The Sunday Next Before Advent: the Faithfulness of God
The Sunday Next Before Advent: The Faithfulness of God
Jeremiah 23:5-8 & St. John 6:5-14
by William Klock
How much do you know about the Prophet Jeremiah? We read the books attributed to the prophets, but we don’t often enough take the time to look at who wrote them, and when and why? But we can’t understand the book unless we know these things. Jeremiah is often called “the Weeping Prophet”. His was a ministry of woe. The Lord called him to his office during the reign of King Josiah, in about 626 b.c., and his ministry continued for about forty years, up to the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the beginning of the Exile. And Jeremiah was not called to preach sunshine and rainbows. Other prophets (false prophets) of the time were condemned for preaching “Peace! Peace! When there was no peace.” Jeremiah was called to preach the Lord’s coming judgment on Judah in the midst of a long string of wicked kings and national apostasy.
Jeremiah, again, began his ministry during Josiah’s reign. In contrast to those who came before and after, Josiah was a good king. He introduced reforms and called the nation to repentance and to faith. He renovated the temple in Jerusalem and purged pagan worship from the nation. He had altars to Baal torn down and pagan priests executed. He even dug up the bones of pagan priests and burned them on their pagan altars as an act of desecration. He restored the regular observance of the Passover. And as much as the Lord, through Jeremiah, acknowledge the goodness of what Josiah had done, the corruption, the idolatry, the apostasy of the nation was deeply rooted and none of it would be enough. Even as the King was doing all these good things, the message of the Prophet was still one of looming judgement. Josiah’s reforms would not last. He died fighting the Egyptians and was followed by a fairly brief series of kings who did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. The same went largely for the people of Judah. Josiah desired reform, but his people did not share his desire. Jeremiah’s prophecy announced the Lord’s coming judgement, which would culminate in a final curse of exile from the promised land. Jeremiah rebuked the kings and people of Judah for their idolatry, for their pride, for their failure to keep the Sabbath, but above all, he rebuked Judah’s unjust social, political, and economic structures. Jerusalem, announced Jeremiah in 5:1-9, had become worse than Sodom. There wasn’t a just person to be found to give the Lord a reason to spare the city from judgement.
Our Old Testament lesson begins at Jeremiah 23:5, but we get a sense of the problem if we look at the first four verses of the chapter:
“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)
The kings of Israel should have been faithful shepherds looking after the flock of Israel. Jeremiah calls to mind David, the shepherd-king. The king after God’s own heart, who, despite his great failures, still sought the Lord and his will for his people. In contrast, the leaders of Judah in Jeremiah’s day did the opposite. They abused the sheep and led them into idolatry. “Thus says the Lord,” prophesies Jeremiah ominously, “You have not attended to the sheep, so I will attend to you.” The failure of Judah’s kings would result in the scattering, the exile of the people. Israel was called to be the people who lived with the Lord in their midst, but to live in the Lord’s presence meant living according to his way and his law. Israel, from the king down, had failed. They were called to be a light to the nations, but instead, the nations mocked her saying, “Where is your God?” Judah would be judged. But it won’t end there. Look at verses 3-4:
Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.
The Lord will restore the faithful remnant of the flock and will provide faithful shepherds to care for them. Specifically, Jeremiah goes on beginning at verse 5:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 23:5-6)
The Lord will not leave his people without a just and righteous king forever. He will “raise up for David a righteous branch”. What does that mean? It’s the same imagery we recall at Christmas from Isaiah’s prophecy:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1)
The line of David, the kings who had descended from him were like a tree. It had rotted and withered and the Lord was forced to cut it down, but from that stump, to all appearance was dead, the Lord would raise up a fresh, healthy, new shoot, a branch. He would not only be a faithful shepherd of the Lord’s flock, but like David, he would rule with wisdom, justice, and righteousness. In him the people of God would be saved. And the Lord sets this king in stark contrast with Zedekiah, the last, sorry king of Judah. The name Zedekiah means “the Lord is our righteousness”. Zedekiah made a mockery of his own name. Zedekiah was a puppet king setup by the Babylonians. He was an evil and faithless man. The Lord had called his people to trust in him and never to compromise. Zedekiah represented the utter failure of Judah and her kings to trust in the Lord. They trusted in horses, they trusted in chariots, they trusted in espionage and forbidden alliances with foreign nations, and, yes, they prayed to the Lord, but they hedged their bets with sacrifices to pagan gods. But this branch of David’s line whom the Lord promised to raise up, he would truly be what the kings of Israel were called to be. He would be the one who would exemplify that statement of faith, that proclamation that “the Lord is our righteousness”. He will deliver the people of God, he will restore them to the Lord’s presence, and he will set everything to rights. In fact, what this new king will do will be so dramatic, it will become the defining event in the life of the people of God. Look at verses 7-8:
“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”
The coming king will deliver the Lord’s people. Where the old kings led them into judgement, in the coming king the faithful remnant will be vindicated and declared to be in the right. The coming king will gather the scattered people of God from the nations and restore them to his presence. And we see here that this is more than a homecoming. The deliverance and restoration brought by the coming king will redefine the people of God. Think about the significance of that. Whereas the exodus from Egypt had been, for the better part of a millennium the event that defined Israel, the event in which she was formed as a nation and gained her identity, in which she was declared to be God’s beloved, firstborn son, this new exodus will come to define this restored people in the same way. No longer will the people of God be defined by the exodus from Egypt. In future they will be defined by this new exodus by which the great shepherd-king will establish a new people gathered from the nations.
