The Just Shepherd

Nov 24, 2019 by

Sermon by Garry Blinch

Luke 1:68-79

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

Intro

Jeremiah 23:1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.

It was this passage and its connection with the Luke 1 reading, the Benedictus of Zechariah that lead me to title this sermon “The Just Shepherd”.

King Josiah had been a good king, walking in God’s ways; but the four kings after him, descended of Josiah, were evil. They reversed the shepherd’s role, scattering instead of gathering. Josiah lived frugally and took care of the people; his offspring took care of themselves, disregarding the people and pursuing a self-serving and self-indulgent lifestyle.

Rabbinical literature describes Jehoiakim as a godless tyrant who committed atrocious sins and crimes. He is portrayed as living in incestuous relations with his mother, daughter-in-law, and stepmother, and was in the habit of murdering men, whose wives he then violated and whose property he seized.

When leaders take care of themselves, people “scatter” – when leadership ignores their shepherding responsibilities, then it’s “every man for himself”. They scatter. Survival becomes tantamount, and communities become fractious.

No wonder Jeremiah was the “weeping prophet”! What a time to live in and what a time to prophesy! Writing about life in Judah when Jeremiah exercised his ministry, J Sidlow Baxter said that the second book of Kings was “the most tragic national record ever written, and the most tragic part of that tragic record is the final part, which covers the period in which Jeremiah lived. Jeremiah was the prophet of Judah’s midnight hour.” That hour being the short time before Judah was carried off in exile to Babylon.

It’s a pattern repeated over and over in history; brutal dictators who take care of their powerful friends and the army so they can essentially enslave the people and take the best for themselves.  Or the entrenchment of royal families who lived believing in their divine right to rule and in a noble bloodline- until, in many cases,  a bloody revolution destroyed everything, the new people in charge starting over in an atmosphere of violence and suspicion.

In our day, we still have some of the same styles of ruling and domination. But there are new incarnations of the same thing. Numerous leaders are using modern technology to propagate false stories or to simply muddy the waters with denials, distractions and grandiose claims. That same technology is used to spy on the opposition, to defame opposing voices and spread fear & distrust. End result? The sheep scatter. It becomes difficult and dangerous to build a community that challenges the powerful, even in a so-called democracy.

Ominously, God says, “you have scattered my flock, you have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings…”

It’s amazing what people get away with when no one is paying attention. Children work very hard to “fly under the radar” when they know they are doing something that is not okay with the grown-ups, whether at home or at school. Adults do all kinds of things that are illegal, immoral, unethical, somehow imagining that truth will never catch up; or, perhaps, just not thinking beyond today and the scam that is going so well at the moment. Case in point: the impeachment. Don’t know if that will end to anyone’s satisfaction, but it is still an illustration of this. The powerful players in that drama who have perpetrated the most obvious violations of law and ethical obligations acted only to serve themselves and as if there could be no repercussions.

This brought to mind for me something LeeAnn McKenna said on the Sunday she was with us:

          “From the outside looking in, even from the inside looking out, violent conflict is often incorrectly regarded as rooted in things like religion or tribe.  Not so.  In my experience, it is always about inequities in the distribution of power and wealth, disparities manufactured or exacerbated by colonisers or governments bent on keeping people fragmented into warrior cultures, their guns eventually turned against one another.” (LeeAnn McKenna, spoken at MacNeill Baptist Church October 27, 2019)

God attends to all these things. Not as fast as we would like and not always in our lifetime. But God has woven into the fabric of our existence natural consequences for human actions and, I believe, God intervenes when God’s people call. God sends just shepherds and we know God has sent THE Just Shepherd, not only as our guide for all time but also as the progenitor of a new kingdom that exists and grows in the midst of all the unjust structures and evil deeds of this world.

 

Fast forward to today’s gospel…

Here’s the context (the verses before our reading):

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

When he expresses doubt about his wife Elizabeth being able to give birth at her advanced age he is struck dumb until the time of the naming of the child. When he agrees with his wife by means of a written communication that the child should be named John- contrary to tradition- then he is suddenly able to speak once again.

Zechariah’s Benedictus: his mouth is opened to speak. The Benedictus became a hymn in the early church. It received its name from its first words in Latin (Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel”).

 

There is something truly beautiful about the timing of it all. Not just that he is able to speak at this pivotal moment, but the metaphor lingering just in the shadows

God says the impossible- or the extremely improbable- is going to happen for Elizabeth- just like Sarah and Abraham. At that time, God was birthing a nation, a people called by Jehovah’s name. Now God is birthing a new people and John is the midwife. John is going to get everything ready for the One who would establish a kingdom on earth, a people after God’s own heart. LeeAnn McKenna’s Partera website views the midwife role as, “a companion in a process of birthing a yearned-for future”. The process for John was preparing all of God’s people for the birth that was to come.

The whole hymn/Benedictus naturally falls into three parts. The first part (verses 68-75) is a song of thanksgiving for the realization of the Messianic hopes of the Jewish nation. It reaches back to David, and the promises to defend the nation against their enemies. Now again that of which they had been so long deprived, and that for which they had been yearning, was to be restored to them, but in a higher and spiritual sense. The horn is a sign of power, and the “horn of salvation” signified the power of delivering or “a mighty deliverance”. Judah had impatiently borne the yoke of the Romans, continually seeking the time when the House of David was to be their deliverer. The deliverance was now at hand, and was pointed to by Zechariah as the fulfilment of God’s oath to Abraham; however, the fulfilment is described as a deliverance not for the sake of worldly power, but that they “might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

The second part of the canticle, vs. 76-77,  is an address by Zechariah to his own son, who was to have such an important a part in this deliverance. He was to be a prophet, and to preach the forgiveness of sins before the  Dawn from on high. The declaration that he was to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” (v. 76) comes from the well-known words of Isaiah 40:3 (A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”).

In the final two verses talk about God’s deliverance to “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”, and The Just Shepherd’s role “to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (79)

 

The message to Jeremiah was unique and special for his day and time, but the circumstances, we can see, have been repeated over and over throughout history. The power structures that rise and fall, that oppress and lay waste. These verses do not give us licence to point our fingers at the unjust leaders we see and say, “Your day is coming! God will get you!”

We are called to promote, nurture and disseminate the good news of an entirely different Kingdom lead by a Just and righteous Shepherd. To invite others to follow this Just Shepherd even as they live their lives in the structures that need changing and challenging. And indeed, we create communities that work to peacefully challenge all that oppresses and divides.

 

Conclusion

 

The reign of Christ is about the rule of a Just Shepherd. Many are understandably uncomfortable with the focus of today being called “Reign of Christ” because the very word “reign” brings to mind all the worst characteristics that we have looked at today, and at best, may cause us to picture an ruler set apart from the people and giving orders without that vital connection. So here’s a new picture: Rule of the Just Shepherd, guiding sheep tenderly and personally, challenging all that is unjust through those very sheep, guiding everything to a better place. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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