An Advent Reflection
The theme of the fourth week of Advent in our parish is “The Promise of ‘God with us’” from last Sunday’s readings. Today’s advent verse is from the prophet Ezekiel who was taken to Babylon in the first deportation in 597 bce and preached to the exiles and to the homeland.
You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture
and I am your God, says the Lord God. —Ezekiel 34:31
I have had no experience with sheep other than a flock a few thousand strong blocking an old US highway somewhere in Montana in 1973. But I think of that grizzled old shepherd – who was in no hurry – whenever the scripture talks about sheep. There was nothing for many, many miles but this shepherd and his flock and the semi-arid hill country around us.
You wouldn’t think to use the image of a shepherd to speak of kings with their lavish tables, royal retinue and “soft raiment”. But Israel – and others in the ancient near east –used such language for the leaders of the people. We tend to think of shepherds in romantic ways, colored as it is with pictures of Jesus with a lamb around his shoulders. But what I saw that evening in Montana was anything but romantic.
Why this language gets used for kings I don’t know. Perhaps it goes back to an older time when ‘kings’ were little more than local leaders who excelled in battle against marauding neighbors (‘wolves’). Certainly the shepherd’s fundamental obligation is to protect his flock, and it is for their failure to do this that Ezekiel excoriates the leadership of his day. They have become devouring wolves not shepherds. They have led the nation into destruction and the people have been slaughtered and scattered across the face of the region.
We forget, sometimes, how much leadership matters, how much damage can be done by kings driven by their passions and surrounded by prophets who only tell them what they want to hear. In the face of such folly, the prophet speaks God’s judgment on Judah’s leaders, but to the scattered people comes the promise that God himself will gather his flock:
11For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered… 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries… and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture…16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them with justice. Ezekiel 34:11-16
The prophetic word deepens over time, helping us to see that God’s purpose is not just to dwell with Israel but with all people. And the promise is made flesh in the child of Bethlehem. God has come, the good shepherd has arisen, and through the Spirit God continues to dwell with us and shepherd us towards the fullness of his promise.