Sermon preached at Clam Falls Lutheran Church, Sept. 11th, 2022
“…I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy…”
– Ezekiel 34:16b
To be sure, the book of Ezekiel has many interesting parts, but one in particular that catches my attention is the story from chapter 8[:1-18] featuring Ezekiel’s vision of idolatry in the Temple.
In this vision, Ezekiel is taken by God “in the Spirit” to the LORD’s Temple, and, there in Jerusalem, is shown the idolatry that is happening within this most holy place…
In the very inner courtyard of God’s house, by the north gate, is the idol that caused God to be jealous…
Ezekiel is then led to look through a hole in the wall and to make the hole bigger… where he sees the “hateful” and “evil” things that are being done in there. “Go in and see the wicked abominations they are committing here,” the Lord says…
And the prophet witnesses disgusting crawling things, unclean animals, and “all the idols of the people of Israel, carved on the wall all around.” (Ezekiel 8:7-10)
The horror is amplified when we hear:
“[in front of the idols] stood seventy elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising…”
This Jaazaniah, by the way, was likely the head of the seventy elders; he was “at least a person of great note and esteem”….
And, as a relevant aside here, most of you are probably well aware that God severely judged His people in the Old Testament for violating His law by chasing after and worshiping the false gods of their neighbors. One summarizes matters like this:
“Leviticus and Deuteronomy[, for example,] contain detailed and lurid lists of what [these false gods demanded] including: the worship of demonic idols, taboo sexual acts, and even the sacrifice of children to the Canaanite gods.
God[, for example, had made] it clear to the Israelites that it is ‘not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations…’ (Deuteronomy 9:5).
[God’s people] were not to be influenced by the wicked practices and the cultural systems that fostered and endorsed them[!]”
So, back to the inner courtyard of the Temple…
Ezekiel is horrified to see twenty-five men, between the porch and altar area – the most sacred part of the court! – who have turned their backs to the Temple of the LORD and are instead facing east, worshiping the rising sun (Ezekiel 8:16).
These were almost certainly God’s appointed priests…
“I will not look on them with pity, nor will I spare them. Although they shout loudly in My ears, I will not listen to them,” the Lord says to the prophet.
It seems these twenty-five in the temple had thrown in their lot with the rulers of the world, of whom Psalm 2 says this:
“The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.’”
God and His deputies as the Supreme Oppressors.
Truly, these twenty-five priests in Ezekiel’s vision were wolves in sheep’s clothing.
False prophets or shepherds…
I think most of us are used to the image of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
If only it were so simple though…
In our Old Testament text for today – as we hear about how God will be sending His Good Shepherd to care for His flock – we learn that He has a problem not only with false shepherds but with those he characterizes as strong, sleek and fat!
Are those who are strong, sleek, and fat some other kind of animal outside His flock? I mean, “Are sheep ever sleek?” we might wonder…
Are these wolves perhaps?
God is talking about some of His flock, His sheep, perhaps some of the rams and he-goats… the noble, the wealthy, the leaders.…
They, you see, are causing some problems…
They use their power primarily to chase their own vanities, to feed their own bellies, to seek their own satisfactions and pleasures… with nary a concern for the rest of the flock…who, it seems, are as consumable resources to them…
These sleek, strong, and fat ones are not prosperous or successful in a sense that pleases the Lord, but their earthly blessings have in fact hardened their hearts and made them forget the LORD… (see Deuteronomy 32:15, Isaiah 10:16-17, Acts 28:27).
And yet, they don’t necessarily think this is the case…
Suppressing the truth in unrighteousness they believe themselves wise… strong… self-sufficient… attractive… blessed!
Inwardly they are not humble before God… who they believe – for the most part at least – to be absent and disinterested…
And hence, they are unable to see… they do not recognize the ones Ezekiel gives voice to…
the ones that these sleek, strong, and fat ones have taken nary a care for, and steamrolled over… trampling the pastures and muddying the waters so the other sheep suffer.
But, you see, these are the ones that God, the prophet is telling us, in fact prefers… and who He will defend!
These are the ones who His promised Shepherd, His One Shepherd, His Servant David, will not ignore…
Unlike Israel’s faithless shepherds, this Shepherd will govern the flock with justice and equity!
In the Gospels, we know that the self-righteous Pharisees — generally held in high regard by the people and also in fact God’s duly appointed shepherds of those people (see Matt. 23!) — did not truly have the best interests of God’s people in mind…
Not only did they not restrain the sleek, strong, and fat sheep, but they joined their ranks!
Jesus accused them of greed, for example, on a number of levels, going so far as to say that they devoured the houses of widows…
Again, in our reading from Ezekiel we see that Yahweh, the True God, judges between sheep and sheep as their Shepherd, rejecting the proud and accepting the penitent and broken-hearted….
And this, we are also told in this chapter, is exactly what the Shepherd He is sending, the New King like David, will do…
And this, of course, is what Jesus does!
Ezekiel foresees the Good Shepherd, the One who seeks and finds the lost sheep…
This is the one who even “…welcomes sinners and eats with them….”