Brothers and Sisters, our Old Testament lesson today reminds us of Israel’s calling and Israel’s failure. And in the midst of Israel’s faithlessness, it reminds us of the Lord’s faithfulness. Nothing will stop his plan to set his fallen creation and fallen people to rights. When his people fail, he will send a king to set them right.
In the Old Testament we hear the promise. In the New we see the fulfilment. In today’s Gospel we read the familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand. Let’s read it again. John 6:5-14.
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
The lectionary omits the first four verses of the chapter. Because of that we miss two important details. The first is the time and the second is the place. John tells us in verse 4 that “the Passover was at hand”. Remember what the Passover was all about. Passover was the annual festival in which the Jews recalled the events of the Exodus—those events that Jeremiah points to as defining the very identity of Israel as the people of God. In the Exodus the Lord had delivered them from their Egyptian slavery, he had defeated Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, he had given them his law and the tabernacle and had taken up his dwelling in their midst, and he had led them through the wilderness. Each new generation of Jews, as they took part in the Passover meal, became participants in the events of the Exodus, in the establishing of the Lord’s covenant. This is one of three places in his Gospel, where John identifies events in the ministry of Jesus with the timing of the Passover. The other two are his cleansing of the temple and his death and resurrection. These are the events in which the Lord fulfilled his promise through Jeremiah of a new exodus and the formation of a new Israel, a new people.
The other important detail in those first verses is the place. This took place on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has led the people into the wilderness and he’s taken up his seat on a mountain. Again, John stages the story using the imagery of the Exodus. We have a great crowd of people in the wilderness. They’re hungry for supper, but there’s no food to be had. The only thing missing is the grumbling, but these people were simply hungry to hear Jesus. This time it’s Jesus who realises the people’s need, apparently before they realise it themselves.
Jesus turns to Philip and asks what’s to be done to feed all these people. Now, Philip—a good Jew whom I’m sure knew his people’s story—should have recalled the manna in the wilderness, but he wasn’t thinking of Jesus on that level just yet. Andrew, on the other hand, shows a bit more faith. He’s met a young boy who happens to have brought a little lunch: a few fish and a little bread. It might as well be nothing in light of the size of the crowd. But I don’t think Andrew would have bothered telling Jesus about this boy if he hadn’t thought that Jesus could make use of it somehow. What could Jesus possibly do with so little? The situation seemed totally impossible, and yet the Lord had provided for his hungry people in the wilderness all those centuries before. Why not again? And so Andrew gives us a hopeful sign.
Brothers and Sisters, this is how the people of God are called to respond in hopeless situations, not like the faithless kings of Jeremiah’s day, who were disobedient and put their faith in horses, chariots, foreign kings, and pagan gods. As I read of Andrew bringing that little lunch of fish and bread to Jesus, surrounded by that huge crowd and as I’m thinking of our earlier lesson from Jeremiah about the wicked kings of Judah, I’m reminded of one of Judah’s faithful kings, Hezekiah.
Hezekiah found himself in another hopeless situation. The Assyrians had besieged Jerusalem. The messenger of the Assyrian king called up to Hezekiah’s men on the walls of the city that he would destroy them and that it would be because Hezekiah had purged Judah of its altars and shrines to the Assyrian gods. The Assyrian king sent a message to Hezekiah, warning him that the Lord would not be able to deliver him. Hezekiah no doubt had advisers who saw the situation as hopeless. Some would have advised him to surrender to the Assyrians and to bow before their gods. Others would have urged him to form an alliance with the Egyptians, which would have involved their gods as well. To many, it would have seemed that Hezekiah was out of options. He knew better. The King took the message from the Assyrian king and went to the temple. There he prayed. And the Lord sent Isaiah to Hezekiah with a message of reassurance: The king of Assyria will not enter Jerusalem. “I will defend this city to save it for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (Isaiah 19:34). And that very night an angel struck down 185,000 men in the camp of the Assyrians.
