Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
November 30, 2008
HOPE: WHEN ONLY GOD WILL DO
Texts: Ezekiel 34:1-5, 11-16; John 10:1-11
This is a time of great and unsettling transition in our nation and in our world. I’ve never seen us in more need of hope. The Bible says that such times are pregnant with hope. It is the darkest just before the dawn, crocuses bloom in the desert, and wilderness becomes a place of meeting with our God. Advent always begins in wilderness. Amos Wilder, theologian/poet, brother of Thorton Wilder, writes:
Accept no mitigation,
but be instructed at the null point;
the zero breeds new algebra.
Matthew Kelty, a monk at Gethsemani’s Abbey in Kentucky, speaks of an experience one afternoon at the Abbey. He was burning trash and heard the familiar call of wild geese far away to the north. He looked for them until he saw them flying in majestic formation headed south.
But when they were just over Gethsemani the V-shaped formation fell apart, and what had been this splendid order fell into chaos. This is how he described it:
Dissension. I thought, some want to stay over here like they did last year, some want to keep going, or maybe it was just that the leader tired and no fresh goose was forthcoming. So they wheeled about, several hundred of them, with great noise, each telling others that something had to be done. Now and then a single goose would try at leadership and wing off with a few others following him, but no more would take it. It took ten or fifteen minutes for them to reach consensus and then suddenly, one gander took the lead, the others followed, and in a matter of moments a great echelon appeared in the sky, the honking happiness resumed, and they were off to Nashville and the Gulf and Mexico beyond.1
I’ve thought of that image a lot this fall. It seems our nation has been in a protracted stage of chaos and mess trying to figure out who can lead and who will follow. We long for good leadership and for the miracle of “followship,” for a time when a “honking happiness” will resume. It is easy to lose hope, but there are times when hope comes a gift of God. There are times when only God will do. Hope is the time when only God will do.
Ezekiel the prophet lived in a time of great cultural transition. He had watched a succession of terrible kings plunder the nation, using the nation for their own good, abandoning their role as shepherd-kings looking after the nation. In verse 4 Ezekiel confronts the false shepherds of the nation:
The weak you have not strengthened,
the sick you have not healed,
the injured you have not bound up,
the straying you have not brought back,
the lost you have not sought.
With force and harshness you have ruled them.
So God says, I myself will become Israel’s shepherd. I will feed them and lead them. In verse 16 the words of verse 4 are recast:
I will seek the lost,
I will bring back the strayed,
I will bind up the injured,
and I will strengthen the weak.
Then the God of justice says of those who have exploited the nation and neglected the poor and weak: “I will destroy the fat and the strong. I will feed them with justice.”
This unnerving image is explored in the verses that follow. The fat and strong sheep have pushed all the others away from the food so they alone could eat, so they could eat all they want.
God says, “I will feed them with justice,” meaning the judgment side of justice. Justice is judgment to the exploiters of the world. In the justice of God the fat cats take a fall and the little ones are raised up. It sounds almost as audacious as the song of Mary at Jesus’ conception, the Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior....
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
God’s justice sets right the things that are wrong. God feeds all the flock with justice. To some it tastes sweet; to others it tastes bitter.
Jesus himself made a critique of the false shepherds of his day. They dress up like shepherds, he said, but they are thieves who come to steal and destroy. He was speaking of the ruling elite, the temple priesthood in collusion with the powers that be.
The true shepherd knows us by name and calls us by name. We recognize her voice. We “know not the voice of a stranger,” but her voice we know.
The only shepherd I’ve ever observed close up was in Israel about twenty years ago. It was a girl shepherd. She was squatting on her haunches like a catcher behind home plate watching the sheep. When a sheep was about to wander away, she’d fling a rock to the outside of where the sheep was headed, like Johnny Bench behind home plate rifling a throw to first base or third base. She kept close watch. She knew every one. No one was out of her care.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” False shepherds are only out for themselves; “The good shepherd lays down his life, her life, for the sheep.” So he did.
This is how God rules the world, and this is the way God wants us to help rule the world, like the good shepherd, feeding the sheep, protecting them from harm.
I will seek the lost
I will bring back the strayed
I will bind up the injured
I will strengthen the weak.
This is the restoration of the nation to neighborliness.
There is a dark apocalyptic mood in the air these days: Movies, literature, political and economic prognostication. I saw a political cartoon last week. There was the proverbial prophet with ragged clothes and long beard and the big sign with the words scribbled in large letters: “The End of the World Is Near!” A man walked by and said: “Optimist!”
But into such times God sends the fresh winds of hope. What is the basis of this hope?
It is in God the Creator, who created the world and blessed it and called it good. And who made us and all humankind in the divine image, blessed us and called us good. The Iona Community has in its Sunday affirmation of faith these words:
Such hope is sung in one of our most beloved hymns:
This is my Father’s world
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet.
If this is true, if we believe it is true, then despair is a presumption - - and a dangerous luxury.
What is the basis of hope? That God is Shepherd of the world, and when human shepherds have made a mess of things, God takes over again as our shepherd until new and better shepherds are in place.
It is in such a time as this that the church is called to hope on behalf of a world that has lost hope, on behalf of people whose food is despair. Murdered Bolivian priest Luis Espanol wrote this stirring prayer:
Train us, Lord, to fling ourselves upon the impossible, for behind the impossible is your grace and presence. We cannot fall into emptiness.
Here it is: I’ll hope for you if you’ll hope for me. And together we’ll hope for the world.
We’ll take up prayer, which is our original vocation, intercessory prayer for the world. We’ll become intercessors in word and in deed. We who pray intercessory prayers, says Rowan Williams, believe in spite of appearances that God and the world belong together, that “there is no place the love of God can’t go.”2
So we hold God in one hand and the world in the other. We will not let go.
We pray and we work for people without food, for there is no place the love of God cannot go.
We pray and work for those without homes, for there is no place the love of God cannot go.
We pray for financial markets and institutions and businesses in distress and their employees, for there is no place the love of God cannot go.
We pray and we work for the sick, for there is no place the love of God cannot go.
We pray and work for people and nations caught in the hell and insanity of war, for there is no place the love of God cannot go.
We pray and work for people who’ve given up, for there is no place the love of God cannot go.
We pray and work for those who are lost, without living connection with God, for there is no place the love of God cannot go.
We pray for the lonely, the terrified, the confounded, the prisoners, those laughed at and those forgotten, even ourselves, for there is no place the love of God cannot go.
So come, O God, come now, for in such a time as this, only You will do. And if we’ve missed You before, help us not miss You now.
1Matthew Kelty, The Call of Wild Geese: Monastic Homilies (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1996), p. 9.
2Rowan Williams, “Intercessory Prayer” in Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994), p. 139.