In our bedroom I have a painting of the missionary David Livingstone. After my first visit to Africa, I began to read his journals and some biographies as well. Livingstone buried children, his wife, and suffered incredibly as he took the gospel to Africa. One of the things I found remarkable is that the name Livingstone is still revered by Africans. There are several towns named after him. The largest city in Malawi is Blantyre. Blantyre is not an African word. It’s Scottish. It’s the little town in which Livingston was born.
After his little girl died of Malaria, he wrote a letter to his sister in which he said, “Fever may cut us all off. I feel much when I think of the children dying. But who will go if we don’t? Not one. I would venture everything for Christ. Pity I have so little to give. But He will accept us, for He is a good master. Never one like Him. He can sympathize. May He forgive, and purify and bless us” (Mackenzie 113). In another letter he wrote, “A parent’s heart alone can feel as I do when I look at my little ones and ask, shall I return with this or that one alive?” (Mac, 114).
Livingstone knew he would see little fruit from his labor. But he also knew there was a day coming in which others would harvest from fields in which he sowed. He wrote:
“It seems very unfair to judge the success of these [missions] by the number of conversions which have followed…. Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet…. For this time we work. May God accept our humble imperfect service.” (Mackenzie, 150f).
Today Africa has more professing Christians than Europe and North America combined, and some of this can be traced to a man who embodied God’s heart and was willing to suffer for Christ. We see people like this in the Bible, the prophets and the apostles, for whom obedience to God meant everything.
Jeremiah. David Livingstone, I think, felt a kinship with Jeremiah. Jeremiah wept the tears of God. He entered so much into the mind and heart of God that he embodied the feelings of God. Jeremiah not only spoke the Words of God, but Jeremiah felt the emotions of God. When you read his book, as I have dozens of times, you discover that Jeremiah doesn’t present the people’s pain to God. Jeremiah presents God’s pain to the people. Jeremiah knew the pain of God. But God demanded more of Jeremiah than emotional empathy. God demanded his whole life, physical, social, everything about Jeremiah became a living enactment of his message. And it made him hurt.
Jeremiah’s personal story is particularly striking in chapter 16. There, God told Jeremiah “You must not marry or have sons or daughters” (16:1). This was a devastating demand, but Jeremiah was called to embody in his life the catastrophe that would engulf all of Israel’s families. No family. And no funerals, either (16:5). Using a shocking triple negative, God told Jeremiah don’t go to funerals because the coming catastrophe would be so great that normal mourning would be abandoned.
No family. No funerals. No feasting. Jeremiah lived in loneliness and exclusion. He embodied what it meant for God to be driven out by the people He loved. Of interest is that Jeremiah was from Anatoth. Anatoth was where the priests lived who were banished by Solomon. Jeremiah was not a priest in Jerusalem. He was a descendent of the priest Abiathar, who supported Solomon’s older brother Adonijah to become king. Solomon said he deserved to die for that, but he let him live because he carried the Ark in the presence of King David (1 Kings 2:13-27). So Abiathar was banished to Anatoth and Jeremiah was his descendent. So, when God wanted a man to represent him, to embody the pain of God, he didn’t choose a priest from Jerusalem. He chose an outsider from Anatoth.
Maybe you’re an outsider. You don’t come from a “made family.” Nobody set you up to be the next best thing. That was Jeremiah. Maybe you can relate to him. But Jeremiah came to know God, and his heart was shaped by God, and he did what God told him to do, even if it brought him great suffering.
The prosperity gospel of health and wealth and happiness is made to look as stupid as it is by the life of the Prophets and the Apostles. It was precisely his obedience that thrust Jeremiah into 40 years of suffering and sorrow. God did speak to Jeremiah about the future restoration, but He also made clear that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. When you preach from the hope passages of Jeremiah, like 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare …” you need remember, the restoration of Israel came after that generation was dead.
So what can we learn about shepherding God’s people from Jeremiah 16?
1. To shepherd the people of God you must enter into the heart and mind of God.
We cannot serve God’s people if we cannot hear God when He speaks, and if we don’t enter into His heart and mind, the mind of Christ, the Father’s heart. I’m actually quite concerned that some think that to shepherd God’s people you have to know the mind of Rick Warren, or Ed Stetzer, or, Matt Chandler, or pick your favorite (not that these aren’t good men from whom we can learn). Or, to lead the people of God you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices. No. To lead the people of God, you must hear from God. You must know His heart. And even embody His heart and mind. That is first, second and third.
2. To shepherd God’s people you must present to them the heart and mind of God.
This is what you see in the prophets and the Apostles. You especially see it in Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses that phrase, “The word of the Lord” or “the Lord says” more than any other. In 16:1 “the word of the Lord came to me.” 16:3 “This is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is the Lord’s declaration.” 16:9 “this is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says.” People don’t need to know what their shepherds think about spiritual things. People expect their shepherds will talk to God in prayer, then reveal God’s heart and mind as expressed in His Word.
3. Those who shepherd God’s people must embody His message.
The classic definition defines preaching as “truth through personality.” The word “personality” speaks of the entire person – character, integrity, physicality, everything. When you listen to Jeremiah, and when you examine his life, you know, “This man was not a hypocrite. This man didn’t say one thing and do another.” He embodied the message.
4. Shepherds pay a price, often a big price.
This is where it gets tough for spiritual shepherds. You will pray a price. Probably not as big a price as Jeremiah – no marriage, no kids, no social life, starved at times, thrown in a hole. The annihilation and destruction of his city and his country. Continual rejection throughout the 40 years of his ministry. It won’t get that bad for most, but you will suffer.
David Livingstone’s favorite verse was, “Lo I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The promise of Jesus’ presence, through it all, sustained him. Jesus is present with you too, if you trust in Him, and He will see you through to the very end.