"The Righteous One who Tends and Cares for the Ravaged"
Nov.21, 2010 Jer.23:1-6
It's common for people to secretly think they're smarter than the next guy. But even more common for people to think they're smarter than the people who are running the country. (Maybe we should just try it sometime!)
This week was no exception. Global markets were concerned about the possibility of a Euro credit crisis, with international officials making their way to Ireland to discuss whether help was needed to extract that country from an economic quagmire. Apparently banks had invested heavily in real estate only to see the bubble burst.
Here in Ontario, a conversation with a local merchant as to their general business health quickly turned to criticism of the provincial government's introduction of HST particularly as it applied to hydro; likewise in the legislature at Toronto, government leaders were facing calls for relief of people whose hydro bills were increased by the HST. It must be hard governing: people seem always desirous of better services, but reluctant of the taxes required to pay for those services!
In Canada we're blessed with universal health care, which makes us more socialistic on the scale than our neighbour to the south. But while socialism has some advantages, we mustn't forget that government isn't what God designed to be the fundamental unit of society, but the family. And at the family we can't shrug off our duties, expecting the state to pick up the slack. Parents also are 'rulers' in the family setting, for good or ill - often our 'subjects' might dispute our wisdom! In a recent interview on the Drew Marshall radio show in which our daughter Emily took part, a mother and daughter from the Wellesley area shared about the daughter's 'crash' in anorexia her first year of college at Fanshawe. One thing she remembered was her parents arguing; things like that can really affect our children. In my own case, Emily had the impression I was always busy with 'church work' and hence unapproachable around home. So as parents, as the years go by, we become very conscious of the ways we ourselves have fallen short as 'rulers' in the kingdoms of our own home.
Jeremiah lived at a time when a succession of religious and political had been so bad that God would wait no longer, but would exile the nation completely. Yet He also offered the promise of a righteous King who would one day tend the flock with real care, in righteousness and justice.
WRITE-OFF RULERS: PROPHETS, PRIESTS, KINGS...
Jeremiah 23 starts out with a stormy pronouncement of judgment against the current rulers in Judah. Vv1-2, ""Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!" declares the LORD. Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: "Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done," declares the LORD." What had they been doing that was so bad?
Let's start with the prophets, who should have been the nation's spiritual 'conscience', speaking for God. Vv11-31 list many ways in which supposed prophets had let the nation down. "Both prophet and priest are godless," declares the Lord. In Jerusalem, prophets committed adultery and lived a lie. They prophesied delusions from their own minds, wagging their own tongues yet saying 'the Lord declares...' They strengthened the hands of evildoers so that no one turned from their wickedness. They didn't stand in the council of the Lord to find out His word - then they would have proclaimed God's words to His people and turned them from their evil ways.
So, the main function of a prophet is to proclaim God's word as a reference point so people will adjust their behaviour accordingly, but this wasn't happening. Instead the prophets were telling the people what they wanted to hear, in order to keep on in their wicked ways. When people choose a church today, is it more because the sermons challenge them or humour them? When we come to church, do we actually expect to hear a word from God, or do we just want to be entertained? While genuine worship will be meaningful, it doesn't fit in the 'entertainment' category.
Vv28-29 contrast what the prophets were serving up out of their own imaginations with the power of a true message from God. "Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?" declares the LORD. "Is not my word like fire," declares the LORD, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?" Think of an oxy-acetylene torch, slicing through steel. Then picture a jackhammer breaking up a bridge, or huge pile-driver hammering I-beams into the substrate: when God speaks, the effect is powerful!
Priests were another category of religious leader. Like the prophets, v11 says they were godless - the Lord declares, "even in my temple I find their wickedness." At the beginning of chapter 20, if it's any indication of the priests' general attitude - the priest Pashhur has Jeremiah beaten and put in the stocks in response to the latter's prediction of disaster for Judah. Ezekiel 22 (26), about the same time period, has God making this criticism: "Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them."
The kings by and large were no better. 22:13 critiques Jehoiakim's refusal to pay labourers for building his luxuriously panelled and trimmed palace. "Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor." God challenges in v15, "Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?" (referring to the expensive panelling imported from Lebanon.) In other words, you don't become a king by living in poshness. V17 uncovers this king's true motives: "But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion." A parallel passage in Ezekiel 34(2-6) says, "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? ...You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured...You have ruled them harshly and brutally."
We are not kings; but God has entrusted each of us with certain areas of responsibility, with resources and souls entrusted to our care. How's our shepherding? Do we 'fleece' the flock, strengthen the wear, extort for our own gain? Are we caring just for ourselves or for others? V2, you "have not bestowed care on them" - literally, not 'attended to' them. Have we given those who depend on us the full attention they deserve?
