All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 24 September 2017

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 24 September 2017

TRINITY 15, 2017   EVENSONG – Sermon preached by the Vicar

Ezekiel 33.23, 30-34.10;   Acts 26.1, 9-25

When Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland in 1939, both followed up military conquest with a deliberate effort to decapitate Polish society by the arrest of community and intellectual leaders including clergy.  These were either executed or deported to concentration camps or the Gulag to which Hitler and Stalin had already consigned so many from their own countries who might be a focus of opposition to their regimes.

Such policies were not an invention of 20th century totalitarian regimes.  They were practiced by some of the empires of the ancient world. Like Poland, sandwiched between Germany and Russia, the Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah found themselves being fought over by Egypt to the south and first the Assyrian and then the Babylonian empires centred in Mesopotamia – the area we now call Iraq.

Assyria was a militaristic state which practiced a ruthless policy of deportation of potentially rebellious national groups, which were not only deported but scattered. And so, the northern tribes of Israel vanished from history.

Assyria in its turn was defeated and replaced by the Babylonians and it was to their King Nebuchadnezzar’s army that Jerusalem fell; its last king blinded and taken into exile along with the political, military and religious elite of the nation. 

The Babylonians were less harsh than Assyria and they permitted the deported Jews to live together as a community in reasonable conditions, so these elite exiled fared reasonably well in Babylonia, and some even flourished.

The prophet Ezekiel was a member of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem and among the deportees. In his earlier prophecies, he had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. The fulfillment of his prophecies gave him credibility and respect among the exiles. He now found himself in the unusual position for a prophet of being “popular.”  People now talk about him and come to his house seeking to hear the latest word from God.

It was part of a prophet’s role to bring the people’s queries to the Lord. Among the exiles it had now become the thing to bring a query to Ezekiel and see what the result would be.  The Lord does not object to this practice in itself. His complaint against the people is that when the he provides an answer, this has no effect, since the enquirers: “….listen to your words but will not obey them. For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain.”  The noun “flattery” suggests sensual love. The exiles crave the sensuous and have mouths full of erotic speech. Their hearts are set on an unjust gain, a profit made by violence.

“To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it.”  Time spent with the prophet is entertaining, but his message has no impact on their lives.  They listen to his words, but they do not obey them. The people fill Ezekiel’s house, supposedly hungering for God’s word; but that word has no effect upon how they live their lives.

The exiles treat the theological and ethical discussion of the queries and responses as something to be enjoyed as a virtuoso intellectual performance (33.32). Their pleasure is aesthetic and intellectual.  Worship and God’s word It does not bring a communal and personal transformation. 

Those exiles in Babylon have hardly been the only believers to fall into such a temptations; whether those of material gain or a delight in Christian teaching as an intellectual exercise or worship as an aesthetic one: those who have flocked to hear celebrity preachers as a mind game which leaves us basically unchanged; having acquired some more ideas or information about God,  but not allowed these words to become flesh in us; or those who delight in Christian liturgy and the beauty of its art and music as entertainment rather than worship and sacrifice. 

It is easy enough for us to see this danger in the pop-concert, television-influenced worship songs of evangelical and charismatic groups – a critique that needs to be made but probably not by us –  and fail to notice it in our own more high-brow church culture. Such a critique is hollow if it is not accompanied by a self-criticism; one which asks whether we love to hear beautiful settings of the Magnificat but don’t listen to its radical message about God and the poor. 

“When this comes comes – and come it will” –  “this” being the day of the Lord’s final victory, “then they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”  They shall know that one who speaks for God has been in their midst and their fate is determined by their response to his words. And we, who have heard the Lord’s words all these centuries later, will know too.

In the meantime, Ezekiel must cope with being regarded as a performer.  Perhaps the Lord is worried that he might accept this role and come to enjoy it.  It is easy for those whose task it is to speak for God to his people to succumb the siren song of flattery:  – “wonderful sermon this evening, Father” – “What a beautiful liturgy that was; you do things so well here!”  And it is easy for the people to share in this mutual admiration: “How discerning of us to attend such an intellectually stimulating or aesthetically pleasing church!” 

Theology is an intellectual exercise and worship should reflect the one who is the source of all beauty. Both can rightly be enjoyed for themselves. But, the temptation is to “do” and hear theology without investing our lives in its truth, to share in the liturgy with no sense of holy fear in the presence of that which we celebrate.

Then, midway through our passage, we arrive, with the beginning of Chapter 34, at what has been called “the gospel according to Ezekiel.”   Its prophecy of salvation marks a turning point in the prophet’s ministry. From now on he will speak often of God’s future rescue of Israel, of its restoration to the homeland, and of conditions that will pertain there.

However, he begins with a prophecy of punishment addressed to the past shepherds of Israel. This may seem a strange way to launch an oracle of salvation, but we soon discover that the shepherds’ loss will be the flock’s gain.  God will retake control of the flock, bringing an end of the shepherd’s exploitative and irresponsible tending.

Who are these shepherds?  We use pastoral language to speak of the Church’s ministers. But in the ancient Near East, it was kings who were seen as shepherds and their people as the flock. A Babylonian proverb asserts that “a people without a king is like sheep without a shepherd. An Egyptian one says that the people are “like a flock gone astray without a shepherd.”  In Israel’s tradition, the prophet Micaiah son of Imlah’s prediction concerning the death of Israel’s King Ahab:  “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd” (1 Kgs. 22.1-7).

But kings, however powerful, do not stand and rule on their own; they need administrators and armies and police. It is possible that Ezekiel (like Jeremiah) intends that “shepherds” be understood to refer more broadly to leaders in Jerusalem.  

The indictment sets out a situation gone awry. Israel’s shepherds tended themselves when their duty was to tend to the sheep.  They ate the fat, the choices part of an animal; they clothed themselves with wool; and they slaughtered the fat sheep (all sins of commission), but they did not tend the sheep (a sin of omission). They made no attempt to strengthen the weak animals, heal the infirm, bind up the injured, return those who had strayed from the flock, or seek out the lost (all sins of omission), but ruled over them with force and harshness (a sin of commission).  “Force and harshness” are words in scripture which describe the brutal oppression the Israelites endured under King Jabin of Canaan (Judges 4.3), and the Egyptians’ savage treatment of enslaved Hebrews (Exod. 1.13-14),  So Israel’s shepherds have treated their own flock as would foreign tyrants and taskmasters.  As a consequence, the sheep have been scattered, “over all the face of the earth,” and have fallen prey to wild animals – to marauding nations.

The charge made against the monarch with the flock and shepherd image is simple. Shepherds must live at least in part from the products of the flock, but the calling for which they receive these privileges is to live for the flock. This, the princes of Israel have not done.   Instead, they have instead done what the Lord predicted when Israel begged Samuel to replace divine rule through spirit-filled judges with kings like those of “all the nations”:  they have exploited the people for their own indulgence and ambition (1 Sam. 8.5-18). So, the sheep are scattered and since they are the Lord’s, (34.6), the rulers must expect the Lord’s judgement. 

The passage provides a theology of politics and a criterion by which to judge politicians. Rulers are there to care for those they rule. Their position in the nation is an opportunity to exercise righteousness; in Israel’s case, to make their specific contribution to a community ordered by mutual love.  They can choose such a role or they can reject it. It they reject it, they too will be rejected as those whom the Good Shepherd condemns as “thieves and bandits” (John 10.8).