Sermon, Misericordias Domini, April 30, 2017, Ezekiel 34:11-16
The first, original sin, was not simple disobedience, eating a forbidden fruit. Yes, disobedience is a sin, but the actual eating was only the “fruit” of that impulse which led to the eating. Most orthodox theologians have explained the Fall into sin as the mistrust of God’s word. I agree, but I would also like to add to that alongside that mistrust of God’s word, maybe preceding it, was the desire not to be told what to do and not do by the Creator, the desire to be autonomous from God. Certainly, Eve was deceived by the serpent, the devil, the father of lies, into mistrusting God’s word, but she also wanted to do what she wanted to do, to be like a god herself, to be autonomous as He is. And the fruit looked good for eating. The devil knew what she would like to hear, and helped her to justify her disobedience. And what did Adam do, the first husband, the first head, the first pastor? Nothing. The first pastor, Adam, kept his silence. He refused to tell Eve what she didn’t want to hear.
Not only that, he joined with her in her sin. He stood silently by and received the fruit and ate, too. Maybe he did not inwardly assent, but decided to keep silent to keep the peace, rather than risk a scene by speaking God’s word of warning, as was his duty. He was the first bad pastor, the first bad shepherd.
So, sin came into this world, and with it death, through a desire for autonomy, that is, a desire to be a law unto oneself, and a misplaced desire for peace at all costs. And the cost was immense. Adam and Eve passed along the disease of desire to be autonomous from God to their children, and to you and me: the disease of wanting to be our own gods, hating that God is God and we are not, hating to hear the Law applied to ourselves, the disease of wanting pastors like Adam, who will either keep silent about our sin, or tell us the lie that God is not really angry at it.
Throughout the Old Testament we see examples of God’s people rebelling against His authority, seeking autonomy above all else, putting their own desires first, their own judgment above God’s Word. In the desert, the children of Israel set up a golden calf who they apparently thought would approve of their riotous celebrations and debauchery, while Aaron, the pastor, gave in. In the book of judges we read, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17: 6; 21:25, ESV) This sinful desire for autonomy, for self-justification from God’s law shows up again and again in Psalms and Proverbs. A few examples: [For] he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.” (Psalm 36:2, ESV) The way of the fool is right in his own eyes,” (Proverbs 12:15, ESV) “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes,” (Prov. 16:2, ESV); “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.” (Prov. 21:2, ESV)
Autonomy from God’s law is the very definition of sin–cutting oneself off from God’s Word, and therefore from God Himself, for it says in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God and His Word are one. Through His Word He reveals Himself and His will for His children in His Word. When the children of God reject His Word, they reject the Father Himself. That is the first sin, the original sin that clings even to us, Baptized saints, till we die, the sin that urges us to resist God’s law, and drives us to get Him off our backs.
The second sin, accompanied the first, and speaks especially to bad shepherds, bad pastors–those whom God has called into the holy office of preaching and teaching, who flee when the wolf approaches, who shrink from their duty to reprove and rebuke sin in order to keep peace in the family of God at all costs, as Adam fled from his duty to his family and congregation of one–Eve– even celebrating sin with her, as shepherds are tempted to do today. That first human shepherd’s sin has been passed also through the generations, the desire for peace above all, even at the expense of God’s Word.
Israel had many bad shepherds like Adam. Not all of them were priests and false prophets. Many were Kings, also called “shepherds” of their people.
The northern Kingdom of Israel, which split from the southern kingdom, had nothing but bad shepherds for kings. These kings set up their own autonomous state religion, built their own shrines, appointed their own priests, even allowed worship of foreign idols. Their pastors, their priests, knew what the kings wanted to hear, so they told them that. They told them lies: that God approved of the King’s actions, that God didn’t really mean what He had spoken in Holy Scripture about worshipping in the place He designated, about justice for the poor, about the priestly requirement of descent from the tribe of Levi, about idolatry. The shepherds did not preach the law to their shepherds. So God sent prophets to the northern kingdom who would–prophets like Elijah, Elisha, and Amos. The kings and their pastors rejected them and persecuted them for telling bad news to them. Though God was angry, He was patient, giving them ample time to repent, centuries even, but His patience had an end, and, as He had repeatedly warned He would, He allowed a barbaric Assyrian horde to come in and rip their nation apart, scattering the children of the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, Israel, to the winds.
The southern Kingdom of Israel fared little better with their shepherds. They actually had a few good Kings: David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, Jehoshaphat. But most were bad shepherds. And their priests were unfaithful, bad, pastors, as well, telling the king and the people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear, letting them go astray without a word of warning, holding their hands, as it were, as they walked into hell. Like He did with the northern kingdom of Israel earlier, God sent true prophets and faithful pastors to Judah to warn them: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Joel, but they were despised, rejected, persecuted, imprisoned, and killed for telling the truth. Again, God was very patient, giving them even more time to repent than He had Israel. But His patience had its limits, and He allowed the Babylonians to conquer Judah and Jerusalem, as He had warned them He would unless they repented, and the people were taken into exile in Babylon.