The sinfulness of the 'write-off rulers' - prophets, priests, and kings - trickled down to the common folk. Ezekiel 34 reveals God saying He'll judge between one sheep and another - sheep who feed on good pasture and trample the rest; drink clear water and muddy the rest; "shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away..." From church officials to hockey coaches to CEOs - when people see those in authority acting corruptly, they are prone to follow suit, excusing themselves - "if the President can get away with it, why not me too?"
THE COMING RIGHTEOUS SPROUT
Now, although the general degeneration of the powers-that-be might cause one to despair at the time of Jeremiah, God reveals that it won't always be thus. He's going to step in and bring someone better on the scene. V2, God's going to bestow punishment (literally, 'attend to' - as the rulers have failed to 'attend to' the flock) on the corrupt rulers for the evil they have done. NRSV: "...you have not attended to them.So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD." Vv3-4, He's going to gather the remnant (in ranching terms, think of what we call a 'round-up'!) out of the countries where they'll have been exiled and bring them back to Israel where they'll be fruitful and increase in number; He's going to place shepherds over them who will tend them so they're no longer afraid or terrified.
Then in vv5-6 we have a beautiful prophecy looking forward to Jesus Himself who will be the best prophet-priest-king of all, a righteous 'sprout' Yahweh's going to cause to spring forth like a shoot from a sawed-off stump. Hear the best pattern possible here: ""The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness." (That last part would have stuck in the side of wicked King Zedekiah, whose own name meant "Yahweh is my righteousness.")
The reference to David is significant. Psalm 72, the 'royal psalm', is associated with a son of David ruling from David's throne. In Psalm 78(70,72) David is seen as a model, shepherding with integrity of heart and skilful hands. Micah prophesied that from Bethlehem, David's town, would come one who would rule over Israel, "whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." Of course that came true in Jesus' birth. And in Luke 1(32f) the angel Gabriel announces to Mary, "The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end."
Jesus did what was just and right. He lived a sinless life (Heb 7:26; 1Jn 3:5). In Him those who believe can 'be saved' (a one-time act of commitment) and 'live in safety' (an ongoing state of enjoying God's shalom here in this earthly life and after in eternity). His name is, in a very real way, "The Lord our Righteousness": Romans 3(22), "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." 1Cor 1(30), "It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption." 2Cor 5(21), "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Salvation isn't about our 'good deeds' - so many 'filthy rags' in God's sight! (Is 64:6) But about Jesus' righteousness made available to the believer, substituting for all our wrongs.
TEND THE FLOCK WITH CARE, NOT CONCEIT
Jeremiah tried repeatedly to get the rulers to change from their wrong ways. God directed them in 22:3, "This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place." The prophet juxtaposed their record with that of good king Josiah in 22:15f, "Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the LORD."
Did you catch that last bit? Do you suppose 'knowing God' has to do with some mystical experience, detached from the real world? Wrong! How does God define knowing Him? "He did what was right and just...He defended the cause of the poor and needy." Actions related to righteousness, justice, relief for the distressed.
Who did Jesus leave 'in charge' after the Resurrection, humanly speaking? Peter. Yet the terms of Peter's reinstatement in John 21 - "Feed my lambs - Take care of my sheep - Feed my sheep" suggest true Christian leadership ought to be characterized not by impulsiveness or selfish comparison (like Peter vowing before the crucifixion he wouldn't fall away even if all the others did; like Jesus' question, "Do you truly love me more than these?"), but by tender caring. Then when Peter writes to the elders of the church in 1Peter 5(2f) he puts it in these terms: "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-- not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." That is, willingly, not because you have to; happy to serve, not out to make a profit; not lording-over but being an example, with a servant-style approach.
JUAN'S STORY: 'SOMEONE REALLY CARED'
Today we're closing with an Operation Christmas Child 'Impact Story' video about Juan Warkentin, a one-armed orphan from Nicaragua who was adopted by a Canadian family from Saskatchewan.[SHOW VIDEO]
....Can you imagine being so poor that you have to share a toothbrush with someone who's not even in your family? Juan was impressed upon receiving a Samaritan's Purse shoebox that there was someone out there who really cared about HIM. The Warkentin family were led to stretch their boundaries to include Juan as an adoptive son. And now, even though he lacks an arm and has an incurable medical condition, Juan lives in safety knowing Jesus gave His life so we could live with Him forever with glorified bodies.
May the Lord lead us likewise to do what's just and right, to defend the cause of the poor and needy - and so show that we truly know Him. Let's pray.