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“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 care for 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” (Jeremiah 23:1-2).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Lord declares: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!” This rebuke was not simply a question of cruel or poor animal husbandry practices. The sheep referred to by the Lord were His own chosen people. The shepherds were the rulers of Judah who had neglected their God-given duty. The Lord had placed the leaders in Judah for one purpose—to tend His flock. And He had told them how to do that: “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence… nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3).
Simple enough, right? But the shepherds had failed to tend God’s flock as He directed. Shallum, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin—one after another, each shepherd king had oppressed, robbed, and shed the innocent blood of his own people. Their wickedness and failure to provide godly leadership had destroyed and scattered God’s sheep. And God held them responsible. “Woe to the shepherds…!” He declared. “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds.”
But those evil leaders were not the only ones at fault. Evil leaders can’t do much without the support of evil followers. The way of the world is a vicious circle. Sinful people become wicked leaders, who in turn lead people into even greater sin. Eventually the people are destroyed, scattered, and driven away from God, and into sin, death, and the devil’s power. So goes the cycle of sinful shepherds and stray sheep that has been repeated over and over throughout history.
Bad leaders scatter their followers and drive them away from safety. As they’re scattered, the sheep become more frightened and terrified. They become more susceptible to the next bad leader that comes along. Looking for someone to lead them through times of turmoil and unrest, people will follow most anybody. How else do you think that someone like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, or Fidel Castro can gain control over an entire country?
That’s how cult leaders like Jim Jones or David Koresh gain a following. Lost people, like lost sheep, will follow anybody who seems to be moving them out of their current circumstances. They won’t even care what direction they’re moving, as long as they’re moving somewhere else. They’ll blindly follow any leader who promises to take them out of this confusing world, only to find themselves even more confused and lost than they were before.
The same thing happened in Jesus’ day. When God’s appointed leaders failed to tend the sheep, others moved in to take their place. Over the years, the scribes and the Pharisees became the religious teachers and rulers in Israel. Their emphasis on good works and keeping their own set of traditions had driven the people away further from the Scriptures and the promise of the Messiah.
No wonder when Jesus looked at the crowd in today’s Gospel, He saw people who were “like sheep without a shepherd.” They were scattered and facing destruction. They were in need of a faithful shepherd’s tender, loving care!
Unfortunately, not all bad leaders have been outside Christendom. The pages of church history reveal corrupt popes and bishops and pastors. Some have been more interested in accumulating money and power than tending God’s sheep. Others have misused their authority and taken advantage of the sheep within their flock. They’ve abused the very lambs they should be caring for.
It’s bad enough when leaders abuse their authority and grab for money and power. But it’s even worse when they cause followers to wander away from Christ the King. And unfortunately, that’s usually what happens.
The kings of Judah had been the ones who introduced much of the idol worship that led God’s people away from Him and toward hell. And though they would’ve shuddered at the comparison, the Pharisees and the scribes of Jesus’ day were just as dangerous. They were leading the people away from the only truth that could save them. They caused the people to look away from the promised Messiah to reliance on their own good works. They were scattering the sheep and leading them to eternal destruction.
Even today there are leaders within churches that lead God’s sheep astray. Some cause their people to doubt the truth and accuracy of Scripture, or open it up to various, individual interpretations. This makes it possible for them to ignore God’s clear commands and twist His Word to advance their own agenda. Such “shepherds” lead their people away from God’s truth and into all sorts of errors: including, as we recently witnessed in the news, the confirmation of an admitted homosexual as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Others leaders will say that following Jesus is not the only route to heaven. It’s just one of many. One Danish pastor went so far as to state publicly, “There is no heavenly God, there is no eternal life, there is no resurrection. That kind of talk never appealed to me.” And when that pastor was suspended for his remarks, his congregation staged a rally in support of him. The head of their parish council said, “If there is no place for our pastor in the church, there is no place for us either.”
Yes, bad leaders still cause God’s people to stray. They scatter them and lead them to destruction—away from God and right to the very jaws of hell. Away from the sound teaching of God’s Word to the foolishness of man’s limited reasoning and the imaginations of his own mind.
