Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2.11-22; Mark 6.30-34, 53-56
The line of kings that were in power in the time of Jeremiah most definitely fell into the latter category. They were bad shepherds. But they weren’t the only ones.. We can look to history to point out the many that came before them and the many that have followed. We can find bad shepherds in our current reality. We can find them anywhere that people use their power to do harm and take from others. If we are really honest, we can likely find a bit of ‘bad shepherd’ in all of us.
We, as human beings, have failed. So what does this mean? What are the consequences for leadership that violates God’s covenant? What happens when we we do not pass God’s litmus test of justice?
According to Jeremiah, there will be unfortunate consequences. In his time, this meant that the Israelite community was about to be over-run by the Bablyonian empire. The line of kings is about to be cut off. Exile is coming. Now, the writers and prophets of the Old Testament were a product of their time and their culture. They were likely to draw a direct line from the bad things happening in the world to the sins of the people. But times change, even by the time Jesus comes on the scene. Think of Jesus and the blind man, about whom everyone is asking who did the sinning, him or his parents. Jesus simply heals him. Today, we understand more about our world, and so we know that bad things that happen to us are just that - bad things that happen to us. Sometimes we can trace them to a cause, sometimes we can’t. But we do not ascribe the bad things that happen to a punishing God who dolls out consequences for sin. Nothing we can do will take away God’s love or God’s saving work done for us.
That being said, when we do sin, there are consequences. And especially when we perpetuate injustice, bad things happen. Not as a mystical punishment, but as a natural consequence from harming others. Living in greed, using power as a weapon, and practicing injustice will cause harm to others, to our communities, and also to ourselves. It’s pretty grim.
But consequences are not all that Jeremiah preaches about. He also says there is hope for the future, a good shepherd will be lifted up. This is the hope and the promise: no matter how bad things look, how bad things get, God will still be there, because God is our Good Shepherd. There is such heavy covenantal and relational language in the reading from Jeremiah - ‘my pasture, my people, my flock’. No matter the trouble happening, we still belong to God. Nothing, not even the the things we do that break God’s heart, will make God dissolve the covenant or walk away from God’s people. The sheep will never be abandoned. God will gather us together, will raise up new leaders, will start again. The readings for today then go on to paint a picture of what our God as good shepherd looks like.
Psalm 23 is a favorite for many. But usually we read it all by itself. The psalm that comes before it, 22, starts with the words that Jesus quotes from the cross - “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me.” The structure of psalm 22 follows the same pattern as other psalms of lament - they usually cycle between words of lament, trust, and petition... However, in the last cycle of psalm 22, the words of trust are nowhere to be found. It has been suggested that we could read all of psalm 23, a psalm of thanksgiving, as the of words of trust that are missing from psalm 22. Psalm 23 is powerful on its own, but what if it is the response to when everything has gone to hell, and there is no hope left?
At the end of the end of the day, our earthly leaders will always disappoint. But God does what the shepherd is supposed to do - provide life and security for the people. Jesus has compassion for the crowds who follow him en masse because he recognizes that they are sheep without a shepherd. They have a leader - King Herod - but the story before this one (beheading of John the baptist) makes it very clear that he falls into the bad shepherd category.
The end of chapter 6 of Mark checks off the list of ‘good shepherd’ qualities that we hear about in Psalm 23. The psalmist writes - He restores my soul - Jesus invites the disciples to truly rest after their trip to the mission field. This moment is especially striking in the gospel of Mark, which happens at rapid-fire pace and includes the word ‘immediately’ all the time.
The psalmist writes about green pastures and still waters! Jesus feeds the 5,000. This is one of the stories that comes in that space between verses 35 and 52 that we didn’t hear today. Not only does Jesus feed the sheep, he does so in great contrast to Herod. The story of Herod previous to this takes place when he holds a feast for the leaders of Galilee, and Jesus feeds the common people. It is an echo of God providing food for the people in the wilderness through Moses.
The other story we don’t hear is when Jesus walks on water to return to the disciples. They are in their boat and in a storm and frightened. Jesus returns to calm them. I fear no evil.
He leads me in right path’s. The very first thing Jesus does upon recognizing the people who are without a good shepherd is teach them.
And just as a shepherd does the best they can to keep their sheep healthy, Jesus heals the sick. Which is a statement in and of itself, to provide and care for the least among us. Jesus passes the Old Testament litmus test of justice with flying colors. Jesus as shepherd brings structure to chaos; wholeness to brokenness; food to the physically, mentally, or spiritually hungry.
In the end, ‘bad shepherd’ sunday is actually about the good shepherd after all. Which is kind of the point. No matter how bad the shepherds are. No matter our deep our sin is. No matter how broken our lives are, how hopeless we feel about anything from the state of the world to our own personal lives, it will all be redeemed by the one true good shepherd, who will never leave. Who will never stop loving, and because of this, there is ALWAYS hope for the future.