The Jeremiah passage today is an interesting one from a historical perspective. In a nutshell, it highlights, yet again, God’s penchant for choosing to behave in ways that are contrary to how we would expect. Jeremiah is decrying the delinquency of the shepherds of Israel. But that does seem strange at face value. Why does Jeremiah care about the shepherds? Sure—we want shepherds to take good care of the sheep, but don’t you think that the prophet has more important things to worry about than how shepherds care for their flocks? But when we look at the historical understanding of the “shepherds of Israel,” we remember that this was a common motif, or theme, idea, or concept regarding the kings of Israel. After all, the greatest king of Israel was a shepherd boy anointed by Samuel to reign over God’s chosen people—King David. And it’s this King David who is the ancestor of Jesus, whom we call both Christ the King and the Good Shepherd.
To speak of Jesus as shepherd is to speak of him as king and to call him shepherd is to speak of him as king. It’s one and the same. The kings of Israel were understood to have responsibility over caring for the people of God as a shepherd cares for his sheep. This way of thinking of the kings of Israel traces its roots back to Jacob, a shepherd blessed by God with great herds, and even to Abraham, who came with his herds of sheep and goats from the distant land of Ur. To be a successful shepherd in the early life of God’s people meant to have a secure life that could provide not only for yourself, but for your family, and those who worked for you—servants and hired hands alike. As time went along, this notion translated over to the kings of Israel whose flock comprised all the people under their charge. It’s against this historical backdrop that we have Jeremiah’s oracle against the shepherd’s today, and where he speaks of God taking over responsibility for shepherding the people. We do well to keep that context in mind as we celebrate this day of Christ the King—or should we say, Christ the Shepherd?
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
We’re in Mr. Potter’s office, where an adviser tells Mr. Potter about how George Bailey, of Bailey Building and Loan, is cutting into Mr. Potter’s business by giving home loans to people who then move out of Mr. Potter’s apartments. So Mr. Potter devises a plan. He summons George to his office and meets with him. He offers George one of his expensive cigars, which George happily starts smoking. Mr. Potter says that he’s been able to get control of everything in town except the Building and Loan; he compliments George on keeping it afloat. And that’s when this exchange happens—
“You have beaten me, George,” Mr. Potter says, “and as anyone in this county can tell you, that takes some doing. Now take during the Depression, for instance. You and I were the only ones that kept our heads. You saved the Building and Loan; I saved all the rest.” George responds, “Yes, well, most people say you stole all the rest.” Mr. Potter doesn’t miss a beat and says, “The envious ones say that, George. The suckers. Now, I have stated my side very frankly. Now let’s look at your side.” Mr. Potter pauses momentarily for dramatic effect. He’s doing all he can to flatter George, who he desperately wants to win over. “A young man, age 27…28…,” he says. “Married, making, say, $40 a week.” George vehemently corrects him, “Forty-five!” Mr. Potter takes the correction in stride, “Forty-five. $45 a week. Out of which, after supporting your mother and paying your bills, you’re able to keep, say, ten, if you skimp. A child or two comes along and you won’t even be able to save the ten. Now, if this young man of 28 was a common, ordinary yokel, I’d say he was doing fine. But George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He is an intelligent, smart, ambitious, young man who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out of this small town and on his own ever since he was born. A young man…the smartest one in the crowd, mind you…A young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places because he’s trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into this small town and frittering his life away, playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters.”
A sucker—not someone you want to be. A common, ordinary yokel. A gullible or easily deceived person, someone taken advantage of, someone easily tricked or fooled by those who are smarter, wiser. Someone in a small town, frittering their life away, playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters. It’s not a wonderful life for a sucker. It’s not good to be a sucker.
Yet Jesus was a sucker. Jesus was by all accounts the opposite of everything expected of the messiah, the anointed one of God to redeem us. He was born to poor people, and not only that—he was born among dirty barnyard animals. In fact, to say that he was a born at all, a human being, is the exact opposite of what one expects from God-with-us. When God chooses to come among us, we don’t expect him to come as a newborn baby, helpless to the world, utterly and completely dependent on a poor carpenter and woman impregnated out of wedlock.
No—we’d expect a mighty warrior to descend from the sky upon a white stallion, perhaps akin to Chrysaor holding his golden sword high atop his winged brother Pegasus, ready to slay all our enemies on behalf. But Jesus isn’t any of that. Jesus isn’t a mighty knight who descends with his victory in shining armor from the sky. He’s not a king come bedecked in dazzling gold, but instead he’s another ordinary human being, like you and like me, who’s come not to be served, but to serve.
Yet it is this Jesus who is the anointed servant of God, who grew up before God—like a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There wasn’t anything distinguishing about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look. In fact, throughout his life, and especially during his ministry, he was looked down on and scorned by the powerful, influential, and estimable—those people in society wanted to be like.
But that’s not what made Jesus a real sucker. He kept going about, teaching and preaching the good news of God’s kingdom, the message that destroys sin itself—that goodness is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, that light is stronger than darkness, that life is stronger than death—and it got him into trouble, big trouble. He became a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. Even those who had come to follow him about and were attracted to his message of peace, reconciliation, and love were conned by the powerful and influential against him. They quickly came to look down on him and regarded him scum. Like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost, those who had first followed him abandoned him and like a lamb taken to be slaughtered, like a sheep being sheared, he was taken off. He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word. He took it all in silence. People derided him and accused him of bringing it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures. They thought him a sucker. But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. It was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and it’s by his stripes, by his wounds we are healed. God piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong or that stands in the way of wholeness of relationship with him, on Jesus—on him.
He died despite what it meant for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of his people. They killed, ignominiously, with the wicked, bare naked for the world to behold. And they buried him in a stranger’s grave, threw him in a grave not even ready for a burial—even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true. All because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch, because he embraced the company of the lowest. He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many; he took up the cause of all the black sheep.
By conventional wisdom, Jesus was a sucker.
And it’s this sucker we call our king—Christ our King. How can that be? He did God’s bidding. God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world into obedience, but to win the victory for us over sin, death, and evil through the strength of goodness, the passion of love, the clearness of light, and the power of life. God’s plan was that Jesus give himself, that God give his very own self, man divine and God incarnate, as an offering for sin, as restoration for anything and everything that corrupts God’s design for creation, so that we’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life. And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him. Out of that terrible travail, inflicted upon him for our sake, and in his magnificent resurrection to life again, we see that what true glory looks like, what true power is, what true strength is, and what true victory is.
By his life lived for us and for our sake, we are sucked into Jesus’ way of living. By his life given up completely for our sake, we are sucked into Jesus’ love for all creation. By his resurrection to newness of life, we are sucked into his promise that nothing will separate us from the love of God—not even death will thwart God’s desire. Jesus is a sucker. He sucks us into his own life, a life lived in loving devotion to the world that God so loved to become part of it, with you and with me and all the rest of creation, with those we know and those don’t know alike, that we like him might live lives not expecting to be served but to serve. For by our living in Christ, we become followers of his way of living. We become subjects of God’s kingdom, where Jesus reigns not with in conceited splendor and a violent gavel, but with true wisdom, true power, and true love and a crown of sorrowful thorns pressed into his forehead. We become suckers for Jesus, ready to devote our own lives in loving obedience to God’s design for life as Jesus devoted his own to us, that just as we are sucked into the fullness of God’s love by Jesus, others might come to be sucked into the joy, peace, and contentment we’ve come to know.
Jesus is a different kind of king. He isn’t out to win accolades or to amass prestige or to prove how intelligent, smart, and ambitious he is. He’s a different kind of king, not from the lofty heights of heaven or some a grand city with broad avenues and lush fountains, but from a small town in the middle of a desert. He’s a different kind of king who cares for the wellbeing of those under his charge—who cares for you, cares for you who’ve been sucked in by his message of compassion, joy, kindness, gentleness, tolerance, generosity, fidelity, and peace that surpasses understanding. Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus is a sucker—one whose ways by all accounts are scorned by the wisdom of the world but whom we can’t help but getting sucked into believing, obeying, and following.
Long live the king! Long live Christ the King, a different kind of king, the sucker who came not to be served, but to give his life for our sake, that we like him, might serve as he served us, sucking the world around us into God’s kingdom of love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.