Sermon

Jeremiah 23:1-6

A Pastoral God

Dr. Randy L. Hyde

You know what irony is, don’t you? It’s a figure of speech that conveys the opposite of what is being said. “Well, old Joe’s just a barrel of fun, isn’t he?” What does that mean? It means the exact opposite. Joe’s a party pooper. He isn’t any fun at all.

You’ll find irony in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, but sometimes it isn’t so obvious. You have to go looking for it, and that’s the case in this morning’s reading from Jeremiah. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God is denouncing those who have been leading Judah. “It is you who have scattered my flock,” says the Lord, “and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them… I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them…”

Biblical commentators refer to this as an “oracle,” and it is dated during the days when Zedekiah was king of Judah. There doesn’t seem to be any irony to it, unless you know where to look. In this case, it is very subtle. You see, the name Zedekiah means “raised up,” and he has turned out to be a false shepherd. He is not a bad man, but he has proven to be a weak leader at a time when strong leadership was definitely called for. God has plans to replace him with one who will live out the meaning of the name Zedekiah now bears. “You may think you are ‘raised up,'” the Lord is telling the king of Judah, “but you are not. However, one day I will ‘raise up’ one who will govern my people the way you should have been doing.” Do you see the irony? The play on words?

The imagery used is that of a shepherd, and that in itself provides us another irony. Shepherds were not exactly high in the Judean social order of things. If you’re going to have a party – like a wedding feast – you won’t be inviting a shepherd, let me tell you. If you’re going to elect a town mayor, a shepherd doesn’t get on the ballot. No, when it comes to honest professions, they are just about the lowest of the low. They may not be looked upon with the same level of disdain as, say a tax collector or used car salesman, but it’s close. It’s really, really close.

It requires no education to be a shepherd, just a willingness to spend your days with these smelly animals (which is another reason shepherds weren’t invited to social events!). More often than not, the sheep belong to someone else who has enough money to employ others to do their dirty work. Loyalty is a good trait for shepherds, and sometimes courage is called for. But all in all, shepherds are not exactly on the A-list of worthy professions. If there are other things you can do, then you do them. You don’t go into shepherding.

Yet, they were responsible for taking care of one of the most valued forms of life. Sheep were a major source of the agricultural economy, and it was important that those who shepherded the flocks did it well and with great integrity. And – this is where the irony really comes in – “the shepherd is a common image for the king.”1 For the king! Irony!

How strange that shepherding would be such a lowly profession, yet it was the way God, through the prophet Jeremiah, described the king.

And it is also a common image used for God.

John Killinger has suggested that the name of God has become pale and lackluster to us, not because of God but because of our idolatrous use of the name.2 We throw it around carelessly as if it were our own possession. We use the name of God to curse one another, or simply to express surprise. “Oh my___!” Just watch a little television and you will know what he means.

Perhaps one way we can overcome some of this is to be more specific about the names we use for God. In the liturgical church, this is the final day of the church year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, marks the beginning of a new church year. That probably seems a bit strange to those of you who are lifelong Baptists, or who grew up in a non-liturgical tradition. Not only does the liturgical nature of it seem unfamiliar, but we’re not yet to the end of the calendar year, aren’t we? Why would the church start a new year in December? Seems like a strange time to do it, don’t you think?

Well, Advent means “coming,” and speaks of new beginnings. It may be a month short of our calendar year, but the church celebrates its advent, its beginning, by anticipating Christ’s coming. So, on this last Sunday of the church year, a week before the new year begins, it is “Christ the King” day. During the course of this year we have gone through the cycle of Jesus’ life and ministry and we now crown him King of kings and Lord of lords. Now is it beginning to make more sense to you?

Then why isn’t the title of today’s sermon “The Royal God” or “God Is King” or something like that? Because, for some reason, this image in Jeremiah just kept coming back at me and wouldn’t let me go. The prophet paints a picture of a loving, if not stubborn, God who seeks after his people and, like that image from the prophet’s words did to me, won’t let them go. Like a shepherd hunting for his lost sheep, God continues to corral us and bring us home. It is, indeed, a pastoral image of God. One of the most endearing images of God in scripture is that of a loving and caring Shepherd (with a capital S) who tends his flock and watches over them, keeping them from harm’s way and leading them to still waters.

At last count I’ve officiated more than 250 funerals in my thirty-something years of pastoring churches. That includes Janet’s parents and my dad, as well as other family members. Needless to say, it has given me the opportunity to observe people in grief, even as I have grieved myself.

Just this week, Janet and I were talking about how people grieve in different ways, at least in the way they show their grief. She had been watching one of her crime shows. She just loves that stuff… City Confidential, Cold Case Files, that sort of thing. When she’s had the remote last, you can count on it being on A&E. That’s where those shows are. When I’ve had it, it’s either on a western or the Golf Channel. Well, Tuesday morning she had the remote last. Just before I came to the office for work, she mentioned how one police detective was quoted as saying that he suspected a son killed his mother because he didn’t show a proper level of grief.

