Isaiah 40:6-11 (New Living Translation)
A voice said, “Shout!” I asked, “What should I shout?” “Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the Lord. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.” O Zion, messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!” Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power. He will rule with a powerful arm. See, he brings his reward with him as he comes. He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.
It’s such a beautiful, comforting image. God lifting us up like lambs, holding us close and keeping us safe. It’s an image immortalized in Psalm 23, one of our scriptures that we often turn to in times of struggle: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” God as our gentle, loving, compassionate Shepherd.
It’s an image that is near and dear to my heart.
In the three years Chuck and I lived in the Washington DC area, one of my favorite places to visit was the National Cathedral. I know: all those great places to visit in DC, and I kept going back to a cathedral. What can I say? I’m a church nerd.
It’s a magnificent building. It looks like an ancient European cathedral, with all its spires, gargoyles, and stained glass windows. But it’s a relatively young building. The foundation stone was laid in 1907. In addition to the main worship space, there are several chapels throughout the building. I’ve enjoyed exploring them all. But my favorite, by far, is a little, tiny, off-the-beaten-path chapel.
It’s called “The Good Shepherd Chapel.” Just two short pews in a small, closet-like room. Not a place for a claustrophobic worshipper. If you stretched out your arms, you could almost — almost — touch either side. The walls are made of a light stone, which feel cool to the touch, even in the hot DC summer months. It is a lovely, peaceful place to pray.
But my favorite part of the chapel is the carving above the small altar: Jesus, lovingly cradling a lamb in his arms. Jesus, The Good Shepherd.
In the years since the chapel was opened, many people have found comfort in that image. You can tell this, because of the coloring of the sculpture’s hands. As hundreds, thousands of people have laid their hands on the stone, the oil from their hands has burnished the light stone until it looks almost alive.
You might also have noticed that the head and ear of the lamb are darker, as well. Many people have touched this little lamb that so snuggly lies in its shepherd’s arms, knowing it is safe and loved. A beautiful image of perfect trust.
Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.
Psalm goes on, but I want to stop there: Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.
That word “comfort” in Hebrew is nacham: to comfort, to console. The root of the word means to sigh, to breathe strongly. It’s all that we’ve just talked about, as if falling back into the arms of our Good Shepherd, and breathing out in relief. And that image is beautiful and real and true. Thanks be to God!
Your rod and Your staff they comfort me. A strange image, wouldn’t you agree? The rod, the staff, they were tools of the trade for a shepherd. A staff would be used to guide the sheep, to keep them in line. The curved part could be used to rescue, to lift out a sheep in danger from a pit. Or it could be used to not so gently encourage a wandering sheep to get headed in the right direction again.
The rod and the staff, they’re needed because sheep wander. They start chewing away on the grass, they get distracted by something, and they’re off, heading to places they shouldn’t be going. They need to be guided onto the right path, kept safe and protected.
That said… one of the beauties of Hebrew is that many words have layers of meanings. Nacham means comfort, but it also means to change one’s mind, to be sorry, to repent.
Your rod and Your staff
they change my mind,
they cause me to repent.
When we trust in God, when we trust deeply in God’s love, God’s compassion, it doesn’t just give us comfort. It changes us. It’s meant to change us!
Because trust — true trust — results in obedience. It results in a submission to, a dependence upon the Good Shepherd to guide us, and a willingness to head in the direction that the Shepherd desires us to go.
Even if it’s not a direction that we ourselves would have chosen.
We see that so clearly in the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel in Luke’s gospel. We’re told that the angel Gabriel came down to earth, and gave Mary astounding news: she was to bear a child. A special child, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Son of God.
In response to this mind-boggling proclamation, Mary simply replies: “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”
What trust! Mary, young, unmarried, from a poor town, unconnected to the power structure of the time, she is to bear the Son of God.
Here’s the thing,
and I believe this strongly.
Mary could have said no.
She could have heard the angel’s words, considered the implications, thought about the incredible difficulties that would lay ahead for her, evaluated how people would react to her pregnancy (her fiancé, her parents, her friends, her community) … Mary could have thought about all of this, and she could have said no.
And when Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, was told by an angel in a dream that Mary’s baby was to be the Son of God, Joseph could have woken up, and considered the implications, though about the incredible difficulties that lay ahead for him, evaluated how he would be ridiculed by his friends, ostracized by his family and community … and Joseph could have said no.
You see, God doesn’t force obedience from us. Just as a sheep, if it really wanted to avoid its shepherd’s guiding staff, it could run full tilt away, so we can choose to avoid God’s guidance, heading off on our own. But if we do, we miss out on the power and joy of what God desires to do through and in our lives!
Mary could have said no. She could have continued in Nazareth of Galilee, married Joseph, and lived a normal life.
Joseph could have said no. He could have continued his life, married Mary, and lived a normal life.
But Mary and Joseph said yes. They chose obedience. They chose to live out their trust in the God who created and loved them. They chose to follow God’s guidance, moving their life together in a direction they had never anticipated.
And because of their trust in God, in just one week from now, we will again celebrate how God entered into our world in the form of a tiny, perfect little child.
That little child who grew up to be the Good Shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says in John 10:11. “The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.”
That little child who grew up, and who demonstrated what trust and obedience look like, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested, and beaten, and killed. He prayed: “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
Trust in the God who loves us.
Obedience to the God who guides us.
Mary and Joseph could have said no. But they so deeply trusted in the infinite, good wisdom of God, that they was willing to follow God’s direction, wherever it might lead. And because of their trust, we are here today!
Christmas is a time of great joy. It’s also a time for us to re-evaluate how it is that we are living out the trust that we have placed in God.
So, a question: this Christmas season, how are our lives — yours and mine — reflecting our trust in God? What is God calling you to do in obedience, that may feel difficult or just too much?
Perhaps our Good Shepherd has been nudging you to forgive someone who has wronged you. To work hard for healing in your marriage or in your family. To speak a word of healing and peace into a broken relationship.
Perhaps our Good Shepherd has been prodding you to spend less money on stuff, and to invest in what really matters to God — to care for the hurting, seek out the lost, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, advocate for the powerless — to use your influence and strength to reach out in God’s love.
Perhaps our Good Shepherd has been trying to pull you out of a threatening situation: substance abuse, gambling, addiction, an abusive relationship, a spirit-damaging job. To rescue you from a dangerous path, heading in a direction that will do you harm.
Perhaps our Good Shepherd is asking you to lead a class at church, to join a small group, to seek out a group of friends to hold you accountable in love, or, maybe, even nudging you to explore becoming a pastor.
Perhaps our Good Shepherd is calling you to share your faith with someone you know, to offer them guidance and comfort and hope. Perhaps just simply to invite someone to come with you to a Christmas Eve service.
“O Zion,” our Old Testament scripture read, “messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!”
Say “Yes!” to God this Christmas.
Let your life shout out the truth
that you trust deeply in a God
of love and grace and guidance.
This beautiful season of faith,
may our words and our actions
beautifully and boldly
SHOUT the Good News of Christmas:
that the God who created it all
chose to come down to earth
to love and to save us.
Thanks be to God!