To borrow a twentieth century phrase, the LORD called Jeremiah to speak truth to power. The LORD, the God of Israel “made [Jeremiah] a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land – against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.” A fun job, no doubt.
The prophet Nathan did this at least once that we know of. His king, David, had devoted himself to another man’s wife – Bathsheba. For her he committed adultery and murder. Nathan’s job was simple: convict David. You can imagine that Nathan did a few dozen laps around the palace screwing his courage to the sticking post before calling his king an adulterer and a murderer.
Nathan did it once. Jeremiah spent his life antagonizing power. It left him on the outs most of the time. His kings didn’t like his message. The king’s officials certainly sickened at the sight of the weeping prophet. The high priest and his helpers blanched whenever Jeremiah stood up to preach. And the people, oh the people loved it, I’m sure, when Jeremiah called them hookers and whores lifting up their skirts for any boy to do as he pleased.
Behind Jeremiah stood the LORD. Notice those words from Jeremiah 1: “I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall.” And just after: “I am with you and will rescue you.” God doesn’t call prophets, give them hard words to say, and then ditch them, “Uh, I’ve got some business over here; good luck with that rebuking.” It’s Jeremiah speaking, but the LORD declaring. You heard that four times in Jeremiah 23: “the LORD…says,” “the LORD declares,” “the LORD declares,” “the LORD declares.”
What truth does the LORD have Jeremiah declare to power? “You shepherds stink. You’re not doing your job.” These shepherds to whom the LORD speaks are all those powers to whom Jeremiah speaks: kings, officials, priests, people. All those assigned a task to watch over and guard souls. Even if you’ve never seen a shepherd, you can learn about them from the Bible.
Famously, Psalm 23 calls the LORD our Shepherd. Shepherds find places for sheep to lie down. Shepherds find good water to drink. Shepherds guide sheep in good paths. Shepherds protect sheep in fearful valleys of death. Shepherds prepare meals.
Almost as famously, Jesus calls Himself a shepherd, and a good one at that, in John 10. Shepherds stay in dangerous times to protect the sheep. Shepherds know their sheep by name and sight and call out so that the sheep can hear and feel secure. Shepherds lay down their life for the sheep. This calls to mind the most famous shepherd, David, who stood against the lion and the bear, protecting his sheep with that sling that later slew Goliath.
Yet once in Scripture we hear of a shepherd leaving sheep. In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables about lost things, the first being that about lost sheep. The shepherd, Jesus says, leaves the ninety-nine to find one lost sheep, because the choirs of heaven rejoice “over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
But you see the gulf that exists between that shepherd seeking missing sheep, and the shepherds described by Jeremiah. The good shepherd Jesus will only “leave” sheep to find others: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.” Hear how the LORD describes the shepherds at Jeremiah’s time: “You have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care upon them.” This terrible shepherding left them unkempt, fearing for their lives, and going missing.
These shepherds acted in both a positive and negative way, or, to put it in catechism terms, they sinned by commission and omission. These shepherds, the kings, priests, and officials leading the nation of Judah, scattered God’s flock by introducing and tolerating the worship of false gods, like the Baals and Asherahs. King Manassah practiced child sacrifice. Meanwhile the priests emptied all God’s ceremonial laws of their Christ-centered value by turning them into works done to merit salvation from God.
They also omitted their duties by failing to bestow care. They let them wander. Since these aren’t really sheep but people, we can apply terms we’d use with people: child abuse. These shepherds abused the people by refusing to stand up and do their jobs, to guide the people in true righteousness, the Lord’s righteousness. Like the children of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai, rather than doing all that God had commanded them in the Ten Commandments of the Law, they chose instead to prostitute themselves to the gods of Egypt, to indulge in drunken revelry and sexual excess. And the leaders did nothing about it.
Such shepherds deserve punishment. God says so: “I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them.” God steps in. And at first you think, that’s a good thing. “Yes, God’s here!” And it is. It’s always better when God’s in charge. Except it’s also embarrassing. “Alright, you guys screwed things up enough, I have to step in and take over.” The Hebrew speaks emphatically: “I myself will do it. You couldn’t do the job, I can’t trust you anymore.” To quote Donald Trump, “You’re fired.”
The LORD speaks a Word here that we do well to listen to. God still sends out shepherds. We live in a time when Church and State are separate, and rightly so, so we don’t look to our princes, kings, and presidents to guide us spiritually. Likewise, we have no temple priests offering sacrifices, a special class of Levites. Still, we have shepherds. We have pastors and teachers called into the public ministry. We have church councils and Sunday School teachers and other officers in the congregation. We have parents and sponsors. We have shepherds all around us with a high and holy calling: to watch over, take care of, protect, feed, nourish the flock, that is, people, the people under your care. You don’t just speak empty Words at an ordination or installation, at a Baptism or confirmation. When you make promises as a parent or sponsor or confirmand, or council member, or pastor or teacher, you swear an oath to the LORD, you accept the shepherd’s staff from Him and promise to care for sheep. And the LORD pays attention.
