Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16
“The earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD. Alleluia.” These words, which we heard this morning in the Introit, come from Psalm 33. They set the tone for this Sunday and give us the Latin for the third Sunday of Easter. The title for today is Misericordias Domini; Latin for, “the steadfast love of the Lord.” We confess this Sunday and this season – even in a pandemic – that the world is filled with God’s love for us. He continues to provide for all the needs of our bodies: He gives us oxygen to breathe, food to eat, water to drink, clothes to wear, and so on. In this season, we’re also witnessing plants putting out buds and flowers, each the handiwork of God’s love. Especially in this season in the Church year, do we witness God’s steadfast love for us in the resurrection of His Son, our Lord. Truly, the earth is full of the Lord’s steadfast love.
It is this love that brought God to speak to His people what He did in our Old Testament text. In the Gospel, Jesus often had compassion on the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. The same is true of the people in Ezekiel’s time. They were displaced by war. Spiritually, they were dry, old bones – as we heard last week – and led astray by generations of unfaithful shepherds. The Lord promised through Ezekiel a time where He Himself would come and shepherd His people. He would be their good and faithful shepherd. This promise is fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus, which continues among us now in the Word and Sacraments.
Our portion of Ezekiel 34 today is pretty well-known, and for good reason. It’s very likely that our Lord had this passage in mind when He called Himself the Good Shepherd. Just after our text, there’s an awesome passage where God promises the Incarnation. We heard from the Holy Spirit through Ezekiel last week, so you might remember the context. Remember, Ezekiel prophesied among the exiles of Judah during their captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah was also preaching during this time, but he mostly stayed back in Judah. What had led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of God’s people in Babylon was a period of generations of unfaithful shepherds among God’s people. Those shepherds were the kings and priests of the people who were unfaithful in their charge. They were supposed to encourage and lead the people by feeding them with God’s pure Word. But instead, they only fed and cared for themselves. They did not teach God’s Word, they allowed false doctrine and worship to flourish. The shepherds of Israel became no different from the kings of the world.
Unfortunately, the witness of the Old Testament is: as the shepherd, so the sheep. When Israel and Judah had faithful kings and priests, often the people were faithful. David is an example of this. Josiah, the boy king who found the Book of the Law after it had been lost for over 100 years is another. In the absence of faithful shepherds, the sheep became unfaithful to God. They sacrificed to idols and lived as pagans do: in lies, murder, and adultery. As discipline, God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed and the sheep scattered. But, that time of chastisement would not last forever. The Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah, “Thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you My promise and bring you back.” (Jer. 29:10)
This is the promise our Lord builds upon in our text today. Here, He promises Himself to be the shepherd of the sheep. The Lord said, “Behold, I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out…I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered…and I will bring them into their own land.” (Ezek. 34:11-13) Here the Lord promises, Himself, to be the shepherd of His people. Unlike the unfaithful shepherds of Israel, His focus would be on His sheep. He would gather them together, feed them, give them rest, and bring them into their own land. He would show them His steadfast love. In part, this is fulfilled by the return of the children of Israel to their home. After 70 years, God did raise up King Cyrus, and the people were returned to their own land. Its true fulfillment is something even greater.
Today we heard our Lord speak to us in the Gospel, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” (Jn. 10:12) Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to shepherd His people Himself. He came, as He Himself said, “to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk. 19) He came to gather “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” (Mt. 15) who had been scattered both physically and, especially, spiritually. He did this by preaching and teaching in their synagogues. He shepherded His people through healing the sick and cleansing the lepers. He fed and nourished souls with His Word and then, as the Good Shepherd, laid down His life for His sheep on the cross. Apart from the shepherd, the sheep had gone astray in sin, but He won forgiveness by giving Himself into death, and eternal life by taking it up again.
Jesus’ ministry, the shepherding of the sheep promised through Ezekiel, isn’t something limited to the past, though. It continues now. In less than a month, we get to celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. The Ascension is when, 40 days after Easter, our Lord ascended to the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ ascension doesn’t mean that He’s away from us; it means that He is with us always. It means that He is, and will always remain, our Good Shepherd. We confessed in the Psalm, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” The title for today is Misericordias Domini, the steadfast love of the Lord. Out of love, our Lord became our shepherd. In love, our Lord continues to be our shepherd and we, His sheep. But, what does it mean that the Lord is our shepherd? How does He shepherd us?
Through Ezekiel, the Lord said, “Behold, I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out…I will bring them out from the people and gather them.” (vv. 11, 13) We confess today, and always, that we were each conceived and born in sin. We were united with the world in death, but the Lord sought us out and brought us out of the world of death through His Word. Through the Word, the Lord sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts and gave to us the gift of faith. By faith, we have been united to Him. Through the Word, also, the Lord continues to lead us. In the Word, He shepherds us in what is right and true. Through it, He comforts us and gives us rest in His promises.
The Lord promised through Ezekiel to feed His people with good pasture. This, the Lord does through His Word and, also, in the Sacrament of His true body and blood. The Lord’s Supper is true bread from heaven, given to be our sustenance as we travel through this weary world. In it, the Lord binds up our wounded hearts by giving us the forgiveness of sins He won for us. Through the Word and the Sacraments, the ministry of our Lord continues. He continues to be our shepherd, and we His people. He bids us take comfort in this and rejoice. And so, we do. We confess that, even in this pandemic, the Lord is our Shepherd and we, His sheep. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!