Tag Archives: shepherd

A Christmas Surprise [Fourth Sunday of Advent]

2 Jan

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Today we’re going to meet shepherds.  But as I studied these passages, what emerged was something surprising, something unexpected!  During Advent, we have been following the readings in the Lectionary, and our first passage is Micah 5:2-5a. Micah gives us in verse 2 a prophecy of a future ruler who would come to rule over Israel.  Can you figure out why this is a prophecy that is mentioned at Christmas almost every year?

Because of the reference to Bethlehem!  That is the first part of the prophecy: notice that it actually says it is given to Bethlehem Ephrathah.  Bethlehem was the town, and Ephrathah was the region.  It says that Bethlehem was a small clan, and yet in the nation of Israel, it might be the second most famous city behind Jerusalem.  Why?

Bethlehem was the birthplace of kings!  Do you remember the first king who was born there? David, the greatest king of Israel.  Now in this prophecy we are told that there was going to be another king born there.

So Israel was awaiting the arrival of the King.  Why?  Because, as Micah tells us in verse 3: Israel broke the covenant God had made with them, and they were abandoned by God.  Israel could read this passage and you could see how they might not fully get the part about their sinfulness.  The passage doesn’t say “Israel you broke my covenant, so I am abandoning you.”  But there are plenty of other places in the prophets where God said to the people, “You disobeyed me. You broke our agreement.”  We saw this in Jeremiah’s prophecy which we studied a few weeks ago.  But here in Micah 3, it could seem like God is just randomly abandoning them, and so when this new king is born and rules the people again, that new king is going have the power of God and bring security and peace to the land.  If you are living in Israel through all the many occupations by foreign powers, Micah 5:2-5 sounds really great.  Right around the time of Jesus’ birth, you might be expecting a savior to be born who would lead Israel’s armies to fight the Romans, and kick them out of the land and bring peace. 

But there is more to the story!

In verses 4-5 we learn that this new ruler, this new King from Bethlehem will shepherd his flock.  It will be a wonderful peaceful time.  This would have been a familiar image to the people of Israel because their great king David, the previous king born in Bethlehem, started his career as a shepherd.  Then fast forward to Jesus’ birth, it was the lowly shepherds whom the angels of God visited to declare the amazing news that the new king had been born in Bethlehem.

So in Micah, we read the prophecy of a new Shepherd who was to come from Bethlehem.  Now we turn to the second reading, Psalm 80:1-7, written by Asaph, and one we actually studied the last year, when we were studying psalms of lament.

Who do we meet in verse 1?  The Shepherd of Israel!  But this is an entirely different shepherd than the one promised in Micah.  The psalmist is writing a song that a group of people would sing, and we see that they are singing to God.  They say that God is a shepherd who leads Joseph like a flock.  Joseph is one of the nation of Israel’s patriarchs. In fact, do you know who Joseph’s dad was?  Israel (also known as Jacob), which is how the nation got its name.  Thus the psalmist is using the word “Joseph” to refer to the whole nation of Israel.

Then the psalmist talks about the one who sits enthroned between the cherubim.  That is another very Jewish image.  The cherubim were angels that were crafted out of gold and placed on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.  Remember the Ark of the Covenant?  Not the big boat that Noah made.  That Ark was essentially a small box that was kept in the tabernacle and later, the temple.  I’m talking about the same Ark that is featured in the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Do you remember what was kept inside the Ark?  The stone tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments, some manna, which was the food God sent Israel from heaven, and finally the high priest Aaron’s staff which had budded with almond blossoms.  And God’s presence would rest between the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant.

So while this psalm is referring to God as the Shepherd of his people, their situation is dire. Look at verses 2 and 3.  Asaph is calling for help, salvation, and restoration.  Things are bad.  He uses the word “awake,” making it sound like God is asleep.  That is very similar to the word “abandon” we heard in Micah.  Israel knows that God is powerful, but for some reason he is not answering their call for help. What this call for help indicates is that they can’t do this alone.  They need God.

In verses 2-7 then we have a nearly identical theme to Micah: they are feeling God has abandoned them, and they are crying out for restoration.  There is a deep longing in this psalm for God’s salvation.

Now we fast forward to the First Century AD, to our third passage, where are going to hear about the fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah and the answer to the prayer of Psalm 80. Turn to Luke 1:39-45, where we read a fascinating story.

It is a story of two women.  Mary and Elizabeth.  Relatives.  Mary is from the northern part of Israel.  She is a young girl from the tiny town of Nazareth.  She is engaged to be married to a man named Joseph.  But there is a problem.  Mary became pregnant before she is married.  We know that the baby growing inside her is a miracle baby, placed there by God.  But no one in Mary’s town knows this.  Only Joseph.  So as Mary starts showing, it could get very uncomfortable for Mary and Joseph.  Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her relative, who lives near Jerusalem in the south.  We don’t know the specific relationship between the two ladies: aunt & niece, or maybe great aunt, etc.  We just know Mary is young, Elizabeth is old.  Both are pregnant with special children. 

