God Has Standards *

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This recording is intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family.  While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given.

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Ezekiel 34:1-24


Those of us reading the Bible in Ninety Days are in the thick of the prophets. Major and Minor prophets. As you read along, let me teach you a little saying I remember from way back in seminary about the definition of a prophet. A prophet is someone one who afflicts the comfortable and who comforts the afflicted. Repeat that for me: “A prophet is someone who… “afflicts the comfortable and who comforts the afflicted.”

Today I want you to listen for that message from Ezekiel. Note that there is a word to the Shepherds and a word for the sheep. Both disturbing and comforting depending on how you live, or where you sit, so to speak. Today, listen for the reasons the bad shepherds and sheep are being judged or afflicted… listen for the “why.” And listen to the hope the Lord offers those who thought they were long forgotten.

Also, as you listen, I also want to invite you to notice how many of the images in this passage were used by Jesus in the Gospels. For example: John’s gospel will tell us how Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep”… Jesus, in Luke, will tell a parable of the lost sheep… how important even one lost sheep is to God… You heard Jesus, in Matthew, tell of a coming judgment, when the son of man will come and separate the sheep from the goats based on certain criteria.

Listen now to the Prophet Ezekiel, as the Lord speaks to the shepherds and the sheep.
READ: Ezekiel 34:1-24


Sometimes I wonder if we know that God has standards. As a preacher, I will take some of the blame for this. Much of my ministry and preaching is about teaching you and proclaiming to you the wondrous and merciful love of God. God loves us so much… God forgives us in Christ. All our sins-all our sins– forgiven. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. All of that. And I believe it. And I will continue to preach it. What is the cross but God’s ultimate sign of our forgiveness!

One danger of such preaching, I suppose, is I could leave you with the impression that God doesn’t care, then, what we do… how we live our lives– and perhaps, that God doesn’t have standards… or if God has standards, those standards are pretty low.

Now, I sort of know better and I bet you do too. I was raised in a Christian home where there were certain standards of behavior that Christians were supposed to follow. My Mom and Dad taught me that there are certain ways that Christians live. Their wisdom can sort of be summed up in something I heard years ago from one person: “I don’t smoke, drink or chew, or go out with girls who do.” Also, in our house, they said, we don’t cuss… a cardinal sin. Wash out your mouth with soap kind of sin. We were also taught the other standards of God in our home: no stealing… no lying… be faithful in marriage – you know…. the 10 commandment stuff. And the church of the south sort of reinforced Mom and Dad’s theology. I even grew up in the time when their were blue laws – where everyone was forced to keep the Sabbath.

But there were some other things that I didn’t learn so well growing up… not really. I started reading the Bible… and discovered there are some other standards we didn’t talk about so much at home or in the church to be honest. And when people talked about them in the south – people got mad. Martin Luther King Jr. was even killed for talking about these standards. So, we didn’t talk about them much.

But man, did the prophets talk about them. All the time. Again and again and again. And Jesus talked about them. God spoke of them more than once. I don’t know how you can miss them – unless you want to.

Read the prophets and God’s standards are very clear. And they are very high. Prophets like Micah heard people asking, “What does the Lord require of us?” What are the standards? And I wonder if they were surprised when the answer wasn’t – be faithful in church attendance… tithe… get involved…

No… prophets like Micah were very clear God’s standards were higher:
“What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”

God demands justice and mercy from his people. Justice and mercy. God is against anyone who obstructs justice or mercy.

Ezekiel said the same thing using the image of shepherds and sheep. As I read the passage today, I noticed that God telling the shepherds and the sheep about his expectations… and how they have failed… Did you hear what the Lord had expected of the shepherds, the leaders of Israel? – God is clear about the job description:

A good shepherd is one who:
– feeds the sheep –
– strengthen the weak-
– heals the sick… bind up the injured- (They don’t pass them by the side of the road)
– seek out the lost and care about the strays-even one stray. (Even one lost sheep matters to God)

When I hear Ezekiel describe good shepherds, I hear God saying, good shepherds and good leaders make it their priority to care for the least, the last, the lonely, the unlucky and the lost. Period.

