Baaaaaaaad Sheep

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

January 24, 2021

Video of entire service:

Scripture: Ezekiel 34:1-22

Wow. You all. This is a ROUGH text. I mean, it sounds rough on the face of it, right? The prophet Ezekiel here is speaking in the voice of God, and he is not pulling any punches. No one gets off easy in this text. Ezekiel lets them know, in no uncertain terms, that they are, excuse my pun, baaaaaaad.

Okay, that’s the last time you are going to be able to laugh in this sermon. Because it gets even more harsh when you know the context.

photo of a sheep
photo credit: Rev. Dr. Donna Fowler-Marchant

The people to whom Ezekiel is speaking are in exile. Their armies have been defeated, their land has been taken away, their holy city Jerusalem has been destroyed and their temple with it. They are strangers living (against their will) in a strange land – the land of the people who ruined their homes, their homeland, and their lives. To say they are in a rough spot is a huge understatement. They are at their lowest low.

Enter Ezekiel. Ezekiel is a priest and a prophet. His role is both to preserve the religious institutions of the Hebrew people and to speak truth to them. We often think of prophets being like magical soothsayers who see the future. This is not what the Hebrew prophets did. First and foremost, it was the role of a prophet to tell the truth: to unflinchingly describe where the people were at and how they got there. 

Here in chapter 34, Ezekiel does not mince words. He tells the people in exile that their downfall was something they brought upon themselves. He starts with criticism aimed at the leaders in the community. He tears into these “shepherds” for caring more about themselves than the sheep for which they were responsible. Because of this neglect of their flock, God is DONE with these shepherds. At verse eight, “8 As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9 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; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves.”

I can imagine the Hebrew people standing around listening to this screed against the shepherds thinking, “You’re darn right those shepherds didn’t do their jobs. Look at what they got us into! Look at us, here in exile! Broken and scattered! You give it to them, Ezekiel!”

This next section from verses 11-16 is all about how God Godself is going to be the shepherd. God is going to bring all the sheep back together and feed them in the good pasture. God will seek the lost and bind up the injured.

Again, I’m imagining the people who do not identify with the shepherds being like, “That’s right. Stupid bad shepherds. Forget them! God is going to take care of us now.”

Just when the people are feeling mad at the leaders and pretty good about themselves, the word of God through Ezekiel says this, “I will strengthen the weak [sheep], but the fat and strong I will destroy.”

Wait, what now?

He goes on… “17 As for YOU, my flock…” Uh oh.

“I shall judge between sheep and sheep… 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

…I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.”

Suddenly the people realize the role they have played as well. They have exploited weaker people so that they could eat their fill. They have ruined the environment – muddied the waters and tromped down the pastures – so that those who came after them had nothing. They pushed aside the weak and abused the vulnerable instead of helping the weak. This too is part of God’s judgment on the exiles. The people were complicit in the abuses of the shepherds.

The message is clear. Here’s what got you into this disaster: bad shepherds and bad sheep.

Friends, I hate to even ask this question. Do we see ourselves in this text anywhere? 

I see us in the plight of the exiles for sure. We too are at a low low. We are in a rough spot. Things are still a mess with the pandemic. 400,000 people have died in our country, and I’m not going to lie, this vaccine rollout is not looking very well-handled. While it would be easy to point fingers at our leaders, our shepherds, for allowing this to happen (and I do not think Ezekiel would hesitate to do that), it’s also true that we sheep had opportunities every day to choose to keep ourselves and others safe…or not. We also have chosen to fan the flames of division that turned the pandemic into a political issue…or not. And while we spent our time fighting one another, a pandemic picked off our most vulnerable sheep one by one.

I’m not trying to shame anybody, and I’m not going to call out any particular actions or inactions here. Because that’s not what Ezekiel did. Ezekiel knew that in their heart of hearts, the shepherds and sheep were aware of the actions they had taken. Ezekiel said simply, “the shepherds have been feeding themselves at the expense of the sheep,” and “the fat sheep have been ruining the pasture and bullying the weaker animals, with no concern for the vulnerable.” God proclaimed judgment on all of it.

That is a hard word from the prophet Ezekiel, but there is a solution in this text. The solution is incarnation, God-with-us. Godself will be the shepherd. God, like God does, will align Godself with those who are lost and those have been injured and those who are weak. God will seek out those who have turned away from God and bring them back onto the right path. 

God will invite all the sheep into a covenant of peace, a covenant of shalom – where we stop fighting each other for power and turn our attention to caring for one another so that the most vulnerable are cared for first. It will mean shalom for everyone. I’m not sure how many times the biblical narrative says this or I have to say it, but there is a PROMISE of peace and prosperity for everyone. One day. Some day. But it will not happen without alignment with God. That means putting the vulnerable and the weak and the oppressed first. 

God offers us this covenant. This is the deal, and if we take it, here is the promise. This is Ezekiel 34, at the 25th verse: 

25 I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely… They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them… they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29 

God’s good future arrives when we heed the call to be good shepherds and good sheep. This is both a vision of the future, and it is something we can begin to be a part of right now.

The prophet Micah writes about this future vision as well. When we all live at peace with one another, he writes, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” 

You might recognize these words because you heard them this week from Amanda Gorman. Ms. Gorman is the young African American woman, the amazingly talented poet who spoke at the inauguration, who is perhaps a prophet for our times. 

She too invited us to grapple with our past and be better in the future. She too invited us to choose hope and light over division and cynicism…so that one day we will see the end of this pandemic. We will see the end of hostility and division and violence. 

I want to close with some excerpts of Ms. Gorman’s words of hope:

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another

[And] we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division

Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful

When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it [1]

May it be so. 



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