The Good Shepherd (3rd Advent Sunday)

Luke 2:8-18 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 

Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent. We lit the Shepherd’s Candle. This one is rose-colored. It symbolizes the joy the shepherds felt when they heard the good news: peace to those on earth on whom his favor rests. 

“Peace on earth, and good will toward men.”  

We long for peace on earth. John Lennon and Yoko Ono sang, “War is over if you want it.” If you want it – well, don’t we all? Of course we want peace! In fact, we want peace so bad, even most wars are fought for the sake of peace. “Peace through strength.” Our Christian forefather St. Augustine is the forefather of the idea of “just war” that we use in the West. He said a just war has a just cause and just conduct. 

“Just cause” included protecting the innocent, the recovery of kidnapped people or stolen goods, or the punishment of evil. This all goes back further too. Long before Augustine, even before Jesus, and Moses and the 10 Commandments, the Lord said to Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” 

Murder and retribution. Crime and punishment! These ideas all go way back, too: to Cain and Abel, the first children of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They wanted to worship God with a sacrifice. Cain offered some of the harvest of his land, but Abel, who was a shepherd, offered an animal – a lamb. The Bible says that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s. Cain was so overcome with jealousy that he murdered his own brother. 

God punished Cain by marking him and sending him into exile. But God said, if anyone tries to hurt or kill you because of the mark I’ve given you, you’ll be avenged seven times over. Cain went on to found the first city, and his descendants filled the world all over the place. And these were not friendly places. Cain’s world just got worse and worse from generation to generation. His descendant Lamech said, “Cain was avenged seven fold – but if anyone tries to harm me, they’ll be avenged seventy-seven fold!” 

This is what it means to be “wrathful.” This is not what God wants from His people. This is why God flooded the world that Cain built, and saved Noah. This is why, when he started from scratch with Noah, God commanded, “Just one life for one life.” I know that may sound harsh – but that is the beginning of the human justice system. Crime and punishment. The punishment shall not exceed the crime, but it may need to be equal to it. The cure can’t be worse than the disease. 

But we know that the Law is not the way of peace. The Law is here to identify criminal behavior and prescribe punishment. And punishment definitely helps to deter crime – but it’s never ended it. It might “keep the  peace” but it doesn’t “make peace”. Why? Because “we like sheep have all gone astray – we’ve all gone our own way.”  

We all are responsible for the state the world is in. As Michael Jackson and every superstar of the 80’s sang, “We are the world.” 

But though mankind is like sheep that have wandered astray, the Lord is our shepherd. Even if the whole world is in line, if you are the one lost little lamb in the world that went astray, he will leave the rest of the world behind to find and save just you. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” When Isaiah said, “We like sheep have all gone astray”, he didn’t leave us hanging – he finished by promising us, “the LORD has laid upon Jesus the sin of us all.” 

So – while the Law is powerful to keep peace but powerless to make peace — Jesus is powerful to make peace. He is powerful because “God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Jesus,” and by him God is able to “reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross. 

Jesus is the good shepherd. He makes peace for us. Consider how wonderful and fitting it is that the angels gave this message of peace to shepherds when Christ was born to be a shepherd of peace. 

The story says that the shepherds went around telling everybody the good news, but Mary treasured it all up in her heart. Surely it must have been bittersweet to see the birth of her firstborn, and the hope of Israel, and look into his eyes, and hold him, and feel the tender love of a mother for her child – and to also know the suffering that God had prepared for him in order to make that peace which the angels sang about.  

We sing, “Mary did you know?” But Christian tradition holds that she did know. She knew what her son would do – and what would be done to him. The Bible says so. Mary knew that the Messiah was going to take on our infirmities, and carry our sorrows; he would be struck down and afflicted, pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities – the Bible said so. Long before even Mary was born, the Prophets foretold that “the punishment that brought us peace was upon [Jesus], and by His stripes we are healed.” 

Mary knew. As she looked into the face of her newborn son, Mary knew he would be like a lamb led to the slaughter. 

That image is so sad, and so powerful. A lamb led to the slaughter – innocent, submissive, completely victimized. No one wants to be a lamb led to the slaughter. Many people scoff at the word “sheep”. There’s a new word now, “sheeple.” Sheep-people. It’s meant to describe ignorant people. People who will believe anything. People who will do what they’re told and not think for themselves. People who are being led along to the slaughter. 

But is it bad to be sheeple when your shepherd is the Good Shepherd? No way. It’s only bad when you’ve got a bad shepherd. Think about the times you’ve been led astray by a bad shepherd. One of my earliest memories of a bad shepherd was my good friend who told me that it’s OK to say the F word, and even good and fun to say it! Well, that it was, but it wasn’t good or fun to get in trouble when I said it to my 4th grade teacher! He was a good friend but a bad shepherd.  

Maybe your bad shepherd was a good friend too, who was sometimes a bad example; maybe it was a television show; maybe it was a teacher; maybe it was a doctor. I know many people who have suffered tremendously because of bad guidance from a doctor, prescribing the wrong meds, making the wrong diagnosis. Maybe your bad shepherd was a boss or co-worker who had you do some unethical things. Maybe your bad shepherd was a sibling – maybe it was one or both of your parents. 

