November 25, 2001
Proper 29
Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43
The underlined text  will take you to a sermon
on the gospel text.


"Inside the Shepherd's Heart"
Jeremiah 23:1-6

The prophet Jeremiah has been called the "weeping prophet"  - largely because of passages like Jeremiah 9:1, where the prophet cries out on behalf of God, "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!"  Throughout the book there is a sense of mourning and impending doom,  "...my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord's flock has been taken captive," Jeremiah says. [13:17]

Jeremiah's ministry took place in the late seventh and early sixth century B.C. The pervasive and relentless proclamation of doom and gloom was based on the impending invasion of the Babylonians which would result in the total destruction of Jerusalem. Even the city walls and Solomon's glorious temple would be destroyed and a large number of people, including the Jewish leaders would be exiled to Babylon.

Thus Jeremiah lives with a constant grieving ache in his heart. And yet, the grief Jeremiah experiences blends with the grief of God. When Jeremiah wishes his eyes were a fountain of tears, the tears, it turns out are the tears of God.

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!  O that I had in the desert a traveler's lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors. They bend their tongues like bows; they have grown strong in the land for falsehood, and not for truth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, says the LORD. [9:1-3]

This is the grief that erupted in the heart of Jesus on that day so long ago we call Palm Sunday. The day he entered Jerusalem for the last week of his earthly life. When he came to the brow of the Mount of Olives and surveyed the beautiful panorama of the Eastern wall of Jerusalem, with the second temple dominating the horizon - Jesus broke down. Remember the words from Luke's gospel:

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God." [Luke 19:41-44]

When Jesus spoke these words, it had been about six hundred years since Jeremiah revealed the grieving heart of God.  Now, as he stands before the Jerusalem he loves, Jesus can see a horrific truth. The temple which was rebuilt by Herod the Great on an even greater scale than the temple of Solomon, would be razed once again.

***

Now -- hang on to your hat.  Jeremiah issues a profound message of warning which should call all leaders of God's people of every generation to absolute attention.

Who is responsible for this grief in the heart of God? Would it not be a stunning revelation if you were somehow to discover that you were responsible for this divine heartbreak? Jeremiah's warning begins with four simple words.  "Woe to the shepherds..."  The shepherds are those leaders and prophets of Israel whose responsibility it was to lead the nation in its relationship with God. They were to be the truthful voice of God for the people of God. They were to care for the flock of God as the representatives of God. And when they failed in their ministry, Jeremiah says they would be accountable to God. "Woe to the shepherds..." Jeremiah says. Then he continues, "It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD." [23:2]

Every pastor, teacher and leader in the church of Jesus Christ today needs to look deep within the heart of the Divine Shepherd. Every teacher who cares for the children of the church and every adult who is a potential model of the Christian life for the young folks of the church has a bit of the shepherd's ministry. When that shepherding ministry fails and the people of God are without proper care, the heart of God is grieved. 

There are two sides to the coin of responsibility for shepherding the people of God. Both dimensions give us insight into the heart of the Divine shepherd and carry important clues for the ministry that every Christian has. (It is important to understand that in the Body of Christ, there is no such thing as a member without a ministry. All of God's people have gifts for ministry. It isn't that some people do not have a ministry, but rather a matter of not exercising their ministry.)

The two sides of Jeremiah's words to the shepherds address, [1] Failed Shepherds and,  [2] Faithful Shepherds.

[1] Failed Shepherds

It is important to understand the flip side of God's grieving heart. What is it about the shepherds who were on the receiving end of the words, "Woe to the shepherds..." that stirs the anger of God?

There are two specific complaints God has.

First of all, the shepherds of Israel did not maintain their own relationship with God.  "For the shepherds are stupid, and do not inquire of the LORD; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered." [Jeremiah 10:21]  If the shepherd does not have a strong relationship with God, there is no way to keep the people of God strong.

The second complaint God has is that the shepherds have turned the people away from the ways and truth of God to false gods. Essentially this is a violation of, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."  The people of God were focusing on everything but the will and the ways of God.  "My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold." [Jeremiah 50:6]

Here's a critical theme. When the leaders of God's people do not pay attention to their relationship with God -- the people of God will suffer the consequences. If I am not in touch with God, there is no way I can help others maintain their relationship with God.

[2] Faithful Shepherds

Jeremiah provides insight into the heart of the shepherd. Through the prophet, the voice of God spells out what is in the Divine Shepherd's heart and what needs to be in the heart of every person who has responsibility to care for the people of God.

The prophet lifts up several qualities that are a part of the authentic shepherd's heart.

