For thus says the Lord God:
I myself will search for my sheep, and I will seek them out.
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep,
so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places
to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…
I will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them with good pasture…
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,
and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.
(from Ezekiel 34:11-15)
Ending the year with sheep
Today marks the final Sunday in the liturgical year.
Next Sunday begins the season of Advent, and the cycle of readings and hymns that mark the passing of the church year will begin again.
I am delighted that the final lectionary readings for this church year are about one of my favorite scriptural topics: SHEEP!
I learned a lot about how to think like a sheep back around Easter. But this passage from Ezekiel focuses more on the role of the shepherd.
How to know a sheep
We know that sheep are easily able to recognize their shepherd — they know the shepherd’s voice. (I learned this week that sheep are also adept at recognizing human faces!)
We learn here that the shepherd is able to recognize the sheep as well! He knows each sheep well enough that he could pick out his flock from a scattered collection of sheep.
I assumed that shepherds were able to know their sheep because they would mark them. But I did some reading about shepherding and learned that most sheep keepers actually recognize their sheep as individuals – they know their unique faces and their personalities.
The whole flock has a dynamic that is familiar, like a family. It doesn’t feel the same when one of the sheep is missing.
God, our shepherd, knows us as his flock. But God also knows each of us as who we are, our very hearts and desires, our very ways of being.
How to rescue a sheep
Ezekiel 34 opens with a scathing critique of the “shepherds of Israel” who have failed to take good care of their sheep. God is not satisfied, however, to leave his people in such poor care. “I myself will search for my sheep,” he declares. “I will seek them out.”
Because the Shepherd-God knows each sheep well enough to recognize them, his promise here is that he will go find them and re-claim them when they have been led astray by these less conscientious shepherds.
The Quaker Isaac Penington wrote:
Oh come to the fold; Oh scattered sheep, come to the fold. Wander no longer from mountain to hill; but remember your resting-place, the old resting-place of Israel, even the mountain of the Lord’s house, where Israel may lie down and feed in peace, and no ravenous beast can disturb.
Here’s the thing about sheep: they can’t find their way home. They’re not stupid, they’re just not very good with directions. They might even know they’re lost, but they can’t remember the way back to their safe pasture without the guidance of their care-taker.
The Psalmist writes:
I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant! (Psalm 119:176a)
When the sheep have been scattered, the shepherd comes to them. He comes and stands in the midst of their chaos and calls out to them. They recognize his voice and re-gather. He will not leave to guide them home until every one of them is accounted for.
Even in places of darkness, the shepherd and the sheep can hear one another and find one another.
We cry: Come get us, God! Come rescue us when we have wandered into dark places and cannot find our way back to safety. And Shepherd-God hears us. If we listen, we will hear the call to re-gather with our brothers and sisters. If we watch, will we see the way back to richer pastures.
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
What do you know of God’s intimate knowledge of you as an individual? How do you seek to deepen your relationship with the Shepherd-God, that you both may know each other better? In times of darkness and scattering, how have you found your way home?