17th Sunday after Pentecost – C (Proper 19) LSB #’s 707, 513 tune 672, 540 v. 1-4
Text – Ezekiel 34:12
As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, & I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds & thick darkness.
CLOUDS & THICK DARKNESS
When a severe thunderstorm or tornado is moving in the sky can get scary black. It’s especially eerie if there’s no wind at the time. You can sense, quite literally, that it is the calm before the storm. The word picture which Ezekiel creates, with the phrase ‘clouds & thick darkness,’ can likewise bring ominous thoughts to mind.
What is Ezekiel trying to tell us? More importantly, what message is the Holy Spirit inspiring Ezekiel to convey to his audience? Why this gloomy image of clouds & thick darkness? We certainly have enough doom & gloom in our world today. Since September 11 of 2001, the word terrorism has had no chance of leaving our vocabulary.
The sickness of sin is boiling over in so many ways across every nation on the planet. Corruption, greed, hatred & selfishness seem to be ruling the day. People are being scattered across the globe due to the wars & unrest in the Middle East. Do our days qualify as a day of clouds & thick darkness?
Sexual immorality of all kinds is almost fully legalized across the Western world, which used to be known as the Christian world. It’s not that morality will save anyone, but immorality is a symptom of sin, & rampant immorality, or legalized immorality, is a symptom of a culture gone bad. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7 clearly & logically illustrated the problem:
“So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” (7:17 ESV) Our nation has become a diseased tree. In Biblical thought, the world has been diseased ever since Adam & Eve defied God’s warning not to eat of the forbidden tree. You could say that Adam & Eve listened to the words of a false prophet: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, & you will be like God, knowing good & evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5 ESV) Going back to Matthew 7, Jesus leads into His teaching on the healthy & diseased tree with these words:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-17 ESV)
Jesus is connecting the diseased tree, the immoral culture, to false prophets, & essentially they’re people who tell many lies. The 1st false prophet was Lucifer. Many have followed after him since. Jesus describes them as ravenous wolves who can never gather enough for themselves. So they feed off of others even while they come to you in sheep’s clothing.
It’s a foregone conclusion that such people will not inherit eternal life, so in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus isn’t warning them. He’s warning us, who still are the children of God. The danger is that we could end up like the diseased tree, so listen carefully to Jesus’ conclusion:
“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down & thrown into the fire. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7:19 & 21 NASB) Being thrown into the fire is a picture of Judgment & the eternal suffering awaiting those who reject God’s love.
The end result sounds a bit like clouds & thick darkness, does it not? The culture around us has been changing for many years. The signs are ominous. The culture within this church has also been changing. The fruit of building with too much straw is coming home to roost. It will be burned up with fire! The clouds & thick darkness that God allows into our lives can be difficult to deal with. Whether that means trial & suffering, or being left in the dark, trying to wait patiently for answers, living in this broken world is similar to putting together a puzzle without the picture of what it should look like. Have you tried to put a puzzle together without the picture? It can be done if it’s a 25 piece puzzle, but whose life is that simple?
Even aspects of our lives that are finished, where we can see how decisions & events played out, aren’t always perfectly clear in our mind. Why did seminary turn out like it did? Had you arranged the pieces differently, would your life have turned out better? Did we lose some of the pieces in the process of putting the puzzle together?
As difficult as living can be we do learn over time which leaves room for doubt about the choices we’ve made while assembling the puzzle of our lives. All of us have arrived here having passed through times of clouds & thick darkness, days or weeks even when we didn’t know which way to turn, or what choice to make, or could not find the courage to make it.
Those times of clouds & thick darkness are often moments when we question God’s love for us. Where are you Lord? What are doing? How on earth do these pieces fit into the puzzle of my life? The edges can seem sharp & jagged rather than smooth & straight. The prophet Isaiah addressed those very thoughts in the 10th verse of chapter 50:
“Who is among you that fears the Lord, that obeys the voice of His servant, that walks in darkness & has no light?” (NASB)
So far we’ve only considered the past moments & events of our lives. Even though they’re already completed we aren’t entirely certain if we’ve assembled the puzzle correctly. We also have questions about the number of times God has allowed the clouds & thick darkness to enter our picture.
Now, imagine assembling the puzzle pieces of our future. We don’t even know if we
one, let alone which pieces are contained in it. Do they have a lot of smooth edges with bright cheery colors that make the puzzle easy to assemble? Are there lots of sharp & jagged edges instead, with too many dark & threatening shades of black & blue?