Andrew now, like Hezekiah taking Sennacherib’s letter to the temple and not knowing what to do, only that the Lord would do something, Andrew now brings the boy and his lunch to Jesus. The Lord will provide. Somehow. In some way. And Jesus does just that. He took the bread, gave thanks to God, and started breaking it into pieces and somehow there was still bread in his hands as the baskets began to fill. And the same with the fish. And everyone had their fill. Just like they did in the wilderness after they’d left Egypt. And yet there’s an element of the story here that points to this new exodus that’s taking shape being even greater than the first. In the first exodus, there was no manna left over. There was always enough to satisfy the needs of the people, but if you tried to gather extra and to keep it, it rotted away and produced worms. Jesus feeds these people in the wilderness and there are twelve basketfuls left over—presumably food the people took home with them to eat and to be reminded the next day of what the Lord had done.
Now, Hezekiah’s faith came to mind as I read about Andrew, but as Jesus divided up the bread and fish, what I think would have come to the minds of the people was a different Old Testament character. John, I think, tells the story to deliberately recall the prophet Elisha and, in particular, the events of 2 Kings 4. There was a famine in the land and Isaiah had a band of followers to provide for. A man brought them twenty loaves of bread and a sack of grain, but it wasn’t nearly enough to feed Elisha’s men. That didn’t concern Elisha. He gave the sack of bread to his servant and commanded him to give to the men so that they could eat. His servant balked at that. “How can I can set this before a hundred men?” he asked. Elisha commanded him again to take it to the men and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” And, somehow, the men ate their fill and, just as the Lord had promised, there were leftovers remaining (2 King 4:42-44).
Now, back to our Gospel: The people on that mountain with Jesus put the pieces together: Passover, wilderness, bread from heaven, baskets of leftover bread. And they declare that Jesus is “the prophet who is to come into the world.” Jeremiah’s new exodus is somehow underway, with Jesus at its head. Their acclamation is taken straight from the Lord’s promise to Moses in Deuteronomy 18: “I will raise up a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I commanded him” (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). The new exodus has begun. Jesus is the prophet who was promised, a prophet like Moses, a prophet like Elisha—and yet a prophet even greater. Verse 15 says:
Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
“King” means “messiah”. Now, did the people really understand who and what the messiah was to be? No, not really. Almost no one fully understood that until after the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But that doesn’t mean the people that day, filled miraculously with bread and fish, didn’t recognise the messiah in Jesus. All the pieces were there. Here was the good shepherd who cared for the sheep when no one else would. Here was the prophet who would lead the people like Moses in the long-awaited exodus. If Jesus was those two things, then he also had to be the long-awaited branch that Jeremiah had prophesied would come from the root of David. Jesus saw the recognition dawn in their eyes and he withdrew. The time wasn’t right. This wasn’t how the Messiah was to come into his crown or to take his throne. Nevertheless, as we draw the lines that connect the promises of God in Jeremiah to their fulfilment in John’s Gospel, we should be overwhelmed by the faithfulness of God. He does what he promises.
Brothers and Sisters, the Lord invites us to his table this morning and here we again recall his faithfulness. Here, like the Jews participating in each new generation in the events of the Exodus and finding their place in the people of God, we find our manna in the wilderness, we recall and participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and are reminded that we are his people and that, just as was promised so long ago, he has delivered us from our bondage to sin and death. The sheep that were scattered, have been drawn together by the God of Israel. You and I have heard the story of God’s faithfulness. We have come to Israel’s king and submitted ourselves in faith. And now, here at his Table, we experience his faithfulness ourselves as we eat the bread and drink the wine. Here is our manna in the wilderness. Finally, having known the faithfulness of God, we’re summoned ourselves to walk in faith, trusting that the Lord will finish what he has begun, that he will do what he has promised.
In our Collect we asked the Lord to “stir up our wills”. We may have come to the end of another Church Year, but the story is hardly over. Advent is almost here and with it the reminder that Jesus is coming and that as we wait for him, he’s given his Church a mission and his own Spirit to ensure that mission is fulfilled. He has made us stewards of the good news that he is this world’s true Lord. We have our own parts to play in this story. And so we petition the Lord in faith, knowing that he is faithful to fulfil his promises. Whether it takes a hundred years or a hundred thousand years for the world to answer the king’s royal summons to faithful allegiance, he will be with us and he will equip us for every good work.
Let’s pray: Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that we may produce abundantly the fruit of good works, and receive your abundant reward, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.