Today is Christ the King Sunday.
It is the Sunday before the beginning of ADVENT – the season of the church, in which we prepare for the birth of Christ.
It is a time, like the season of LENT, when we can take stock
of the world around us;
of our relationship with God.
And there is nothing like the words of a prophet, to help us take stock – to help us wake up to the fact that God speaks to us – calls to us – in this season of preparation.
The WORDS of a prophet – They are like:
coffee with EXTRA CAFFEINE.
a cold wind, that BLOWS in our faces, and FILLS our lungs to bursting.
an alarm clock that has NO snooze button, and is JUST out of reach.
NOTHING wakes us up to the reality of God’s presence, like the words of a prophet.
But, first, a prophet has to be awakened himself. God has to get his attention.
Better yet: God needs the prophet’s STRICT attention.
The prophet has to be DRAGGED OUT of whatever is keeping him from hearing God, and has to be MADE TO LISTEN.
So it can’t just be a NUDGE, or a TAP ON THE SHOULDER.
It HAS TO BE more like a MEGAPHONE in the middle of the night.
Usually God gets the prophet’s attention through a vision, or a dream. Isaiah had one. Jeremiah did. John, who wrote the book of Revelation, had one. Ezekiel did, too. And this is his:
“In the thirtieth year, … , as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.
4 As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth …, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber.
5In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. 6Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings….
24When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the thunder of the Almighty, a sound … like the sound of an army; when they stopped, they let down their wings….
26 And … over THEIR heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the … throne was something that seemed like a human form….
When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of Someone speaking….” (Chapter 1)
It is hard to imagine a more dramatic introduction: God appears on a mobile throne, that floats above a river in Babylon.
Even here, in a foreign land, God is still God, and God is about to take hold of Ezekiel’s life, and use it TO GET ISRAEL’S ATTENTION.
Just a side note about Ezekiel’s vision:
There are really two – and only two – ways to look at it:
It is either a description of what Ezekiel says it is – God appearing to him -,
or Ezekiel is not well, and should not be believed.
We have to decide, just as we have to decide when we hear Jesus say, for example, things like: “I and the Father are one.”
Back to Ezekiel’s vision. It happened 5 years after the exile of his people. They were taken from Israel to Babylon.
And the “they” who were taken, are largely the members of the ruling class:
the king, his family, and entourage;
the government employees;
the priests who maintained the Temple.
Only the POOR and a PUPPET KING are left in Israel.
The “they” who have been sent into exile, are the powerful, the wealthy, the well-to-do – those whom Ezekiel will later call “SHEPHERDS” – a group of people he – as a priest – would include himself in:
those entrusted with leadership, with temporal or spiritual care of the people.
Our Youth have been walking through the Old Testament this year, and we will begin the New Testament in 2018.
Each evening, they hear about an important figure from the Old Testament, and during the last three times together, we focused on biblical characters who spoke about the experience of exile – of Israel’s deportation to Babylon.
The way that I’ve helped our youth get into the MINDSET of a people in exile, is to say this:
Imagine you, your family, and all your friends are taken to another country, NOT of your choosing – some place you DON’T want to be, or would NEVER CHOOSE to visit.
Imagine how this huge, LIFE-ALTERING change would affect you, personally:
Whatever you hoped to study in college – that’s over and done.
Many of your friendships would end immediately.
The things you love to do – the small things, the large things – gone.
Life in exile. Away from HOME, and all that is comfortable, good, and familiar – that is the reality Ezekiel and the Jewish people are dealing with.
Why did it come to this? Why did exile have to happen?
It comes down to this: Israel had done harm to the family name.
Israel – through what they did, and what they left undone – lived as a people who did not know God.
Israel belongs to God, like I belong to the Cubie family – I am part of the Cubie people.
In Israel’s case, that family name is… “God”. Doesn’t get bigger than that.
We’ll get to the specifics in a moment. But for now, hang with me as we try to understand why God takes his NAME so seriously.
When I was 15, I went to see a movie with my Dad. The movie was “Quiz Show”, directed by Robert Redford. It told the true story of the “21” Quiz Show scandal” of the 1950’s.
“21” was like the Jeopardy of its time: Two contestants would square off, and attempt to answer very difficult trivia questions.
Charles van Doren – “Charlie” – the son of a famous professor at Columbia University – goes on 21, and defeats the reigning champ, Herb Stempel.
It turns out that Stempel was told to “take a fall”, and let Charlie win, because Charlie was more telegenic.
Charlie, for a time, is able to win without any help or coaching, but soon he agrees to get the answers from the producers ahead of time.
He is a national celebrity. The show is a wild success. The temptation is too much.
BUT Eventually the truth comes out. A grand jury is convened, and the scandal breaks in the news.
The scene from the movie I want to focus on, is a conversation between Charlie and his father, after it become clear that Charlie has been cheating.
His Dad says to him: “I’m sorry, Charlie. I’m an old man, it’s all a little difficult for me to comprehend!
