Jeremiah–here in the 23rd chapter–catches a glimpse of God’s future. It’s a powerful vision for ancient Israel, but it is also a powerful vision for us today.
Jeremiah–bless his heart–is trying to stave off disaster. As we read elsewhere in his oracle, Jeremiah has realized that God’s people are no longer taking refuge in God. On account of their special status as descendants of Abraham, they believe God will protect them no matter what. So they manipulate the politics of the region, and their religion turns into a cultural phenomenon. They still do the right things, of course–they go to their version of church, appear to be living a moral life, and generally follow the rules. But those things have nothing to do with being a faithful follower of the One True God–at least, they’re not the things that God places a very high value on.
What does God value the most? Well, we can see that in the previous chapter of Jeremiah, chapter 22, verses 3-5 (ESV):
Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.
For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people. But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.
It couldn’t be much clearer: do these things and good things happen; do those and bad things happen. And what does God require here?
First, to “do justice and righteousness”–which I hope by now I have taught you means to pursue the rights of those whose rights have been taken away. Throughout the bible (as in these verses from Jeremiah 22), these words are applied to women, children, orphans, widows, foreign nationals, illegal immigrants, the poor, and others who were most vulnerable to the powerful of the world.
Second, to “deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed”–again, God requires that we stand up for victims against the people and structures that do them harm.
Third, to “do no wrong or violence…nor shed innocent blood”–All that we do, our actions and our inactions, everything has the potential of harming others, and God has repeatedly demonstrated concern for all of humanity (cf. 2Peter 3:9 usw.). Jesus challenges us in Matthew 6 to realize the homicidal power of even our words, which through anger or selfishness may slaughter the innocent and bring God’s righteous judgement on our own heads.
What does the Lord require? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God, as another prophet summed it up (Micah 6:3).
Jeremiah, with God’s aid, hopes to help the Israelites see that they are lemmings running towards a cliff to meet their doom. Their leaders–their “shepherds”–have only their own best interests in mind. And so they wield fear and vague threats of violence that destroy and scatter the people. They know that people divided against themselves cannot stand against tyrannical leadership (cf. Mark 3:24).
But Jeremiah’s people cannot hear his voice. They are too afraid. They are too divided. The sheep have been betrayed by their shepherds. Those who have responsibility for the well-being of the sheep are only interested in manipulating their fears for their own gain.
Now while the chronology of Jeremiah is difficult to sort out in places, it seems this passage comes at a time when hope is lost, when their chances of averting the consequences that await them are slim to none. The people will be conquered. Jerusalem will fall. Life will change forever.
And so into this desperation is breathed a merciful breath of hope by our ever-compassionate and forgiving God. It won’t always be this way. A new day will come. New shepherds will arise. There will be healing, restoration, gathering, and protection. Fear will be no more. There will only be love.
We still live in a world where shepherds destroy and scatter those they are called to lead.
We still live in a world where leaders waste little compassion and care for the ones they are elected to serve and whose safety they are tasked to ensure.
We still live in a world where many are dispersed……many are displaced……many are afraid……and many are missing.
And in our own nation, I think there are more aware of this right now than in ages.
What does that mean for us, as followers of Jesus?
What does that mean for “children of the light,” for those who have been redeemed by the resurrection work of the Christ?
On thing is for certain–it means that this word of hope–spoken thousands of years ago by God to Jeremiah and Israel–continues to be our encouragement and our vision. It means our world needs to know that the kind of redemptive work God is interested in doing involves gathering those on the margins, bringing about reconciliation and healing, providing compassionate leadership, and abolishing everything that brings about fear.
The mission of God is not to “infiltrate and extract,” whisking away the few who are sufficiently pure and self-righteous. Instead, the mission of God is to so completely transform the created order that fear, war, and violence cannot even be conceived of. God’s mission is for love to heal the world.
Good News?…or Terrible?
This mission–and the way that Jesus participates in it–is what the bible calls the good news–the gospel. And it is good news, at least for those who are broken and victims of sin.
But there’s a reason that Christ’s return is described as “terrible” as well:
His return is most decidedly not good news for those who, like the divisive shepherd-leaders of Jeremiah’s day, manipulate those around them for their own selfish gain.
Christ’s return is not good news for those leaders who profit from violence.
Christ’s return is not good news for everyone who participates–actively or passively (see Obadiah)–in the oppression of other people.
But you know, I’m not too worried about the folks for whom Christ’s return will be terrible. I pray for them, to be sure, but I try to follow Jesus–and in talking about his life and ministry Jesus said “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12 ESV). Like Christ my savior, I’m interested in the sick. And like God his–and my–Father, my concern and my attention will be focused on the margins.
“The days are coming,” Jeremiah tells us, when the world will be different, when the shepherds of our churches and our nations will be compassionate, unifying, healing, just, and on the side of the victims.
The day is also coming, when our leader will be our redeemer, Christ the King, who will reign forever and ever. To Him be the glory and the honor and the praise. Amen.