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More Than Just Image / Last Sunday of the Church year

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out.

Would you agree that we are an image-conscious society? Appearances are important to us. And not just our personal appearances. We want the things in our environment, our homes and cars and sneakers and even our lunches, to look Instagram-ready. The problem with living in an image-conscious society is that we are easy to deceive. Too often, appearance wins out over substance. If something looks good on the outside, we don’t question its authenticity or integrity.

Food stylists create those perfect food pictures we see in advertisements. The photo of the perfect hamburger might take days of intensive work. The food stylist would sort through hundreds of hamburger buns, tomato slices and lettuce leaves to find ones with the perfect size, shape and coloring. Then, he would cook dozens of hamburger patties in order to get a perfectly proportioned patty.

And then the magic. The food stylist would spritz the hamburger patty with glycerin and other chemicals to ensure it had the perfect color, sheen and grill pattern. By the time the hamburger was ready for the photo shoot, it was not fit for human consumption.

Of course, a little bit of food styling isn’t anything we need to worry about. We all know that advertising agencies use all sorts of tricks to make products look better than they really are. But what about using tricks to manipulate our perception of people?

Today, the last Saturday/Sunday before the Advent season, we celebrate the reign of Christ, to remember that Jesus Christ is our King. He is the ultimate example of godly leadership. In a corrupt and cynical world, Jesus is our example and our hope. And this Saturday/Sunday is set aside to remind us that one day Jesus will establish God’s Kingdom on the earth. So, as we examine this passage from Ezekiel 34, I want us to see God’s original design for leadership.

We can’t understand the value of godly leadership until we contrast it with ungodly leadership. We can’t understand or appreciate the blessing of knowing Jesus as our King until we compare Him to every human leader in history. And then we see how sin, how separation from God’s character and purposes, results in corrupt, self-serving and power-hungry leaders.

In our Bible passage for today, the priest Ezekiel becomes God’s prophet to the people of Israel as they live in exile in Babylon. The first 10 verses of this chapter are words of warning directly from God to the religious leaders of Israel. They became corrupt, self-serving, heartless. They didn’t take care of the people, they didn’t search for the lost, they didn’t strengthen the weak or bind up the wounds of the hurting. They took all the good things for themselves. They ruled the people “harshly and brutally.” (vs. 4c)

A church secretary wrote to Reader’s Digest magazine to share an unusual problem she had with formatting the weekly church bulletin. She always followed the same format each week: sermon title followed by the pastor’s name.

However, one Sunday morning she noticed a number of church members giggling as they opened their bulletins. She grabbed the nearest bulletin and scanned it. That Sunday’s sermon title read, “What Makes God Sick: Pastor Joe Smith.”

Our passage this morning is about pastors and religious leaders who make God sick! Because our sins and failings hurt God’s people and corrupt God’s original plan for His Kingdom.

There was an incredibly sad report that came out a self-appointed “pastor” who convinced hundreds of his followers to starve themselves to death so that they could meet Jesus. The pastor was arrested and jailed by police for persuading his followers that God wanted them to die early so they could be with Jesus. And the method he suggested was starvation. So far, 427 bodies have been recovered from mass graves in the forest near his church.

That’s a particularly brutal and exceptional example. But we don’t have to look far beyond our back door for examples of ministry leaders whose actions stand in stark contrast to the actions of Jesus. It’s no surprise that a recent Gallup survey revealed that only 34% of Americans “rate the honesty and ethical standards of clergy as high or very high.” This is the lowest rating in the history of this particular survey. The Gallup researchers believe that the news of abuses and scandals in the church is a contributing factor to this loss of trust. It seems every month that we hear about another pastor or religious leader who has been charged with fraud, abuse, infidelity, greed, bullying or abuse of power.

But every religious leader is in danger of failing to reflect Jesus’ character. Every one of us is in danger of becoming proud, greedy, heartless and self-serving. And God sees our failings. God sees how our sin hurts the people put under our care. Through Ezekiel, God is telling the people of Israel, don’t lose heart. I have a plan for My people. I will not leave you without hope.

God’s promise to His people is “I am coming to rescue and restore you.” This is the vision God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel: For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for My sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.

I, Myself will search for My sheep. God never gives up on us.

Since the beginning of humanity, God has worked through judges, priests and kings to establish God’s Kingdom of peace, justice and flourishing on the earth. But all these qualities are simply byproducts of living in a right relationship with God and with one another. Our sinful nature drives us to put our needs and happiness first, to crown ourselves king of our own little universe. There is no earthly power, either judge, priest or king, who can transform our sinful nature into the character of God.

We’ve had a place in God’s heart from the very beginning. God sent Jesus to us for a reason. Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of God’s promise to rescue and restore us. He is the Good Shepherd who will come through the line of King David. He is the One who will gather God’s sheep from all the corners of the world. He is the One who searches for the lost, who strengthens the weak, who binds up the injured, who administers justice for us, His sheep. Jesus is the One who lay down His own life to rescue us from the power of sin and death and restore our relationship with God.

I imagine that someday when Jesus returns to establish God’s Kingdom on the earth, an angel will poke their head out from the heavenly choir and ask the question, “Is there anyone here who owes their life to Jesus Christ?” And people from every tribe, nation and tongue will stand on their feet. And the King we have enthroned in our hearts will become the King of all Creation and will establish peace, righteousness, and justice on the earth. It is God’s unfailing promise to us: “I Myself will search for My sheep and look after them.” And every promise God has made to us will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.