11/24/19 “Shepherds’ King”

Jeremiah 23:1-6

One evening a couple of years ago, I was flipping through the TV channels, looking for something to watch while I did some ironing. I came across one of the Harry Potter movies. It was already about midway through the movie, but I recognized it pretty quickly since I had seen the movie posters when they came out.  And, I had read the first book, so I was able to pick out the main characters pretty easily—Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Dumbledore.  I had forgotten about the giant Hagrid until he showed up. I eventually was able to sort out the different wizards.

But I never really figured out the plot of the movie, which was based on one of the books I hadn’t read yet. I hadn’t seen enough of the movie’s beginning to know what was going on and, since I was ironing, I wasn’t paying very close attention to the part I was watching. So, although I got the general gist of the movie, I didn’t get the full impact like I would have if I had watched—and paid attention to—the entire thing.

A lot of times, that’s how we read scripture, too.  Each passage is a piece of the longer story of how God’s people have wrestled with how to be faithful and how they have experienced God. We know the main characters, we know the basic plot, and we know who wins in the end. But we often drop into parts of the story without really knowing what went on before.  And because we have read these passages so many times, we may not pay very close attention to what we are reading.  So, we end up like me watching the end of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” with a general idea of what’s going on but not grasping the whole story.

We might find ourselves in this situation with our passage for today. We might think we can identify the main characters pretty easily. Since pastors are often described as shepherds, we might think, “Oh, the shepherds are the clergy.” And, when we read the part about the coming king, we assume it’s a Shepherd King a la King David.

But (spoiler alert): this passage is not about the clergy (at least, not only about clergy); it’s about the leaders of a people.  It’s not just about leaders with highfalutin titles, but about all people who have some kind of power over others.  And it’s about a king who is as much a king of shepherds as a king who is like a shepherd.

We’re in the part of Jeremiah that comes before the Jewish people’s exile to Babylon.  Our passage comes at the end of a section that begins a couple chapters earlier.  The entire section is a scathing indictment of the kings of Judah and Israel who came to power after the good king Josiah was killed.  Through Jeremiah, God makes clear to the entire house of David that its fundamental responsibility was to execute justice and deliver the poor from oppression.  “Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed, or else my wrath will go forth like fire. . . because of your evil doings,” God says.  Delivering justice and opposing oppression are non-negotiable parts of the covenant between God and God’s people. To neglect these responsibilities is to incur God’s certain wrath.

But the house of David has neglected them.  And through Jeremiah, God has a message for the house of David—its kings and their servants and all their people—words of instruction, words of warning, and a call to repentance.  “Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed,” God repeats. “And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place,” God adds.  If you carry out these responsibilities, all will be well.  But dare to neglect them, and your city will be destroyed.

God then moves on to messages about specific kings:  The idol-worshipping Jehoahaz, who would be taken into exile in Egypt, never to return.  Jehoiakim, who built a luxurious house for himself that rivaled Solomon’s temple, and did it by exploiting the people who built it; whose eyes and heart were focused on dishonest gain, the shedding of innocent blood, and the practice of oppression and violence.  Jehoiachin, who also worshipped idols and would surrender to the King of Babylon, taken into exile along with thousands of the wealthy and the artisan class, eventually dining at the Babylonian king’s table while the poor starved in Jerusalem. To these evil kings, God promises that their line will not continue on the throne.  Injustice, oppression of the poor, and unfaithfulness to the covenant would not be tolerated in Judah’s and Israel’s kings.

But when God speaks to a king, God doesn’t speak to the king alone.  God speaks to the king’s entire court—all those who have been given power and authority to determine what other people’s lives will be like.  The underlings and the political appointees are just as much a part of the problem as the kings.  All who follow a king’s lead in exploiting the poor will suffer the same consequences—exile, a city destroyed, their relationship with God in tatters.  It is not the kings’ evil alone, but also the evil of his court that will bring about the dire consequences God warns of.  The covenant with God of which they are all a part requires justice and righteousness on the part of all.

In our passage, God speaks to all those who, like shepherds, have the responsibility of caring for God’s people. God speaks to all those shepherds who have caused the sheep to stray from the covenant and who have caused them to be taken as captives to foreign lands. God speaks to all those shepherds who have caused Jerusalem to fall from its former glory, who have caused its people to be afraid or discouraged and shut out from their rightful place in the kingdom.  “I will attend to you for your evil doings,” God says to all the bad shepherds.  Oppression, unrighteousness, and injustice come with a price, and that price will be paid.

It may be hard for us to identify with the stories of these kings.  For us, for the most part, kings are the stuff of Disney and fairy tales or the evil despots of news reports from far-away countries.  But our leaders, like the Biblical kings, have great power and authority.  And God lays the same expectations on today’s leaders as were laid on the ancient kings.  Today’s leaders—especially those who call themselves as Christians—are responsible for caring for the people they lead: to ensure that all are treated with justice, that the poor especially are cared for, and that oppression against any group of people is eliminated.

It’s not only the few at the top of the food chain who have these responsibilities.  Each of us shares those responsibilities.  You may say, “Not me. I’m just a regular person. I don’t have any power or influence.” But I say to you, each of us has some power, some authority—in our homes, in our workplaces, in our community.

We all make decisions that affect the lives of others.  How we vote and how actively we communicate with our elected officials about what we expect of them affects the lives of others. How we use our money and our time affects the lives of others.  Our purchases can have an impact on the world’s most vulnerable people—whether we choose products produced in ways that preserve and improve the lives of others or keep them mired in poverty.