The Bible talks about bad shepherds. “’Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the flock of my pasture,’ declares Yahweh…You yourselves have scattered my flock, and you have driven them away, and you do not attend to them.’” A bad shepherd is someone who has been given authority over other people, but who abuses that authority and causes them harm. I’m sure we’ve all felt at some point or another that certain politicians are bad shepherds!  

The Bible mainly talks about politicians and religious leaders who were bad shepherds. When Jeremiah was prophesying in the 5th century before Christ, he was talking specifically about the political and religious leaders of the nation of Israel, who were often one and the same. Jeremiah said that God promised he would punish the evil shepherds for their evil deeds. But then he also prophesies the good news: 

God says, “Then I myself will gather together the remnant of my flock from all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their grazing place, and they will be fruitful, and they will become numerous. And I will raise up over them shepherds, and they will shepherd them, and they will no longer fear, and they will not be dismayed, and they will not be missing.” 

Did you catch that? God was saying that He was going to raise up shepherds, not just a shepherd. Are you surprised? Jesus after all is the good shepherd, right? But Jeremiah wasn’t jumbling his words. He wasn’t mixed up. He says right after this, “Look, days are coming when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he will reign as king!” 

Obviously, the king is Jesus. Then who are these shepherds that Jeremiah is talking about? 

*** 

Jesus and his disciples had a delicious Easter breakfast of fish on the beach. Do you remember this story? As they’re finishing up their meal, the Risen Christ turns to his student Simon Peter, and asks, “Simon son of Jonah, do you love me?” What did Peter say? 

“Yes, of course I do. You know I do.” 

“Feed my lambs. Simon Peter, do you love me?” 

“You know I love you!” 

Shepherd my sheep…Simon…do you love me?” 

“Lord, you know everything – of course you know of course I love you!” 

“Feed my sheep.” 

Take care of my sheep. Be a shepherd. Don’t be like Cain, be like Abel, the shepherd. Don’t be like the evil shepherds who rule over Israel – be like me, the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd was saying to His one of his sheep, “Peter, if you love me, be a good shepherd. Take care of my sheep.” 

Now, we know that Peter had a very special calling as the “chief of all the apostles”, but we shouldn’t stop there. That was two thousand years ago. This story has special meaning to all of God’s people today. Not just pastors – because, by the way, did you know that the word pastor means shepherd? — the lesson here goes beyond just those who are called to “pastors” or “elders” or “shepherds” in the church.  

It is no coincidence that it was shepherds who heard the good news from the angels at the birth of Jesus. This was to get us thinking even deeper about the meaning of being a good shepherd. Do you remember what the shepherds did after they heard the good news of the angels? 

They went to see Jesus. And then they went and told the world. They did this as an example for us. Let me explain. 

Y’all know me and know my ministry well enough to know that I say 2 things all the time: 1) It’s all about love and 2) Christians are meant to be little Christs. Yes, we’re meant to be little Christs, and that means we too are meant to be good little shepherds just the like Jesus was the good (big) shepherd!  

This is what Jeremiah was talking about when he said, “I will raise up shepherds!” We are to be shepherds in the image of our royal shepherd, the King of King and Lord of Lords. Peter says, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 

That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Isn’t that exactly what those first shepherds did? “The glory of the Lord shone around them” and declared to them news so good that they went all around Bethlehem declaring the praises of Him who brought the light.  

What a great example for us. 

I hope we can all appreciate “good news” this year — the year of Covid and many other calamities, and the age of “fake news” — good news! How precious good news can be! How precious it is to hear good news! How precious it is to meet someone who spreads it! “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” 

Church family, I stand humbly before you a pastor from your own ranks, and younger than you all to boot. I may be called to play a special role in the life of this church, but we are all called to play that special role in the life of our greater community.  

Nothing is stopping you – I may not be ordained by the American Baptist Church of the USA, but I am ordained by my baptism and anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the world — 

— And so are you.  

In your life people will say, “It’s impossible” You will say, “With God all things are possible.” In your life people will say, “The world is in darkness.” But you will be the one who says, “I saw the light.” You have people in this world who will say, “Where is your God?” You will say, “Our God is in heaven; He does as He pleases.”  

“O Israel, people of God, trust in the LORD!  

He is your help and shield.  

You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD!  

He is your help and shield.  

The LORD is mindful of us;  

He will bless us.” 

As we continue in this Advent season of penance and reflection, I want you to remember something Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” You are God’s sheep; and Jesus is your shepherd. He knows you – make it your business to know Him. Pray every day. Talk with Him. He’s listening. Remind yourself that He is Lord of this earth and every moment of your life belongs to him. Remember that His love animates every moment of your life – He died for you without any hesitation. You are precious in His sight. Meditate on His love for you, and His love for everyone in the world.  

And as you reflect on His love, also remember that you are called to be a shepherd in His image. In the words of St, Patrick, pray that you find “Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.” 

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