"As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest," declares the Lord GOD. "I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment."
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Once again this morning I want to talk about worship. Last week we talked about the shape of worship, looking at the major elements of worship. This morning I want to talk about what our Sunday worship service is. Understanding what we are doing and what is happening here helps us to determine how we want to proceed in this work we call worship.
Actually, the title of the sermon tells it all. Our worship is Gottesdienst, a German word for "God's Service", or, as our hymnals name it, "Divine Service." That is more than just an odd name. It is a name set forth to help us remember each week what it happening in the service, namely that God is serving us. Thus our theme and title this morning, Gottesdienst - God Serves Us.
Our text follows a section of Ezekiel in which God judges and condemns His shepherds in Israel. The Kings and the priests in Israel have been utterly unfaithful. They have failed to teach and failed to lead the people of God aright. God likens their service to a shepherd eating his flock, scattering them instead of shepherding them, allowing all of the beasts of the field to feed on the sheep as prey, and not feeding the sheep - not leading the flock to good pasture and not tending to the wounded among the flock. And God says "Woe!" to them. "Woe!" "For I am against the shepherds!"
Then God declares that He Himself will take over. He will shepherd the sheep. He will feed them and He will care for them, and He will treat their wounds and diseases, and He will personally lead them to rest. He promises good grazing ground, abundant pastures on the mountain heights of Israel, healing and strength. He will be the Good Shepherd.
This is the promise we see fulfilled here today - in our worship service. This service is not simply something we do, a gift we give to God. It is surely that, but more importantly, it is God at work among us in Word and Sacrament. He comes to us in His Word - both in the reading of the lessons and preaching of the Word in the sermon, and in the Word which makes up our liturgy, and He strengthens and blesses us. He binds up our wounds with the comforts of the Gospel and He heals our diseases with the precious gifts of the Spirit.
He comes to us in the Invocation - and the Benediction. He promised that when the words of the Benediction were spoken over His people, that His name would be place on them by that act, and that He would then come to His people and bless them.
He comes to us in the Absolution. When the pastor speaks those words, it is the voice God you hear - not God's natural voice, as He sounds in the glories of heaven, but the voice which God chosen by the divine call to use here, in this parish, to speak His Word of forgiveness and comfort. The Small Catechism reminds us of that in the fifth chief part, on the Office of the Keys,
What do you believe according to these words? I believe that, when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, especially when they exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation, and, again, when they absolve those who repent of their sins and are willing to amend, this is as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us Himself.
God comes to us through the preaching of His Word. When the pastor preaches, if what he preaches is the Word of God, it is not simply His voice you hear, but the voice of God. And it is not just the pastor's opinion, but God's Word. You are responsible to study the Word, and test the teaching of the pastor to see if he has proclaimed the Word of God, but until you do, and then, when you find that the pastor has faithfully proclaimed the pure Word of God, then it is the voice of God, and you must respond to it as if God Himself stood before you and spoke from the burning bush, or from the mouth of Jesus. You cannot choose to believe or agree or not. You must accept the Word of God and believe it, or you are not a faithful child of God at all.
In this service, we worship God by repeating faithfully back to Him the Words He has spoken to us. And in so doing His Words to us come to our ears and hearts again with fresh power and renew in us that which they worked in us at first. We have nothing better to offer God. Our words are not like His - not in power, nor in truth, nor in glory. So we speak what He has revealed to us back to Him, declaring thereby that we believe His Word and we trust Him to do and perform all that He has spoken to us.
Then, just as Ezekiel prophesied, the Good Shepherd feeds us. We find those pleasant pastures of the Word. Like sheep, we feed on His promises as we remember all that He has done and His faithfulness of old. But most obviously we fulfill that prophecy of God feeding His sheep when we feed on the Sacrament. It is in the Sacrament that we will receive today that Jesus comes to feed us as the Good shepherd, giving us that body to eat which died on the cross for our sins, and that blood to drink which was poured out for our sins that we might have life and salvation. Admittedly, we do not see or taste that body or blood, for Christ has chosen to hide them beneath the form of the bread and the wine of this holy meal. He has done that so that we might see it only by faith and receive the blessings which that body and that blood earned and purchased for us only by believing. But they are really, genuinely present there, for all who believe AND for those who do not know or who refuse to believe the promise of our Lord, and so eat and drink His body and blood blasphemously, if they do so among us. The body and blood of Jesus are really present in this meal because Jesus has said so, and promised it to us. And when we eat and drink, we receive Him into ourselves, and, with His body and blood, all that He has won for us.
The mountain heights in our text are the heights of absolution and forgiveness - won on a mountain - Mount Calvary. There the very Son of God poured out His love for you by shouldering your sins - and mine! - and willingly taking the punishment which we have each earned. He died for our sins - nailed them to the cross with the wrath of God, on that mountaintop of Israel. It was small in stature, that mountain, but world shaking in significance. Your sins are forgiven. You will rise from the grave! And everyone who trusts God to do what he has promised to do for the sake of all that Christ has done, will rise to everlasting life in glory with Him. You can be sure. You can be secure - not in yourself and who you are, but in Jesus Christ, and who He is and what He has done. And the voice that you hear in the holy absolution is the Voice of God, the voice He has chosen and has called here to speak His Words of forgiveness and life to you. And you receive that precious gift of life by taking God at His Word spoken directly to you.
Of course, knowing that - that faith - calls for a response of life. We are compelled to live in that glorious truth, when we believe it. We will rejoice, and we will give thanks, and we will strive to be the people of God that He has called us to be and declared us to be and made us to be. We will strive by holy lives, and by holy devotion, and by repentance and renewal - and by busying ourselves with the work He has given us to do, all the while proclaiming His great love and His wonderful will for us and for all mankind. And what is the will of God for us?
Finally, there is a word of judgment in this prophecy - a word of judgment for those unfaithful shepherds in ancient Israel, and for those among the sheep today who would feed on the flock of God. Ezekiel calls them the fat and the strong. They are the ones who take profit from the sheep and at the expense of the sheep - eating them and taking their milk, in the words of Ezekiel in the verses just before our text. False preachers are one example. Those who use the church and her people for simple profit, or who build a kingdom in the place Christ's kingdom, or those who pretend to be one of the sheep for whatever reason they may have, claiming a place among the tender sheep of God - those are the fat and the strong, and God has marked them out for destruction! He has marked them for destruction because they have grown fat on the sheep of God, using them for their own peace, their own power, their own security or whatever need has driven them to hypocrisy and vile manipulation of God's flock.
But for us, for the faithful and humble sheep of the Lord's flock, God is our Shepherd. God serves us here, in this worship service. This is not worship to please your flesh, but to bless your spirit. It is not what you do for God, but what He does for you through Word and Sacrament, Liturgy and the fellowship of the people of God. And He does all this work through the service of His Holy Priesthood, and His called servants, as they lift high the cross and the glory of God in our salvation. This worship is our work, as the holy priesthood of believers - to lift high the glory of God in Christ Jesus - that He loved us, lived for us, and died n our place for our sins, and rose again for our comfort and salvation.
And a thrilling aspect of this worship is that it is the entire Church worshiping together. We join with angels and arch-angels and with all the company of heaven, as we say in one of our liturgies. When we worship today, we stand side by side in the presence of those who have gone before us in the faith, joining in their worship in heaven. I am never so close to my father, who passed away over ten years ago, as when I am joining with him in that eternal worship of the saints of God above, and those of us below.
I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest," declares the Lord GOD. "I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick. Ahh, yes. 'Tis good, Lord, to be here among Your people, as you fulfil your promises to us. This is Gottesdienst - God serves us!!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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