Monday, November 24, 2008

Judging between Sheep and Sheep

The Last Sunday of the Church Year
Ezekiel 34:11-16 and 20-24
Bror Erickson

[15] I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. [16] I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. Ezekiel 34:15-16 (ESV)

What a picture God draws for us through Ezekiel. A picture of the church on the last day, full of weak sheep, lost sheep, strayed sheep, broken sheep. And the fat and the strong sheep fed with justice.
Sheep, God often describes the church as sheep. He often portrays Himself as the shepherd. This is why the confessions of the Lutheran Church, never identify the church with a denomination, or any one organization. The church we say is, namely, Holy believers, and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd. Holy believers and sheep. Holy, believers are holy because they believe. Faith makes you holy. Rather God makes you holy by giving you faith. Sheep are holy because they hear the word of the Lord. They hear the voice of their Shepherd calling in the wilderness and listen to it, the gospel calling out and rescuing them from all the places they have been scattered. The sheep are holy because God has rescued them.
Chapter 34 of Ezekiel when read in its entirety is an indictment of Shepherds. And the Shepherds are themselves sheep. It is a wonderful picture but it can be a confusing one. Some might make the claim that the shepherds Ezekiel is talking about are the secular leaders oppressing the poor, who have made themselves fatter while intentionally making the weak weaker. And a good many pastors would divert the attention away from themselves and onto political leaders they want to vilify. I’ll try not to do that. Israel can no longer be identified with a secular nation like that. Israel is the church, as the church is the people of God. And I can’t help but to think that the shepherds being indicted are the shepherds of the church, who themselves are sheep, or maybe goats. The 17th verse says I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. I can’t help but to take this as a strong warning for myself. Don’t muddy the waters with your feet Bror. Don’t trample down the pasture. I’m a sheep like you. I need to drink of the waters of Christ, and eat of the same word of God as you. But I dare say I better be feeding you with the same green grass God has given me to eat this last week. And I dare say I better be letting you drink of the same clean water I drink.
Oh and I am fat on the word of God. If I do say so myself. You know this last week I walked on cloud nine. I was so euphoric I learned how to put together a website. I think last week that would have put me in a funk. Computers aren’t my thing. But I was I was absolutely euphoric. Thankful to God for this congregation. I needed a raise, and you gave it to me. But I was more thankful for the appreciation you seem to have for me, and what I do. I was euphoric knowing the congregation is serious about moving into new quarters, and is putting money aside to do so. Overjoyed. Overjoyed that my congregation appreciates me and pays me to do what I do, get fat on the word of God.
I don’t know if you guys know what I do in a typical week. How I gorge myself on the word of God. I come in in the morning put on coffee, and pray. I pray for you and myself, my family, people who have visited the congregation, people I bumped into on the street, for elected officials and the government in general, and for this congregation. I read. I read theological books for my devotionals. Then I finish my prayers. And before I ever get around to doing office work, bulletins, sermons, and the busy work necessitated by an office. I open up my Greek and read a chapter, decipher it compare it to a translation and try to figure out why it was translated that way. I read it in the Greek, because there the water is pure, but it is a spring that many of you can’t make it to. I want to carry that pure water back down to you in clean buckets. Sometimes I do the same with Hebrew but that has been getting rusty. I read the Lutheran Confessions to which I took a vow to uphold as a pastor, believing them to be a true exposition of the word of God. Something I still whole-heartedly believe. I spend time translating orthodox Lutheran literature from by gone days, by great theologians, so that I can better comprehend Lutheran Doctrine. Believe me I am a better theologian for it than I would be otherwise. I do that because I don’t think I can feed you properly if I haven’t been nourished myself. I want to make you fat on the word of God, I want to feed and nourish you. And to do so, I need to eat and study. So I don’t mind spending three or four hours studying. I refuse to quit; I come in early to do it. I want to make sure I am giving you the best I can. The best God has to offer. I’m not going to give you the cotton candy found in popular Christianity. It makes me sick, I know it will make you sick, and spoil your appetite for God’s word in the mean time.
It bothers me to go to another pastor’s house or office and see shelves full of Max Lucado books. Or for that matter to walk by a church library and see the same, and hardly a Lutheran author in sight. Nothing of substance. How can they then feed their congregations with anything of substance? That is what I wonder.