“It’s television, Dad. It’s… just television…”
“You make it sound like you didn’t have a choice!”
“What was I supposed to do at that point, disillusion the whole country?”
“Charlie, you took the money!”
“Yes, Dad, I took the money!”
“It was just a quiz show, Charlie!”
“But it was MINE, Dad!
The father stands at that point, and says to his son: “Your NAME is mine!”
I remember the car ride home with my father. It was quiet. We were both deep in thought. Then my Dad TURNED TO ME and said: “That’s an important lesson, James: Don’t forget – your name is my name.”
Israel had forgotten that its name was God’s name.
Okay. But what had they done to deserve exile?
Our passage for today, from Ezekiel 34, walks us through exactly what had gone wrong”
“The word of the Lord came to me:
2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, and say:
SHOULD NOT SHEPHERDS FEED THE SHEEP? 3You eat the FAT, you CLOTHE YOURSELVES with the wool, you SLAUGHTER the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.
4You have not strengthened the WEAK,
you have not healed the SICK,
you have not bound up the INJURED,
you have not brought back the STRAYED,
you have not sought the LOST,
BUT with FORCE AND HARSHNESS you have RULED them.
5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd;
and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.
MY SHEEP were scattered, …
MY SHEEP were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: …
… I am AGAINST the shepherds;
and I will DEMAND my sheep at their hand,
and put A STOP to their feeding the sheep;
I will rescue my sheep from their mouths,
so that they may not be food for them.
15I MYSELF WILL BE THE SHEPHERD OF MY SHEEP,…”
It is a long passage, but a crucial one. So let’s notice what happened in it:
God denounces the shepherds for overlooking the most vulnerable.
God says he will be the Shepherd, and will save the sheep.
Like the one that describes Ezekiel’s vision, this passage feels like a train, rushing at us – its whistle blowing.
It arrests our attention, and wakes us up.
But wakes us up for what?
Is it for us?
I believe it is, and for this reason:
We have seen, in the past few days and weeks, the failure of people we have viewed as “shepherds”.
Much has been revealed about MEN who many of us admired. Men, who SHOULD have been good shepherds – good stewards – of younger women colleagues, INSTEAD did exactly as Ezekiel describes:
They became shepherds who attempted to devour their sheep,
Or – if they could not – they scattered them.
When something like this happens
– when this many prominent people fall for the same reason –
God is CERTAINLY a part OF it,
and means to say something to us IN it.
I will speak for myself, and share 3 QUESTIONS I heard God asking me, as I observed the EVENTS of the last few weeks, and read in Ezekiel:
How will you shepherd your SON?
How will you shepherd the BOYS and YOUNG MEN at Leesburg Pres.?
One day, many years from now, how would you shepherd a YOUNGER, FEMALE COLLEAGUE?
WHENEVER God reveals something that must change,
God also does 2 important things:
He SHOWS US THE WAY OUT,
and gives us THE STRENGTH TO TAKE THE WAY OUT.
Two chapters after God’s judgment of the shepherds, this is his promise to the entire nation of Israel:
“I will SANCTIFY my great name, …
and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, … ,
WHEN THROUGH YOU I display my holiness before their eyes.
25I will sprinkle clean water upon you,
and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses,
and FROM all your idols, I will cleanse you.
26A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
I will remove
the heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh.
27I will put my spirit within you,
and make you follow my statutes
and be careful to observe my ordinances.
In this FINAL passage, THE WAY OUT is in the short phrase: “THROUGH YOU”:
God will not BYPASS the Shepherds, or let them OFF THE HOOK – they will be judged, and set aside.
And God will accomplish the change of heart and life that he wants to see, THROUGH the nation that remains.
They will become, slowly, but more and more, God’s people,
so that everyone who knows them will say:
“Wow, God must be doing this!”
AND God provides STRENGTH TO TAKE THE WAY OUT
Sheep will be strengthened to see their shepherds for what they are, and will be led away from their clutches, to the One True Shepherd.
The new shepherds will be shown the true way to shepherd: God’s holiness, working through them.
Ezekiel – like every great prophet – like Jesus himself – promises THAT God will be WITH THE ONES HE WANTS TO CHANGE:
I will give you a new heart,
my spirit will guide you,
so that you walk in the light.
The past few days and weeks has been a season
when we’ve seen the failure of people we have called shepherds:
those we trusted to lead, to steward, to be good, faithful colleagues.
But God speaks even in the middle of great disappointment – think of where and when he appeared to Ezekiel:
By a river, in BABYLON, the land of the Jewish exile.
We can begin to PUT AWAY our disappointment with our own shepherds, when we look to the Good Shepherd;
When we prepare our HEARTS and MINDS
in this SEASON OF ADVENT
for the birth of the Good Shepherd;
When we look to how Jesus shepherded his disciples.
The Good Shepherd may be speaking to us again, in this time, saying:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens,
And I will give you rest
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me
For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.