I hear God saying that he is going to judge any leader – God will fire any leader – who decides that the purpose of power and celebrity is to gain the world for themselves. God will judge any leader who decides that the weak can look out for themselves… or even worse, God will judge any leader – who uses position and power to sponge off the weak. God has some high standards for leaders – religious and political, priest and king, pastor and politician. To those whom much is given – even power and leadership – much is required by God. So much, that if you are not leading the way God intends, God will replace you.

What God seems to be looking for in leaders is something like Anna’s nurse navigator: Mary Ann. Months ago, when we were looking for the place where Anna would receive her cancer treatment… we started interviewing doctors and cancer centers. We asked members of the Kirk who had been through cancer for recommendations. I’m glad to tell you that there are a lot of good and caring oncologists out there… good shepherds who care for their patients not just how much money they can make in their profession. When we went to the UNC Cancer hospital, we met three people. Dr. Tom Shea who had been Butch Davis’ oncologist. There was Dr. Mooberry, the resident, who connected with Anna. She liked his name – said it sounded like a flavor of ice cream. But for me, it was Mary Ann who sealed the deal. She explained to us that she was a nurse navigator. I had never heard of a nurse navigator. Have you? Do you know what a nurse navigator does? This is the key person on the team who will shepherd you through the complexity of treatment. Mary Ann is the one we would turn to in order to make appointments with specialists and chemotherapy and radiation… her role was to navigate us through the treatment so we would not get lost in the health care system. She said, if we ever had questions, to ask her. She would find out. She gave us her phone number, her email. She was going to be there for us – wherever the journey led us. She would be our shepherd, so to speak. So on the night in the first week of treatment, when Anna had a very bad reaction to some medication – she was literally crawling to the bathroom… Mary Ann was there for us. Mary Ann didn’t say… “Well, look it up on line. You are computer savvy, aren’t you? She didn’t say… well… don’t interrupt me… it is late.” She was there for us. She was a good shepherd… She models to me what God expects of anyone in leadership.

Most of us here are in that role somewhere in our lives… you are leaders (teachers, business leaders, youth council leaders, committee leaders) and God expects you to care for your flock. When we are judged, God will be judging us on how we treat others, especially the weak. God has standards, after all.

This is true for the sheep as well according to Ezekiel. Sheep don’t get off the hook. Did you notice that? God has some standards for us sheep as well. My pastor friend John has a brother who works with sheep. As John was preparing to pastor his congregation, he gave John this advice. Remember John, sheep bite.

Sheep bite. And the Lord knows this. So the Lord is watching how we are living with each other. And his examples are fairly clear and contemporary if you ask me. The Lord notices when some sheep eat from the good pasture land… and then trample on it to leave nothing for others. Or when the sheep drink from the clear pond, then walk right through the water so no one else can drink from it. God notices, in other words when we only care for ourselves and don’t give a whit for how our actions affect the lives of others. Selfishness is a sin. Let me say that again. Selfishness is a sin. It hurts others. God has expectations that we will look out for one another.

Ezekiel’s example gets me thinking specifically about how we are looking out for one anther environmentally. Are we going to be leaving a mess for our grandchildren? Will they have good pastures to find and clean water to drink from when we are done with the earth? God expects us to leave God’s world better than we found it. To do otherwise is an act of selfishness, arrogance and ignorance. God isn’t happy about that.

Fred Craddock knows us well when he preaches on the sin of sloth (which I think is a form of selfishness). He defines the sin of sloth (and can I say selfishness?) so clearly that it stings like a slap in the face. What we casually dismiss as laziness (or selfishness), he says, is “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, “Well, it’s not my kid.’… or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well, that’s not my Dad’. It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I DON’T CARE.”

We saw this happen recently to Aliesha didn’t we? Aliesha is the 15 year old victim of the vicious teen beating in Seattle a few weeks ago. Security guards stood there and watched… crowds stood there as she was attacked at a bus stop…while people just watched… After all, she wasn’t their kid. After all, the rules, the guards said, keep us from helping her. Talk about your anti-good Samaritan story!