Well, I’m not sure that should be considered as proper criteria for such a thing. Some people hold in their emotions and others don’t. Neither is better than the other because we are not all the same and don’t react to difficult circumstances in exactly the same way. Some people are in shock when confronted with the death of a loved one, and only until it wears off do they show any emotion. Others never show it at all. They keep it inside.

But I can tell you this, without any variation… at funerals, when I recite the Twenty-Third Psalm, the atmosphere of the entire place changes. No matter how you show your grief, the Twenty-Third Psalm affects you emotionally.

With some people, this familiar psalm unleashes the pent-up sorrow. With others, it brings a smile of recognition and great appreciation for the calming thoughts it conveys. With others, it’s almost as if they are saying to me silently, “Thank you for sharing this with us. We needed that. Today, we needed a shepherding God,” for at no other time do we feel as lost, like wayward sheep, than when we grieve.

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People react to the psalm in different ways, just as they grieve differently. But one thing stays the same and never varies. When we hear the Twenty-Third Psalm, the very air around us becomes thick with promise. Just by saying the words we have put our faith in a God who loves us so much he would lead us beside the still waters to life eternal.

And how does the Twenty-Third Psalm begin? “The Lord is my shepherd…” It is an image of God that carries the kind of meaning that sustains us and encourages us, especially when we are grieving.

Not in Jeremiah’s day. At least, that is not how they feel. Oh, they are lost all right. But they aren’t grieving as much as they are simply numb… numb from having lost what they once had, numb from having been taken into captivity, numb from being the people of God who have had their God turn his back on them. Or, at least, that is how they feel.

Like sheep without a shepherd, they now have to fend for themselves in a pasture that is not their own, that is filled with thistles and thorns and not the familiar, lush green grass to which they are accustomed, to be shepherded by those who do not have their best interests at heart.

God’s sheep have been scattered, taken into exile, removed from their homes and their homeland, and God is nowhere to be found. And Jeremiah has drawn the short straw. He’s the one who has to be there to tell God’s people what is going to happen and why. He is called upon by God to be the harbinger of really bad news. It’s going to get a whole lot worse, the prophet tells his people, before it gets any better.

Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet because of his seemingly unending laments. But this passage we read this morning is like a small patch of blue in the middle of a dark and stormy sky. Finally, finally, Jeremiah gets to offer his people just a glimmer of hope. Just a glimmer. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch…”

Paul puts it a slightly different way as he speaks of Jesus. “For in him all the
fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” Before he gets to that point, however, Paul writes this long, almost unending, sentence in an effort to tell the Christians in Colossae what kind of Christ he is talking about.

In just three weeks the choir will be presenting its Christmas cantata. As I like to do, I’ve been practicing with them in anticipation of being a part of it. I can tell you there are a couple of places where I’m not sure I can hold the note. I’m a tenor, and the music calls for the tenors to get pretty high and then stay there… and stay there and stay there and stay there.

That’s what Paul does with this portion of his epistle to the Colossians. He gets started in describing Jesus, he goes higher and higher and just stays there. It’s one long, seemingly unending sentence that just goes on and on. I’m going to go through it again and as I do I want you to hold your breath, if you can. Really, I want you to try to hold your breath through the entire litany. I’ll try to do it quickly, but I think it’s the only way you can understand my point. Ready? Okay, here we go…

•He is the image of the invisible God
•the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or power
•all things have been created through him and for him
•he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together
•he is the head of the body, the church
•he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything
•for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
•and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Whew! Okay, you can breathe now. See what I mean? That was all one sentence. Read that in your Bible and you will find there are punctuation marks, but not in the Greek. Paul just gets into it, goes up high with it, and stays there with one long sentence. But you can see, can’t you, why this was chosen as the epistle reading for “Christ the King” day?

Well, this King of kings, this Lord of lords, came down to take our hand and shepherd us to still waters, to show us the way of God’s kingdom, to lead us back into the fold when we have lost our way. He is our pastoral God. If you don’t believe me, believe Jeremiah. And if you must, take Paul’s word for it. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…”

Can’t you just see our Shepherd God reaching down to nudge us back in his direction? After all, that’s what reconciliation is. And we could use some of that ’round here, couldn’t we?

You may not particularly like thinking of yourself as sheep. That’s okay. Lose the analogy, if you like. But think of God as the Good Shepherd who watches over you and guides you, even through the shadows of life and the valleys of death. If you will, I think you will find there is no irony in that. And when you come to the end of your days, you will appreciate the effort God has made.

Lord, thank you for your loving care of us. Walk beside us that we might then offer the same hope to others. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Roger E. Van Harn, ed., The Lectionary Commentary, The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), p. 426.

2John Killinger, The Thickness of Glory (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), p. 48.

Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.