Our words have power—to encourage or dismay, to build up or tear down, to protest evil or allow it to continue through our silent complicity.  Whom we stand with or what we stand for brings people in or keeps people out, creates unity or division.

We all have more power than we realize.  We all have opportunities to live out the vows we take when we join the Church: to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.  And to the extent that we make decisions that harm others, or neglect opportunities to help others, we are as guilty of being bad shepherds as the bad shepherds in our passage today.

But, in spite of the evil that the kings of Israel and Judah were guilty of—in spite of their idol-worship and their exploitation of the poor—God’s plan for the world would not be derailed.  When the kings and their courts let their people and their God down, God regrouped.  God had a plan for gathering God’s people back from the places where they had been scattered.  God had a plan for ensuring that the poor and the vulnerable would be cared for, and that they would experience the peace and prosperity that should have been theirs all along—the peace and prosperity that come with faithful, righteous, and just leadership by the king and his court.

Through Jeremiah, God promised to raise up new leaders who would truly “shepherd” the people.  They would carry out the responsibilities that any shepherd worth his or her salt would do. They would make sure that those in their care have safe places to live and nutritious food to eat and clean water to drink.  They would protect the sheep from those who would prey upon them.  They would ensure that fear born of oppression would be a thing of the past.  Most importantly, they would lead the people into righteousness—into faithfully living into their covenant with God.

God’s promises don’t stop there. These shepherds and their flocks would have a righteous king to follow.  This leader would be raised up from the line of David, the original shepherd king.  This new king would make it possible for the people of Judah and Israel to live in safety.  He would ensure that righteousness and justice would be the law of God’s people.  So pervasive and far-reaching would be this new king’s reign of justice and righteousness that the people would call him by this name: “The Lord is Our Righteousness.”

Jeremiah and the people of his time looked forward in faith to the time when that king would come.  We know now that that king has come. The righteous branch out of the line of David is Jesus. Jesus is the king who fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy.  He came to deal wisely with human beings who had gone so far astray.  Jesus is the king who, by his grace, makes it possible for us to be righteous.  Through his Holy Spirit, we are given the power to line our lives up with God’s will for us.  By Jesus’ blood, poured out for us from the cross, we can be restored to the righteous relationship with God that we are created for. That is the gift of the cross—that the sinfulness in each of us is defeated, freeing us to be righteous members of King Jesus’ court.

As members of his royal court, we become shepherds for King Jesus—the ones he looks to to care for his flock. Who might be among those sheep who need to be found, welcomed, and cared for? The veterans who fear that God and God’s people won’t accept them because of what they did during war time?  The person with physical or mental limitations, who worries they won’t fit in? The stranger who fears being turned away because whatever makes them different?  The evicted family whose possessions are piled up on the sidewalk? Those who have been hurt by bad shepherds in the past?

The list goes on: the refugees who leave everything behind to find safety for their children, the child who’s bullied at school, the driver who’s stopped by the police simply because their skin color doesn’t seem to “match” the neighborhood they’re driving through, the shopper who is watched suspiciously because they are speaking a language other than English.  Maybe it’s the elderly person who can’t afford their prescriptions, or the man who works multiple jobs but still needs a payday loan just to meet his basic needs.  These are the sheep whose care is entrusted to us—shepherds raised up by God.

What does it look like to be a good shepherd in the court of the King of Shepherds? We can look to some old, old stories for some examples.  In Judaism, there is something called the Midrash. It’s a collection of stories and explanations that are intended to help interpret the meaning of scripture and clarify how best to live a faithful life. The Midrash includes two stories that show us what God considers good shepherding skills.

The first story is about Moses.  It says that one day, while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock, a little lamb ran away. Moses chased after the lamb and found it drinking at a spring. He exclaimed, “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty! Now you must be tired.” He lifted the little lamb to his shoulders and carried it back to the flock. Observing Moses’ compassion for little lamb, God declared to Moses, “Since you have mercy while leading sheep of flesh and blood, then by your life, you shall also shepherd my sheep, Israel.” God considers searching for and finding the lost, and understanding their needs, part of being a good shepherd.

The second story is about David when he was a shepherd.  David kept the big sheep penned up and let the little ones to graze first, allowing them to eat the softest, most tender grass. Next, he released the old sheep to graze on the grass which was less tender but still easy on their old teeth and gums. Finally, he released the strongest sheep to graze on the toughest vegetation. Observing this, God declared, “Whoever knows how to take care of sheep, each one according to its strength, is the one who shall come and shepherd my people.”  God has a special concern for the weak and the vulnerable, and God wants shepherds who share God’s concern.

Jesus, King of creation, ruled his flock with the love and care a shepherd has for his sheep.  Time after time, he aligned himself with the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the stranger.  He sought the lost, and he spoke to their needs—for food and drink and shelter, for acceptance, for forgiveness, for healing.  He spoke lovingly of the “little ones,” which in his language referred not simply to children but to anyone who is as defenseless as a child in the face of powerful systems and structures that take advantage of the powerless. Jesus is truly a Shepherd King.

But Jesus is also the King of shepherds—our King. He is our King, who leads us as we seek and find the sheep who are lost. He leads us as we care for those who are the most vulnerable—the ones who don’t have a chance against bigger, stronger competitors and predators.  He is the one we model our lives on—treating others with compassion, working for justice and righteousness in our land.

If that role seems daunting to you, remember this: he has made sure that we are equipped to carry out our duties as members of his court and the shepherds of his flock. As Paul tells us, we have been made strong with all the strength that comes from Jesus’ glorious power.  God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  We have been made shepherds in Jesus’ name, commissioned and empowered to feed his lambs and tend his sheep, as we follow our King—the Shepherds’ King.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young