Ezekiel 34:1-16 Is this the End or a New Beginning?

Let me tell you about the young man called William. He could have become one of the greatest evangelists in the world. William often preached to the poor in and around London about a hundred years ago. He wrote many letters to his brother Theo about his preaching. In a letter dated October 13, 1876 he wrote,

"Last Monday I was again at Richmond and my subject was, 'He has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor' but whoever wants to preach the Gospel must first carry it in his own heart."

His favourite hymn was "Tell me the old, old story of Jesus and his love" and his favourite reading, apart from the Bible, was the works of Charles H Spurgeon. William was born in Zundert, Holland in March 1853. The eldest of six children, his father a Lutheran pastor. After he left school in 1869 he started work for a firm of art dealers in the Hague. In 1873 he had the chance to travel and he moved to London working at the Southampton Street branch of his firm.

He was a typical young businessman of the time. You could see him any day in a formal suit and top hat, walking from his lodgings in Kensington to the Strand. He fell in love with Ursula, his landlady's daughter but she was already engaged and laughed at his affection for her. He turned to Jesus for consolation and found in him such spiritual blessing that he was soon helping the local Methodist minister by taking meetings in Turnham Green and Petersham. The conviction grew that he should become a full-time evangelist.

So in 1877 he returned to his native Holland to begin training for the ministry. He found the academic demands of the theological college at Amsterdam too demanding and so moved to a newly opened school for evangelists in Brussels. William soon found great success in preaching to the poor among the coal miners of Belgium. He dressed like a peasant and shared their poverty often going without food. William was concerned for their needs. He washed their clothes. He cared for their sick and consoled their dying.

And he led them to Christ. His clothes and his methods were Christ-like - incarnational. But the church leaders or the day would have nothing to do with him. Indeed they forced him out of the ministry... One of the greatest Christian leaders in the world rejected by the church.

This week has been quite a week for those who, like William, aspire to leadership. At the beginning of the week we had Ken Livingstone declaring his hand as an independent candidate for Mayor of London. With the Super Tuesday Primaries over, the race for the White House is now between George Bush Jnr and Al Gore. On Wednesday there was John Pilger's controversial programme about the effect of Western sanctions on the children of Iraq. Friday the British Government recalled its Ambassador from Zimbabwe after diplomatic baggage was opened at Harare Airport, in breech of international law. Today there is the serialisation of Nicholas Aitken's autobiography, "Pride and Perjury". How a cabinet minister committed purjury, lost his reputation, his wife, his home, his fortune, but found God in prison.

So the events of this week cause us to think about leadership, whether secular or sacred, politicians or priests. On what criteria should we elect them? Support them? Rate them? Judge them? Oppose them? In our journey through the Old Testament we have come to the point when God raises the very same questions.

The Jews are prisoners in exile, Samaria and Jerusalem are destroyed. Two weeks ago you will remember we discovered why. What was the theme? How to lose a kingdom. Three simple steps to losing a kingdom, a family, a reputation, a soul. What were they? Turn your back on God. Worship some other substitute. Sleep with the enemy, the devil. That is what Israel did. That is why they lost the kingdom.

Today we are going to discover another reason why they lost the kingdom. It all had to do with her leaders. Even in exile, God's people are still being led by incompetent, arrogant, self-centred and ungodly leaders. And we shall also see what God did about it. The Lord Rebukes the Leaders; Removes the Leaders and Replaces the Leaders.

1. The Lord Rebukes the Leaders (34:1-6)
From the very beginning, when God formed the nation of Israel in Egypt, he gave them the Law and insisted the blessings were always conditional on obedience. Remember when they asked Samuel for a king? You don't want a king... God said, Don't take it personal Sammy. "Its me they have rejected not you." They lost the kingdom for the same reason they wanted a kingdom. They turned their back on God. But they also lost the kingdom because they followed leaders who had turned their backs on God. That is why the more severe indictment belonged to Israel's shepherds. What did God have against them? Three things.

1.1 They cared for themselves not the people

The primary responsibility of the shepherd was to care for the flock. The main aim of Judah's leaders however, was to keep themselves in office. (34:2). Instead of feeding the flock, they fed off the flock, taking food and clothing for themselves instead of providing for the people. The very possession of power is a constant temptation to abuse it. The leaders of Judah made sure that they received all the benefits of being in office. Like the former commissioners of the European Community they ate the best food and wore the finest clothes. They gave themselves low interest credit, tax free shopping and fat expense accounts. They cared only for themselves.

1.2 They abused their power exploiting the weak (34:4)
They had failed to provide for the needy--those weak and sick. The weaker members of society received scant attention. The sick had to provide for themselves. The drop-outs and those who could not cope were left to wander through life. Worse, the leaders intimidated and oppressed those who caused dissent or questioned their authority. Their government was harsh and brutal (34:4). We see the same syndrome today in places like Nigeria, Egypt, Zimbabwe, East Timor, Chechnya, China, Pakistan. The less concerned a regime is for the real needs of its people, the more it has to be shored up by secret police, human rights abuses, hit squads and detention without trial for political activists. Throughout history autocratic monarchies, left and right wing dictatorships and tyrannical regimes all tell the same story. They cared for themselves not for the people. They abused their power exploiting the weak.

1.3 They encouraged the disintegration of society (34:5-6)
With a corrupt leadership, the people were at the mercy of the mob and the mafia. They had no one to stand up for them. The little people where pushed around by the strong or the powerful. The result was a loss of cohesion in society. The dissolving of those ties that bind a community together. No one bothered when somebody disappeared at night or was found dead in the gutter the next day. No one cared for the widows or street children.

