“Gather Them In”
November 25, 2007 - Christ the King Sunday
Seventy million people gathered for a religious festival in January. It was the festival of Ardh Kumbh Mela held at the Ganges River near Allahabad in India. Chanting “Long live Ganges,” millions of Hindus bathed in the river, believing that their sins were washed away and that their cycles of reincarnation were ended. It was both the largest religious gathering and the largest human gathering ever recorded.
We have a need to gather and be gathered. Besides religious assemblies we gather around Thanksgiving meals, at sports events, and in shopping malls. It comes naturally. Biologists might says it’s an evolutionary adaptation which causes us to come together for mutual protection and support. Genesis 2 records that God did not feel it was good for human beings to be alone, so He created us to be together.
The Old Testament was written at times and places in history when sheep and shepherds figured large in daily experience. Early in the human story people connected the office of a king as the guardian of his people with the work of a shepherd guarding his sheep. It was true in many ancient cultures of the middle east, but it was especially true in Israel. Throughout Scripture, human gathering is seen through the rude image of sheep—a flock with their shepherd, their king, set over them for protection.
Jeremiah wrote just before 587 B.C. The kingdom of Judah was crumbling and about to be conquered and destroyed by the neo-Babylonian empire. A succession of bad kings ruined whatever prosperity they had. Preceding our text, in chapter 22, God judged the last three kings, Shallum (or Jehoahaz), Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, who brought their nation to ruin. Now as chapter 23 opens, another bad and stupid king named Zedekiah is on the throne, appointed by the Babylonians. God called these kings “evil shepherds.” Israel is His flock, scattered by their negligence and wrongdoing. In verse 1 the Lord says, “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!”
The Lord is not only concerned with the recent history of Judah, the southern half of what used to be a unified country, but with all God’s people, the whole nation of Israel. God declares Himself the “God of Israel” in verse 2 and makes a dire play on words. The word for “bestowed care on” or attending to the sheep has both positive and negative force. It’s not easy to translate into English, but we can hear God saying to those bad kings, “Because you scattered and drove away my flock and did not take care of them, I will take care of you for the evil you have done.”
We could take these verses as a political message and start to recall all the bad leadership that has led our world or our nation astray. We could point fingers at presidents or political parties and invoke God’s judgment on them. Or we could, as some interpreters do, see this text as a warning to evil religious leaders, to pastors who are supposed to be shepherds of the Lord’s Church, but who are doing damage and scattering His people.
Yet what does it mean for you and I to be scattered sheep? “Scattered” is a pretty apt word for describing our lives. Aren’t we pushed and pulled in different directions and unable to find a center, unable to come together in any sort of cohesive way? We’re often not a flock following a shepherd. We’re scattered and sometimes frightened animals, each headed a different direction, each alone and on our own path.
Five years ago in England our family visited Blenham Palace, where Winston Churchill was born and raised. We toured this marvelous museum of art and architecture, learned something of Churchill’s upbringing, and then heard his recorded voice speaking to the British people during World War II. He galvanized and inspired not only Britain but eventually all the Allies with his famous offer of “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” ending with “let us go forward in our united strength.” He was a good leader, gathering his people.
But when we went outside, though I didn’t realize it then, our family was amused by a homely, biblical example of how easy it is to be scattered. There were a dozen or so sheep grazing on a beautiful stretch of green lawn sloping up away from the palace. Our daughter Joanna, nine then, had been pretty bored by oil paintings and tapestries and Victorian furniture, but she was fascinated by the sheep. There they stood, maybe twenty yards away, wooly and cute, and oh so enticing to a little girl. She wanted to pet one. Our usual parental caution was a bit worn out and depleted, so we agreed. Joanna and Susan set out to pet a sheep.