What saddens me is to hear Aliesha reflect upon the beating. Before the beating, she told two police officers twice that she was in danger – but they declined to help her. At the bus stop, she said, “Nobody even acknowledged I was in their presence.” After the attack, with the assailants still in the area, Aiesha said the officers refused to call for help… and after they left, everybody just resumed…walking over her.

My hope and prayer is that none of those people at the bus stop were Christians or Jews… people of faith who claimed to love God. If they were… this is a great indictment on us-shepherds and sheep alike.

It was such a moment that was a turning point in the life of Tony Campolo… that great evangelical preacher with a passion for justice.

He says that some of his friends give him a hard time because of his compassion for gay and lesbian people. They say, “It’s okay to be considerate toward these folks, but you seem to be running a hobbyhorse on this issue. It seems to come up time and time again when you speak.”

Tony says, “They complain because they do not understand that I’m trying to make up for an incredible failure during my high school days. There was a boy in our high school named Roger. He was gay. We knew about it. We spread the word on him and we made his life miserable. When we passed him in the hall, we would call out his name in an effeminate manner. We gestured with our hands and made him the brunt of a lot of cheap jokes. On Fridays after phys ed class, we would go into the showers, but Roger never went in with us. He was afraid to, and for good reason. When we came out of the shower, we would take our wet towels and whip them at his naked little body. We thought it was a fun thing to do.

I wasn’t there the day they took Roger, dragged him into the shower room and shoved him into the corner. Folded up in a fetal position, he cried as five guys humiliated him. That night Roger went home and he went to bed sometime around 10 o’ clock. They said it was about 2 o’clock the next morning when he got up and went down to the basement of his house-and hung himself.

When they told me, I realized I wasn’t a Christian. Oh, I believed all the right stuff. I was as theologically sound as any evangelical could expect to be. I knew what I was supposed to believe and I believed it intensely, but I hadn’t surrendered to the Holy Spirit. I had not yielded myself and allowed God’s Spirit to invade me and transform me into the kind of person I ought to be. [The person God wanted me to be]. If the Holy Spirit had been in me, I would have stood up for Roger… I would have said to my friends, “Leave him alone. He’s my friend. Don’t mess with him.” (But) the work of the Holy Spirit was not evident in my life. If it had been, Roger might be alive today.” 1.

What Tony learned is that faith is more than about believing… it is about how we relate to others… how we treat others and help others….especially the weak– It is about living lives of justice and mercy. Live like that and you’ll be walking humbly with God. And we know that. We know that. Don’t’ we?

After all, the Lord God sent to us the Good Shepherd to show us the way – After all, we are the ones who follow Jesus Christ… who when he gave his first sermon (Luke 4:17ff) , quoted the prophet Isaiah… “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free.”

We follow Jesus, who when John the Baptist wondered if he was the messiah, the one sent from God-when John asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?”… Jesus sent this message back to John: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:18-22)

Jesus came and lived by God’s standards. Standards of compassion, love, justice and mercy. Jesus knew what the Lord required… and it was more than worship, it was more than to believe the right stuff and be obedient to the rules-He knew what was required: It was to do justice, love mercy and, in so doing, to walk humbly with God. Sheep and Shepherds alike. In order to work for the things of the Kingdom. In order to try to change the world into the kind of world God wants it to be.

I’ll close with a story from a comic strip. Two guys are talking to each other, and one of them says he has a question for God. He wants to ask God why allows all this poverty and war and suffering to exist in the world. And his friend says, “Well, why don’t you ask?” The fellow shakes his head and says he is scared. When his friend asks why, he mutters, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”

Sometimes, I don’t know if you hear it, but when I ask God why all these injustices are allowed to exist in the world. I can hear the Spirit whisper to me, “You tell me why you allow this to happen. You are my body, my hands, my feet after all. You are my sheep and my shepherds… (I sent you to care for the sheep and toe care for one another)… so, you tell me why” You tell me why.

1. p 48-49, Let me Tell You a Story