Follow Jesus, Our Shepherd-King

Follow Jesus, Our Shepherd-King

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sheep are not the brightest of creatures, which is probably why we in the church are often called by that name. As I’ve mentioned a couple times before in sermons, years ago a fine pastor taught me that sheep are “dirty, smelly, stubborn, and stupid.” Sounds a lot like us sinners, doesn’t it?

Unlike cattle stockyards, where the herd mentality causes the animals to follow one another in a somewhat orderly fashion through the chutes, sheep slaughterhouses often find it difficult to get them to go up the ramps and through the paths. The sheep will mill about in confusion, desperately looking for someone to follow and show them the way.

To overcome the problem, some slaughterhouses use what they call a “Judas-goat.” This goat is allowed to mingle about in the sheep pen until the sheep become acclimated to it. Then the Judas goat will walk up the ramp toward the slaughtering area. When the sheep are well on their way, this goat turns a corner and quickly gets diverted through a hidden door on the side of the ramp. The unsuspecting sheep keep going to their death.

Over the centuries, our world has seen its share of “Judas-goats.” Some come in the form of national leaders like a Hitler or a Stalin or Mao Tse-Dong. With their well polished speeches, they have led millions to follow godless philosophies and bloody and ruthless policies. But others come dressed in the robes of a preacher. Not all, of course, are like the not-even-close-to-reverend Jim Jones, who some of you will remember convinced hundreds of his faithful followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide when it became apparent his frauds were unraveling.

It is no different today than it was in Jeremiah’s day or in Jesus’ day, though. Political leaders cared little for right and wrong and did little to lead their people. Religious leaders didn’t teach people the truth about God and the plan of salvation. There always have been and always will be Judas-goats who look for naïve sheep who are confused, fearful, and ready to follow the first person who looks like they know where they are going.

Our gospel this morning says, “When [Jesus] went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And He began to teach them many things.” Jesus came to be our Shepherd. He also came to be our King. Unlike the Judas goats or faulty, fallen human leaders, we can follow Jesus in confidence, completely without fear.

I have to confess that for a lot of years I really don’t think I understood what it meant when we say that Jesus is our King. I could give the classic catechism answers, that Jesus rules in His kingdoms of Power, Grace, and Glory. The kingdom of POWER is where Jesus is the Creator King of all, and rules over the whole world for the benefit of His Church. There is the kingdom of GRACE; there Jesus is OUR king as Christians, because He rules in the hearts of those who believe in Him. And, in the kingdom of GLORY, Jesus rules from His throne in heaven and will someday gather all His people to Himself and rule His heavenly kingdom for all eternity.

Then one day I was teaching a seventh grade child a make-up confirmation lesson. I was questioning her about what it means to say that Jesus is our King. “What does Jesus do as our king?” I asked. I was expecting something with the word “rule” in it. Instead, she said, “As my king, Jesus is watching over me.”

Suddenly lights began to go on in my head. A good king just doesn’t just rule, does he? Then I remembered back to one of my seminary classes. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for shepherding a flock could also be translated to rule or govern when it was used in connection with a king or prince. A good king was not one who ruled his people for his own benefit, but for theirs. A good king was one who watched over his people, and looked out for them.

Think about why David was such a good king, most of the time. He grew up in the fields as a shepherd. He was not afraid to risk his life for his sheep—even if it meant a battle with a dangerous lion or a bear. When he became a king, David kept his shepherd’s heart. He cared for his people. He watched over his people. And this was not only in physical ways – like taking his army out to defeat the Philistines. It was also a spiritual ruling. He lovingly led the children of Israel to serve and worship the true God.

Again, it says in our gospel lesson for today: “When [Jesus] went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And He began to teach them many things.” Jesus was and is the Son of God. He was also David’s Son and had a heart like David’s, only perfected—the heart of a shepherd. Because His people were being taught wrong by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus taught them the truth. Because they needed someone to rescue them from the hands of their spiritual enemies—from sin, death, and the power of Satan—Jesus gave up his life for his people. Yes, Jesus is my King. He is also my Shepherd. He is my Shepherd-King.

Our text from Jeremiah today shows us why that’s both bad news and good news. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who tend my people: You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD.”

The kings and priests and prophets in Jeremiah’s day were not faithful shepherds. They were like the Judas-goats. They were leading God’s people astray. And God would not tolerate that! A good shepherd cannot stand by and see his sheep destroyed by some shepherd who doesn’t really care for the sheep.