And this great love of God is what took Him to the cross at Golgotha, where He, as our Scapegoat forced outside the camp (Hebrews 13:13), was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and punished that we might have peace and the healing of all our wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise…
I even detect Ezekiel foreshadows the Good Shepherd of Golgotha when he writes in our reading:
“I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness…”
For on that dark day in which Jesus was crucified, all abandoned Him and were scattered by His persecutors. But He sought out His disciples again, just as He does each one of us…
This is our God, the God who loves the scared, stupid, and straying sheep…
And yet, many who hear this good news will continue to reject it… even attempting to do so in spectacular fashion….
One might think it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but in 18th century England, as the Bible’s concerns grew further and further from Europe’s intellectuals and ruling classes, some folks appeared to have taken some real pleasure in aping, or at least “recapitulating”, the story we heard in Ezekiel 8…
The headline from the website, History Hustle, says it all:
“The Hellfire Club, an 18th-Century Ritual Cult for the Famous and Powerful.”
Philip Wharton was a powerful and wealthy politician who was also the Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England.
He clearly was a respectable figure in public life, but he also, along with many friends, lived a double life as a drunkard, rioter, and infidel.
He was also a womanizer who wasted his fortune with gambling and acts of debauchery.
His “Hellfire Club” was, according to another history site, a satirical “gentleman’s club” that went so far as to “ridicule religious beliefs through the act of mock religious ceremonies with the supposed president of the club being the devil”.
While his club and Parliamentary career ended just three years later in 1721 after his political enemies cracked down on him, the club was revived by another noble, Francis Dashwood.
He gave what was once “The Hellfire Club” a much more respectable – and, yes, mocking – title, The Order of the Knights of St Francis or The Brotherhood of St. Francis…
Dashwood actually constructed a series of complex tunnels and chalk and flint caverns for the club’s meetings on his estate in Buckinghamshire, England beneath the Church of St. Lawrence.
Once again, “[the space] was decorated… with mythological themes, phallic symbols and other items of a sexual nature.”
These are today known as the Hellfire Caves or West Wycombe Caves, and in addition to various halls and chambers they also include a Banqueting Hall, the Triangle, and the Inner Temple, “accessed by crossing a faux river meant to represent the River Styx (a river in Greek mythology that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld)…”
Members of the club included several prominent 18th-century figures.
The article states:
“Many rumours of black magic, satanic rituals and orgies were in circulation during the life of the club, with the notable English writer Horace Walpole stating that “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the complexion of those hermits.”
Even though such details about this club are well-known and not disputed, of course there have been others like it as well and rumors of many more among the elites, even today…
All in “good fun”?
Can this kind of thing ever really be like that?
In any case, given the casual way things like “The Hellfire Club” are discussed by those who look into it, the seriousness Ezekiel clearly felt over similar activities seems very far from us today, even already 250 years ago….
Of course, not all rejection of God is so spectacular…
The reality is that all of this is much more ordinary and mundane…
Dramatic accounts of uninhibited idolatry and sin-seeking aside, ultimately, those who are strong, sleek and fat – as well as those who are lost, weak, and lean – should be understood to exist in a spiritual sense first and foremost.
The first – our strong, sleek, and fat ones – are those who allow their bellies to rule them, and who, in pride, forget God, even if some do create idols that they call “God” or even “Jesus Christ” (as the Apostle Paul says in II Cor. 11, they have a “different Jesus).
The latter – the lost, weak, and lean – are those whose desperation over their lost condition enables them, by God’s Spirit, to see and embrace God’s forgiveness, love, and rule.
Unlike the former, they do not mean to subtly undermine in word or practice the teaching that brings blessing and salvation.
For they understand at some level that false teaching really does kill people spiritually — and that good teaching gives us the care and food we need…
So this may even involve a confession of doubting God’s words which kill and make alive…. That means to deliver what we truly need in our heart of hearts…
In any case, as you can see, there is a world of difference here between these two kinds of people…
Externally both might, in fact, appear righteous…
They both might live respectable lives in the light of day. They both might seem to largely conform to the second table of the 10 commandments, they both might even profess the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed in a worship service!
And in this life, truth be told, we must give some real weight to these external appearances – until the “mask slips” and rebellion becomes obvious we might say…
We must, for all practical purposes, consider them a part of the church. They are us until they show themselves clearly not to be….
Until things come to a head and repentance is clearly and persistently scorned and ignored…
Until they will not confess what the Spirit confesses in the Word, ignoring the pattern of sound words…
Until they themselves realize that when God says “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…” he definitely means them…
Only God, in His Time of Judgment, will perfectly separate the sheep from the sheep, that is, the goats.
Until that time, as Jesus taught in another of His parables, the wheat and the tares often must grow together… for the tares cannot be forcibly separated from the wheat without damaging it….
But, you see, as dire at this all is, we still want to be among them….
For the pull of the forbidden fruit is strong….
Maybe not overtly, with something intentionally god-mocking and perhaps worse like the Hellfire Club… but more subtly… perhaps in ways not even consciously known to us…
You see, as Christians we so often forget that we serve a humble and simple Savior.
And we serve the God who told Gideon his army was too big and that it had to get smaller and weaker.
