A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 21, 2010.
Christ the King Sunday
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the land where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
The days are surely coming, says 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. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will leave in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” Jeremiah 23:1-6 (NRSV)
Perhaps no word is used in Scripture more often and vividly than “shepherd” to describe leadership. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David were responsible for caring for flocks and herds before they became known to us as leaders of families, people, and a nation. By identifying shepherds as the model for leadership, God tells us that we need to be organized, led, and nurtured. We need to be protected from the human tendency to scatter, whether because we are distracted by our individual appetites or because we are divided from each other and our rightful place with God by threatening forces. Stragglers and wanderers need to be found and returned to the fold. Leadership involves organizing, leading, feeding, protecting, and reclaiming people.
The word “woe” always refers in Scripture to a grievous, distressful, or miserable situation. In Jeremiah 23:1 the prophet declares God’s distress about “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.” Although “shepherd” was a general term in the ancient Near East to refer to any high-ranking leader, the condemning words of verses 1 thru 3might have applied to Jehoakim and Zedekiah, Judah’s last two kings. Jeremiah tells us that they were moral and political failures, the last and perhaps worst of a line of disappointing leaders.
In this passage, the sheep are the people of Judah. Because of poor leadership, they have been conquered, dispersed from their homeland, and live in exile. God is distressed about their plight. Verse 2 blames these “shepherds” for scattering the people and ends with a solemn judgment: So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then the LORD promises to gather the flock from “all the lands where I have driven them” (verse 3) and in verses 5 and 6 to “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. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
Shepherds are all around us. Parents and other adults are shepherds of children. Employers and supervisors are shepherds of employees and work groups. Teachers are shepherds of learners. Professionals are shepherds of the people who trust them for handling their affairs. Public officials are shepherds of the people in a society. Financiers are shepherds of the funds entrusted to their management. Whenever someone is responsible for nurturing, organizing, leading, and protecting other persons or property, that person is a shepherd. Faithful and caring shepherds are blessings to a people. Uncaring and shoddy shepherds are burdens to a people and offensive to God.
And make no mistake, leaders are accountable to God for what happens to the people they lead. The rulers of Judah may have thought they were ruling in their own names, but the prophet declares that the sheep belong to God. The sheep were supposed to be nurtured in God’s pasture. God promised to deal with the shepherds who failed to protect and nurture the people. This indictment should serve as a warning to every parent, teacher, employer, public official, professional, and anyone else responsible for leadership.
• God is serious about how parents lead their children.
• God is serious about how adults lead communities.
• God is serious about how educators lead learners.
• God is serious about how public officials lead societies.
God is serious about leadership because leadership affects what happens to God’s people! The children in our homes belong to God. The workers in workplaces belong to God. The people in neighborhoods, cities, towns, states, and nations belong to God. We are God’s people, so whoever claims to lead us is accountable to God for what happens to us.
Here are a few examples that show why God has “the blues” about the leaders of our time as with those when Jeremiah’s prophecy was recorded.
• Elected officials in Washington voted last week to not extend unemployment benefits to people who have been out of work. With winter coming and unemployment rampant, millions of unemployed workers will lose the only way to pay for shelter, food, clothing, and other essentials for their families. The political leaders who blocked extending benefits to these unemployed workers claim they are concerned about the federal deficit. That professed concern somehow never prevented them from supporting the war in Iraq. It doesn’t stop them from trying to extend tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 that are set to expire at the end of this year. The vulnerable unemployed workers have the blues. Their shepherds seem unconcerned.
• The mayor of New York City recently named someone to lead the New York public school system who has no experience teaching, administering, or evaluating schools.
• Former president George W. Bush steadfastly claimed during his presidency that the United States was not torturing detainees suspected for terrorism. He’s written and is now promoting his memoir in which he admits that he authorized “enhanced interrogation” techniques for “high value” detainees that involved simulated drowning. Decent people call simulating a drowning “torture.”
• Many children do not have computers in their homes because their parents won’t buy them. But the homes have large screen television sets and video gaming systems.
If God was indignant at the leaders in Jeremiah’s time, why wouldn’t God also be offended about these and so many other situations in our time where leaders are allowing people to be made vulnerable?
God promises to bless scattered people with righteous leadership. Unrighteous leaders “destroy and scatter” God’s people. Unrighteous leaders view others as objects to be exploited, not people to be served. Unrighteous leaders treat the power of their positions as a perk rather than a trust from God. Unrighteous leaders give God and the people they lead the blues.
But God has not abandoned us. Throughout history God has provided righteous leaders for scattered people who are oppressed by unrighteous leaders. The lives of Moses, David, the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, the first century apostles, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barbara Jordan, Jimmy Carter, Mahatmas Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu show that God has not run out of shepherd people. God is not through with us. In every age and place God will provide righteous shepherds to bring people together, nurse wounds, confront menacing forces, and lead people to new fellowship with God and each other.
And in Jesus Christ, God fulfilled the promise to raise a righteous leader who will reign over humanity “as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 23:5). In Jesus, God has given us the ultimate shepherd who has shown that leadership is a call to righteous service and sacrifice to God and to others. Jesus is the Righteous Ruler, the Servant King, and the Prince of Peace that God promised. God has not only promised to provide that leadership for us, but to provide other shepherds in the model of Jesus.
But is this the leadership we want? It is one thing when we are forced to accept leadership that is oppressive and unjust. But when people freely choose to reject righteous and sacrificial leadership and prefer leaders who are unwise, unrighteous, and unjust—for wisdom, righteousness, and justice are inter-related—then the people are responsible for their own suffering. Yes, God holds leaders accountable for what happens to people. But God also holds us accountable when we reject wise, righteous, and fair leadership. God holds leaders accountable when they refuse to be faithful and righteous servants, and God holds us accountable when we insist on demanding and choosing despots instead of faithful and righteous servants for leaders.
Jesus was rejected because the people of his time did not want a servant leader. They wanted a despot. The elite of his time did not want someone who cared for the most vulnerable. They wanted someone who cared for the most influential. What happened to Jesus shows how sin warps our moral and ethical judgment about leadership. Sin makes us blind to righteous power, causes us to hunger unrighteous power, and influences us to choose leaders who are unwise, unrighteous, and unjust.
In 1980 the United States elected Ronald Reagan to the office of President and rejected Jimmy Carter’s humility, concern for human rights, commitment to social justice, sincere piety, and refusal to use his office to divide people. Much of the rejection was stirred by people who embraced a fundamentalist form of Christianity and rejected leadership that followed the example of Jesus. Thirty years later, many of the same people are bristling to do the same thing to Barack Obama that they did to Jimmy Carter. These shepherds and those following them are ignoring the lessons in Scripture about what happens when shepherds lead people to choose despotic leadership over servant leadership.
Are we following the example of Jesus as leaders of families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and communities? Are we choosing leaders who follow the example of Jesus? Does our leadership give God’s sheep the blues or does it deliver God’s blessings to them?
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.