Jeremiah felt overwhelmed: “I’m just a child,” he said. Isaiah felt overwhelmed too: “I am a man of unclean lips.” Likewise Peter, “I am unclean.” Hopefully you feel overwhelmed too. That doesn’t change the fact that God makes you responsible. Parents raise up children in the training and instruction of the LORD. Actively bring the Word of God to your child, from font to funeral home. Members of Bethel’s leadership, care for souls by actively providing them the Word, encouraging them with the Word, nourishing them with the Word. Pastors and teachers, faithfully preach the Word and distribute the Sacraments.
But there’s an element we often leave out. Jeremiah called it “bestowing care.” Jesus described it as leaving behind and finding. For Jeremiah it meant speaking truth to power. For Nathan rebuking a king. For us it’s preaching the Law of God. It’s calling sin a sin. It’s rebuking a delinquent, straying, sinning sheep. It’s doing stuff, not just attending meetings or talking behind closed doors. Shepherds shepherd. They use that staff to guide, or as Paul put it: to correct, rebuke, and encourage. If you won’t do that, God will strike you down. He will remove you from office, “for the evil you have done.” Their blood will be upon your head.
Even though they share some of the guilt themselves. Did you catch that? “I will gather [them] from all the lands to which I have driven them.” The sheep aren’t wholly innocent. Israel asked Aaron to make false gods. The popes did much to bring darkness to the pre-Reformation world, but the people complied in saint-worship, indulgence buying, and Eucharistic sacrifices. They didn’t overthrow the papal tyranny for over 1,000 years. Sinful apathy. Too often we accommodate ourselves to the world, either doing nothing and letting evil overwhelm, or actively joining in and indulging in it ourselves. Both failing to take responsibility for ourselves and our shepherds.
And even though He shouldn’t, God acts: “I will gather the remainder of my sheep…and will return them to the pasture and they will be fruitful and be many. And I will raise up for them shepherds and they will shepherd and not be afraid again, and they will not be dismayed, and they will not be missing.” God says, “What you couldn’t do, I will.” He sent Cyrus to free Judah from exile. He sent shepherds like Joshua and Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah; then later John the Baptist, the apostles, and, of course, Christ!
Behind every successful Reformation of the Church stands God the Father, “I myself will shepherd them so that they can be fruitful.” We only succeed when God shepherds. Good things happen when God’s people are in God’s Word. The Word preached, the Word washing, the Word ate, handed out by God’s called shepherds doesn’t just nourish existing sheep, it creates new ones.
Look at this grace. Instead of sending another flood – “I’m done with this Church!” – and starting over, God our LORD shepherds: He guides, sustains, nourishes, protects, and feeds. He brings back. He finds lost sheep. He found you. He acts as the shepherd should: laying down His life for the flock.
Literally. Christ loved the Church, His flock, and gave Himself up for her. Thus Christ executed the righteousness and justice that the LORD promised from a future Branch. The King from David who will reign wisely isn’t an earthly King with an earthly Kingdom, it is our Good Shepherd acting as a King should, bringing security and safety. Not by fighting victorious campaigns or putting a chicken in every pot, but by literally saving us from the destruction into which we wander in sin. Removing us from it. By being the righteousness we cannot be.
Whether we’re shepherds or sheep we wander and stray. Just as the shepherds did in Jeremiah’s time. So God sends the perfect shepherd, the perfect King: “the LORD our righteousness.” He sends a man who’s more than a man, He’s the LORD, Yahweh. And He’s a righteous man. Not for Himself; for us, “our righteousness.” Here again we rub up against the Reformation insight: “But now a righteousness from God has been made known…this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus to all who believe.” Or, “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.”
Praise God that He still sends shepherds – pastors, teachers, church leaders, parents, etc. – to gather and protect the flock we call the Holy Christian Church. Through the Word they preach, the Spirit calls sheep into existence. Through the Sacraments your pastor distributes, the Spirit blows where and when He pleases, washing and feeding the sheep, preparing tables before you in the presence of your enemies. But these shepherds still sometimes fail.
Here stands Christ the unfailing. The Good Shepherd. The King who reigns wisely. The LORD your righteousness. He doesn’t run. He doesn’t do evil. He just wears a crown of thorns, gives up His blood for you and says, “I will always remember you. You will be with me in paradise.” It’s good to have this King. Amen.