Circuit Pastors’ Conference
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
“You Shepherds, Hear the Word of the Lord” (Ezekiel 34:1-24)
The readings for this coming Sunday in the three-year lectionary are perfectly suited for preaching to a bunch of pastors. All the readings concern the role of a shepherd caring for his sheep. In the Holy Gospel, from Luke 15, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd who goes to find a lost sheep. This fulfills the prophecy of Ezekiel 34, the Old Testament Reading, in which the Lord says that he himself will search for his sheep and seek them out. Even the Epistle, which, during this time of the year, is not chosen to go with the other readings–the reading from 1 Timothy 1, while it doesn’t use the shepherd imagery, does begin a series of readings through 1 and 2 Timothy, two of the so-called Pastoral Epistles. So everything is converging here to fit a message to pastors.
I mentioned the Old Testament Reading from Ezekiel 34. The assigned verses for this coming Sunday actually begin at verse 11, where it says: “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” But today I have included in your bulletin also the verses leading into that text, since this portion, verses 1-10, deals specifically with “the shepherds of Israel,” in other words, the spiritual leaders of the people of God, or, as we might say, the pastors. And so our theme this morning: “You Shepherds, Hear the Word of the Lord.”
Now although this text deals with pastors, it is not too pleasant for us to hear. Indeed, if there is a more scathing and stinging indictment of pastors than this first part of Ezekiel 34, I don’t know what it is. Look at all that these shepherds, these pastors, were failing to do: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
What a terrible description of these pastors! They were neglecting their responsibilities and were using their position in order to serve themselves. And the consequences for the flock were bad: “So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”
Brothers, when I hear these verses, I am loaded down with guilt. I think of all the people who have drifted away from my congregation, and I have not gone to seek them out. I think of the delinquent calls I haven’t made. The prospect calls I haven’t made. Even calls on my “regulars,” who may not press me for a visit, but who could probably use more pastoral care than I’m giving them. There is no end to all I have not done. Then I think of how often I have viewed my office as pastor in terms of what I can get out of it: my salary, my benefits, my time off, how I should be making more money. I think of how people should appreciate me more and praise me because of my brilliance and talent.
Oh, hogwash! You know that this is not why we are in office as pastors. You know it, I know it, our people know it–and, most of all, God knows it. Yes, God knows all about our failures as pastors. Thank God he does not strike us down with a bolt of lightning. If you and I were to dwell on our failures as pastor, we would become utterly depressed and filled with fear, for the judgment that we deserve.
And while we need not dwell on those many failures, we do need to repent of them. We need to acknowledge them, be honest and recognize them, confess them to God, ask his forgiveness for the sake of Christ, and seek his help to do better. This is a serious business, this being a pastor, as you well know. It is a high and heavy calling, and the devil will be out to destroy us, in whatever way he can–through our sloth, through our indifference, through our double-mindedness, through attacks from within and without. Anything to stop us from being the faithful shepherds God has called us to be. The faithful shepherds God’s people need us to be: to feed them in the green pastures of God’s Word, to guard them from the wolves of false teaching and false belief, to keep them on the paths of righteousness, and to go and rescue them when they stray therefrom. That’s why God has appointed us to this office: to serve as his shepherds for his flock.
Dear brothers, God is wanting to restore you today and to refresh you and to re-energize you for your service. He does not want to cast us aside. He wants to bring us to himself, to receive his mercy and forgiveness and new strength for what he has called us to do. Jesus is saying to you today, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” We come to Jesus first as sheep ourselves, before he sends us out as shepherds. We need to be rescued from the brambles of our sins, from the thornbushes and the thickets that would catch us and immobilize us and put us in danger.
That’s why we’re here right now in this service. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is here seeking us out. He comes to rescue us, each one of us, before it’s too late. Jesus comes and frees us from the places where we’re caught. He lifts us up and puts us on his shoulders–those same shoulders that bore a cross for us. Our Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, doing what we could not do, paying the price for our sins with his holy precious blood. He staves off that old wolf, the devil, who is seeking to devour us. Jesus wins the victory for us, by his death and resurrection. The Son of Man comes to seek and to save the lost, and that includes even tired shepherds who lose their way and fail and falter.
Restored with God’s forgiveness, refreshed with Christ’s very body and blood, re-energized and renewed for service in the power of the Holy Spirit, now the Lord will send us out again to be shepherds in his name, for his people. The Lord is the one doing the shepherding, but he is gracious enough to give us poor sinful men the privilege of being pastors in his church. Brother pastors, listen to all that the Lord will do for his people through your ministry: “I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down. 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.” Yes, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord!