by Dr. John Yates
Ezekiel 34:11-16; Ezekiel 34:20-24; Ps 95:1-7; Eph 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
A climactic pronouncement from Jesus brings together the two great themes of my previous sermons, the kingdom of God and future inheritance; “the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”” (Matthew 25:34). An eternity of being ruled by Jesus is poorly understood and weakly desired by many Christians. This is because our dominant image of monarchs, like the queen of England, is of distant folk unable to identify with of the sufferings of ordinary “little people” like us. It would be easy for such an unfeeling sovereign to cast the goats on his left into ““the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;” (Matthew 25:41). But the kingship of God revealed in Christ is not like any monarch humanly imaginable; the wealth of Christ’s kingship is found in his being the Saviour of a host of creatures vulnerable, dull and needing the skills of a shepherd to survive. Jesus is King of the sheep. As the Shepherd King the Lord constantly compares and contrasts his kingship with the inadequacies of human shepherds.
The Sheep Seeking King
In Ezekiel’s day the shepherd-leaders of Israel had not fed the hungry, strengthened the weak, healed the sick or brought back the lost and straying but treated the sheep with harshness (Ezekiel 34:3-4). This stirred the Lord into action, ““Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep….I will feed…I will seek the lost…I will bring back the strayed…I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…”” (Ezekiel 34:11ff.). The Lord however does not exercise his rule directly from heaven but through people. I know my wife Donna reflects the pastoral rule of Jesus because in her workplace the hurt, suffering and misunderstood gravitate and open up their lives to her. Tragically not all called to shepherd the flock of God behave as true shepherds.
Peter warns against “heavy shepherding”.,
“I exhort the elders…shepherd the flock of God…willingly… not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock…Clothe yourselves… with humility” (1 Peter 5:1ff).
Last month the most influential young megachurch pastor in the United States had to resign because of his constant bullying and arrogance (Mark Driscoll). Authoritarian ministers make one great mistake, they forget they too are sheep of Christ. Everyone knows how harsh pastoring causes great distress in the Church but the opposite tendency is more common and just as damaging.
Paul must exhort church leaders; “Let no one despise you…. Let no one disregard you.” (1 Timothy 4:12; Tit 2:12). Weak and neglectful shepherding happens when the pastor is more attuned to bleating complaining sheep than to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Such scared men and women live in fear of sheep-bite and are too afraid of rejection to speak of sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:8-11). Those who make it their aim to please the sheep rather than the Lord will be dominated by the flock and always lose respect and spiritual authority (2 Corinthians 5:9; 2 Timothy 2:4). The Church as a whole, and this flock in particular, has had enough of abusive bullies and weak indulgent shepherds and desperately needs pastors who will minister the loving discipline of a heavenly Father (Heb 12:5-11). The Bible uses some very special and tender images to convey the beautiful shepherding of God.
Under His Hand
From our psalm today; “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his handare the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also….let us kneel before the LORD…For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Psalm 95:3-7 ESV cf. Jer 33:13). The same hand which upholds the mighty mountains hold us. Hear these wonderful words of Jesus, ““My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”” (John 10:27-28 ESV).
I love the beginning of Revelation; when John sees the glorified Christ, “I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am …the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore…” (Revelation 1:17-18 ESV). The hand which is placed upon John abolishes fear from his heart because it is a crucified and healed hand, a hand that has been through death and resurrection. I was recently listening to someone sharing how she clearly remembers as a child of 4 or 5 her mum coming into her room and asking her who she was chatting with. She told her mother she was talking with Jesus because he was in the room with her. I was left with an overwhelming impression that this woman had been in the palm of God’s hand all her life (cf. Isa 49:16). All this sounds wonderful but we must press into a deeper revelation of Jesus if we are to accept him as our personal Shepherd King.
The Sheep King
In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus describes himself as ““the Son of Man in glory” sitting “on his glorious throne” separating “people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”” (Matthew 25:31-32 ESV). The only way to comprehend how such a majestic heavenly being can justly judge our weak struggling lives is to recall that the King of the sheep has also been a sheep.
Prophesying of the sacrificial sufferings of Christ Isaiah said, ““Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth.” (Acts 8:32; Isa 53:7 cf. John 1:29). The Lord identifies with the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, weak and imprisoned because he experienced all these things, and more, at the cruel abusive hands of the wicked shepherd-leaders of his day (Matthew 25:35-40; Matthew 25:26-27 etc.). Having fully entered into the sufferings of humanity Christ is supremely qualified to judge us all.
The King Who Judges the Sheep
The major punch line of the parable by which the sheep enter heaven and the goats are cast into hell is this; “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’…. ‘as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40, 45 ESV). Throughout the Gospels the “brothers” of Jesus are always those who “do the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 12:46-48). They are those who come to Jesus as their shepherd and suffer for it (Matthew 10:40, 42; Mark 10:30).
Let me explain the foundational reason why we have recently run some prayer meetings in the city for the persecuted church. When Saul was on the road to Damascus intending to harass the Church Jesus appeared and called out, ““Saul Saul, why do you persecute me?”” Like the goat he was at that time Saul replied; ““Who are you, Lord?”” To which the Lord replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5).
When the followers of Christ suffer he suffers. An evangelist recently got into bother for traumatising some primary age children in a Christian school by showing a dramatic DVD of the crucifixion. I asked him, “Who did you really traumatise when you caused pain to these weak, defenceless children?” he gradually realise that he had caused distress to Jesus. But he did recognise it and he did confess his sin because he does know Jesus; he is a sheep and not a goat.
Jesus never received justice from the shepherds of his day and often we won’t either.
Like the people of this parish I too have experienced both heavy and weak shepherding. The first rector I worked for would publicly rebuke me in a service if I made a mistake and was so unconcerned about my mental, physical and family health that he encouraged me to do 1,000 home visits in 9 months. In my second ministry placement the rector was secretly communicating with the bishop about having me removed from the parish until the news leaked out on the grapevine. I remember crying a lot of crying in the middle of the night about that move; and lots of the sheep wept openly too. In the wisdom of God however, the next 12 months of ministry proved incredibly fruitful; because getting more deeply in touch with the healing power of Jesus the Good Shepherd upon my own broken life brought me closer to his weak and broken sheep.
I love this scripture where Jacob describes the Lord as “the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,” (Gen 48:15).
I affirm this truth with all my heart. With all the suffering that you have endured in recent years both as individuals and as a parish can you affirm with all your heart that Jesus is your Shepherd-King. This is a very practical question for it draws the line between sheep and goats.
Through his sufferings at the hands of ungodly shepherds Jesus has become perfectly able to sympathise with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15). The fruit of God’s wisdom in allowing us to suffer from ungodly shepherding is that it can bring us closer to Jesus who gives us a greater compassion to reach out to others. If you do not sense the compassion of Jesus leading you in this way then it is likely that you are a goat. All however who know Jesus as the loving Shepherd-Kingwill testify to other wounded sheep that the King of the sheep really knows, understands and loves each of us completely and is calling us into his kingdom. This must be the our future vision.