Ezekiel 34:15-16 (ESV)
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.  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.
Good Shepherd Sunday, that is more or less an unofficial title for this Sunday, but it is one that sticks. It’s a Sunday that people treasure, not because there are special customs, or anything surrounding it like on Palm Sunday, Christmas or Easter, but because the readings are so beautiful. In the Gospel lesson our Lord Jesus Christ identifies himself as the Good Shepherd that Ezekiel spoke about, when God tells us he will be the shepherd, and contrasts himself to all those who came before.
Those who came before, Jesus says they were thieves and robbers. They had left all the sheep to be a prey to wolves and bears and lions. They did not stand and fight, and ward off. Sheep have it bad. Fairly defenseless animals. Sometimes I wonder if there’d be any sheep if it wasn’t for human’s raising them. They are the original domestic animal. They were made to be that way. Abel, the son of Adam raised sheep, that is how far back the tradition goes. He also sacrificed a lamb. They have it bad though, everything seems to want to eat sheep. Think of the shepherds though. That isn’t easy work even today, and I imagine fairly lousy pay. I see them out there in the desert ranges when I’m hunting coyotes, or rock hounding. I suppose on the upside they get paid to camp year round in some beautiful country, wide open spaces and all that. The King David started out a shepherd. It was where he learned to fight. In the psalms he says he killed bear and lion, with his hands. They didn’t have rifles. If you wanted to save your sheep you had to fight. The other day I heard a guy tell me how a coyote killed 18 sheep in one night. Yes one of God’s puppies. Can’t imagine what a lion would do. But for that matter, I’m not all certain I’d take it on in a no holds barred wrestling match either. Just not sure that is as fun as it sounds.
The other shepherds left the sheep to be prey. That is you and I. God actually says the shepherds got fat off the sheep. They didn’t take care of them, but exploited them. What an indictment. A Pastor can’t read this without thinking of himself. Pastor means shepherd. I read these texts and it causes a bit of soul searching. I wonder if I’m a little too strict about who comes to communion and who doesn’t. I think about a hospital visit I’ve missed. I wonder if I’m doing what I can to bring back in the lost sheep and the strayed. I don’t want to be the shepherd who gets fat off the sheep, who exploits them. All I’ve ever wanted to do is preach the gospel and care for God’s people with his word. And that is not as easy as it sounds. I tell you I have developed sympathies for others whose practices I used to be quite judgmental concerning. I’m not saying I agree with them, or would even to this day employ their practices. But I’ve grown a bit more sympathetic to them. I’ve grown a lot more sympathetic to my fellow sheep too.
That perhaps is the hard part, a pastor is a shepherd, but he never really stops being a sheep either. He is a member of the church, a believer who hears the voice of his shepherd Jesus Christ, and listens to it. He has all the same temptations, and weaknesses as the sheep do. Yet I have to preach against sin, ward it off. These are the lions and bears a shepherd has to wrestle with in hand to hand combat. I suppose every sheep does. The point is to rescue the sheep from sin. Sin is massively destructive to say the least. It catches on and trails down through generations, sins that lead to death as John calls them. That is sins that if going unchecked will kill faith. Our confessions put it this way, The Holy Spirit cannot abide in the heart of a man committing murder, or adultery and fornication. That isn’t to say that a person who commits these sins can’t be saved. But if these sins are not repented of, a person cannot continue in them and remain in the faith.
So the pastor has to preach repentance. But you see there is a trap to be avoided here too. There is a temptation to preach repentance in such a way that salvation becomes attached to what we do, how we do it and when we do it. This is legalism of a sort that leads either to self righteousness to the seriously deluded, or to false belief, despair and other great shame and vice. In fact it is that this sort of preaching leads to great shame and vice for the shepherd preaching it and for the sheep hearing it. This is the sort of preaching you get from wolves in the clothing of sheep, pretending to be shepherds. I think often times it is even the pastors who are seriously deluded, seriously convinced of what they preach. And it is awful that it is so. To preach repentance as if it were seriously a matter of doing that which is in our power to do. It’s rather peculiar how it sometimes works.
Back before I became a pastor, there was a man I highly respected who had been ordained. He was overweight, actually quite a fat slob, perhaps like I am now. I used to love to get emails from the guy, he would keep those of us interested, up to date on what was going on in the church, he was doctrinally sound. Oh he had interesting insights. And then he lost the weight. Not such a bad thing in itself. But I remember shortly thereafter him asking if anyone had heard a sermon against the evils of gluttony recently.
