Summary: A Sermon for Proper 11, Series B preached 7/22/2012 as a guest speaker at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Estherville, Iowa. Redeemer was in the midst of a pastoral vacancy at the time I preached this sermon.
I found it rather interesting that out of all the Sundays I could have come to visit your congregation and share a message from God’s Word with you, it had to be this one. In the readings you just heard that were appointed for today, we are given word pictures of sheep and shepherds. I just had to smile at the timeliness of God’s Word. Here I am, a pastor, an undershepherd of our Lord Jesus Christ, invited to preach to you good people here at Redeemer Lutheran Church, who are in a time where you are in the process of calling a new Pastor to serve as your spiritual shepherd in this place. So it is a very timely thing for us to pause and reflect on this topic of shepherds and sheep, so that when we leave here today, we can rejoice in the fact that God provides us with faithful shepherds, who will lead and feed His flock.
Before we go any further, first it would be good for us to review a couple of characteristics about sheep. Sheep are not exactly the most intelligent animals around. They have a tendency to wander off if they are not given a sense of direction, which of course makes them easy targets for predators. Sheep are also pretty helpless if they get into trouble. If they end up in a dangerous situation, their odds of survival are not very good.
The other thing we should note that in Biblical times especially, sheep were very valuable in that their wool provided means for making clothing and other needed items, and they also were an important source of meat. And let’s not forget that for the Jews, there was also the need for lambs for sacrifices and for the Passover meal each year. As a result, the profession of Shepherding was a very important task. One that required a lot of work, diligence, and a willingness to face danger for the sake of the flock. Not just anyone would do. For if a shepherd who cared only for his own well being runs away at the first sign of trouble and the sheep were left to themselves, dangerous things would happen and very soon the flock would be scattered.
So now we get to situation of the prophet Jeremiah. To say that things were pretty bleak would be an understatement. God had placed kings and priests over the people to care for them. The kings were responsible for the temporal affairs of the kingdom, of guiding the people of God according to His commands, while the priests were to tend to the spiritual care of the people, to continue to point them to the promises of God, to remind them of all that God had done for them in the past, was continuing to do in the present, and what He would do in the future by sending the Messiah into the world to save His people from sin and death, and lead them to forgiveness and life. But, that’s wasn’t happening. The priests had become lax and immoral. In some cases, they were actually endorsing the worship of idols, a practice many of the kings had permitted and encouraged. Even the temple itself had become a place where worship of false gods had been taking place. In doing so, these supposed shepherds, guardians of the flock of God, had ignored the sheep. And it was time for God to do something about it. By the time we get to our reading for today, the Babylonians had come in and started taking over. The king, Zedekiah, was essentially a puppet of Babylon. By this point, the city of Jerusalem has fallen. Many of the people have been killed. The temple is rubble. And the people are about to be led off into exile in a far away land. Unsure of when, or if, they will ever be able to go home again. And there are those who wonder aloud “Does God still care about us? Will He still be faithful in fulfilling His promise of a Messiah for us? Is there any future and hope for us?”
It is in the midst of all of this, first we hear God through the prophet Jeremiah speak some very stern words to these so called shepherds, the religious leaders whom He had entrusted with the task of proclaiming His Word, of being willing to go out and making sure the sheep stayed fed, sheltered, and safe in the safety of the promises of God’s Word: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.” (v.1-2) First, it’s important for us to note that the Babylonian Captivity is the direct result of the people’s refusal to turn away from their sin and back to God in repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins in the Savior to come, but the priests who allowed this to happen, who instead of risking their well being and comfort for the sake of the sheep decided to just let whatever happen, are being held responsible. They were the ones who failed to sound the warning of God’s Word. They were the ones who wanted the prophets to be silenced. They are the ones who are responsible for the scattered sheep who are now left on their own and being carted off to who knows where. Their fate? They are being removed from their office as shepherds and being held accountable for what’s just happened.