Our God, in this world, finally dwells in weakness with the weak on the cross…
But we, in this same world, place a premium on appearing so confident, being physically attractive, behaving in ways that show we are relevant and cool and “influencers”…
In short, appearing to be culturally powerful and not weak…
We want to be the people or at least follow the people that others are inevitably drawn to, attracted to…
And the church gets sucked in too. Perhaps we convince ourselves that we are trying to share God’s word in a relevant way when we are…
…really just trying to fit in
…really just trying to remain economically viable within a culture increasingly distant from Christian influence
…really just trying to not have to suffer the cost of the cross….
And we see that the world is scandalized by both God’s law and gospel, so how can all of this be tweaked?!
Well… the world does seem to like the idea of grace, as the tune “Amazing Grace,” which doesn’t mention Jesus, is quite popular with many non-believers. The world loves grace at least when this is turned into the notion of unconditional love where nothing one does ultimately matters… (“unconditional love”, by the way, for me and those I like of course, not necessarily for my enemies…)
Again, even if we convince ourselves that we don’t want to compromise God’s word, we still too easily can become those who those — that is, the world as a whole! — that would abuse the notion of grace… and make grace a license for sin, as the Apostle Peter warned…
The strong, sleek, and fat, will, hating God’s law and gospel, ultimately reject it.
And we, seeking to be acceptable to them at some level, will at the very least attempt to confuse matters, trampling on the pasture of God’s food and muddying the water of his drink….
Yes, even the weak and doubting but nevertheless true sheep can be tempted to please the sleek, fat and strong…
And so, shockingly, some among us “traditional” Lutherans might have the absolute temerity to suggest:
- That sin is not to be understood as anything said, done, or thought against the law of God.
- That the Holy Spirit is the opposite of the law and the law is only present where Christ is absent.
- That any attempt to find a positive role for the law in the lives of Christians inevitably leads to self-justification.
- That “nothing [is] more damnable than someone choosing to act how they think a Christian should behave…”
- That God does not finally mean for Christians to walk in His eternal law and hence fulfill it.
- That with God’s eternal law behind us, because of the Gospel which frees us… it would be impossible for us to sin, no matter how hard we tried.
- That the law “does not give,” but actually “removes faith in God’s word.”
- That God did not punish His Son on the cross for our sins.
- And, perhaps worst of all, that Jesus Christ commuted His own personal sin….
“Relevant” and culturally compatible indeed!
People who say such things will also be eager to say that they are free from the law, and you absolutely will not, like the legalistic Galatians, put them back under it!
Well, it is indeed true that Christians are free from the law in a sense: from the condemnation of the law!
What this means though is that we now live in the truth and in the “perfect law that gives liberty,” as the book of James says.
Freedom ultimately means being at peace with God and living in God’s law, fulfilled in love, because of the Gospel, that is, because of God’s forgiveness, life, and salvation for us in Jesus Christ.
The law is not “for good order” only — as if it could order society well but not but not rightly instruct and lead every single heart! — but rather imperfectly (i.e. without really addressing matters of context) shows us what it really and truly means to be good.
And Jesus, ultimately, fulfills God’s law, the 10 commandments, embodying for us what things unmistakably look like in real time.
And so what the Apostle Paul calls “the law of Christ” externally looks the same as the fulfillment of the 10 commandments because it is the same.
If you say the law is not objectively the eternal will of God, for example, you are going to find that you are not really that concerned to follow it….
Or, for that matter, be convicted by it – or, at least not all of it.
In other words, if you don’t think God’s eternal will involves walking in the law you have, in truth, kneecapped the law’s accusation that is continually necessary for us (particularly to prepare us for the Gospel which alone truly frees us from the law’s accusation before God!)
When the Apostle Paul writes that “[some] want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” he might have had others and other things in mind, but still, if the shoe fits…
May this not be the case with us!
And, we pray, not so for those who say such horrible things!
Perhaps when the tender, gentle, merciful, and longsuffering heart of Jesus overwhelms us we will cry out that God would not treat those who propagate these abominations as false teachers— whose judgment will be more strict— but only as false sheep, God willing, false sheep who might still be granted repentance and to regain their status as those who are truly the baptized…
Again, unlike the spiritually strong, sleek, and fat, some clearly know themselves to be sinners who realize that their desires are twisted and destructive and they need a Savior to save them from themselves before they subject all of their relationships to disorder or even destruction…
And please note, in case this is not obvious, that even if someone is physically sleek and strong they can still identify spiritually as weak, lost, and poor…
They realize that God’s words – the “pattern of sound words” delivered to them in the New Testament – are their only hope!
And I also believe strongly that those who in fact subtly persecute the humble who tremble before God’s law and remove none of its sting and accusation can indeed be helped!
For what is truly wonderful is to know that even the worst persecutors of the faithful can be saved…
Let’s end with the Apostle Paul’s resounding words for those who know themselves not to be strong and sleek, but poor, weak, and lost…:
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
Upon reflection, the Apostle Paul called himself the “chief of sinners” precisely so we could know that, even now, even for us, even for each and every one of us, God forgives us, through the blood of His Son, all our sins.
In the Name of Jesus,