Funny thing gluttony, It’s one of the classic “seven deadly sins.” I suppose because when parents had a rebellious child they were to deliver him to the town elders to be stoned by saying he was a glutton and a drunkard. This is along the same lines of he who does not work shall not eat. (Second Thessalonians 3:10) But I dare say what we call gluttony today, despite the obesity epidemic in the United States, is not quite the gluttony condemned in scripture. The idea is that we carry our own weight in society. I don’t think our current “obesity epidemic” is really a result of gluttony. So much as it is a result of a society the drives and eats from drivethrus. We eat poorly, and our daily lives of their regular course just do not require us to burn as many calories as our lives used too. I started getting fat the day I bought a car. But don’t expect me to give up my car. I’m sure if I road my bike everywhere like I used too, I could still eat and drink like I used to and not gain a pound. As it is, even cutting back on what I eat and drink, I gain weight if I’m not at the pool every day.
Thing is, even at that point, it seemed odd to me, like something had gone off the rails with this man. It wasn’t long after that that I stopped getting his emails. To this day I hear him. He causes havoc running around criticizing other pastors and flogging the sheep with his legalism, trying to get them to work on their sanctification, and driving them with the law. He has expanded. He saves his gluttony kick for Lent admonishing everyone to fast. The rest of the time he chastises people for using harsh language, all the while being quite harsh with people, albeit with more “polite language” used in the most impolite ways.
That’s how this type of preaching works. It starts concentrating on things that are within a persons ability to do, but which are not necessarily sins, and attaches to that sanctification. I mean, in the end, as hard as it is to quit smoking, it’s easy compared to repentance. In fact, when it is attached to repentance it works against repentance. As hard as it is to lose weight, and diet, it is easy compared to repentance. As hard as it might be to quit using familiar phrases and words and change them out for those a Baptist might consider polite, it is easy in comparison to repentance. And you’d be hard pressed to find Biblical basis for calling any of that sin. I’m not saying these are bad things to do mind you. Go ahead and lose weight, it’s good for you, even makes life more enjoyable. So does quitting smoking. And watching one’s language, adapting society’s norms, are fairly good things to do. But don’t get the idea that you’ve done some great thing worthy of being called sanctification or repentance. Even if someone were to give up real and actual sins that lead to death, it wouldn’t be the some total of repentance and sanctification. Not even close. I imagine giving up a love affair would be a particularly hard thing to do. I feel for young people in a society that eschews marriage as ours does. Who get caught up together in sexual relationships. Where one or the other doesn’t want to get married, though biblically they have already become one flesh. I know some who just don’t ever want to get divorced. Right. About that, It’s the same thing once you’ve sealed the deal there. At least in God’s eyes. Other’s don’t are caught up in relationships one used to call unequally yoked. One not a Christian, has a different world view, the other just wants to remain true in reality to what has already been done. I struggle with this. I’m not sure it is all as cut and dry as perhaps it once was. The chorus, should I stay or should I go now, rings in my head when I’m trying to sort these things out from a Biblical frame of reference. Caught in a bind, and the best council, is don’t do it. Don’t get stuck in the first place. And it isn’t legalism to say so. There are so many reason one should avoid these relationships, that even gentiles figure out. I mean every society has its version of marriage. Father’s tend to prefer that for their daughters than other arrangements…
And a person who is repentant will avoid and do everything in their power to resolve a situation like that one way or another. But that isn’t quite the same as repentance and dare not be thought of as the some total of sanctification either. A pastor who taught such as that would be guilty of being a wolf in sheeps clothing. Legalism. No repentance, sanctification, these things are engines that work the resolving of such situations. But God, is our shepherd and he came to get people like that, to find the sheep caught in these situations, to bind them up. Finally repentance and sanctification are found in faith that grows in the word, and in love for God and man through the forgiveness of sins. Jesus doesn’t come to beat us around. He doesn’t send his undershepherd’s and pastors to do that either. He comes to gather his sheep, To bring bach the strayed, and bind up the injured. He calls them with his voice. He beckons them with forgiveness. He offers to those who would repent of their sin, the forgiveness of sins in holy communion. Because he is the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. He does not drive off poor sinners but looks for those who have strayed, he binds up those who are injured, with whom sin has tortured. ,nm