Jeremiah 23:1-6 (9 Pentecost B)

The days are coming,” declares the Lord. The days weren’t so great for the people of Judah. It helps to have a bit of history. The kingdom of Babylon was on the rise. Nebuchadnezzar, the gifted war general and king, had defeated Egypt and was now looking to gobble up Israel. He attacked Jerusalem and utterly humiliated the king of Judah, whose name was Jehoiakim. At that time, he carted off the prophet Daniel and his three friends, renaming them Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednigo. Exile and renaming was a way of rubbing their nose in your victory.

A couple of years later, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem a second time and took Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin into exile. He replaced him with Jehoiachin’s uncle, whose name was Mattaniah (which means “Gift of Yahweh”), and renamed him Zedekiah (which means “The Righteousness of Yahweh”). Now if you’re lost in all these names, don’t worry too much about it. You can read all about this later on today in 2 Kings. The only name you really need to remember at the moment is the name of the current king of Judah: Zedekiah.

The name Zedekiah means “The Righteousness of Yahweh.” That name was a direct shot at the God of Israel fired by Nebuchadnezzar . He was making fun of God’s apparent weakness by installing a weak, 21 year-old puppet king who couldn’t make up his mind about much of anything and added insult to injury by renaming Mattaniah, “Gift of Yahweh” Zedekiah, “The Righteousness of Yahweh.”

Zedekiah was neither the LORD’s gift nor His righteousness. The book of 2 Kings says, “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” He continued the idolatry that eventually lead to the downfall of Judah and Jerusalem. He ignored the warnings of Jeremiah and tried to silence him. Instead of leading the people to Yahweh and His righteousness, He lead the people into idolatry, false worship, false trust, false alliances, and finally ruin. He was the last of Judah’s kings; the end of David’s line.

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” The Lord comes down hard on those who mislead His people, who teach them false doctrine, who introduce false worship. God is jealous for His people. They are precious to Him. He wants the very best for them. They are His flock, His sheep, and the Lord’s anger is stirred when those who have the office and responsibility to teach and lead His people do not teach and lead.

Remember that the word “pastor” is the Latin word for “shepherd.” Woe to the pastors who are destroying and scattering my sheep,” the Lord says. Woe to the kings and priests, the shepherds of Israel, who do not pasture my people with my Word, but instead feed them whatever garbage they want to hear. “Because you scattered my flock and drove them away and did not care for them, I will punish you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. This is a frightful sentence, and one that should strike fear in the heart of every pastor, every shepherd of the Lord’s people.

We all need to be reminded more than once and a while that God holds pastors accountable for their office. Yes, they are accountable to their congregations. That is true. They are accountable to every baptized man, woman, and child of their congregation to keep the vows they made at their ordination. There I promised before God to preach His Word purely according to the confessions of our church, to administer the sacraments according to the institution of Christ, to exercise evangelical discipline of the members, to teach and catechize the young and the old, to hear confession and absolve sins in the name of Jesus, to tend to the sick, the weak, and the dying.

That’s what St. Paul was talking about as he knelt in prayer on the beach with the pastors of Ephesus and said to them, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (bishops). Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Be shepherds, tenders and caretakers of God’s sheep.

Jesus said to the apostle Peter three times: “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” And Peter in the same way wrote to his fellow pastors, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers (as ones who watch over the flock), not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be.”

The writer to the Hebrews says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”

God holds his shepherds accountable. To Himself. Not to be successful, but to be faithful. Not to make the flock happy, but to keep them with Him in the one true faith.

The problem is that we don’t want to be under another. We are independent, stubborn, willful sheep. We will not be told what to do, even if it is God who is telling us what to do. We will not be guided or lead or taught or preached to, given to. New Testament Israel is like Old Testament Israel. Always looking for some other way than the way of receiving the gifts of God.

Jesus saw this willfulness, this pride, this independence, in the crowds that followed after him as though he were a rock star or movie celebrity. He couldn’t even get away for a brief retreat with his disciples and the crowds were clamoring after him, wanting more from him. He looked at the crowd with compassion. He felt it in his guts. He saw what is was like for them to be sheep without a shepherd. Lost, straying, fighting, butting one another.

And what did Jesus do? He began to teach them many things. Teach them. Not counsel them or manipulate them or make them feel good about themselves or stroke their egos or excuse their sins. Teach them. Disciples are made by baptizing in the Name and by teaching them to observe everything God has mandated. Teaching is shepherding; shepherding is teaching. That’s how God’s flock, God’s people, are shepherded. They are taught by their shepherds. That’s why He sends pastors, shepherd-teachers,
who make you lie down in the green pastures of God’s Word,
who lead you beside the still waters of Holy Baptism,
who restore you soul by hearing your confession and absolving your sin,
who bring you to the table that Jesus prepared for you in the face of your
enemies – the table of His own body and blood.

God cares enough to send us shepherds. He says through Jeremiah, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture where thy will be fruitful and increase in number.”

Notice that God drove them out. The shepherds Israel may have been faithless and scattered the sheep, but God says he did it. He drove them out. And that’s a fearful thought as well. When we refuse to be shepherded, God will scatter us, leave us on our own for bit, let us wallow with the pigs like the prodigal son. He scattered Israel into exile – seventy years of exile in Babylon for refusing to hear His prophets. He scatters the church for refusing to hear His Word. When we live as though we preferred hell to heaven, God gives us a tiny taste of hell, to remind us from what we have been saved.

