Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Proper 11 of Series B (Jeremiah 23:1-6)

“In His days Judea will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which He will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon today is from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-third chapter of the prophet Jeremiah. Dear friends in Christ, the eyes of Jesus see much more than mere human eyes. He had been teaching and performing miracles at a heavy pace for days on end, moreover, He had just received word that His cousin, forerunner, and friend, John the Baptist, had been beheaded. All He wanted was a little rest, some time to mourn and commune with His Father. But the crowds would not let Him. “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” When Jesus lifted His eyes, He saw a crowd, five thousand men, as many as 25,000 people, all hungering and thirsting for His words. They were dirty and hungry, poor and rich, the scum of the earth and those high in the estimation of others. But the eyes of Jesus Christ, true God in human flesh, saw much more than that. “When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

These are some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture. But there is little reason to be compassionate to these people. These ‘sheep without a shepherd’ are receiving exactly what they deserve for their sin. Why should rebellious people, why should you and I have faithful shepherds? What have we done to deserve such a gift from God? The entire Old Testament is filled with God’s dealings with His rebellious people. Over and over again they abandon Him and go after other gods, they chase after lust, they are greedy for money. Does that sound familiar? Human nature has hardly changed throughout the centuries. In response to their rebellion, to our rebellion, God declares in Jeremiah chapter nine: “Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice or walked in accord with it, but have stubbornly followed their own hearts… I will scatter them among the nations whom neither they nor their fathers have known, and I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them.” God promises that His wandering people will receive what they deserve- He will use the follies of wicked shepherds to scatter His own people.

God does not make our shepherds wicked and unfaithful, but He instead their sinfulness becomes an instrument of His judgment. Before and after our Old Testament lesson, God condemns the unfaithful shepherds in the secular and spiritual realms, the kings of Judah and the lying prophets. Once again, human nature has hardly changed- we find unfaithful shepherds in both realms still today. But we who are sinful have often caused these problems through our own sin, and in many cases we ourselves are the unfaithful shepherds. We have all been entrusted with the care of others in some capacity, we all have people in our lives who look up to us in some way, and how often have we failed to shepherd them in the way that they should go? How often have we failed to call them to repentance when they sin? How often have we failed to point them to Jesus? How often have we fallen down in the more everyday tasks of providing for their bodily needs? Think through your life- many of you are fathers, mothers, grandparents, or teachers. Those are the obvious ones, but each and every one of us have others entrusted to us by our Lord, even if we don’t realize it. And all of us, from the ones who lead our country to the ones who shepherd God’s Church, to you and me, have fallen in our calling as shepherds.

God’s flock, you and I, might have deserved scattering, but God still declares His anger at those unfaithful shepherds. “‘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.” Things don’t sound good for the people of Israel or for you and me. Whether we are sheep or shepherds, God has thundered forth judgment. Israel herself is like a ruined tree, chopped down to a stump by God’s wrath, by the mismanagement of her shepherds.

But from that dead stump life will sprout. Isaiah declares in chapter eleven of his prophecy: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” God is more descriptive in our text for today: “Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” From a nation that seemed to be dead, that was carted into exile and dispersed, God would send forth a green shoot, a shoot that would bring salvation to all people, to rebellious sheep and shepherds, to you and me. Jesus Christ was that Branch, He came forth from the line of David, from the house of rebellious Israel, from the dead stump that to our human eyes could bring forth no living thing. But yet Christ came, and He came born of a virgin, born as a man, yet also true God, the only begotten Son of the Father from all eternity.

He stepped into our world and looked around at all of us, rebellious sheep and unfaithful shepherds, those afflicted with the disease and curse of sin, and what did He see? “When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” It was precisely this compassion that led Him to take on human flesh in the first place. For God’s love for you and me was so great that even in the midst of words of judgment, He would declare the promise that He would act, that He would bring forth salvation. “Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.”

God’s shepherd, the promised Branch, would be characterized by one word: righteousness. “And this is the name by which He will be called: The Lord is our righteousness.” Jesus is our righteousness. He is our righteousness because He lived a perfect life in our place. He fulfilled the Law where we could not, He was completely and totally without sin. He was the perfect shepherd, the perfect king, the perfect lamb, He was perfectly obedient to the Father. Jesus Christ did not do this simply to show us some grand example of what we can be if we just try hard enough, no, He did this in our place, He did this because we could not. His life is our life, it is given to us because His righteousness extended all the way to a hill outside Jerusalem. On that Good Friday, the only person who ever lived a perfect life, the only person who was truly innocent, God Himself in human flesh, was nailed to a cross. And He was nailed there to fulfill the name that God declared He would bear: “The Lord is our righteousness.” The blood of the Good Shepherd poured forth that day for the sake of wandering sheep and unfaithful shepherds. When Jesus Christ cried out “It is finished!” His righteousness was now ours, for He had died the death and faced the punishment we deserved. He lived and died in our place, to deliver us, to save us, to grant us life. Through His sacrifice Jesus Christ is now your righteousness. Through Baptism His righteousness now covers you like a robe, so that when God looks at you, He sees His Son’s perfect obedience in life and death.

He also sees Christ’s triumph over death, the victory that He won on Easter Sunday. Through His death and resurrection, God is reconciled to us, peace is declared between God and man. We now have forgiveness for when we wander into sin, for when we fail as shepherds, because Jesus Christ took those sins to the cross and there paid the price for them, there He triumphed over them. Therefore our relationship with God is now characterized by peace. Saint Paul boldly declares in our Epistle lesson: “He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

Christ now goes out into the world through His Word proclaimed by His Church to bring that reconciliation near to people, to gather in the lost sheep. The same compassion that led Him to become man, that led Him to face the very punishment of hell on the cross leads Him to claim wandering sheep as His own through the declaration of the forgiveness of sins. “Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” The word used here for ‘fold,’ in the Hebrew, has the sense of the destination of a journey. A shepherd is constantly leading His flock toward green pastures and quiet waters. Despite the dangers and challenges along the way, the shepherd brings his flock to their destination.

The destination of Christ’s flock, the wandering sheep He has gathered in and purchased with His blood, is the heavenly pastures. That is your destination, because Jesus is your righteousness. “In His days Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell securely.” The Hebrew word translated as ‘dwell securely’ has the root meaning of ‘trust.’ Because we trust in a Savior who gave His very life for us, we know that nothing can harm us for all eternity, we have the confidence that we are in His loving arms, that we have forgiveness of all our sins. Isaiah ties together all these themes so beautifully in chapter thirty-two of His prophecy: “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Because Christ is our righteousness, because we have peace with the Father through Him, we can pray in trusting faith with the Psalmist: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” May the Lord strengthen our faith through His Word and Holy Sacraments so that we may trust in His gracious protection and dwell securely in the heavenly pastures for all eternity, Amen.

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