Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Sermon for 20 November 2016 - Three Prophecies

Jeremiah 23:1-6
This morning we are going to spend some time looking at the passage we heard read from Jeremiah – it would help me if you had your Bibles open in front of you, so you can follow along, as we look at the text - It is quite rare for me to preach on the Old Testament, and so this morning has provided me with a great opportunity to think a little bit about those books in the first part of our Bibles, those stories that deal with God and his people Israel. Jeremiah, who we heard from this morning, comes from over two and a half thousand years ago – a time when God’s people, Israel, were under threat. Pagan kings were invading, or threatening to invade; the people charged with looking after God’s people were not making the right decisions; and God’s people were not living right. Things were chaotic.
Jeremiah was a prophet; it is worth thinking a little bit about what that means – we have a lot of books in the Bible that fall into this group ‘prophecy’. But what does it mean? Often we think of prophecy as something mysterious, it isn’t that. Sometimes we think of prophecy as foretelling the future, it is sometimes that; how are we to understand it?

The prophets were men (and women) who spoke God’s Word, to God’s people, at God’s command.

However, almost without exception, the people do not understand, or they think that a big plan of God is about something very small and parochial. And so we come to our passage today. We will look at three short prophecies within this text, and ask what God is saying.

Three short prophecies
: Judgement - Mercy - Jesus

 First prophecy: vv1-2: Judgement
Lets hear those words from Jeremiah again:
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord.

“Woe to the shepherds!” This is serious stuff! We hear, by the mouth of the prophet, God cursing those “shepherds who are destroying” his people.  Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to them – God is clear about the demands he places on those who would lead – we see something very similar in the New Testament when Jesus uses this word “woe” himself, announcing God’s displeasure at those Teachers of the Law, who (instead of helping) make things worse for God’s People. God has charged those in government and religious leadership with a high calling, because he cases so deeply for his people.  God loves his people, and he demands that those who lead must love them too. Love them enough to lead them well; love them enough to teach the Word of God.

This isn’t to completely exonerate the people, though! Although it is the leaders who led astray, the people went willingly, and so bring judgement upon themselves. Yet, in God’s economy, those who lead must bear a greater part of the responsibility. Speaking these words sends shivers down my spine – every time I stand up here, I ask you to trust me – I put myself under the judgement of God. We don’t have to look far to see leaders who put their own interests above the interests of those who they are called to serve – we can think of people in business, local politics, the church, or world leaders. They bear a heavy mantle, and so it is essential that we remember to pray for them.

And so, in this opening prophecy, we hear that God has set himself against the shepherds who misled the flock – and they are to be punished. The punishment that we hear of here is probably the punishment that God sent by the Babylonians, who invaded Israel and led God’s people away captive into exile. The prophet understands something of the bigger picture – the dreadful stuff that is going on, the invasions we thought about a moment ago, are all part of God’s plan for his people – everything is happening because God loves his people. Woe to the shepherds.

The second prophecy: vv3-4:  Mercy
We turn in our Bibles to verses 3&4, which we will read in a moment, we pause and think about God’s loving judgement, his loving anger at sin, and at those who seek to do harm, those who abandon their duties. Yet – that’s not the end of the story, Verses 3 & 4 say:
3“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.
Here, we see God’s mercy, his love for his people take a different shape. God’s wrath and anger at the nation’s sin is poured out, and his purposes complete. Although nothing compelled him, he relented, and act of pure gracious love; his inexhaustible love. His deep, caring love for his people. God promises to bring his people, his remnant home. Although it was at his hand that the people were scattered for their sins, the consequence of their actions, it is God who brings them home.
It was God’s love that drove them away; as his love could not bear the mistreatment of his people, the bad leadership, and open the sin forever. God had to act, and he acted decisively by raising up foreign leaders, and permitting them to wage war – but only for a time.
‘Only for a time’ because it was God’s love that brings his people home again. Not merely home to ruins, desolation, and slavery, however. God brings his flock home so they can flourish, be fruitful, and increase in number. God wants good things for his people, because he loves them. For those who first heard these words, the Jews, this prophecy sounded like a promise to return to the Holy Land, to have new priests, and to have big families. Now, there is truth in that – as we see when the Jews return from exile – but for us as Christians the full picture is a bit different; as we will see – our understanding of blessing ties into who Jesus is, and what he did, and does, for us.

Third prophecy: vv5-6: Jesus
Finally we come to the third section of our passage this morning – the place where it all comes together. We have seen how God’s love for his people results in anger at sin, and bad leadership. We have thought about how God’s mercy and faithfulness to his people, and we recognised that, for the Church, God’s mercy and faithfulness expressed in Jesus. And so we read verses 5 & 6:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will raise up for David[
a] a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
    and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
    and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
    The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.
A few moments ago we thought about what the promises of God were understood to mean by some of those who first heard them; but now, with this promise of a King – the messiah – Jesus – King David’s heir, we can think about what those promises mean for us, God’s people, the church – those who respond in faith to the claims of Jesus.

We thought about ‘returning home’ and yet as Christians we recognise that we are truly home only in Jesus. We thought about the new priests to replace the evil leaders, but as Christians we know that our true priest -our true shepherd- is Jesus. And we thought about the growth of families, but for the church, our true family in Jesus – and it grows as we welcome people to respond in faith to Jesus.

God says that his people will no longer be afraid, or terrified – and we know that since Jesus has triumphed over death there is now no fear – even in the grave for those who are God’s people. We can see how Jesus, in this final prophecy fulfils God’s promised blessing for us- however- we need to delve deeper.

Jesus is the mercy of God, because in him, and in his cross, we see the judgement of God poured out against sin. Jesus fulfils the first prophecy, too. He was punished for our transgressions, for our sins. Jesus died to take the punishment for the sins of his people. The good Shepherd suffering like a wicked Shepherd, and prays “Father, forgive”. In Jesus, and only in Jesus do we see the love of God for his people displayed in perfect just judgement, and abounding gracious mercy.

To Conclude – We have thought about God’s love being shown in his judgement, and in his mercy – but these two come together perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. I want us to think about whether we know that love of God, which wrought in judgement and mercy at the cross, brings us blessing, and saves us from fear – even fear of death. How can we know it? We can know, because in the words of Scripture he calls to us - warns us – loves us. So, let’s take that love upon ourselves, and offer ourselves and our lives in response.

Amen

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