But bad shepherds are not to blame for all the problems. Bad leaders need bad followers for the cycle to continue. Unfortunately, there are plenty of both of them to go around. That’s because we’re all sinful human beings, prone to turn away from God and follow our own selfish interests. One woman put it like this: “When you get to know yourself pretty well, you realize that you’re capable of doing just about every kind of evil.”
And so, you and I are part of the problem as well. Oh, we may not outwardly murder, steal, or oppress others; but we have our own discreet ways of breaking God’s commandments and ignoring His Word. We are all by nature, stubborn and rebellious. Ever since the first man and woman revolted against God in Eden, we have no innate desire to do anything else.
We’re all Adam’s sinful followers, and if we have the opportunity to lead, we can all be sinful leaders as well. To use the imagery of our text, we’re like sheep who band together, ignore the true and trustworthy shepherd, and instead, choose a likeminded sheep to lead us.
When you consider the intelligence level of sheep, you can see why we have a problem. We’re in desperate need of a good leader to take command because we’re prone to nibbling our way to becoming lost. We scatter impulsively. Though we’d like to think ourselves to be self-reliant and independent, we’ll follow just about anybody or anything if the rest of the group seems to be moving that direction. And unless somebody steps in, the circle will continue. Sinful people become sinful leaders, who in turn help lead others into sin.
Thank God, He doesn’t leave us in our misery. He has sent us the Good Shepherd who does tend the flock. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, and then takes it up again. His voice calls us away from straying leaders. He calls us to the cross, leading us to repentance. There He forgives us and remakes us into sheep who recognize His voice and follow Him alone.
Our text tells us one of the names of this Good Shepherd: “The Lord Is Our Righteousness.” He’s called by that name because His perfect life of righteousness becomes ours through faith in Him. By grace, our Lord Jesus, exchanges our sin for His righteousness. Jesus is the only shepherd who can take a sinful shepherd or stray sheep and make him or her right before God.
That means we have hope. Week after week, we may stray into the same sins or follow the same erring voices. But the Good Shepherd calls us out of that self-destructive circle. Jesus has dealt with our sins once and for all. He lived the perfect life we could not. He paid the price for our sins on the cross with His holy and precious blood. His death and resurrection empower us to live like the people He has already declared us to be: His forgiven and loved sheep.
Being a forgiven sheep helps us to be better leaders in our own circle of influence. In our roles as parents, bosses, teachers, and so forth, we are able to emulate the Good Shepherd. We become more willing and able to help lead others to the only shepherd who can make sheep good: Jesus Christ. By the power of His holy Word, we’re enabled to speak out against those who would lead God’s sheep astray and scatter His flock.
And, having experienced forgiveness, we’re empowered to forgive others and be restored to them as well. When your kids don’t behave, when your spouse disappoints you, when the people at work turn into jerks, the voice of our Good Shepherd reminds you that He died to forgive them also.
That brings us to another circle. When our Shepherd gives us His righteousness, He places us into a new circle. From forgiven sheep come leaders who seek to follow Christ and, in turn, lead others to follow Him too.
That’s the kind of circle our text speaks about when it says, “I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any of them be missing.”
In His love and mercy, Jesus sends us shepherds who will tend the flock. We recognize them as true and faithful shepherds by what they say and do. Faithful pastors tend Jesus’ sheep with His Word and Sacrament. They do not act out of their own selfish interests or personal agendas, but simply follow the leading of the Good Shepherd.
When Jesus saw the people were like sheep without a shepherd, He dealt with their spiritual needs by teaching them His Word. Faithful pastors will do the same. They will not feed God’s flock with human notions or the errors of modern culture. They will feed the flock only with the pure Word of God—the Law that exposes our sins and convicts us of our guilt. The Gospel that reveals the forgiveness won for us by Jesus Christ on the cross.
In the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, faithful shepherds will offer Jesus’ very own absolution for confessed sins. They will pour out the cleansing water of Baptism on all of Jesus’ little lambs and give them His name. They will feed Jesus’ sheep with His true body and blood in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord God of Israel said, “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them.” What all other leaders could not do—Jesus has done for us. In His death and resurrection, Jesus the Good Shepherd, has gathered His sheep from all nations. He has placed shepherds over us so that we will be fruitful and multiply.
We need no longer be afraid or terrified. We can be certain we have forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. Our Good Shepherd, Jesus, has guaranteed them with His own life. May God grant that we follow Him only all the days of our life. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.