On Saving the Sheep!

On Saving the Sheep!

I grew up in a public school system in New Jersey that, looking back, I believe was quite ahead of its time in being so environmentally conscious. I still remember a class field trip, when I was about ten years old, in which they took us to the Great Swamp National Refuge where we were taught about ecosystems and the many ways that organisms are interconnected and interact with each other and their physical environment for survival. Early on I learned the value of respecting and valuing the world of nature as signs throughout the refuge reminded us, “Take only pictures; leave only footprints.” Since then, nature lover that I am, I’ve been struck by the various animals that environmentalists have drawn our attention to with their slogans:

Save the seals!

Save the whales!

Save the bald eagles!

Save the rhinos!

Save the elephants!

Save the spotted owls!

Now though this early introduction to caring for our environment was impressed upon me long before I became a Christian, once I came to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ I learned that caring for this earth is in fact part of the command given by God to Adam and Eve. We find this in the creation mandate near the end of the first chapter in Genesis in which God blessed our first parents and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”[1] Because ruling and caring for God’s earth is part of the reason why you and I were made and placed by him to live upon this earth, it’s appropriate to view saving the earth and its many critters as part of our God-given mandate and responsibility.

Well the focus of our morning’s passage is similarly upon saving a precious part of God’s creation. Jeremiah, who was one of God’s prophets living about 600 years prior to the coming of Christ, used the metaphor of sheep as a way of bringing home the point that God loves those who are his. He loves his sheep and has a deep desire to save them. As stated in the opening verses of Psalm 100 from which our responsive reading was taken in our opening Call to Worship, we, God’s people, are told to

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.

All who know and love and serve God are his people, the sheep of his pasture. And we are to give thanks to him and praise him because he is good and his love endures forever. We see not only in this psalm but throughout Scripture that God’s sheep have a very special in his heart.

Yet what we find in our brief passage from Jeremiah 23 is that God’s shepherds, the leaders called by God to care for his people, his sheep, are acting in wicked ways. Therefore the LORD declares by way of his prophet in verse 1, “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!”[2] Rather than building up his sheep, these shepherds, again, rulers appointed by God to care for his people, were destroying them; rather than gathering together his sheep, these shepherds were scattering them. “Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people.” As stated in verse 2, “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.”[3] Such callous disregard for the sheep that are in their charge—such scattering and driving the sheep away rather than caring for them as they were supposed to do—would result in the LORD punishing these shepherds for their wicked behavior.[4] Their ungodly, unholy behavior had not gone unnoticed by God.

And not only will he punish those who have acted in such callous ways but, more importantly, he will not leave his sheep desolate and alone. No, as the LORD states starting in verse 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.”[5] This image of fruitfulness is reminiscent of the creation mandate mentioned earlier. Though the sheep may be far-flung and few, this remnant will again “be fruitful and increase in number.” For nothing, not even the behavior of the evil shepherds, is outside of God’s sovereign will and care. And notice how in verses two and three the mystery of human responsibility and divine providence have been placed side-by-side: Though verse 2 states that it is the shepherds who have scattered God’s flock and driven them away, verse 3 notes that it is God, too, has driven them out, and will bring them back to pasture. To state it another way, nothing that occurs in our lives lies outside of or beyond God’s sovereignty and care. And make no mistake: it is the Lord’s sovereign will that will win out in the end for he will gather this remnant and “bring them back to their pasture where they will be fruitful and increase in number.” God will bring his sheep back to their fold. And not only that, but as stated in verse 4, he will place new shepherds, new leaders, over them “who will tend them.”[6] These new shepherds, unlike the earlier evil ones, will take care of the LORD’s flock. And when they do, the regathered sheep “will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.” This is what the LORD has declared; therefore this is what will one day come to pass.

What is more, the LORD further declares, as recorded beginning in verse 5, “The days are coming when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.”[7] Branch is, of course, a Messianic title used not only by Jeremiah but by the prophets Isaiah[8] and Zechariah[9] as well. And the promise of this Branch, of this heir, was originally given David by the LORD about 400 years before Jeremiah’s time by way of the prophet Nathan who said to David, “12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”[10] As we know this promise was initially and provisionally fulfilled in David’s son, Solomon, but it was ultimately fulfilled in the birth of Christ Jesus, the eternal King who inaugurated his eternal kingdom when he came to earth.

