Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 12, 2010)

Wordle: Untitled

Text: Ezekiel 34:11-24; Luke 15:1-10

God provides good pasture for his flocks. Just look how he took care of the people of Israel. After the Exodus, he settled them in the Promised Land … a land full of milk and honey, as it was called, a land of rich resources. More than that, Yahweh himself traveled with them in the pillar of cloud and fire. The Lord God Almighty gave them the worship of the tabernacle. There the great “I AM” would be graciously present in the Holy of Holies, and from that the place the rich resources of God’s mercy and forgiveness would be sprinkled upon the people as the blood flowed from the animals that were brought there as sacrifices.

God’s New Testament Church is also given good pasture land. You, his baptized people, are his flock. And take a look around at how the Lord is taking care of you. Oh, sure, things are difficult right now. The economy is struggling. Some of you are struggling. You are scrimping and saving to make ends meet at home. Congregations across the land are scrimping and saving, too, trying to figure out ways to meet their budgets. Ours is no exception. But that doesn’t mean that the Lord God Almighty is not taking care of us. He is abundantly providing for us. He has not ceased to lavish his gifts upon us. He has placed us in the pasture land of the Holy Christian Church. Through his Word of Gospel, the Good News of the forgiveness of sins in Christ, he nourishes us. Christ prepares a table before us where he feeds us richly with his priceless body and blood, and our cup runs over. There is more than enough of Jesus to go around. The great "I AM" is graciously present with us here, and the rich resources of God's mercy and forgiveness are showered upon us.

But there is also some gross mistreatment of the flock in the pasture. In the verses just before today’s Old Testament reading, the Lord through the prophet Ezekiel chastises the shepherds of the people of Judah. These were the rulers, the kings. They were not doing their job of taking care of God’s people. They were stuffing their own faces at the expense of their subjects. And with the exception of a few good kings, they had led the people astray to worship other gods, idols carved out of wood and stone.

But it wasn’t only the shepherds who were mistreating the sheep. There was also infighting amongst the flock. “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? … You push with side and shoulder … thrust at all the weak with your horns.” Sheep were jockeying for position, making sure they got the best part of the pasture. The weaker sheep were left to fend for themselves after the good portion was picked over, left to drink of the waters muddied by the ones who got to the water when it was still clear. Like a pair of bighorn rams engaged in a clash of curled horns, rearing back on their hind legs and thrusting their heads forward in a series of crushing blows, the sheep fight for dominance, waiting for the other to back down.

Because of their sin, the people faced judgment. They were “scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” For the people of Judah, their punishment was being taken off into exile in Babylon. Ezekiel himself experienced this, being taken off to Babylon in one of the earlier deportations before the final destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. For the sheep in God’s church today, unless they repent, their punishment will be eternal exile apart from God because of their sin, including the sinful ways in which the sheep deal with each other. The sheep injure and wound one another with their words and actions … or lack of actions. The flock is scattered. Sheep are driven away.

In his comments on John 15:10 where Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” Luther writes how the devil loves all this and even has a hand in it:

It is inevitable that one member occasionally jostles the other, just as a foot or a toe of our body bumps the others, or as a person injures himself. Such bumps and trials do not fail to come, especially because we are sojourning here in the realm of the devil, who tempts us uninterruptedly, and also because the flesh is still weak and full of flaws. This explains why even dear and faithful friends fall out or become irritable with one another. At times the devil injects poison and suspicion into a heart because of a single word or glance and thereby stirs up mutual animosity. He is a master in this art and devotes himself to it most diligently. He employs his craftiness before one is really aware of it … Trifles can lead to such quarreling and enmity that great harm results to many. The blood soon begins to boil; then the devil shoots his venomous darts into the heart by means of evil tongues, and finally no one says or thinks anything good about the other person. The devil keeps on fanning the flames and is eager to set people against one another. (Luther’s Works, vol. 24, p. 244)

The sheep have come in for some serious indictment here from the prophet. But who really is the subject of this portion of Scripture? It’s not the sheep. It’s the Shepherd. It’s the LORD God … Yahweh Elohim. He is the one who engages in an extraordinary rescue of his flock. He is the one who breaks into time and space and history to redeem and save his flock. “I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” The LORD God promises to examine carefully the predicament of the flock. He takes notice of what is going on among and around them. He dearly loves his flock and with great affection takes charge over them.

“I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.” Although the people of Judah were scattered and sent off into exile, the Lord promised that a remnant would return to Jerusalem. God kept his promise, but this was not just to settle them in the land promised to Abraham’s descendants. It was so that the people would be restored to the land so that Abraham’s greatest descendant – Jesus, the promised Messiah and Savior – could be born in Bethlehem.

“Clouds and thick darkness” is imagery used often in Scripture to describe God’s judgment. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that there was darkness over the whole land from noon until three as Jesus was suffering on the cross. It was as if the heavens were declaring that God’s judgment over sin was occurring right then and there at Calvary. And it was. The punishment for the sin of the sheep was placed upon Jesus on Good Friday. The Shepherd of the sheep is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world through his death and resurrection. Hebrews 9 says, “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb 9:26-28)

Just as God returned the exiles from Babylon, he rescues us from our exile of sin and death. He gives us a portion and place in his Church, calling us out from among the people of the world and gathering us in with believers in Christ from all tribes and nations. He keeps us in good pastureland where we are nurtured and properly cared for by God’s grace and mercy and love, nourished by God’s Word. He points us to the mountain heights of Israel where the cross was raised up, where the Son of God was crucified for us and for our salvation, and from where the blood of Christ flowed down and still flows into every chalice on every altar where Holy Communion is celebrated.

"I myself will search for my sheep … I will rescue them … I will bring them out … I will feed them … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep … I myself will make them lie down … I will seek the lost … I will bring back the strayed … I will bind up the injured … I will strengthen the weak ... I will rescue my flock.” Get the picture? This is all God's doing. He is the one doing all the work here. Your part is simply to repent of your sins … then rest, receive, be refreshed and renewed, and be reconciled with your fellow sheep because God in Christ has reconciled himself to you. (2 Cor. 5:18)

Christ Jesus is your Good Shepherd who goes to extraordinary lengths to save you. He’s like that shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine and goes after one lost sheep. One! One little sheep! Why not just forget about it? You still have ninety-nine. And then he’s like a woman who turns her house upside down in order to find one coin. One little coin! Why not just leave it be? It’s not worth that much. You still have nine coins left. Well, that’s not the way our Lord thinks. That one sheep, that one coin, is of infinite value to him. You are of infinite value to him.

One more question. When’s the last time you invited your friends and neighbors over for a party when you found something you had lost? You probably just said, “Yay,” and went on your merry way. But not in heaven. “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Heaven throws a party when someone repents of their sins.

Certainly, God is the one doing all the work here. But wouldn’t it be nice to say that you gave the angels a reason to rejoice?


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