Our Scripture passage for this morning is probably not your usual or expected Thanksgiving text. The psalm was nice, though, don’t you think? Next to the 23rd psalm, psalm 100 is very popular. It speaks of how good it is to be God’s sheep, how great it is to have God as our shepherd, and how marvelous it is to be able to come into the presence of our Lord. But the prophet Ezekiel paints a slightly different picture than does the psalmist. The psalmist is filled with joy, while Ezekiel is angry. Before we arrive at verse eleven, Ezekiel has been severely criticizing the human shepherds who have ruled and reigned over God’s people. And he is criticizing them because they are just plain bad shepherds.
Human shepherds have always failed to lead God’s people in right paths. It is not something that we do well. Even some of the really famous shepherds from the Scriptures, like Moses and Aaron, and David and Elijah and Elisha had their miserable failings. And those failures are all documented, and yet, we have grown to love and admire them. We even list them as some of the great heroes of the faith.
But by the time that Ezekiel is writing, some really bad things have happened, and God has become angry. And when God becomes angry, God’s prophets announce that anger to God’s people.
A once great and mighty nation has fallen. God’s people have been vanquished and exiled from their homeland. The Babylonian army, under the authority of Nebuchadnezzer, has savagely ravaged them. The cities and temple of God’s people have all been destroyed. Thousands have been brutally murdered in a horrific bloodbath. Those who remained alive after the assault have been brutally marched off to Babylon, where they will once again serve as slaves.
And Ezekiel, as he writes to his people, proclaims to them that it was not an accident that destroyed their lives and sent them into exile. Ezekiel is clear that it was not an unlikely twist of fate that brought them down. Ezekiel is adamant that it was their sin that drove them from their homeland and sent them into exile. The Babylonian army was merely a tool of God Almighty. And in his diatribe, Ezekiel levels much of the blame for the downfall of his nation on the religious leaders of it’s people. Ezekiel implies that the religious leaders failed to shepherd God’s people, because they stopped being shepherds and became sheep instead. Instead of leading the people out of their sinful and idolatrous practices, by proclaiming their God-given authority as leaders, the shepherds simply followed the people into deeper and greater immorality. Those who were called to be leaders, became followers instead. And when the leaders of God’s people become corrupt, all manner of evil flourishes and it flourishes freely.
But God can always be counted upon to be up to something brand new. Even though God has sent his people into exile in Babylon, as punishment for their sin, God will now, himself, become their shepherd. And like the Good Shepherd of the Gospels, who seeks out his lost sheep and brings them home, God will gather up his down-trodden and scattered people, and bring them to himself.
And so Ezekiel sets his anger at the failed religious leaders aside for a moment, and he paints a beautiful picture of God as a loving and caring shepherd. In addition to seeking out the lost, this shepherd feeds his sheep and gives them rest and security. It is wonderfully obvious, that as Ezekiel describes God’s determination to become the shepherd of his people, that he has the 23rd psalm planted firmly and deeply in his own heart. Ezekiel knows that David knew that he had his failures as a shepherd, and that David understood fully that the only true shepherd of God’s people is God himself. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”.
Even though God has judged his people, and even though God has punished his people, God will now go about the business of restoring his people. This is what God does, and it is also what we must do. And this is the picture of God that I am extremely grateful for on this Thanksgiving Sunday morning. And I am grateful for this picture of God because we so desperately need his restoration. We need to believe that he restores our souls and that he leads us in right paths.
I am grateful that the Lord is my shepherd. I am thankful, that in spite of my sin, and in spite of my failures as a religious leader, that God is sincerely interested in gathering me into his fold, loving me, restoring me, and leading me down those glorious and safe paths of righteousness.
This year, because of the coronavirus, Thanksgiving Day is going to be very different for many of us. The Sawyer family will not be making its traditional trek downeast, and I suspect that many of us are looking at drastically altered plans. We will be making our contacts with one another through a Zoom meeting, later in the day.
For most of us, though, in more ordinary times, there probably isn’t another meal in the entire year that has more planning, and more thought, and more imagination put into it than the Thanksgiving meal.
The whole thing is like a big drama. Everybody has a role. Some of those roles are starring roles, some are bit roles and some are cameo roles and some are yeast rolls. Everyone has something to do, everyone participates, and everyone brings something to the table. And then, everyone sits down at the table, someone says grace, and the eating begins. It sounds a whole lot like an obedient church at work.
Interestingly, from a Biblical perspective, we are actually taking part in an act of worship. Eating, is in fact, an act of worship. It is no accident that food tastes good; that it feels good in our mouths and satisfies our cravings for contentment. God designed it to be this way. Receiving physical nourishment into our bodies is designed by our creator to be a pleasant activity. But that’s not the end of it. When we eat, God intends for us to be reminded, always, that God is the sole source of our nourishment. God is the sole source of what keeps us alive. And, it is a pleasure for God and for us, to participate together in that life-sustaining activity.
But as we eat, we ought also to be reminded of an even greater truth, and that is that God is also the soul source of our spiritual nourishment. And just as receiving physical nourishment is pleasant and satisfying, so also is the act of receiving spiritual nourishment. The two go hand in hand. They each teach the lesson of the other.
If God enjoys keeping us alive with the pleasure of eating our favorite foods, imagine the joy that God receives when we spend time dining on the absolute feast that he has prepared for us by giving us his word! God created us to desire spiritual nourishment. Who has taught us that we ought to deprive ourselves of this spiritual nourishment? And why have we believed this lie from the very pit of hell? When we deprive ourselves of God’s lavish feast of spiritual nourishment, we wander away, we get lost, we get hurt, and ultimately, because we are starved, we die.
In the Bible, sheep are rather bizarre creatures. Perhaps they’re just plain stupid. In the shepherd, they have everything that they need. They’ve got guidance, direction, food, care, and protection. Some of them even have a shepherd who loves them. But in spite of all of this, they don’t seem to get it. Perhaps they lack wisdom. Give a sheep half the chance to escape, and it will wander off. It will run away, get separated from the flock, go off on it’s own path and think that it is doing just exactly the right thing. It is having the time of its life. But away from the shepherd, the sheep will get into trouble. It will get lost, it will get injured, it will get hungry and weak, and it is very likely that it will die.
But for some crazy reason, running away from the shepherd seems to be preferable to staying with the shepherd, even though the inevitable consequences of running away from the shepherd are always unpleasant and harmful. Sheep, apparently, are incapable of learning from past experience.
Unfortunately for us, the behavior of sheep is an apt analogy for the behavior of humans. The prophet Isaiah puts it this way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned to our own way”. (Isaiah 53.6)
And yet, when we do run away, when we do go astray, this is what God says that he will do: “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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
Two thousand years ago God fulfilled that promise in the most awesome way imaginable. A child was born in the tiny town of Bethlehem. Quite appropriately, the first witnesses to that birth were shepherds. They were there to greet, first hand, the shepherd of their souls, God in the flesh. That night, God extended his role of the Good Shepherd; and he continues in that role to this day. In the person of Jesus Christ, God calls us back to the flock when we stray, seeks us out when we are lost, bandages our wounds when we get hurt, and feeds us with the holy and sacred food which is his body and his blood.
This shepherd loves us so much that he has given his life for us. This is the Good Shepherd. Human shepherds fail, and human shepherds disappoint. Sometimes human shepherds even kill. This Thanksgiving let us give thanks, that in a world of bad shepherds, that we have a good one. Let us follow him. Let us serve him. Let us love him, for he first loved us.