Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sheep & shepherd

Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

The theme connecting our readings is that of the Shepherd & the Sheep. We are well used to the idea that God the Father (according to the 23rd Psalm) or Jesus, the Son (in his parable of the Good Shepherd) is the Good Shepherd, but what it all that talk in Jeremiah of Bad Shepherds?

In the prophecy of Jeremiah, God promises that he will punish those who have been bad shepherds to his people. But who are these bad shepherds, and what do they have to do with God’s care of his people?

The years of the prophet Jeremiah's activity were the most turbulent time for the leaders of ancient Judah. Judah – the Southern half of what we think of as Israel – had always been a bit of a political football.

For many years the Assyrian  empire had been the most powerful, but now that was waning, and the Babylonian empire was on the rise.
Assyria and Egypt, who had once been rivals, now had a tenuous alliance to try, unsuccessfully to keep Babylon in check.

 All this international upheaval left the kings in the small nation of Judah with some very difficult decisions.

King Josiah had perceptively realized that Babylon would be the winner of this ancient Near Eastern battle for supremacy and actually fought for Babylon against Egypt, but he had been killed, and the kings who followed Josiah -- Jehoiakim, Jehoachin, and Zedekiah -- were in a very precarious predicament. Should they pay taxes to the new empire of Babylon, whose territory extended over a wide range and whose capital was far away?
Or should they side with Egypt in the conflict, a nation that was much closer to their own borders?
Which imperial alliance would yield the most benefit for the people of Judah? Could there even be an opportunity for Judah to stand independently of these empires, not paying taxation to either one?

Around 600 BCE, one of Judah's shepherds, Jehoiakim, chose poorly and withheld taxes from Babylon, angering the Babylonians who invaded Jerusalem shortly after Jehoiakim's death. The Babylonians took his successor, Jehoiachin, into exile with the upper class leaders of Jerusalem, and replaced him with Zedekiah. Zedekiah, however, was another bad shepherd, who by 590 BCE, decided to withhold tribute once again to Babylon, against the advice of Jeremiah.


The first two verses of the passage we head from Jeremiah address Jehoiakim's and Zedekiah's failed leadership that led to exile. A shepherd's role was to gather the sheep together and protect them. The shepherds of Judah, however, had made decisions that placed the people in peril and ultimately led to their exile.

In all this peril, God wants his people to learn to trust in him – to rely on him and not on any political allegiance to save them. So all these political leaders have been bad shepherds, and God promises that he himself will care for his flock and then will send a good and holy king – a good shepherd, to care for them.

But what has all this to so with us? We do not face our country being over-run by a foreign power or being taken off into exile and we don’t have to wonder whether we should pay our taxes or not. We live in a time of relative peace, relative prosperity, relative security. But the question of who or what to trust for our future is as relevant as ever.
Every advert you ever see will try to convince you that there is something out there which will bring you happiness and security: from double-glazing to a new car to the right chewing gum. If only we owned that thing.. if only we won the lottery.. if only we were younger-looking, or famous, or more charismatic. Then life would be better, or easier, or more complete.
But God says to us as much as he does to the battered people of Judah that we need to learn to look for the good shepherd who will help us to find what really makes life worth living – who will lead us to full and eternal life.

And of we need a shepherd, we need to acknowledge that we are just sheep in need of help. Sheep get a bad name, don’t they – all we like sheep have gone astray; we might tell children to stop behaving like sheep and learn to think for themselves; certainly looking ‘sheepish’ is not a good thing.

So how do you feel about being a sheep?

Admitting we’re sheep means admitting we don’t have the answers to life – that we cannot mange on our own – that we are weak and vulnerable and too easily take the wrong path. Then when we’re ready to accept that we are sheep, perhaps we are ready to accept that Jesus is our Good Shepherd, caring for people and looking at them with pity. Leading us, through teaching and example, to where we need to be: as the psalmist puts it, to green pasture & still water & through valley of shadow of death...cared for, fed and loved forever.

In the Gospel reading we heard how Jesus offered healing & restoration & the one word that really appeals to me REST. He calls his followers to come apart with him and rest. He is not just offering them sleep or inactivity – but rest from their concerns and worries, and a time to stop their ceaseless futile activity.
So to all who are weary, Jesus says today come aside with me, come to this table and receive what will really make your life worthwhile – my rest, my life, my love.

May we all know ourselves guided, fed and cared for by the Good Shepherd, today & always. Amen.

Saturday, 14 July 2012


Amos 7: 7-15;   Mark 6: 14-29

To be honest, I’ve had a bit of a hectic week since returning from URC General Assembly late on Monday night; involving a church path, a funeral, 2 more funerals to organize, and many more things you don’t need to know about. What I really needed was a break after Assembly – which was hard work and faced the URC with some tough choices about budget cuts and how to find God’s way forward. Of course the general Synod of the Church of England was no picnic, either – and I know Methodist Conference had a hairy time, too. I’m left feeling that Church politics is bad for your health.

And anyway, the Gospel reading seems a bit gory and unnecessary and I’m tired and ready for a holiday. So I was all ready to preach about Amos and plumblines & how God helps us to sort our lives out by showing us what is good and true and straight.
In any case I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels uncomfortable with the idea of a God who judges you – or will judge you. I am assuming that we can’t live with a simple image of a God who, if we step out of line, will punish us with illness or death. After all, we know that it is not only those who are in the wrong in life who suffer. But the image of God as judge is unavoidable in so many parts of the Bible – in the Psalms, in the prophets, in the letters of the New Testament – even Jesus in the Gospels uses the language of Judge and judgement to speak about God. So perhaps the question needs to be not ‘do you believe in God as a judge’ but instead ‘what does it mean to talk about God as judge?’ and how do we make decisions in the light of God’s judgement and God’s will?

But I couldn’t stop returning to the story of John the Baptist, and wondering why Mark tells us this story here. It’s all a bit of a digression – at this point in the Jesus story Herod is wondering whether Jesus is John the Baptist back from the dead – and then Mark tells us the story of the death of John the Baptist.

Like the plumbline of Amos, John had not been afraid to tell King Herod that he should not have married his brother’s wife, Herodias. John is true to God’s law – and Herodias doesn’t like being open to scrutiny in this way. So she tricks Herod into having John killed. Her daughter dances for Herod and so pleases him that he offers her ‘anything she wishes’ as a reward. She asks her mother what she should ask for and is told to ask Herod for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And so John is killed.

This is a terrible story of sexual impropriety and lust and greed and revenge and murder. It’s the sort of storyline we could well imagine on a TV series or in a film. It’s a terrible story because an innocent man dies and the wicked win. John speaks out for God’s truth and is chewed up & spat out by the political machinations of Herod and his court.

This is a story which tells us how the world is – was then, is now. There will always be people who will try to manipulate and cheat and lie – try to ignore what God wants, and instead seek to get their own way. Even in churches!
In the face of that kind of dangerous machination, what should we do? Should we keep our mouths firmly shut and preserve our own lives?

Would John have changed his message if he had known the risk he was taking? Probably not – we have no evidence that his message changed while he was imprisoned by Herod.

The truth is the truth – whatever the consequences are for your own safety. Accepting God as judge means believing that what you know of God should take precedence in your life. You should proclaim the truth of God’s standards for your life and the life of others – even at the danger of that life itself.

The story of John the Baptist is told at this point of the gospel because what Jesus is saying and doing has reminded Herod of John – he thinks Jesus is John come again.
Jesus, too is God’s plumbline, the measure of what it means to live a life pleasing to God – a life lived for others and without fear of what authority can (and ultimately does) do to him. Jesus came not to judge and condemn but to love and save – to show by example what a life of love looks like, and to call people to follow. If God had judged that humanity did not need this love and this example – Jesus would never have been born. God is a judge who doesn’t seek to threaten, but to seek and to save.

Jesus and John both show us that when you proclaim God's kingdom of mercy and grace there will be those who resist what you have to say – and the consequences for your own life will be costly.

People can be rotten, petty politics conumes some people’s lives, innocent people get hurt. This is the way of the world, and Mark wants to remind us of that fact.
But Mark also wants us to know that it is not the whole story. Mark makes this part of the Jesus story because he wants us to be entirely realistic about how rotten life can be but then to see that Jesus comes to show us that there is something more, something beyond the heartache and intrigue and tragedy.

So in this awful, blood-stained tale; and in all the stories of our denominational wranglings, there is amazing Good News. Jesus came to offer us not just more life, but abundant life. Jesus came to live a life not of political success and great wordly acclaim, but to lay down his life – to give himself up to the politics of his day, and then to show us that greed and lust and the desire for power will never win.

David Lose, of Luther seminary, St Paul Minnesota puts it this way:
“Jesus came so that there could be a better ending to our stories and the story of the world than we can imagine or construct on our own.”

Whatever the future of the church, whatever is pulling us down in life, when it feels that Evil is winning, 
when we’re not sure we can face another day or even another moment – here is the Good News. Jesus knows what all the rubbish of life looks like. He suffers at the hands of just the sort of plot we must detest and fear. And he says there is another ending to the story – where, at the last, the love and power of the righteous judge, God the Father, lifts up what is broken, restores life to what is laid down, and defeats death forever.

Here we have Jesus’ life laid before us in bread and wine – to inspire us to live as God requires and to strengthen us to live by God’s plumbline and to be that plumbline to others.
And as we remember Jesus we know that even death will not destroy us, for we are safe in God.

To God’s glory. Amen.