So, again, returning to Jeremiah, not only will the LORD gather the sheep back into his fold and place responsible shepherds over them, but he will also provide them with “a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.” This righteous King, this Shepherd, will be the polar opposite of the wicked shepherds with which our passage began. For in the days when that King arrives, verse 6, “Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.” In other words, all of God’s people, a remnant from both the southern and northern kingdoms, respectively, “will live in safety,” no longer divided but now once again united as they had once been under David’s rule. In fact this reunification of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah will mark the arrival of the messianic age when, as the LORD promised by way of Ezekiel, his prophet, “I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms.”[11] And whereas by the time that the Messiah, the Christ, arrived both of these kingdoms will have endured many human kings—some good but many who were like the destructive shepherds who were evil—the King that the LORD will send them will be called, “The Lord Our Righteous Savior,” which is to say, the LORD himself will be their King.

Well approximately 600 years after the LORD spoke these words by way of his servant Jeremiah, the promised Righteous Savior and King did indeed arrive. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, prophesied about this King as he “was filled with the Holy Spirit.”[12] As we heard read for us earlier, Zechariah began by proclaiming in verse 68 of Luke 1, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.” Zechariah praised God for

now was the time when Jeremiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled;

now was the time when the promised King had arrived;

now was the time when the “LORD Our Righteous Savior” would inaugurate his rule;

now was the time when the redemption of God’s remnant had begun. Therefore Zechariah praised the Lord because, verses 69–70, “69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago).” And it’s a shame that verse 70 has been made a parenthetical note because the fact that God had kept his promise is awesome, not parenthetical! That the one who has been raised up is the aforementioned King of Jeremiah is made evident by the fact that he is referred to as “a horn,” symbolizing his strength. And as also foretold, this horn, this Righteous Branch, was raised up from the house of David. As noted by Matthew in the opening verse of his Gospel, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.”[13]

This righteous Branch, this wise and just King, this One who is the LORD our Righteous Savior, arrived in form of Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, as a babe in a manger in Zechariah’s day. And the reason he arrived was to deliver those who are his from their enemies. As stated in verse 71, he came to bring

“salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us”—just as he had promised through Jeremiah. And he came, verse 72,

“to show mercy to our ancestors,” which ancestors had not been forgotten by the LORD despite their having been scattered abroad far and wide. And he came

“to remember his holy covenant.”

And what was that holy covenant? As stated in verses 73–75 his holy covenant was “73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” As we know, this oath to Abraham was made at the time of his calling when the LORD promised not only to make of him a great nation—that nation being Israel—but also to bless all nations through him.[14] Therefore the height and depth and breadth of this covenant came to include any and all who acknowledge the LORD their Maker as their Redeemer. These are the ones whom he’ll rescue from their enemies and enable to serve him in holiness, righteousness, and without fear all of their days.

We also know, of course, that John the Baptist had a unique role in the ministry of Jesus as one going before him to prepare the way of salvation. This is precisely what Zechariah, his father, went on to prophesy to his infant boy starting in verse 76, “76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”[15] In these words we see that John the Baptist was called by God to tell his formerly scattered sheep about the salvation and forgiveness from their sins that his Son, the Righteous King, had arrived to bring them. None of this was due to merit but solely to “the tender mercy of our God,” the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. This gracious LORD had such deep compassion on his people that he sent them his very Son to die in their stead. His Son, Christ Jesus, came as the Righteous King who would later testify concerning himself that he is indeed the promised light of the world, reiterating what Zechariah was here prophesying by stating, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[16] Jesus Christ was then and is now and will ever be the eternal light who has come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”[17]

For Jesus knows and loves his sheep who are living in darkness and are afraid;

He knows and loves his sheep who are living in the shadow of death and desperately want to live;

He knows and loves his sheep who are living in a time of turmoil and desperately want peace. And the good news is that for those who are living in darkness—and in the shadow of death—and in turmoil, Jesus Christ, a righteous Branch, a wise and just King, the LORD our Righteous Savior has arrived. He has arrived as a Shepherd King that we might no longer be afraid or terrified, as the LORD foretold by his servant Jeremiah, for he has come to save us and deliver us from our enemies.

