The Old Testament lesson from the lectionary this week is from Jeremiah 23:1-6. In the first two verses, God gives a stern “Woe” to Judah’s leaders, accusing them of driving God’s flock away.
The former shepherds in question are the kings of Judah who have failed to protect the flock. In the previous chapters, Jeremiah lists their many shortcomings, which include failing to execute justice and even being agents of oppression themselves.
We see this theme of shepherds caring for their flock in many passages. Jesus even calls himself a shepherd. We hear parables about leaving the ninety-nine to find the lost sheep. The shepherd protects. The shepherd provides. The shepherd keeps.
These kings were not good shepherds. They preyed like wolves on the weak and the less fortunate. They used their positions of power and influence for their own gains instead of for the benefit of their people.
God calls them out for it.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.”
We can hear these words as warnings to us today. We live in a country where wealth and power are hoarded instead of shared. People jockey for control for their own ends instead of for the benefit of all. We do these things while the least among us, the lost sheep, continue to suffer injustice and oppression.
The prophet doesn’t leave us with the woe. In verses 3-6, God shares a plan to fix the situation. God will take charge and be our shepherd. Instead of handing down judgement for the failed shepherds, God is moved by compassion for the lost sheep.
Now we hear the song of Zechariah, the old priest, remembering these promises and seeing them come to fulfillment in the Annunciation at the beginning of Luke.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us
that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
In Jesus, God comes to us in the flesh. Jesus comes, not to affirm our worldviews or our politics, but to rescue the oppressed. We might want to claim Jesus for ourselves, but we rarely see Jesus rescuing the religious majority of his day.
As Advent approaches, we would do well to remember God’s “Woe” to the kings. We might need to understand that our role as Christians is not to grasp at more power or authority, but to make space for the lost sheep to return to the flock.