This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on November 20th, 2016.
Jeremiah is concerned with speaking truth, and truth can sometimes be painful. Jeremiah’s opening line of this passage is, “Woe to the shepherds.” The leaders of people of God, here probably referencing the kings of Judah, have failed the people. They have misled them and scattered the flock. A shepherd’s main task is guiding his or her flock, but this group has failed. Any amount of time spent in the church will bring about an example of a shepherd not tending to the flock. We can all think of the prime examples that come to mind. The scandals and swift downfalls are easy to notice. But, we might also do well to remember the small things that can lead a flock astray. Perhaps it is the simple temptation of a little more power. Perhaps, it is the allure of wealth and relevance. These small things can cause a shepherd to mislead his or her flock. As one preaching, Jeremiah’s hard truth probably calls for self-examination as much as indignation.
“I will attend to you.” These words from the Lord are of judgment, but they are also words motivated by care for His flock. The Lord has had enough and plans to take matters into His own hands. First, God will deal with those who have failed at their task. The judgment of God does not come from an arbitrary place. No, God steps into right a wrong to bring justice.
But, the Lord is not only interested in justice in the text. Next, comes the move toward restoration. The Lord lays out a plan to gather the flock back together. The plan is notable for two reasons. First, God is directly involved in the plan. The Lord of All Things comes down to give justice and to heal. The Lord takes the role of a shepherd gathering together the flock that has been led astray and then, in due time, nurses the flock back to full health.
The second notable part of the plan comes from the fact that God places new shepherds to guide his people. One would think that after messing things up so bad God would be done with human shepherds. They led the people astray. They failed at their task. In spite of all this, God brings new shepherds up. There is hope in this fact. God is not done with people just yet. If we are honest, the whole idea of the Lord using people in the first place is a mystery. Why does the Lord of All choose to use fallible beings? What do we really have to offer? Perhaps, out of grace, mercy, divine wisdom, or any combination, God chooses to use us. What is even more impressive is that he continues to use us even after we have messed up. There is hope for the nations of Judah and Israel after they have been misled, and there is hope for the church today too.
The next verses are ones that often are repeated. They speak of a leader who will bring true righteousness. The natural reading of the church has been to see Jesus in these lines, and one can easily see why. We do well to consider Jeremiah’s words in their time, but to also consider the wide reading of the church throughout time.
The prophet sees a new King coming. One who will lead the way a King should. The past has let the nation of Judah down, but the new King will be what the nation needs. Playing off of the name of a current king, Jeremiah suggests that where older leaders claimed to bring God’s righteousness and failed, this new leader will not disappoint.
The hope of Judah does not rest on the strength of its current King. In a similar vein, the strength of the church does not rest on the ability of the current shepherds. The church has Jesus our leader who fulfills all righteousness. The question becomes how we will follow Christ? What will our role be?
To a congregation listening to preaching on this text the office of shepherd might be tarnished. Perhaps the leading of power-hungry or burnt out shepherds of their community’s past has skewed the image. For those, the words of the prophet can also provide comfort. They speak to the fact that God will be with them despite the failings of their leaders. They also point towards the hope of true leadership, a leader that will not fail and will live up to all expectations. The Lord still wants shepherds that guide the flock with care and call to account those who don’t. But thankfully Jesus Christ ultimately provides the model of the true shepherd that will guide with care and is coming to restore all things.
Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia
Tags: justice, shepherding, restoration, healing, hope