In fact if we were to assign to Jesus a campaign slogan—though probably not an advisable thing to do!—it might very well be, “Save the sheep!” For saving the sheep, saving us, is why he came and gave his life. As he said concerning himself in John 10,

Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture…. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. 14 I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.[18]

Jesus knew, as Isaiah prophesied, that “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;” Therefore “…the Lord has laid on him,” that is, Jesus, his Son, “the iniquity of us all.He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, he did not open his mouth.”[19]

Dear brothers and sisters, our precious LORD Christ Jesus desires to save his sheep so much that he came to earth as a righteous Branch from the tree of David;

our precious LORD Christ Jesus desires to save his sheep so much that he came to earth, born a King, to reign wisely and do what is just and right;

our precious LORD Christ Jesus desires to save his sheep so much that he came to earth to redeem us and rescue us from the hand of our enemies—from sin, and from the devil and all evil, and even from death;

our precious LORD Christ Jesus desires to save his sheep so much that he came to earth to express the tender mercy of our God as a light to shine on all who are living in darkness and the shadow of death to guide our feet into the path of peace;

our precious LORD Christ Jesus desires to save his sheep so much that he came to earth and became a sacrificial sheep himself, laying down his life on our behalf, taking upon himself the iniquity of us all;

So let us thank our Shepherd King;

Let us sing his praises this morning and always;

Let us remember his tender mercy and goodness and grace;

And let us join with him in the task of Saving the Sheep that others who bear his image, who may know him as their Creator, may come to know him as their Redeemer and LORD!

Let us pray.

[1] Genesis 1:28.

[2] See also Jeremiah 50:6–7: 6 “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place. 7 Whoever found them devoured them; their enemies said, ‘We are not guilty, for they sinned against the Lord, their verdant pasture, the Lord, the hope of their ancestors.’

[3] See also Jeremiah 10:21: The shepherds are senseless and do not inquire of the Lord; so they do not prosper and all their flock is scattered.

[4] See also Jeremiah 22:22: The wind will drive all your shepherds away, and your allies will go into exile. Then you will be ashamed and disgraced because of all your wickedness.; Ezekiel 34:10: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.

[5] See also Ezekiel 34:11–13: 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land.

[6] See also Jeremiah 3:15: Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.

[7] This prophesy is restated again in Jeremiah 33:14–16: 14 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”

[8] See, e.g., Isaiah 4:2: In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel.; Isaiah 11:1–3: 1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

[9] Zechariah 3:8: Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch.

[10] 2 Samuel 7:12–13.

[11] Ezekiel 37:22. See in context, Ezekiel 37:15–22: 15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’ 17 Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand. 18 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ 19 say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’ 20 Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on 21 and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms.; See also Jeremiah 50:4–5: “In those days, at that time,” declares the Lord, “the people of Israel and the people of Judah together will go in tears to seek the Lord their God. They will ask the way to Zion and turn their faces toward it. They will come and bind themselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant that will not be forgotten.; Micah 2:12–13: 12 “I will surely gather all of you, Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. 13 The One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their King will pass through before them, the Lord at their head.”

[12] Luke 1:67: His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

[13] Matthew 1:1. See also John 1:39: Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

[14] Genesis 12:1–3: 1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This covenant is reinforced later when the LORD changes Abram’s name to Abraham as recorded in Genesis 17:1–7: 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”

[15] This is in fulfillment of Malachi 4:2: But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.

[16] John 8:12: 12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

[17] This is in fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1–2: 1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. See Matthew 4:12–17 which references this passage: 12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

[18] John 10:7–9, 11, 14–15.

[19] Isaiah 53:6–7.