These babies are the two messengers! Do you remember the two messengers of Malachi 3?  In that chapter we learned that one messenger would arrive and prepare the way for the second messenger, who was the Lord.  These two babies had been predicted over 400 years before, and now they are about to be born.  Read verses 39-45.

Isn’t that wild?  The first messenger, the one who would prepare the way is John, which is Elizabeth’s baby.  There he is in the womb, leaping at the sound of Mary’s voice, because Mary is the mother of the second messenger.

The story gets even wilder as we read that Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit, and in a loud voice said speaks this really cool poem. 

In the poem, Elizabeth has blessings for Mary, for Mary’s child.  She praises Mary for her belief in God, and she proclaims that Mary’s child will be her Lord!  And in the middle of it all we read Elizabeth’s question: Why am I so favored?  Elizabeth is marveling at how God has blessed her!  Elizabeth is getting to see the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to centuries of prayer come to pass right before her eyes.  And she is mother to one of the babies, and her relative is mother to the Lord!  Wow! 

It is hard to put into words what a wonderful scene this is!

After Elizabeth speaks, then Mary speaks.  What we read next in verses 46-55 is Mary’s Song, sometimes called Mary’s Magnificat, which is the first word of the song in its Latin translation.  In our English translations it is the word “glorify” or sometimes translated “magnify”.  “Magnify the Lord, O my soul.”

Look how she describes the Lord, just like the ruler and shepherd who will be the savior of the world.  He is a just and merciful and good God.  He scatters the proud, but he lifts up the humble.  He feeds the hungry, but sends the rich away empty.  He cares for those who are oppressed and he is not impressed with those who the world worships.  

With this amazing vision of our savior God in our minds, turn to our fourth reading, Hebrews 10:5-10.  Here we meet the one who was promised in Micah, the one prayed for in Psalm 80, and the one the Mary raised as a baby.  But what we find is that this savior, this Jesus, is not at all what we thought

The passage starts in verses 5-7 with a quote from Psalm 40.  Look at verse 5.  Isn’t it interesting that God does not desire sacrifices?  It sure seems like God desires tons of sacrifices when you read the OT Law.  But Psalm 40 reminds us in verses 8-10 (here in Hebrews 10) that sacrifice is not sufficient.  God actually wasn’t pleased by them.  There was, however, one sacrifice that was sufficient.  The shepherd who sacrifices himself for the sheep!  Hebrews 10 doesn’t use the phrase, “the shepherd who sacrifices for his sheep,” but Jesus did.  He said in John 10 that he was the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep.

When Jesus came to us, even in the form of a little baby, he was saying, “Here I am, I have come to do your will, O God.” 

It is like the writer of Hebrews is envisioning a conversation in heaven between Jesus and God the Father.  God is saying, “My people have turned away from me, and all those sacrifices they do are empty and meaningless because their hearts are far from me.  They are just going through religious rituals. But that is never what I wanted!  I wanted to be in a real relationship with them, a loving relationship. But they are so easily tempted away by lesser things like false gods, destructive addictions, empty possessions, things that will never satisfy.  What can change the human heart?”   

I imagine heaven goes silent.  And then Jesus raises his hand.

He exclaims, “I’ll do it!” and he could.  He alone could do it.  He alone could become a human, live a perfect life, show us the way of his Kingdom, call us to follow him, and then give his life as the ultimate sacrifice, once for all.  Jesus willingly came and gave his life.  

When Jesus made that sacrifice, the writer of Hebrews tells us in verse 9 that God honored that sacrifice, setting aside the first idea, which was all those sacrifices at the temple that we read about in the Old Testament.  That sacrificial system was set aside, and God established a second new plan, that of Jesus being the once and for all sacrifice.  And look what happened!

In verse 10 we read that we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all!  When Jesus gave his life on the cross and then 3 days later rose again from the dead, he showed that his sacrifice was the one true sacrifice!  He defeated sin, death and the Devil, and made a way for us to be holy like he is holy.

That is not at all what Micah or Psalm 80 expected.  They wanted a military ruler to defeat the Romans, and Jesus said, “Here I am, I have a much, much better and bigger plan than that.  I will defeat sin, death and the Devil.”  And that is just what he did.

Now we can see clearly why Elizabeth and Mary are praising God!  Jesus is the savior of the World.  It was totally unexpected.  The Shepherd gave his life for the sheep.

In the midst of the darkness of sin in our lives, we have hope.In the midst of our pain, no matter what you are struggling with, we have hope.

We can choose to rejoice just like Mary and Elizabeth.  On Christmas Eve we rejoice!  And we can rejoice any day throughout the year, no matter what is going on because we have a Shepherd who cares for us, who gave his life for us.  One of the ways our family has been trying to apply this principle is to be intentional about playing worship music, especially in those moments when life is hard.  Instead of wallowing in the pain, getting bitter about it, we have been playing worship music to purposefully redirect our thoughts to the hope we have in our Good Shepherd who loves us and gave his life for us! How will you rejoice?