Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 23, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth.
Micah 5:4 (ESV)
When I first looked at today's Old Testament Reading to plan this morning's sermon, the immediate temptation was to preach on verse 2 of this passage: Micah's very famous prophecy that tells us that the promised Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the ancestral city of King David. That seemed to be the easiest and most obvious subject in this text. But the more that I looked at this passage, the more I saw something important that it had to say about the Christ who is coming to be our Savior. The Messianic prophecies in Scripture tell us many things about Jesus. Here Micah tells us that Jesus is our Shepherd.
The word "shepherd" can be a loaded term. In Biblical times it was a very down-to-earth term that referred to a very down-to-earth occupation, but in the time since it has come to be almost poetic. I don't know how many Latin scholars we have among us this morning, but you may or may not know that the word "pastor," used by many Christians to identify their clergy, is the Latin word for shepherd. It carries the sense of a provider--a caregiver. In the tenth chapter of John's Gospel--the well-known "Good Shepherd" chapter, Jesus draws a very sharp distinction between a legitimate shepherd (one who is truly concerned about the welfare of his sheep) and a "hired hand" (John 10:12), who's only in it for the money and doesn't much care what happens to the sheep. The prophet Jeremiah pronounces the Lord's harsh words of judgment against what He calls "the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture" (Jeremiah 23:1). But in today's text the word shepherd is used in reference to the coming Messiah, describing what He will do for His people. Let's look at this a little more closely and see what Jesus' shepherd role means to Him and what it means to us.
We are told here that the Messiah who we await will "shepherd" His people. No matter what kind of lofty images we may have attached to the concept of shepherding, this was not by any means easy or glorious work. In fact, it was very dirty work. Shepherds in Biblical times were not recruited from the cream of society. Most often they were the outcasts--the despised--the downgraded. The shepherd's task was to look after sheep--animals that are not very intelligent and tend to wander from the safety of the flock into dangerous places and situations. To put it rather bluntly, the shepherd was responsible to look out for dumb animals who were too stupid to look out for themselves. It required the shepherd to "get his hands dirty" in many ways. Not only did he have to see that the sheep had food and water; he also had to notice when one of them was missing and make it his business to go after that wandering sheep and retrieve it. It wasn't unusual for the shepherd to have to put his own life in danger in the course of caring for the sheep of his flock--especially when predators attacked. All of this Jesus did and continues to do for us. He seeks to keep us in His flock (His Church), where He feeds us with Word and Sacrament. When we wander, He calls us back and goes after us. But even then, many is the time that we ignore His call and wander even farther away from Him and the fellowship of His people. When that happens, He grieves over us, just like any shepherd grieves over lost sheep. And Jesus certainly put His life on the line for us when He went to the cross and the grave in order to redeem us from our sin.
The strange thing about all of this is that our Good Shepherd--the One who we call our Lord and King--finds His majesty and greatness in this dirty work of shepherding. He's not interested in the human trappings of majesty and greatness. He doesn't need a gold crown set with precious jewels--His crown of thorns, which everyone laughed at, is just fine as far as He is concerned. Never mind a fancy throne for Him--He was willing to be enthroned on a cross, exposed to the mockery of all. All of this ugliness--the betrayal, the abuse, the mockery, the beating, the crucifixion--all of this is Jesus' majesty and greatness, because in all of this He fulfilled the purpose for which He came--to win back lost and wandering sheep to the fold of His Father. And if saving us isn't enough, our Shepherd gives us a bonus: In the way He went about saving us He taught us some pretty important lessons about what true majesty and greatness really are.
And what does Jesus' shepherd role mean for us? It means, first of all, that we can "dwell secure," as our text puts it. We have been redeemed--bought back from sin and death by the blood of Jesus Christ--and nothing can force us away from our God. Our redemption is an accomplished fact, completed when Jesus died on the cross and confirmed when He rose from the dead. That means that you and I are safe in the care of our Shepherd, but it doesn't mean that we are immune to danger. If we're stupid enough to wander from the care of our Shepherd, we can't very well blame Him for what befalls us. Nobody loses his faith against his will, but many people kill their faith by spiritual neglect and by exposing themselves to needless spiritual dangers. However, if we remain close to Him and in His care, we can indeed live securely, confident that nothing can pluck us out of His hand.
Knowing that Jesus is our Shepherd also gives us peace. I'm not talking about the "peace" that the world talks about. The peace that Jesus brings to us is something greater than the absence of hostility that our diplomats are so quick to describe as peace. It is something with more substance than the annual tradition of being nice to people you don't really like at Christmastime. The peace that our Shepherd provides us with is, first and foremost, peace with God. It means that no matter how sinful we are--no matter how stupid and selfish we may have been--God accepts us in peace as His dear children because our Shepherd has Himself taken the punishment that our sin deserves. He has also lived the life of perfect obedience that we are supposed to live but don't. The peace that Jesus brings empowers us to be free from the burden of guilt that so often paralyzes us. It empowers us to be free to live for Him who has set us free.
The coming of Jesus Christ means many things. In sending His one and only Son into the flesh, God has met us where we are and has fulfilled our greatest needs. He has bestowed upon us the righteousness that we need to stand in His presence on the day of judgment. He has purified us from the sin that separates us from Him. He has saved us from the judgment that we deserve because of our sin. And He has cared for us in all things as our Good Shepherd. As we enter the holy season of Christmas, with all of its emphasis on gifts and giving, let's not forget the greatest Gift--our Shepherd--giving thanks for that Gift in everything that we say and do. His Spirit makes this happen so that He may be glorified in us and that many more may believe in Him and receive, with us, all of the blessings of His grace.
May the One who once came as an Infant in Bethlehem prepare you for His coming again in glory by His Means of Grace, through which He comes to you even now. May He equip you to be His witnesses so that you, like the Baptist in the wilderness, may prepare the way of the Lord. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do