You see, in many ways each of us can look at our lives as a giant puzzle with thousands of interconnecting pieces. Yet, without having the picture of what it’ll look like once it’s done, how are we supposed to be pulling it all together? Because we don’t get to see the picture of our future, we’re handicapped in putting together the puzzle.
It’s only natural for human beings to try & find a way to overcome that handicap. We strive so mightily to rid our lives of the clouds & thick darkness. We try & put the puzzle together on our own, in other words, without the help of the Triune God who created us. Sin causes enough problems, without our help. When we join the team things only get worse.
Our attempts to construct the future are in many respects working with the wrong questions, the wrong framework, the wrong mindset. Do you remember that verse I quoted earlier from Isaiah chapter 50? I have to admit that in order not to jump the gun I left the 2nd sentence of that verse out in my 1st reading. That’s because I wanted to include it here:
“Who is among you that fears the Lord, that obeys the voice of His servant, that walks in darkness & has no light?” That’s the portion you heard earlier. Here’s the rest of it: “Let him trust in the name of the Lord & rely on his God.” That is our heavenly Creator’s answer to the clouds & thick darkness which confuse our vision & our thinking.
The Gospel of John gives us very similar advice in the 20th chapter: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, & that by believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30-31 ESV) Trusting in the name of the Lord – that’s where the puzzle of our lives comes together. It is so simple that until we come to the end of ourselves, to the end of our independent will, we can never truly accept it. Until we recognize that we are a diseased tree, & thus surrender to Jesus, we will never produce good fruit.
Now we can finally return to the first 90% of the sermon text for today: “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, & I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered…” (Ezekiel 34:12 ESV) The clouds & thick darkness only make up the final 10% of the text.
That also was intentional so I wouldn’t jump the gun with the reading from Ezekiel. When a tornado is moving in, the sky can get scary black & if no wind is blowing you can feel the calm before the storm. In reality, today’s sermon text is more about the calm after the storm.
Yes, the clouds & thick darkness are a foreshadowing of Judgment Day, but God’s children need to keep in mind that for us, the Last Day is a good one. As the majority of the text from Ezekiel makes clear, God in the person of Jesus will come, & has already come, as the Good Shepherd to seek out His sheep & rescue us from wherever the Judgment has scattered us.
Because of Christ’s love for you, demonstrated so clearly on the cross, you have nothing to fear. Instead, the clouds & thick darkness are a sign & reminder of God’s deliverance. Living by faith instead of by sight allows us see the events of life far differently than do the unbelievers. The Day of clouds & thick darkness is meant to remove all evil from our lives.
What we constantly need to remind ourselves of is that God is the One creating & putting together the puzzle. We are NOT the brains behind this operation. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who seeks out His sheep. Our only task is to, at some point, stop running away. Once we surrender, Yahweh can put the puzzle of our lives together in a way that is a blessing.
The picture of your life has many pieces to it. Guess which one is the most important?
Are you leaving some of the pieces of your life’s puzzle in the box? Since Jesus isn’t walking among us in person, like He did 2000 years ago, He has given us His Word, Baptism & Holy Communion as the next most important pieces of your puzzle. They are the means by which God’s Spirit creates & sustains faith & therefore true life within you.
Judgment Day is coming but not to punish believers for their sins. The wrath & anger of God has already been spent upon His Son. We truly are living in the calm after the storm of the crucifixion. Listen to these words so you can comprehend how they tie in with the sermon title:
“It was now about the 6th hour, & there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this He breathed His last.” (Luke 23:44-46 ESV)
Jesus has already come as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. Now He comes as the Good Shepherd to seek & to save that which was lost. The clouds & thick darkness may be gathering in our lives. Whether it takes one year or a thousand, Judgment Day is approaching. Put your trust in the One who is assembling the puzzle of your life. Amen.
The clouds of judgment gather, the time is growing late; be sober & be watchful, our judge is at the gate: the judge who comes in mercy, the judge who comes in might to put an end to evil & diadem the right. Arise, O true disciples; let wrong give way to right, & penitential shadow to Jesus’ blessed light: the light that has no evening, that knows no moon or sun, the light so new & golden, the light that is but one. Oh, happy, holy portion, relief for all distressed, true vision of true beauty, refreshment for the blest! Strive now to win that glory, toil now to gain that light; send hope ahead to grasp it till hope be lost in sight. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet