When I was ordained as a Minister, down in Napier, Alf Taylor preached at the service. AS part of his talk on ministry and leadership he gave me a few gifts. This is one of them ( see picture to right) … It’s a piece of drift wood he picked up off the waterfront at Ahuriri, its seasoned and worn smooth by the waves and the weather… it’s Not perfect while its smooth it’s got bumps and cracks. Both the weathering and the imperfections give it character.
After the service my kids couldn’t help but do Gandalf impersonations with it… you know plant it in the the magic… it is meant to be a representation of a shepherds crook. A symbol that in Christian terms says leadership is about being a shepherd, one entrusted by the chief shepherd with the care and wellbeing of a flock. It’s been used as a crook occasionally, not out on a farm, and no…not as a walking stick as I’ve got older…but in Children’s Christmas pageants. Mainly it acts as a reminder… it sits in my office to remind me of both the call to care for God’s people as a servant and also of Jesus the Good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. It’s a reminder of a radically different kind of leadership, that God has in mind…
At Church at the moment we are doing the E100 Essential Jesus Bible Reading Challenge… Looking at who is Jesus and how he fits into the whole narrative sweep of scripture. After the initial week where we looked at what five new testament writers had come to believe about Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-4) , we’ve been looking at how the Scriptures of the Old Testament, look and point towards Jesus. We’ve seen the need for a saviour in what the narrative says about the human condition,( Isaiah 59) and how events and symbols in the Old Testament were used by Jesus to explain who he was and his mission(Numbers 21:1-9). Last week we saw how Jesus life and ministry were reflected in some of the Psalms, the songs and prayers of God’s people (Psalm 69). This week we are looking at how some of the books of prophecy in the Old Testament not only apply God’s word to the situations the prophet spoke into but also point to and have an ultimate fulfilment in the person of Jesus.
What we are looking at today is a passage from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is a prophet who is writing in the sixth century BC. He is ministering during the time that Judah and Jerusalem are facing the demise of Egypt as a world power and Babylon becoming the dominant power in the ancient near east. He had started his ministry when Josiah was King and was a proponent of Josiah’s religious reforms. Then also ministers under the short reigns of Josiah’s successors, who didn’t appreciate his ministry and he spent a lot of that time imprisoned by them. In 605bc Jerusalem is captured by Nebuchadnezzar and the best and brightest are taken into exile, amongst them Daniel, and his friends. Jeremiah stays in Jerusalem and is there when the Babylonians come back and put down a rebellion and take Jerusalem in 586 BC. The majority of the population head into exile, Jeremiah an old man by then is taken with a group who seek refuge in Egypt.
The passage we had read out to us this morning and which we are going to look at… comes as the end of a section in chapters 21-22 where Jeremiah has been critiquing and condemning the kings of Judah, and various priests, both the religious and civil leadership of Judah. It acts as a spark of hope in what is a rather dark series of words from Jeremiah because after this section he moves on to critique and condemn the false prophets, who had continually told Judah and Israel that there was nothing wrong that everything was alright, when it was far from the case.
The passage acts as a summary of what Jeremiah had said before because he uses the metaphor of a shepherd to lump all the leaders who had let down God’s people together and says that they have caused the people to be scattered, because they were more concerned about themselves than they were about caring for the people. The shepherd was a metaphor for Israel’s leaders, I guess they would look back to their ideal for a king and leader in David, whose training to be King was as a shepherd. It was a metaphor that the people of Israel used of their God as well… ‘from that most well-known of Psalms…”The LORD is my shepherd’.
Jeremiah says that the people have gone into exile because they have been let down by their leaders who though more of themselves than their people. The role of a shepherd is to take care of the sheep, to find them food and safe pasture, to keep them from being scattered where they can be picked off by wild animals and thieves. We tend to see the book of Kings and Chronicles in the Old Testament as history books, but in the Hebrew scriptures they are seen as prophecy as much as the written prophets, because they are not an objective history of Israel and Judah, but rather show that with noticeable exceptions and despite God’s guidance and correction, that successive generations of Kings have done what was wrong in the sight of the LORD. They defend the fact that God was justified in taking the people into exile.
This section is a challenge to all who would take up leadership. In society, and in an election year we find people offering themselves up to be our leaders. This is a challenge for them, is it about service or status, power and prestige or care and concern, Justice or just in it for me? It’s a challenge for Church leadership as well.
But I said before that this is not only a summary of what Jeremiah has been saying it’s a spark of hope as well. Because as well as condemning the previous kings it contains three promises. Three declarations from God, about the future… and central to that is a promise of God providing a good and righteous shepherd for his people.
In verse 3-4. God declares that as the shepherds have not bestowed care on the flock, and thus driven them away, that God will bestow judgement on them. It is a play on words, very much in English “because you didn’t take care for them… well am I going to take care of you…They are going to reap what they sow. The flip side to that is that people who have been scattered will again be gathered together from all the nations they have been scattered to. You may note that in the beginning of this passage we see Israels shepherd had caused them to be scattered but here it says that God has scattered them, you almost get he picture of God bringing them out from under the leadership that has been bad for the people so he can gather them together again. WE may look at the causes and effects of things in history as being of the things that we as humans do, but this passage shows us that God is ultimately in control and sovereign, and will bring about his purposes and plans… for our good and not for our harm, as Jeremiah as probably most well-known for telling us in chapter 33.
The promise is that he will then set shepherd over them who will tend for them who will care and be concerned. In a picture that reflects the Genesis story of the garden, he says they will be fruitful and multiply. If we are looking, as we do, with the eyes from beyond the cross and resurrection, here we could see it as a promise of a new creation. They are promised security and that none of them will be lost. Maybe when you hear those words Jesus parable of the lost sheep comes to mind, because in this first promise there is a pointing towards Jesus as a fulfilment.
The second promise is in verse 5and 6. It is the promise that God will raise up a righteous ruler from out of the Davidic line. Even though it seems that this linage of Kings has let God down, God is keeping his promise that a descendant of David will sit on the throne of Israel forever. More than that that this king would rule justly and rightly…It’s at the centre of Israel’s hope for a messiah, God’s saviour who would herald in a just and righteous kingdom.
At the end of verse 6 we are told that the name of this righteous shepherd will be “the LORD our righteous Saviour.” We don’t pick it up in the English but it is a play on words. Nebuchadnezzar set up Mattaniah a son of Josiah as a puppet king over Jerusalem and changes his name to Zedikiah, which means ‘YWHW (the LORD) is righteous” and some people have seen this prophecy coming from the time of his coronation. I wonder if Jeremiah hasn’t taken the name and the words spoken by Nebuchadnezzar in making this appointment and tweaked them, not to show Nebuchadnezzar’s choice as a good one, but to assert that Israel’s God will make the right choice… Not as Jeremiah’s approval of the new king but rather looking forward to a different king… Who would be righteous and who would make his people righteous as well.
Jesus picks this promise up in the passage we had read out in John this morning by saying that he is the Good Shepherd that God has sent. In the genealogies of Jesus and the birth narratives it is important to show that Jesus is of royal linage. Jesus is the fulfilment of this promise. He differs from the shepherd of Israel in the past because he’s not in it for himself, but rather he is the good shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep. He care and concern for them is beyond his own personal safety or wellbeing. Therefore he can be trusted to lead and to guide and to keep us safe.
In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul a devout Jew who had come to follow Jesus and saw in him the fulfilment of the hope of Israel, says that he is the wisdom of God has become our righteousness. Because of his sacrifice we have been declared righteous before God. Looking back we see how Jesus fulfils this word from Jeremiah.
The third promise is in verse 7 and 8. It talks of God doing a new thing. So new that it will be just as fundamental and important to the history of God’s people as the exodus was for the people of Israel. That God would draw his people from all over the world back to him… We can see that in the restoration after the exile, in the Old Testament narrative, but beyond the cross and the resurrection, Christian’s see it as a affirmation that in Jesus God has done something new, and established a new covenant with humanity: A new relationship through Christ’s death and resurrection…through the Good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
There is a lot of explanation in today’s message, and I’ve tried to sum it up in keeping with the fact that Jeremiah uses quite a few plays on words… “Jeremiah goes crook at the shepherds and this leads to good, God promises we will be led by the good shepherd’s crook, not for the good of the crooked shepherds.”
What does it say to us today. .. two things
AS I’ve mentioned before there is the challenge to all who would exercise leadership… Integrity, morality and attitude matter. God cares for his people, his flock, for humanity and one of the responsibilities of leadership is to express and live that out. And sadly to be honest J Andrew Dearman is correct when he says ‘the history of the church is replete with examples of both good and bad leadership” The great example for us of leadership is Jesus and his willingness to give up his own life for his sheep: That it is sacrifice and compassion, it’s all in… not for what we get out of it.
Secondly,. Jesus is not only the example of good leadership he is the one who we are able to trust to lead us and guide us through life, because he gave his life for his sheep. Put your trust in Jesus.. Our response is to live out the sentiments of Psalm 23 to live with the LORD as our shepherd.