On this day, twenty-one years ago, people across our country and around the world came face-to-face with a new and frightening reality. The terrorist attacks which brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center forever changed the landscape of our culture. I was a vicar at the time, at a church in Bremerton Washington. I had been tasked with preaching the Sunday following the attacks. I thought my supervisor would step in and take the reigns but when I came to talk to him about it, he said, no it was my task, but the sermon I had so lovingly prepared would no longer work. I needed to start over to bring God’s Word to bear upon such a moment. It is a good thing I did. The attacks were on a Tuesday morning and by Sunday the church sanctuary was packed. People were angry, scared, and uncertain about what to do next. We might say they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Of course, going to church is a good place to go when one feels like this. For one of the great images of our Lord is that of a shepherd who has compassion for his sheep. This is true whether it is our Lord saying He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep or it is our Gospel lesson for today, in which He speaks about going off in search of the one lost little lamb and carrying it on His shoulders rejoicing that what was lost has been found. Yet, behind these images of our Lord as a shepherd, behind every one of them, is the text of Ezekiel 34. It is a text where God Himself addresses the situation of the false and unfaithful shepherds who have led His people into rebellion, disgrace, and ultimately captivity in a foreign land. And He is fed up with the false shepherds, fed up with their selfish ways, fed up with their corruption, neglect, and destruction of His flock. So, God will rescue them Himself. He will restore His sheep.
One of the great lessons about all this, one of the things we should take away when we encounter this text is how the shepherding work of God is not a one and done situation. He does not just rise up a single time and take the reins, get things back on track, and then leave the flock to their own devises. No, He was and is the shepherd of His flock. He was and remains the opposition to all the unfaithful shepherds who would lead the flock astray. God says, “Behold, I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out My sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” He says, “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.”
So, God is the shepherd of His people, and he does this ongoing shepherding through those He has called and sent to proclaim His Word of truth to the nations. They are not of their own making but serve the one true Shepherd of the people. They take His gifts and hand them over. They speak His words and make His promises to His flock. But this does not mean opposition will not arise. This does not mean the sheep cannot be led astray and turned from the faithful path. In fact, just as the Good Shepherd continues to call and guide His sheep, so those unfaithful shepherds continue to work. They remain lurking around the flock as well, always seeking to gain a following. There are always those who see the flock as something of their own possession, something they can wield for their own desires. The flock then becomes a means to something else.
In fact, in many ways when I think back to that Sunday morning 21 years ago, what people were going through was a desire to discern between true and false shepherds. By that time, they were inundated with newscasts, analysts, and fearmongers of every sort. Then they came, the TV evangelists, those righteous talking heads who were offering predictions and reasons why God would allow such a tragedy in the first place. They gave prescriptions for what we needed to do to have assurance and confidence going forward. There was money to be made, power to be gained, and a confused and terrified flock was the perfect way to get yours. So many voices from so many sources and what people were hoping for was a true voice, a sure voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd which would lead them through the wilderness. Where is the One who will not trample the weak and muddy the waters? Where is the One who will rescue them?
Perhaps we do not talk about this very much, but a big part of what we are called to do, a big part of why we gather together is to be able to discern between the voices that echo in our ears. Together we are better equipped to be able to discern if the one speaking to us is proclaiming the promises of God or is seducing us into self-righteous falsehoods. For God still shepherds His sheep. He still speaks His promises to His wayward flock, though we may wonder at times if the one speaking to us is faithful or not.
In the past, I have been accused of being an unfaithful shepherd. Let me tell you, that is a difficult thing to process. Most recently it happened in the midst of the pandemic and lockdowns and all the rules and regulations which were placed upon us: When we meet and how we meet and how to celebrate communion and whether we could sing. There were a lot of voices, a lot of opinions, and a lot of fear and confusion. And I had a person whom I love sit in my study and tell me I was being an unfaithful shepherd. Now, as much as that hurt, in the end I was actually glad it happened. I mean, I wish it had not happened, but it did, and what it did to me was for the betterment of the flock I have been sent to care for. For just at the point that I was getting pretty full of myself, pretty confident I was doing the right thing, the faithful thing, my world was turned upside down and I was filled with doubt. Now those doubts I shared with my wife and then some of my colleagues and finally with the board of elders. What the doubt did was drive me, through their help, back to the Word of God, back to the promises and care of the Good Shepherd.
My vocation is to care for the flock, not by being clever and witty and not by dynamic leadership which leads to grand expansion and full coffers. I am to care for the flock by handing over the goods, by taking what is my Lord’s and giving them to you. It is His Word, His Law, and His Gospel, His threats, His punishment and judgment, His forgiveness, and His promise of life and salvation. It is His washing and clothing with eternal life, his feeding of forgiveness in, with, and under the bread and wine. He says, “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.” The faithful shepherds are the ones who proclaim over and again that God has not and will not abandon His flock. He will find them. He will rescue them. He will love them beyond all reason and hope.
My favorite thing about Ezekiel 34 is all the first-person singulars heaped up throughout the passage. “Behold, I, I myself” will do it. It is so full of assurance and comfort. God will care for His flock. We see it most clearly in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. God Himself was doing what no one else could do, what no one else was able to do. The righteous dies for the unrighteous, to give them the promises of eternal life. He dies for you. He rescues you. He forgives you. This is the work of your God. This is voice which drowns out all others spoken through the prophets and apostles, through pastors, and our brothers and sisters. You are loved. You are found. You are forgiven.