You see I can’t help but to think that this text is speaking more about spiritual oppression than physical or economical, though the two often go hand in hand. Too often, I see it. Oh I could go on about the over oppression of the legalists here. Guys who are fat on their own self-righteousness, and physically fat on un earned wages extracted out of starved sheep, never preach a sermon on Christ and the forgiveness of sins, except for at a tent revival where they want to lure in more sheep to their dens of oppression, church buildings where you will never hear anything, but how much more you ought to be doing. As if it wasn’t hard enough to get through the week with snobby bosses, or possibly ungrateful employees. As if you weren’t taxed out enough with family chores. Those things they take for granted. But after you have put in a sixty-hour week making sure your family is fed, and the company you work for can survive in this downward spiraling economy, so that other families can be fed, and we don’t wake up with a North American version of Zimbabwe. After getting your unruly kids up for school every morning, and making sure their hair is combed, and your daughters clothes are not too provocative, as to make the boys in their class be distracted by unsavory day dreams, they think you have to volunteer in the church, or the soup kitchen or nursing home. All of which would be good things for you to do if you could do so with out neglecting those other things God has called you to do. Things God considers good works, as He does eating and drinking. (1 Cor. 10:31) These pastors are fat, on self-righteousness, and off of undeserved tithes.
Then there are pastors who just neglect the sheep. The sheep are starving, and they give them nothing. Nothing of substance. Never convict them of sin, and never really forgive them. The sheep are wasting away. Starving to the point of hallucination, and the pastors are standing by, saying I’m o.k. You’re o.k. No we are not o.k. No one in this world is. No one. We are sinners dying of sin, and we need the cure. We need the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus, in his blood, salvation and eternal life. We need the word of God, in its full glory. The Law slaying our old Adam, and the Gospel bringing the new man to life within us. And Pastors need it too. I need it. I need it as much as you.
Us pastors are sheep. Us shepherds are sheep. We need the same food you need. We need forgiveness; we need the word of God. Because no pastor will be perfect, we are sinners like you. Oh I see myself in this text, horns just a little to sharp, a well-meaning nudge driving off a few. My heart wears thin for some of the confirmands that started and quit, when the pastor was too hard on them. I don’t blame them. I grieve for them, and pray for them. I look back and think of quite a few mistakes made, and bothersome conundrums. I wonder if there wouldn’t be a way to accommodate the mother financially dependent on her boyfriend that refused to marry her. What a mess! Girls don’t get yourself into that mess! Make them marry you! That is don’t move in with them. Parents take your daughters back. Don’t make them be dependent on loser boyfriends who want to use them. That isn’t love. Love doesn’t cohabitate. Love marries. Girls remember that. Love marries. It doesn’t cohabitate outside of marriage.
But one thing I am thankful for is the forgiveness of Christ. The forgiveness that forgives all. The forgiveness I get to share with you in everyday of grace before God judges between sheep and sheep, between rams and male Goats. I revel in that forgiveness. The forgiveness we share as a congregation. On the last day that will be all we have to stand on folks. We will only have forgiveness. So I am also thankful for a congregation, generous not only in financial matters, but shares all good things with the one who teaches as they are admonished in Galatians 6:6. One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. (Galatians 6:6 (ESV) And the best good thing of all that a congregation can share with their teacher and shepherd, is that which he is to give to them, forgiveness. For that is how God watches over his flock, in a pasture green with forgiveness. And so he will bind up us lost, broken and starved sheep on the last day. And it will be forgiveness that distinguishes sheep from sheep, and rams from male goats, forgiveness in Christ alone.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord Amen.


steve martin said...

"Forgiveness. That is all we have in the end."

Man, have you got that right. That is all we have now, and that is all we'll have then. Thankfully, it is enough. It is enough.

Nice job Pastor!

Brigitte said...

Bless you for many things.

I think it's great you mentioned that about marrying vs. cohabiting, and not in a lecturing way but caring way. It is such a trap for women. In all my years in church, I don't think I've heard it mentioned in a sermon.

Bror Erickson said...

Thank you for that Brigitte. It is probably because it isn't heard in sermons very often that so many of our young women fall into that trap.