This is the background of our reading today from the book of Ezekiel. God has proclaimed that the shepherds of Israel have been bad shepherds. They have fled before the wild beasts. They have not searched for the lost sheep. They have fed themselves and let their sheep go unfed. They have lied to the people to keep their positions. Therefore, God declares that He Himself will be their shepherd. He will seek the lost sheep of Israel, the Israel of all those who trust in His Word. He will gather them from all the nations of the earth. He will feed them on His holy mountain, and bind up their wounds. He will strengthen the weak, but He will also bring judgment, for He will destroy the fat and the strong.
All this He will do through His Son, the coming Savior, who identifies Himself as that Good Shepherd in our Gospel reading. He will not run when He sees the wolf coming. In fact, He will lay down His life for His sheep. He is not a hired hand, who flees when trouble comes, but He sticks around to save His sheep, even though it costs Him His life. His sheep know Him and He knows them.
Jesus came, first for the lost sheep of Israel, the descendants by blood of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He came to fulfill all the promises God had made to them. But He also came for sheep outside that fold, for Gentiles: the Roman centurion, the Samaritan leper, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the man possessed by a Legion of demons, and you and me. Jesus came for the poor in spirit, the humble, the mourning, the persecuted for His name sake. He blessed them. He bound up the broken bodies and hearts of those who came to Him for healing, and who came to hear God’s Word. He preached repentance for the Kingdom of God was at hand in His coming, and He forgave sin. He gave eternal life and salvation to all who believed in Him. Finally, He laid down His life for the sheep as the ancient enemies, sin, death, and the devil demanded the wages of sin from Him who became sin, taking our burden of guilt upon Himself to the cross.
Then, to show that His Son’s sacrifice was pleasing and all-sufficient, God raised Him from the dead by the power of His Holy Spirit, and took Him to be with Him in heaven, after His Son had first appeared bodily to the disciples and others, over five hundred.
But before He left to be with His Father, the Lord appointed apostles, undershepherds, pastors, to go out into the world to baptize, to teach and to appoint and ordain other shepherds, pastors called to serve His flock as He had, with truth and love, preaching the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins, Law and Gospel, confession and absolution. They were to follow the example of the new Adam, who would not remain silent as the first Adam had, but would speak God’s saving word. They were to stand firm in the face of the demands of rebellious sheep, not giving in as Aaron did in the episode of the Golden Calf, or the bad pastors of Israel who spoke, “‘Peace, peace’, when there was no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14, ESV)
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Good Pastor, who calls to to His flock every Sunday through the mouth of His undershepherds, His under-pastors. He leads His flock through them. He told His disciples, who were to shepherd His flock in His name until His return, “The one who hears you, hears me.” (Luke 10:16, ESV)
Look for a moment at the artwork on the cover of our worship folder. You would expect a depiction of Jesus there, wouldn’t you, for the man carrying a lamb in his arms, with a staff in the other. But note that the man has no beard. He has short hair in the Roman style. This is a depiction of an undershepherd, a shepherd, a pastor serving under the Good Shepherd, charged with caring for the sheep, like Timothy, or Augustine, or Ambrose.
The Good Shepherd, the Good Pastor, Jesus Christ is speaking to you today through your pastor, even now, as far as your pastor speaks the Word of God faithfully.. Your pastor is not autonomous. He is not a freelancer. He does not create, but hands on what he has received. He is constrained by the Word of God and His ordination vows. Thanks be to God that He is. He is to know and preach nothing among you but Christ, and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2, ESV) He is to show you your Savior in the Word and give Him to you in the Sacrament.
He has pastors too: His Father confessor, His circuit visitor, and the Good Pastor Himself, our Lord Jesus. Your pastor confesses to His Father confessor as you confess to your pastor. He receives absolution as you do. He is called to repentance by the law, and is pronounced forgiven by the Gospel, as you are. He will give an account before the Supreme judge on the Last Day for the care of the flock entrusted to him.
Let us pray:
Lord, you are the Good pastor, send your Holy Spirit among us, so that we may hear your voice in the words spoken by our pastor, that he may always speak only your Word, and that we keep steadfast in the saving faith that you have given us in that Word and in our baptisms, which we confess in the Creed, which we strengthen with the body and blood of the living Shepherd of our souls in the Sacrament of the altar. In + Jesus the Good Pastor’s name. Amen.