Evensong 24th September 2017
Ezekiel 33.21-23, 30 – 34.11
SERMON FOR EVENSONG
HAMPSTEAD PARISH CHURCH
Trinity 15, 24 September 2017
OT Reading: Ezekiel 33.21-23, 30 – 34.11
NT Reading: Acts 26.1, 9-25
I took the liberty of ever so slightly extending our Old Testament reading this evening so that it began with news of the fall of Jerusalem reaching Ezekiel, and ended with his prophetic vision of the Good Shepherd. The fall of Jerusalem is the turning point of Ezekiel’s prophecy. The first 24 chapters of his book, foreseeing the disaster, are full of doom and gloom. Chapters 25 to 32, addressed to the foreign tribes that took advantage of Israel’s weakness, are no less sharp. But from chapter 33 onwards, when the city has fallen, and the people are finally ready to move from an attitude of complaint to an attitude of repentance, the prophet begins to preach a message of hope.
Ezekiel had been carried away to Babylon with King Jehoiachin in597 BC. Israel had been heavily defeated, but Jerusalem was left standing. Ten years later, the people had gradually come to recognise that they were being punished, but they were not yet ready to turn back and mend their ways. Ezekiel is commanded to exercise his prophetic vocation by behaving like a sentinel on the city walls, looking and listening, and sounding the alarm.
Now, following a two-year siege by Nebuchadnezzar, news has just reached Ezekiel in Babylon that the city has fallen and is destroyed. His prophetic utterances have proved all too true. However, it is at just this moment of bitter loss, that Ezekiel experiences in his own body the first signs of restoration. The physical affliction which had struck him dumb is lifted – had he perhaps suffered some form of stroke? Whatever may have been the physical cause of his impediment, on the very day that he hears of the fall of Jerusalem, his mouth is opened, and he is once more able to speak. His first utterances are directed against the shepherds of Israel - that is to say their leaders – of whom he remains fiercely critical. Far from leading them, they have oppressed and exploited them, and the Lord God will hold them accountable – ‘I will demand my sheep at their hand’. But now there is a real promise of hope. The people have been failed by their leaders, but now the Lord God himself will become their shepherd, rescuing them from greedy mouths of their wicked shepherds, and from all the places to which they have been scattered.
Ezekiel reserves his harshest words for the shepherds, but the sheep themselves don’t altogether escape the lash of the prophet’s tongue. A few verses further on, we read that without good shepherds, the stronger sheep have taken to trampling on the weaker ones, ‘pushing with flank and shoulder, butting at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide. But now: ‘I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged’ (Ez 34.22). In Israel’s darkest hour the prophet sees the light of dawn, and begins to offer a message of hope.
So what does all this have to say to us to-day? We tend to think that we live in a quite different age, when the voice of prophecy has been silent for centuries past, but I’m not sure that is right. We are surrounded by false prophets, politicians and media pundits, who peddle their own nostrums on TV and in the newspapers, many of them designed to flatter and confirm the prejudices of those for whom they write and speak. Most of us listen mainly to those whose views we expect to share.
But where are the true prophets? Prophecy is more about insight than foresight. What would the sentinel on the city walls see as he looked about him to-day? I am not by nature a pessimist, but I fear he would have much cause for alarm. He would see world leaders paying lip service to the values of international co-operation, whilst following policies which undermine, or even seek to dismantle the structures within which such co-operation has been realised for the past 70 years. He would see politicians whose careers have been built on the repetition of lies, on statements that they know to be false, but which they repeat because they affirm the prejudices of their supporters. He would see societies which are becoming increasingly unequal, where the stronger sheep are indeed butting the weaker animals with their horns in the name of austerity, and he would hold us all accountable, as indeed we are in a democracy. We deceive ourselves if we think we are safe from judgment. I will demand my sheep at their hand.
But there is always hope. Ezekiel dreamed of the return of King David, Israel’s shepherd king:
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them (Ez 34.23-24).
Ezekiel’s vision of the gentle rule of a shepherd king, a Son of David, has of course been realised in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since then we have needed no new prophet, but we are not very good about proclaiming his unsettling, radical alternative to the cacophony of false prophecy all around us. And when we do, we risk getting into trouble with the vested interests and powers that be, just as Paul did.
Within the church of Christ we have inherited the vision of justice and truth which inspired Ezekiel and Paul to speak fearlessly in defence of what they knew to be true about God and about Jesus, and about what they knew to be right about God’s care for the weaker and poorer members of society. As sentinels we have an obligation to speak and to warn. As shepherds we also have a duty to act, because that is what good shepherds do. And we need to remember that if we fail to seek the lost, to feed the sheep, to strengthen the weak, to heal the sick, to bind up the injured, the Lord God will ultimately demand his sheep at our hands.
The God who made Ezekiel a sentinel for the house of Israel still calls on his people to look, to listen and to sound the alarm. Thanks be to God that the Good Shepherd is not just at our side to help, but in our hearts to inspire and empower us to speak out and to act in ways which may run against the grain of our society, but bear steady witness to God’s justice and mercy and truth.