You can’t read the Old Testament without concluding that God is harder on his own people than he is on those who don’t believe in him. He is tougher with Israel, as least in the short run, than he is with the surrounding nations. He lets Assyria and Babylon literally get away with their murder, at least for a moment. God disciplines His people.

God seems tougher with Christians than with unbelievers. I have come to see this in my own life, and I have also seen this in the lives of those around me. Unbelievers seem to get away with all sorts of things. God is patient with them. He lets them wander, stray, fool around. He wants no one to perish. He wants all people to live under His Son and His death and resurrection.

But God seems to deal firmly with His people. He hems us in. He gets in our way, spoils the fun of sinning. While the world happily fornicates away and drinks itself silly, Christians feel guilty. They get depressed. They get in trouble. They have pangs of conscience. They spend time on their knees confessing their sinfulness. They seriously struggle with their sin, not always successfully, either. Life doesn’t seem to get easy for baptized believers. God seems to get in our face all the time.

But then, think about it. What kind of parents let their children play in a busy street? Or play with loaded guns unsupervised? What kind of parent never says no, and lets the children do whatever they want? Our Father in heaven is no absentee father, no permissive parent. He loves His children born in Baptism. He loves the sheep that bear His name. He loves us enough to grab onto us tightly when we are about to do something that harms us.

He wants better for us – better than we usually want for ourselves. He wants us to live in true freedom. He wants us to live forgivenly. He wants us to be the people of His pasture, the sheep of His hand. He wants us to be His own, to live under Him in His kingdom, to serve Him in His eternal righteousness, innocence and blessedness. And so He says, “I will place shepherds over my people, pastors who will feed and tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.”

We ought to thank God for the shepherds He sends, pray for them. I say this not because I think pastors deserve more honor. In many ways pastors receive too much honor already. The wrong kinds of honor – the kind of honor that keeps them safely at a distance and out of our business. The highest honor we can give our pastors is to hear them and take to heart their words. When they speak God’s Word we hear it as God’s Word to us, as though God Himself were speaking to us. When they rebuke us, it is God’s rebuke. When they warn us, it is God’s warning. When they comfort us, it is God’s comfort. When they teach us, it is God’s teaching. When they forgive us, it is God’s forgiveness.

God’s shepherds do not preach themselves. That is the mark of false shepherds. God’s shepherds preach Christ, the Good Shepherd. “The days are coming,” says the Lord, “when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land.” From the broken stump of David’s family tree, destroyed by sin and rebellion and idolatry, God promised to raise up a Branch, a King. Not like Zedekiah, or any of the kings in David’s line. A righteous King. One who would do justice and righteousness in a land that knew neither justice or righteousness. Jeremiah is speaking of Jesus Christ, and His days.

Those days of which Jeremiah spoke have come. God has raised up this righteous Branch on David’s tree. He was born of Mary in Bethlehem. He was baptized in the Jordan. He preached and taught with the compassion of God. He hung on a cross to die for the world. Jesus is God’s Shepherd-King. He did justice to our sin by dying on a tree. He did righteousness on the earth by exchanging his perfect righteousness for our sin.

We are very fortunate, you and I, to live in those days that Jeremiah could only see from a distance. From our perspective, we call them, “the last days,” the in-between days, days between Jesus’ death and resurrection and His appearing in visible glory. These are the days in which God is gathering His scattered people, baptizing the nations, teaching them, placing them under His shepherds who will lead and guide them in His Word.

We are part of that. You and I have been gathered in Baptism. We are fed with His Word and at His Table. We are under His care. We have His Name stamped on us, His mark of ownership.

“And this is the name by which he will be called: Yahweh our Righteousness.”

What a name that is! The Lord is our Righteousness. We are not our righteousness. We have none. There is nothing good in us. Nothing that would make God love us or bind Him to us. He owes us nothing. We are beggars, debtors. All we have to offer is sin and death. There was no right decision on our part, no first step to God taken by us, no bargains struck. The Lord is our Righteousness.

Jesus is our Righteousness. Jesus was made our sin, though He was sinless, so that in Him, baptized into His death and His life, we might become the righteousness of God. God deals with us through His Son. He puts Jesus between us and Him so that he doesn’t see us in our sinfulness, but He sees us covered with Christ. God looks at us through “rose colored glasses,” stained red by the blood of Jesus. He doesn’t look on our greed, our selfishness, our indifference, our lovelessness toward one another. Those are filtered out by Jesus’ death. And thank God that they are!. When the Father looks at us, clothed in our Baptism, covered with His Son, cleansed by His blood, all He sees is righteousness.

That isn’t an excuse to do whatever we please. No, that’s freedom to do what pleases God. The Lord is our Righteousness. That’s the name we bear in the world. We’ve had a change of name. “The Lord is our Righteousness” has been etched on our foreheads and our hearts in Baptism. We are the Lord’s people, His chosen and holy people, sheep who show off their Good Shepherd’s righteousness in the world, before our family and friends, our neighbors and co-workers, the people at school and next door.

The name makes a difference in everything we do. Everywhere we go and in everything we are given to do, we are called to say with our lips and our lives: “Yahweh is our Righteousness.”

When we succeed, He is our righteousness. When we fail, He is our righteousness. When we stumble and fall flat on our faces, He is our righteousness. When we sin, He is our righteousness. When we are sent into exile and wilderness and grave, He is our righteousness. In the hour of our death, He is our righteousness.

And on the Day of His coming, when He calls us from the grave, He will be our righteousness, and we will be His righteous people.

In the Name of Jesus.
Amen.

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