As the unfaithful shepherds failed to nourish the flock they were supposed to care for, the faithful shepherds feed the flock with a knowledge that builds their relationship with God. Through Jeremiah, God says, "I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding."  [Jer. 3:15]

The shepherd who reflects the heart of God is a shepherd who actually cares for the sheep. The shepherds Jeremiah rails against are concerned only for themselves. Now God says, "I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD." [Jer. 23:4]

The shepherd who truly cares for the flock of God is actually doing the work of God. Jeremiah points to the ministry of the Great Shepherd when he says on God's behalf, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock." [Jer. 31:10]

***

Jeremiah, the weeping prophet lived long enough to see his people go into exile in Babylon. He went with them and continued his ministry among the people. The key lessons of Jeremiah take us inside the heart of God.

This particular lesson takes us to grief inside the heart of God. This is difficult for Christian folk who are centered in the joy of Christ who told his disciples he was teaching them, "...so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." 

So how does a "weeping" prophet fit into all of this?

When the flock of God is wandering and lost and without shepherds, there is grief in the heart of God. But when the flock of God is being cared for and is flourishing and growing in their relationship with the Lord - then there is joy in the heart of God. And when there is joy in the heart of God, there is joy in the people of God and we are closer to becoming all that God has created us to be.

 


Reflection on the Texts
[Coming Soon]

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Jeremiah's words, "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture..." represent the anger of God with the Kings and leaders of Judah as well as the civil and spiritual leaders. The nation had been allowed to lapse into idolatry and the impending doom of Babylonian exile.

In verse 3, there is a direct promise that the people of God would be re-gathered and that it would be divine initiative that would bring this about. This points to the post-exilic return of Jews to Judah and in a wider sense points to the incarnation of the divine heart in Jesus Christ.

The concluding words of the Jeremiah text point to a near and a far eschatalogical fulfillment. The re-gathering of the people after the Babylonian exile would be short lived and the nation would languish under occupation by succeeding foreign powers. Yet, the "Righteous Branch" of David would bring about a restoration of the flock of God that goes beyond the barriers of an earthly kingdom. Though Jeremiah could only see dimly through the succeeding years, the outline of the ministry of the Good Shepherd was taking shape.


Luke 23:33-43

[Notes from Last cycle]

  Luke is the only evangelist who records the words of Jesus, "Father forgive them..."  Although most current translations include the words, there is a textual problem with the saying.  Several diverse and significant mss do not contain the words -- but others do contain it.  The United Bible Society editors concluded that the words were likely not original to this particular context -- however, they did included them in their translation because the words, "bear self-evident tokens of its dominical origin." [albeit the words are placed in double square brackets] (Exp. Bible Commentary -- Liefeld note on v.34)  We share this opinion with B. Metzger et al.

v.38 All four gospels carry the superscription over the cross.  John's gospel explains the circumstances. (19:19-22) The full text of the superscription is gained by comparing all the gospels.

v.39 Luke's account of the conversation between the criminals and Jesus and the one is unique. The words, "kept deriding him" are "blasphemeo".  The sense is quite strong.  The root is where we get the term "blasphemy".  It means to speak evil, revile, defame or vilify. The man is in deep pain and anger with a soul closed to the possibility of redemption. A chilling place to be!

v.43 Paradise = "paradeiso"  A Persian word taken over into Greek.  A garden or a park -- a place of beauty and delight.  Calls to mind the Garden of Eden.  There is a sense of reconciliation and restoration to the pristine state of the garden. See II Corinthians 12:4 and especially Revelation 2:7.  Along with Luke 23:43, these are the only three occurrences of "paradeiso" in the N.T.


Colossians 1:11-20

This passage is all about power. The "glorious" power of God is available to us.  This power gives endurance and a spirit of thanksgiving. The text from Colossians gives an opportunity to explore how it is that the power of an almighty God is focused in the reconciling ministry of Jesus Christ.

THE POWER OF GOD
v.11 God's power makes us strong and enables our endurance
v.12 God's power has made it possible for us to share the destiny of God's people
v.13-14 God's power breaks the power of darkness and frees us for the reign of Christ

THE PERSON OF CHRIST
v.15 Christ is God made visible
v.16 Christ is co-creator
v.17 Christ is the "glue" of creation
v.18 Christ is the "Head" of the Church
v.20 Christ is Redeemer


 Worship Helps

Call To Worship    (Based on Psalm 46)

Leader:  The Presence of God is our Strength,
People: Our refuge in times of trouble.
Leader:  When God is with us, there is joy in our hearts,
People: Therefore we rejoice and give thanks.
Leader:  For you alone, O Lord are God,
People: The one who reigns in all the earth.

Prayer of Dedication

Because of your great gifts to us O Lord, we have forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to your perfect love. Bless the gifts we bring and give us courage to live more fully for you.  Amen.

Benediction

Go from this place in the joy and strength of the great God of our salvation. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Amen.