Shepherds, Kings and a Righteous Branch

by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens

Today we celebrate Thanksgiving – the ritual of pausing and remembering where we’ve come from, settling in to where we are and envisioning where we are going, all while expressing our gratitude to God for the twists and turns along those life-journeys. Much of our celebrating this week will be to honor the traditions we have in our family and in our culture. Why do we eat sweet potatoes casserole with marshmallows on top  this one day of the year? Because we’ve always had this dish; because Gramma cooked it this way; because it’s not Thanksgiving if we don’t have Gramma’s sweet potato and marshmallow dish. 

Tradition and Nostalgia play a big part in our Thanksgiving celebrations, and they are so powerful that even when we are faced with contrary opinions about the holiday traditions, we fight back. Like when another family member volunteers to make the cornbread, but adds GREEN CHILES to the recipe! Or a college-age child decides to be a vegetarian the day before Thanksgiving and ruins everyones holiday talking about the slaughter of animals at the dinner table. or when you invite the new in-laws to the feast and they turn their noses up at your beloved corn casserole? (These examples may or may not have been based on Givens’ family Thanksgivings….)

One problem with our traditions and the importance we place on them this holiday, is that our lives change… our families change….. those who sit around our Thanksgiving table come and go… and if we hold on to the traditions of the past, we may find it difficult to celebrate when our circumstances change. 

This is why, each year, instead of getting bogged down in the traditions of the past, we need to reevaluate our blessings. We need a way to move from sorrow to hope. Maybe we’ve had a death in the family. Maybe a marriage has broken apart, maybe we’ve experienced an illness or a crisis… IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, do we have anything to be thankful for?  

* We turn to our scripture today from the prophet Jeremiah and I’d like us to do a bit of a though experiment: Imagine you and I and our community and the peoples of the world on moving together toward the Kingdom of God, toward joy and hope and love and compassion, a place where we can be ourselves and be loved and appreciated. And on this road, there are barriers and blocks, things that get in our way, things that detour us away from the journey we are traveling toward hope and Joy. What are some of those things that block us? Death, grief, sadness, depression, illness, broken relationships, broken trust… etc. etc.. Now imagine those things are the “Bad shepherds” Jeremiah is speaking of – those things that lead us astray from the path of Joy.

 Jeremiah 23, beginning at verse 1:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

“You – Grief, Death, Sadness – have scattered my people from the path of Joy, so I will raise up NEW shepherds that will shepherd my people on the paths of Joy, Gratitude and Love.”

During Advent we celebrate the birth of the one we call “The Good Shepherd”, but each os us can be a shepherd of joy and gratitude and Love this season.

Today – along with our marking of the Thanksgiving Holiday –  we also celebrate a somewhat obscure liturgical holiday in the church: Christ the King Sunday, a day to set aside the human kingdoms we’ve created and focus on the compassionate and loving reign of God. This day was instituted in 1925 as State or Government control over the church was increasing in many countries, Stalin and Mussolini were names in the news and Hitler had just published Mein Kampf. Human kingdoms were exercising a type of rule that displeased Pope Pius the eleventh, so he declared this day, the Sunday before the start of Advent, as a day to remember that Christ is our King.

Now, back to our imaginary journeys with our shepherds…. Shepherds are necessary when we travel, when we are nomadic, but what happens once we’ve reached our destination?

* The institution of kingship in Israel developed when their existence as a nomadic people transformed into a more sedentary existence. When they were travelers, each tribe of Israel was governed by a judge or a tribal authority. But as they settled into one region, the clans could be gathered together under the sovereignty of one ruler. In the time of Samuel, for example, after the Israelites had suffered the violence and tyranny of Philistine rule, they were looking for a strong leader to defeat the Philistines, so the appointment of a king became a political necessity.

So, today we remember that we belong to a Kingdom, not of this world, but a Kingdom of God with Christ as our King. This King has made us to be a kingdom. You can’t be a King unless you have a kingdom (people to rule, people who will follow, people who will serve you.) There is a saying in the business world that you can’t be a leader unless people are following. Otherwise you are just taking a walk. We are responsible for whom we choose to follow. In some countries, in some cultures, choices are limited by access to food, or shelter, protection from disease or violence, a decent wage or the rights we all have as human beings. But for those of us living in the wealth and opportunity of the Western world, we do not have such restrictions: we have the blessing to choose whom we serve, whose kingdom we choose to participate in.

Jeremiah explains it this way, from chapter 23, v. 1-6:

The days are surely coming, says 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 live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

  • Our King is righteous (fair to all)
  • Our King is wise and will be just in his judgements.
  • Our King will protect us from harm and keep us safe. 

As we approach this holiday, let us look for shepherds that lead us out of the darkness and into the light of gratitude. Let us hold on to one another, that even as we miss those around our tables, we celebrate the ones who remain with us. Let us give thanks for the bounty – not just the bounty of food, but the blessings God has given us. And let us celebrate the King as he gathers us into his loving kingdom. And let us give thanks. Amen.