The two passages we heard read this morning make about as clear a contrast as one might find between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New. Jeremiah, the prophet who is so well known for preaching fire and brimstone that his name has become a synonym for warnings of gloom and doom, is at his most fiery here. Condemning the people of Judah as stupid, he warns them that a devastating wind is coming, earthquakes are coming, and the land will be barren and without life. The gospel story, on the other hand, presents one of our favourite Sunday School images of Jesus as the good shepherd, carrying the lost lamb on his shoulders back to the safety of the fold.
It is often said that the image of God portrayed in the New Testament is a kinder and gentler deity. But we need only look back at last week’s story from Luke about hating your parents, or a few weeks further back at the story that Jesus came to bring division and to bring fire on the earth to see that the Gospels are not all about cuddly little lambs.
And of course, the Old Testament contains many images of God as shepherd, caring for the people; perhaps most famously in the 23rd Psalm.
Rather than a division between two Gods, the two testaments present us with different images of God, different aspects. It’s a little like asking a number of people to describe someone that they all know. You will get a different perspective based on each person’s experience. It is only by hearing all the stories and identifying the common threads that the full tapestry of a person begins to emerge. How much more is that the case with God who is vast beyond our ability to comprehend?
I mentioned last week that the gospels need to be read in their entirety if we are to understand them. While there can be things learned from short passages, the broad themes become apparent only when those snippets are set into the larger context of the complete story. This is true as well of the Old Testament.
Jeremiah’s jeremiad that we read today is part of a larger, three-chapter-long prose poem that can be summarized as a warning that the Babylonian empire, to which Judah is a client state, is about to punish them for getting too independent. Given our uncertainty about the dating of biblical texts, it may be that most, perhaps all, of this warning was written after the fact as an explanation for the disaster that followed.
Jeremiah lived in tumultuous, politically unstable times. Let me give you a little background. His call to prophetic ministry is dated at 626. Nearly forty years later, the disaster he was warning about occurred and the Babylonian empire swooped down on Judah, destroying the temple in Jerusalem and carrying the elite of the Judean people back to Babylon.
The unified kingdom of Israel, which had been established by David and consolidated by his son, Solomon, had been torn apart by the Assyrian empire some 200 years before Jeremiah’s birth. The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed and only Judah in the south, centred around Jerusalem, remained as an autonomous state. But it was a small and fragile one. It was also strategically located between Babylon and Egypt, providing a buffer between the two great powers that could become a battleground when they went to war. It was thus important for Babylon that Judah remain a loyal client state.
The heart of Jeremiah’s warning is that the Judeans were becoming too cocky. They thought they might throw off the influence of Babylon. At times, they flirted with making an alliance with the Egyptians in plotting such a venture. The people were forgetting the lesson of the northern kingdom, Israel, whose cultural and economic independence had been wiped out. In 586 B.C. Judah was indeed conquered by Babylon and the upstart upper class sent off into exile.
That’s a very cursory outline of the geo-politics of this story. What I want to focus on today is the way in which Jeremiah speaks to the people about the reason for Babylon’s aggression. Whether his words were written before the fact as a warning or after the fact as an explanation is less important than the fact that Jeremiah places the blame for this disaster squarely on the Judeans themselves. And he makes a clear case that the Babylonians are not independent agents in this story, they are simply a tool of God’s will, acting as a scourge and punishing Judah for its misbehaviour.
In seeking to throw off the influence of Babylon by military means and by forming alliances with other nations, Judah, according to Jeremiah, was demonstrating a lack of faith in God. Rather than trust that God was with them and would protect them even if they remained a client state of Babylon, the Judean elites were relying on their own cleverness and strength to get out from under the Babylonian thumb entirely.
There is a central paradox that their oppression under Babylon raises for Judeans. If they are God’s chosen people, and if God is all-powerful, then how does it happen that they are subjected to the powers of a foreign empire? The answer Jeremiah gives is that the conquest is God’s will and it is intended to punish the people so that they will have more faith in God and do God’s will in the future. Of course, if he were a political scientist rather than a prophet, he might offer a very different explanation of the causes underlying these events.
The story Jesus tells of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep is addressing the same issue of how God reacts to people who act contrary to God’s desire for them, but on a personal rather than a national level. Rather than asking why the nation suffers, Jesus’ story arises from the suffering of an individual. But a lost sheep, one that has wandered away from the safety provided by the fold and the shepherd, is not so different from a nation that has become indifferent to the protection offered by God, a nation that takes God for granted. In Jesus’ story, the paradox is resolved. God, through the shepherd, intervenes to rescue the lost. In Jeremiah’s story, the resolution is not apparent, but it is hinted at. Jeremiah has God say, “I will not make a full end.” In other words, God is saying, “I will not eliminate Judah from the earth as I did with Israel.” And that promise, that there will be something left, holds the hope that those who remain will learn from the mistakes of those who went before and will form the seed of a new nation, one that will grow in God’s favour.
In the gospel story, we have put Jesus into the role of a shepherd, one who will search us out and make sure we are safely found. But if we read the story carefully, Jesus is putting each of his listeners into the role of shepherd. “Which one of you,” he asks, “does not…go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” The message here is not, it seems to me, that Jesus will leave the 99 and come to find us when we are lost in the darkness. This is not a promise that God will intervene in history to save us from ourselves. This story is a challenge to us that, if taken up, will mean that we will reach out to those who are wandering away from the flock and are in danger of being snatched by the wolves. It is, in short, a reminder that if we care for one another, the community will be strong, providing peace and joy to all its members.
Jesus’ story of the lost sheep comes in the context of criticism leveled against him that he is consorting with tax collectors and sinners. It is not much of a leap to think that he is suggesting that those persons are equivalent to the lost sheep. Tax collectors were the agents of Roman oppression but they were Jewish, not Roman. They were in a position similar to that of those persons in the occupied countries of Europe who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.
As I hear the story, Jesus is saying that he is, like the shepherd, going after those who have willingly separated themselves from the group. He is inviting them back into the community. But he is also saying to us, his listeners, that we should do likewise. Jesus asks us to love those who may have done wrong or turned against us. The great commandment is that we love one another and this is how we do it.
If Jeremiah were telling the story of the lost sheep I imagine he would have wolves come and devour it along with half the flock who failed to fulfill their obligation to look out for those who stray. The hope in such a story would be that the survivors would be better at looking after each other in the future, because they had been taught the dire consequences of failing to do so.
Some of us will be encouraged to care for our brothers and sisters by the courageous and loving example of Jesus who dined with sinners and tax collectors and the shepherd who went after the one lost sheep. Others will be encouraged to follow God’s call to love one another when they contemplate the ways in which failing to do so can leave a whole community vulnerable to untold dangers. There are differences in the way that God approaches us because we are different. But the outcome, the commonwealth of God where all care for each other, protecting us from ourselves and from external enemies, that outcome is central for both of our stories, and to our own story, as God’s people.
Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.