Jeremiah 23-A Righteous Branch and Unrighteous Prophets | Sign of the Rose

A sermon on Jeremiah 22 and 23 by Richard Keith on Sunday 6 August 2023

The events I am about to describe happened when I was much, much younger and much, much stupider. Nothing like this is ever likely to happen again. The problem was that I was a very inexperienced gardener. I was 22 years old. I had only recently moved out of home. I was just a boy, a child. Was it really my fault? Personally, I blame the parents.

The problem was that a bush beside the driveway had grown so much that its branches were scraping the car as it went past. I decided to give the bush a prune. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was told to do it, so it can’t be my fault.

I was very enthusiastic with my pruning. I cut it back hard wanting to allow it some room to grow back and to be still out of the way of the car. You see, I meant well. And that should count for something.

The problem was that this bush growing beside the driveway turned out to be a small ornamental pine tree. And the problem with pine trees like all conifers: is that once you cut off the growing tip of a branch it doesn’t grow back.  So they can only tolerate a very, very small amount of pruning, more like sculpting than pruning, because whatever shape you cut them to, it will stay like that forever.

I thought I was pruning it, but I actually vandalised it. It was so ugly that I might as well have cut it to the ground. Because when you cut a pine and leave a stump. It doesn’t grow back. You’ve killed it. Forever. You don’t even have to remove the stump. They will turn to compost right where they are.

But many other kinds of trees will grow back from a stump. Deciduous trees and eucalypts send out new shoots from the stump. Cutting them back, even to ground level, isn’t enough to kill them while there is still life in the roots. If you don’t uproot them completely, they will come back even more vigorous than before.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been following the covenants in the Bible. More specifically, we’ve been looking at the prophet Jeremiah for the last three weeks. Jeremiah had a hard message for the people of Israel. If you imagine that this nation of Israel was like a tree planted in the promised land, then this tree had become sick and diseased and only bore small bitter fruits. It had grown so ugly and deformed and had become such a danger to others that God had planned to prune it back savagely. Cutting it down level with the ground. Its institutions, its leaders and many of its people had to go. Their country was invaded by the Babylonians, and many were sent into exile. It was like cutting it down to just a stump.

But God refused to uproot his people forever. If he had then Israel would just have disappeared from history like many other nations before. Instead, behind Jeremiah’s words of judgment shines a message of hope.

Today we are looking at Jeremiah chapters 22 and 23. In chapter 22 we learn why the tree of Israel had to be cut down. But in chapter 23 we learn why it would grow back.

In chapter 22, for example, we learn that at the heart of Israel’s problems was corrupt leadership. Through his prophet, the Lord proclaimed to his people in verse 10,

Do not weep for the dead king or mourn his loss.

The dead king was Josiah. The only king in all of Israel’s history who lived up to his ancestor David’s example. The only king who loved the Lord, who obeyed his word without any deviation. Josiah ruled as king for thirty one years, instituting reform after reform to turn the nation back to the Lord after generations of neglect and indifference. Bringing them back to their roots of loving the Lord with all their heart, and of loving their neighbour as themselves.

If anyone could have turned back the rising tide of greed and injustice and idolatry, it was Josiah. But at the age of 39 he died in battle, leading Israel’s army against the Egyptians. The Bible says of him

Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did – with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the law of Moses.

Israel certainly needed a king like Josiah. Three of his sons, and one of his grandsons ruled after him. But none were a patch on Josiah. And 22 years after Josiah died, the nation of Israel died too. Jerusalem captured. The temple burned to the ground. The people taken away into exile.

Do not weep for the dead king or mourn his loss,” said the Lord. Don’t cry for him. He was a hero. He was a great man of God. He died defending his people. Don’t feel sorry for him. He has received his reward.

Rather, weep bitterly for him who is exiled.

The verse here refers to Josiah’s son Shallum. Josiah had died fighting the Egyptians. His son Shallum became king, but only lasted three months. The Egyptians captured him and took him to Egypt. Shallum’s fate, to live and eventually to die in exile, foretold the future of the whole nation.

Weep bitterly for him who is exiled, because he will never return nor see his native land again.

It was an invitation to the people of Israel to weep for themselves.

The Egyptians replaced Shallum with his brother Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim is the subject of the prophecies in verses 13 to 19. Like the closing address of the court prosecutor to the jury these verses detail his crimes against the Lord and against his people.

Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour.

There’s a word for making people work without paying them. It’s called slavery. Jehoiakim was treating his people like slaves like they’d been in Egypt all those centuries ago before the Lord rescued them.

But the Lord hadn’t rescued them just to be treated the same way by their own king, in their own land, building his palaces while he paid them nothing.

Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?

the prophet asked him in verse 15. A great palace with double stories made out of the best wood and decorated with red. Does this make you a king to live in luxury, to drink your soup with a silver spoon while your people have nothing? Does it make you a king to have all the trappings of power but not the wisdom to use it right? Does it make you a king to have more than you need, while the poor have less?

Did not your father have food and drink?

the prophet asked. Josiah, of course. Josiah was the father of every king. Israel was going through kings like a celebrity goes through marriages. Did not your father have food and drink? Meaning that Josiah had been content to have what he needed. Meaning that Josiah had the wisdom to know that being a king wasn’t about wearing a crown and sitting on a throne and living in a palace.

He did what was right and just. He defended the cause of the poor and needy. Is that not what it means to know me? declares the Lord.

This is what it meant to be the king. This is what it meant to be the leader of God’s people. This is what it meant to have authority and not just power. It means to know God and to use your power to defend the powerless. By that measure Jehoiakim fell far short. As verse 17 says,

But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.

These are the sins of Israel’s leaders. Greed. Corruption. Oppression. Murder. Theft and extortion. Using power, not to defend, but to attack the powerless. Trading the knowledge of God and of his will, for temporary profits. These were the leaders under which Israel suffered. These were the men who had risen to the top. These were the men who were in charge at the time of Israel’s greatest need. And the whole lot of them were as rotten as a sick and dying tree standing in the front yard about to topple and fall. So the Lord had planned the most savage, the most vicious tree surgery. The whole lot would be lopped. Cut down to the stump.

In Jeremiah chapter 23 the Lord compares these kings with lazy shepherds. Shepherds who forget that they are just employees. Shepherds who start believing that the sheep belong to them, that they can do what they like with them. Shepherds who don’t care for them, who don’t feed them, who don’t protect them, but butcher them and scatter them.

But the sheep do not belong to the shepherds. The Lord makes that clear in verses 1 and 2. The people are the sheep of his pasture. He is the Lord, the God of Israel. They are his people, his flock. But the shepherds had forgotten. And the Lord laid the blame for all the terrible consequences of his judgment – war, siege, death, destruction and exile – fairly and squarely on Israel’s kings and leaders.

But the death of the kings, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the survivors was not the end that God has planned. All these things were swept aside, but only because the Lord had something better in mind. The tree of Israel was cut down. Cut down to the stump. But he wasn’t going to dig up the roots or poison them so they would disappear forever. Instead there was still life in the roots and the tree would regrow.

And the life in the roots was the promise of God to David centuries before, recorded in 2 Samuel chapter 7.

The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

For the Lord to go back on this promise would be to break his word. And God is not a human being to say one thing and mean another. He does not make rash oaths and then not be able to pull it off. He is the Lord who created all things by his almighty word. His word sustains the reality of all things. His word became flesh in the birth of our Lord Jesus. So nothing is more reliable than God’s sworn promise. He had promised David that his descendant would sit on his throne forever. And forever is a very long time.

This is the life in the stump of Israel. This is the promise that created the hope of the Messiah, a descendant of David who would be God’s promised king.

Firstly, as verse 3 says, the Lord himself would gather the people from their exile. He would bring them back from the countries they’d been sent to. He would bring them back to their own land. Like sheep scattered and lost returning to the fold.

Secondly, as verse 4 says, the Lord would give them shepherds, leaders who would care for them, leaders who knew the proper use of power. Leaders who would take away their fear.

And thirdly, as verse 5 says, the Lord would raise up for David a righteous Branch. A branch from the tree. A descendant of David. A son of the kings. But he wouldn’t be just another branch cut off from the old tree, and just stuck in the ground. But he would be a new shoot growing from the stump. A new kind of ruler. A king, as Jeremiah says,

who 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. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord our Righteousness.

He would bring a salvation so great, so remarkable, that people will stop talking about the past. They won’t talk about Moses and about how he led the people of Israel out of Egypt. Instead, they will talk about God’s promised king and how he brought his people back from their slavery in exile in a new exodus.

It was a prophecy of the coming of Jesus. Born in the line of kings, but as one of the ordinary folk. A man of the common people who spoke their language and shared their way of life. A man who showed that righteousness consists not in keeping the rules, but in knowing the Lord and defending the powerless. A man of the downtrodden, the neglected, the hungry, the sick, the children, the women, the forgotten, the abused, the despised, and the crippled. A man who never once used his power to help himself, whether he was hungry or thirsty or tired. But who used it to help the needy. A king who never slept in a four poster bed, who never sipped from golden cups or ate with silver spoons. A king who wore a crown of thorns and whose throne is his cross.

The king who is our Lord. The Lord our Righteousness. A man who in life lived by justice and equity. A man who in death gives us the gift of righteousness. A righteousness that is not ours, but his. His righteousness that saves us from judgment. We wear his righteousness like a coat. It shields our sin from the view of the Lord. When the Father looks at us he does not see the vileness of our fear and hate but he sees the goodness and righteousness of his own dear Son.

Jesus is the Lord our righteousness. And by his Spirit his righteousness penetrates our lives. By faith we are clothed with Christ. We wear his righteousness like a coat. but his peace rules in our hearts. His word dwells within us. Our lives are moulded and shaped into the image of Christ. Jesus is the Lord our righteousness. He is our Saviour. He doesn’t save us from slavery in Egypt or from exile in Babylon, but from slavery to sin, from a slavery to ourselves, and from exile in the kingdom of darkness. And the way of his kingdom lies in following the way of the cross.

As Jesus said,

I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the Good Shepherd and I lay down my life for the sheep.

This is the ending that Jeremiah looks forward. Jesus, the Lord our Righteousness. The tree of Israel was cut down to the ground, but in Jesus it grows back better than before. A tree that includes not just Israel but us as well.