Beth and I watched with growing amusement as our girls attempted to approach those docile creatures. They chose one that mildly munched the clover and walked gently and slowly toward it. All was well until they came within about ten feet. Then it raised its head and simply moseyed away a few more feet and started cropping the lawn again. The girls paused and moved slower, even more quietly. Again they got within a few feet… and the sheep looked up and sauntered a little farther. Again and again that was how it went. They tried a different sheep. It was the same story. No matter how carefully they would try to sneak up on those living bundles of wool, they always moved just out of reach. Soon the girls’ efforts had pushed several sheep up the hill and across the lawn, almost away from sight. Trying to sneak up and pet the sheep was scattering the flock.
People and events sneak up in our lives and scatter our hearts and minds away from our center in the Lord. Political allegiance may move us toward or away from a candidate or an issue. More mundane realities like a mortgage sneak up on us and push us toward frantic work and anxiety. Health concerns creep upon us and we scatter toward worry and fear. A hurtful relationship forces us in the direction of anger and even revenge. And like sheep we don’t quite realize what’s going on. Something or someone is sneaking up on us and we just take a few steps, and then a few steps more, only to finally raise our heads, look around and realize how far we are from the Lord and from each other. We are scattered and we hardly know how it happened.
Then we come to verse 3 and find a beautiful word from God, “I myself with gather the remnant of my flock…” Ultimately in verse 4, God promises new shepherds, new kings for Israel, but first and foremost He announces that He Himself will be the Shepherd of His people. He will gather the flock. He will gather us.
Jeremiah was predicting the return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon before they had even been deported, the gathering of the remnant of Israel left in the ancient world. God would bring them home, give them good leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah and perhaps a king named Zerubbabel, “and they will no longer be afraid or terrified or uncared for.” God promised to be a Shepherd to His people. In verses 5 and 6, He expands that promise.
“‘The days are coming’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch…” The kings of Judah, good and bad, were descendants of David, branches of his family tree. Now God promised to raise up a new Branch, a righteous limb growing out of the trunk of David’s lineage. As you can probably tell by the capital letters in your own Bible, this righteous Branch is a better King. He “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.”
Some interpreters want to think that all Jeremiah has in mind is Zerubbabel, the man who became king when the exile ended. But most Jewish and Christian interpreters saw here a promise of Messiah, an anointed King from David’s line who would be something more than just another good king. Not just one more branch, but a truly righteous Branch. This Shepherd-King would gather all God’s people, would gather you and me.
Jeremiah loved word games. Verse 6 contains another. The present king, the last lousy king of Israel, was Zedekiah. His name meant “my righteousness is the Lord,” not a bad name, just a bad king. But Jeremiah calls the King who is the true Branch of David, “The Lord Our Righteousness.” He takes Zedekiah’s name and reverses it. The good and wise Messiah will be just the opposite of evil and foolish Zedekiah. He will not merely be righteous. He will be the Lord, and, He will be our righteousness.
We get scattered when we try to be and have our own righteousness. We want so much to believe that we are good people, that we are righteous. In a conflict, when others are obviously wrong, we hold on to our own righteousness. Someone hurts me, and I comfort myself that I’ve done nothing to deserve it. In a hurtful disagreement, at least I can know I’m right. The only truly hard thing is to admit I’m wrong, that I’m not righteous. But if He is our righteousness, then we can’t depend on our own.
The Shepherd King of Israel is the righteous Branch of David. My wife grows roses. From Beth I learned that most beautiful roses grown today are actually grafts. Growers take root stock from a hardy, but not very pretty or fragrant flower, and graft branches from bushes that have the form and color and sweet smell you really want.
You can really mess up your rose bush if you get carried away in your pruning. If you cut too deep, too low on the bush, you cut away all the beautiful, desirable plant that was grafted in, and end up left with only the tough root stock. Those roots may grow stems, but they won’t be “righteous branches.” Whatever color rose you planted, out of the roots will come only bright red flowers that are scraggly, loose circles of petals, without any aroma. That’s what it is like when God’s people, when you and I, depend on our own righteousness. We lose the benefit of what God’s righteous Branch can graft onto us, a goodness and righteousness far beyond anything we can produce by ourselves.
Today on Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the good news that Jesus Christ is the righteous Branch of David, that He is our Shepherd King, that He gathers us into God’s flock by offering us a wonderful righteousness that is not our own.
Those Indian people who came to the Ganges River in January were after the right thing. They knew better than some Americans do that they were unrighteous, that they needed to get rid of their sins. The only problem was that they came to bathe themselves in that water. They hoped to wash their sins away by their own efforts. In that, they were as confused as you and I can be as Christians.
Even if you don’t prune too low, a rose bush sometimes put out shoots, “suckers,” from the root stock. If you let them remain, they grow high and put out those ugly scarlet flowers, while sucking life from the bush at its roots, choking off the beautiful, grafted flowers you really wanted. That’s what happens when we wander from our King and Shepherd. We try to fix our own lives, to make our own hearts better, to carry out our own designs. Our successes might be gaudy and bright like the red of those root roses, but lean close and you see the drab form and catch no lovely fragrance. We end up like sheep who’ve wandered away, “afraid or terrified,” or even missing.
Unlike sheep who walk away as trouble creeps up, we need to come back to our Shepherd and to His righteousness. We must quit pretending we can make ourselves good enough. Jesus wants to graft something fresh and green into our poor, ugly roots. That’s what He did one dark morning for the man we read about in Luke 23.
As Jesus hung on the Cross, two others hung from their own crosses on either side of Him. One of them scattered away from Jesus, casting insults. But the other man turned toward Jesus and acknowledged his sin. He said he deserved his own crucifixion, but that Jesus had done nothing wrong. He knew Jesus had a righteousness he didn’t have. So he asked Jesus to remember him when He came into his kingdom. And the Shepherd King reached out even there, especially there, as He hung on the Cross, and gathered in another lost sheep, saying “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
That’s all it takes. Quit believing in your own righteousness and believe in His righteousness. “This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.” There is no water on earth in which you and I can wash away our sins by our own efforts. But Jesus, our righteous Shepherd, reaches out and gathers us in as soon as we give up trying to go our own way, give up trying make our own righteousness.
Colossians 1, verses 13 and 14, puts it one more way, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption and forgiveness of sin.” Out of darkness, Jesus gathers us into light. Forgiving us He gathers us out of the power of evil and into His righteous kingdom. We receive His righteousness, we join His flock, we grow on His branch, we become His people, and He is our king.
Jesus comes as the tender gathering Shepherd in whatever circumstances you find yourself. He found the thief even at his last moment, gasping out his final breaths as he was being executed. He finds and gathers you and me wherever we are, no matter how bad our sins or hard our lives. He is the Shepherd King, the righteous Branch of David, and all He asks is that we not walk away from Him.
Those famous preachers John and Charles Wesley had one very hard year. As they preached the kingship of Christ, people accused them of trying to overthrow the king of England. Rocks were thrown into their evangelistic meetings. John was attacked and dragged down the street by his hair. In the middle of that year, Charles published a collection of songs entitled Hymns for Times of Trouble and Persecution. One of those began, “Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim, and publish abroad his wonderful name.” In a dark time, the greatest help they found was to remember that Jesus is King. As a help in times of trouble, the last verse tells us:
Then let us adore and give him his right—
all glory and pow’r, all wisdom and might,
all honor and blessing, with angels above,
and thanks never ceasing for infinite love.
With infinite Love the Great Shepherd came down from heaven to gather us into His flock. With infinite Love, He spread out His arms on the cross so He could embrace and forgive and gather in not just the thief hanging beside Him, but those who crucified Him. With infinite Love, those same arms gather in you and me, if we only let them.
So “let us adore him and give him his right.” It’s His right, after all, His righteousness, not ours. Let us quit trying to offer our own right, our own goodness, and accept His. Then we may give it back to Him along with all the rightful honor and glory He deserves. Jesus Christ is King. May He be our King. May He be your King.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj