweh compares them to sheep and goats who “push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns.” (Ez. 34:21)
Like the Israelites in captivity, it is easy for us to get lost in the crowd. At work or school, you feel like you are just a number. At church you feel like they only want your money. “Nobody cares about me. Nobody understands me. I’m lost. I’m fearful. I have no direction.”
On the other hand, some of us can be like domineering sheep and goats. We may feel the need to push and shove, if not with muscle, then with words, putting others down, manipulating them, just to try to get ahead or to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. Domineering sheep and goats will end up lost in the crowd, too. They will end up alienating themselves from those they have hurt.
Lost in the crowd, we are tempted to give up. We are tempted to walk away from the place where we have been fed and nourished, the rich pastureland of Word and Sacrament. We are tempted to give up on Christ. If we do, then we will be “scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” In God’s final judgment when he separates the sheep from the goats, we will find out that we are on the wrong side, and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Found and Placed in the Crowd
But there has already been “a day of clouds and thick darkness” on which the Son of God was judged in your place. “The sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:44-45) for three hours on Good Friday as Christ hung on the cross, dying for your sins. Even in the midst of the crowd around the cross, Jesus was all alone...lost in the crowd.
And because Jesus died and rose for you, you can be sure that God will never give up on you. Jesus will never walk away from you, because he walked all the way to the cross to save you. He will relentlessly pursue you until your dying day. Notice what Yahweh says in today’s text: “I myself will search for my sheep” ... “I will seek out my sheep” ... “I will rescue them” ... “I will bring them out.” It is God alone who does the rescuing and saving. You and I have nothing to do with it in our lost condition apart from Christ. God searches for us. He is the one who finds us. He is the shepherd who searches for the one lost sheep out of 100. He is the woman who turns her house upside down just to find one measly coin out of ten. And when they find what they were looking for, they invite their friends and neighbors over for a party. (Luke 15:1-10)
God cares about you as an individual. You are not lost in the crowd. His Word of Law confronts us with our sins. His Word of Gospel leads us to repent of our sins, and there is rejoicing in heaven.
In our text, the Lord God says, “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.” God brought the captives home from their captivity, but he had so much more in store for them than simply restoring them to the land. His will was to restore a new people to himself, both Jews and Gentiles alike. St. Paul calls this “the mystery of Christ” in Ephesians 3. He says, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” (Eph. 3:6)
God finds you and then puts you back in the “crowd.” In Holy Baptism, he incorporates you into his new Israel, the Holy Christian Church. And in this “crowd,” you have brothers and sisters in Christ who care about you. You need to remember, though, that we’re still sinners. There are times when we will fail you. Please forgive me for the times I have failed you. Forgive each one of us here for the times that we have failed you. We are each lost sheep, too, who need a shepherd to come find us.
Out text concludes, “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them.” King David did not come back from the dead after some 500 years to rule over Israel after their captivity. Rather, David was the king to whom God had given the promise of an everlasting kingdom through one of his descendants. That king was Jesus, the greatest Son of David, who really did come back from the dead. Jesus is the “David” of whom our text speaks. He is our one shepherd. Crowds followed him and he sat down on the mountainside and taught them. (Matt. 4:25-5:2) He sat the crowd down “on the green grass” and fed them. (Mark 6:39) Crowds followed him and he healed their diseases. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36)
No longer are we lost in the crowd. God has found us and placed us back in this crowd called the Church, where Jesus is still compassionately working among the crowds today. Through his Word, he teaches us. In the rich pastureland of Holy Communion, he feeds us. Here at the altar, we are nourished on Christ’s own body and blood, and he binds up the injured and strengthens the weak with his mercy and grace.