Bad government leads to indifference, anarchy and social disintegration. Without a good shepherd to lead them, the flock of Israel went astray and scattered among the nations. That is how they lost a kingdom. Lack of godly leadership always leads to social disintegration. Leadership carries an awesome responsibility. Because the Lord not only rebukes the leaders.

2. The Lord Removes the Leaders (34:7-10)
The accusation against Israel's "shepherds" has been given. The normal judicial procedure was to repeat the accusation immediately before announcing the verdict. Therefore this judicial sentence reviews the charge against them: Israel's "shepherds" had been selfish, insensitive leaders plundering the flock for personal gain. They had allowed the people to become prey for other nations (vv. 7-8). God therefore promises to remove them and save the flock. The Lord would hold each "false shepherd" accountable for his shepherding (vv. 9-10). The Bible is full of similar examples where God raised up leaders but removed them when they rebelled against him. Pharoah (Exodus 6:1, 12:29-36). Saul (1 Samuel 15:10-29). Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:18-21). Belshazzar (Daniel 5:22-31). Herod (Acts 12:21-24). And future world rulers (Revelation 18). The lesson is clear. The Lord rebukes ungodly leaders and he removes them.

3. The Lord Replaces Ungodly Leaders (34:11-31)

The Lord would personally assume responsibility for "shepherding" the flock of Israel. The Lord promised he would search, rescue, and regather the flock of Israel from the nations. He would care for them as a loving shepherd. The Lord would do so by appointing one true Shepherd for his people: the Messiah, his servant David (vv. 23-24). The Lord would be Israel's God; his servant would be their true Shepherd. When Jesus declares, "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:14), he clearly has Ezekiel 34 in mind. Jesus is declaring that he is the true and righteous Shepherd Ezekiel promised. He would prove it by laying down his life for the sheep. In this prophecy of Ezekiel we see then how this is indeed the end for the kingdom of Israel. But it was also a new beginning. If they would turn from their ungodly shepherds back to the one true Shepherd, their Saviour. In these verses we see not only how God directly rules this earth, but also how we who aspire to serve him should conduct ourselves. What then is the difference between good and bad government? Which candidates deserve our vote?

3.1 Good government cares for and draws people together (34:11-14)
As Jesus said 'The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.' He is not concerned with his own power and position but with his people's welfare.

3.2 Good government cares for the lost, the weak and sick (34:16)
The shepherd goes out to look for the lost. In any society there will always be those who lose their way in life. They consume time and resources and may contribute little, but in God's eyes they are the concern of those who lead.

3.3 Good government restrains the strong and rules with justice (34:16).
The sleek and the strong were those who took advantage of their position of power to oppress the people and claim an unfair portion of resources for themselves.
God does not approve of this kind of selfish behaviour and abuse of power. God shepherds us with justice and equality.

3.4 Good government limits the exploitation of resources (34:17-19).
God is distressed by those who not only eat the best themselves, but 'also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet'. Their selfish exploitation did not limit itself to securing the purest water for themselves but muddied the rest with their feet. (34:18,19). Perhaps there is a message here about pollution and the ruthless exploitation of natural resources. The kind of government the Lord brings puts an end to such exploitation.

3.5 Good government is concerned for the poor (34:20-22).
The Lord declares that he will judge between the fat sheep and the lean ones. He will put an end to 'shoving' and 'butting' that leads to the poorer people being driven away and plundered. He certainly does not seem to approve of the laissez-faire economic system, but sees the responsibility of leaders to judge between different sections of society, restraining the use of power and protect the interests of the underprivileged. The effect of such a good government leads in the closing verses of the chapter to the picture of an ideal society, where not only have the social problems been dealt with, but an ecological balance has been restored.

Under the direction of the Creator, not only does human life become peaceful, but the whole of the creation works as it was intended to (34:25—31). Clearly, when we vote for a new President or Prime Minister, a new Mayor or PCC
, we know that human governments will never succeed in establishing an ideal world of social justice and true peace. Only the return of Jesus Christ as Lord will bring in the ideal society. Our responsibility now however, is to serve Him according to the gifts and abilities God has given us, to his glory, the extension of his kingdom and the common good of his world.

Earlier I told you about William. A man who was clearly gifted by God to become one of the greatest evangelists in the world. But when he was rejected by the church leaders, he began to question his faith and he eventually took his own life. From theological college he went back into the world of art dealing and tried his hand at a little painting. His name? You know him by his other Christian name, Vincent. Vincent William Van Gogh.

If Vincent could paint as he did, it is easy to imagine how he might have preached! If he could depict a sunflower with such power on a canvas, how well he would have proclaimed the Son of God from a pulpit! One of the saddest aspects of his life as an artist centres on one of his paintings simply called 'The Bible'. It shows a Bible lying open at Isaiah 53 - the suffering servant passage - and nearby is a candle that has gone out. In front of the unused bible, is a novel by Emile Zola called La Joie De Vivre, 'the joy of life', which is clearly well read. What was Vincent Van Gogh saying?

Perhaps even as his mind was ravaged by doubts and despair he was still preaching. How sad when the light goes out of the message of God's Suffering Servant. How much more tragic still when it is caused by ungodly leaders. How comforting to know the caring hand of the one true shepherd, who laid down his life for us, who rose again and is coming back to reign. Lets make sure we are ready, faithful servants not arrogant leaders. Lets pray.

I am grateful to Ian Barclay and Denis Lane for material used in this sermon.