And it is still bad news for lousy shepherds. I know full well that I have many limitations as a pastor, and often I am full of worries and anxieties about all my failings, but woe to me if I were teaching lies to God’s people and leading them astray. Nor would I want to be a political leader who is using his or her position to promote godless philosophies that gather confused sheep into a different pasture than God’s. For Jesus is still the King and the Shepherd of His people. He is still enthroned in heaven, watching over His flock. I would not want to be on the wrong side of my Shepherd-King when He gets angry!

But that’s good news for the sheep, isn’t it? “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 fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD.”

The children of Israel were about to be scattered as a result of the bad shepherding that had taken place in Israel. Some would end up in exile in Babylon. Others would just be scattered all over the known world. But God in heaven would not forsake them. He would be their shepherd. He would gather His scattered flock and bring them back home and give them faithful shepherds again—like Ezra, Nehemiah, Zechariah and Malachi.

But the greatest fulfillment of this prophecy came when God became man in Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd and our King. He taught His people. He died for His people. He trained His disciples and empowered them to go out in His name.

From His throne in heaven, Jesus is still our shepherd-king. Through His Church, He provides pastors and teachers and good shepherds for His people. He jealously and constantly watches over His flock. In times of temptation and danger, He stands between us and Satan. In times of weakness, He carries us in His arms. In times of death, He gathers us to his fold in heaven.

We don’t need Judas-goats. We need a shepherd. Jesus is our shepherd-king! And as our Shepherd-King, He brings righteousness to the unrighteous.

We can learn a lot about our Shepherd-King from Jeremiah. “Behold, the days are coming, declares 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 dwell securely. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD is our righteousness.”

In most modern English translations, you will notice that this name is in all capital letters. That means it represents the special name that God used for Himself in the Old Testament, the name He gave them to identify Him uniquely among the many false gods of their surrounding cultures. Sometimes it is pronounced Yahweh, or corrupted as Jehovah. It was Yahweh, the LORD, who came to Adam and Eve and promised a Savior. It was Yahweh who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. It was Yahweh who brought Israel safely to the land of Canaan. It was Yahweh who would come to save His people from sin.

Jesus is every bit Yahweh God. He is the LORD. He is the righteous branch from the line of David, the one of whom Jeremiah wrote. Mary was descended from David. So David was Jesus’ ancestor in His human nature. Yahweh became man so He could save His people from their sins.

There is another name for the Savior in our text. He is the LORD our RIGHTEOUSNESS. It’s pretty easy to understand the word righteousness. Righteousness is what a person does when he or she does what is right—that is, what we rarely do. Yet Jesus always did what was right. He never cursed or swore. He never disobeyed. He never hurt anyone. He never harbored a lustful thought in his heart. He never stole or coveted. He never doubted or worried.

Or, putting it positively, He always told the truth. He always obeyed his parents. He always put the best explanation on things He heard about His neighbor. He was always content with what He had. He always went to the synagogue on the Sabbath.

Do you get the picture? Can you fathom how difficult that would be? Jesus NEVER did anything wrong. He didn’t commit a single sin. He didn’t even commit a little sin—not even in His mind or His imagination. We do that all the time. We drive down the road just thinking about all kinds of hurtful and terrible things. There is hardly a sin we haven’t committed in our minds. But Jesus ALWAYS did what was right. He did it when he was supposed to. He did it without fail. That’s what righteousness is. He never did what was wrong and he always did what was right.

Do you find this comforting or discomforting? Well it would be very, very discomforting, if you are comparing yourself with Jesus. Jesus is righteousness. If I compare my life to His, I can only be depressed. Can God possibly want me as His child if I have to compare myself to His only-begotten Son, who NEVER did what was wrong and who ALWAYS did what was right?

There’s a very important little word in our text today. It’s in verse six. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD is our righteousness. Look at the little adjective that sits between the divine name and the divine attribute. See it? It says OUR. Jesus wasn’t a righteous shepherd and king just to show us up to be the unrighteous sinners that we are. Jesus is OUR righteousness.

If God says, “Did you keep the commandments? Did you give me the primary place in your life? Did you love me with your heart and soul and mind?” You can say, “No, Lord, I didn’t. I must confess my sins. I cannot hide them from You. But Jesus did keep the commandments. He always honored You. Even when He was dying on the cross and You forsook Him and punished Him for my sins, He still honored You. Your Word says Jesus did that for me. He is the LORD our righteousness—my righteousness. So if You ask if I have kept the First Commandment, I would have to say, ‘Yes, Jesus kept it for me!’”

There are a lot of Judas-goats out there that would love to lead you to the slaughterhouse of eternal damnation. There always have been and always will be. But Jesus is still our Shepherd and King, and always will be. He will not leave you without His leadership and support. He will not leave you without His righteousness to make you right in the sight of God. In His holy (+) name, Amen.