The last Sunday of the church year helps us remember that the peasant infant whose “arrival” we will anticipate and celebrate over the next month is, in fact, also the ruler of the world before all creation, who continues to sustain it and has already ushered in the new way for it to exist with God in eternity. To this end, today we celebrate the Reign of Christ, a comparatively recent feast that Pope Pius XI created about 100 years ago, as he was alarmed by the rising and clashing of the dictatorial atheist regimes in Europe, and Creator’s sovereignty was becoming seen as “das Opium des Volkes”. Since then, we witnessed the demise of these fascist and soviet powers, and began to forget the horrors of WWII. But, earlier this year, we saw, once again, just how precarious peace on earth really is. How unattainable the motto of the Christmas season will be if we leave God out of its narrative. So, today’s readings are meant to highlight our hope in God’s leadership over the world as a kind of an antidote – both to the despair induced by the news cycle, and to the saccharine image of Nativity driven by commerce.
Have you noticed that leadership itself in our society has become a buzzword to the point of becoming ambiguous; a goal, skill, and personality to acquire almost for its own sake? The children are taught that “everyone can be a leader, but we all lead in different ways, and some even do so by following”. This may or may not be true, but how do we, as Christians, understand what leadership and its presumed antitheses of service, humility, and obedience (i.e., which the world might see as “following”), mean within the paradigm of our faith? In the Bible, we see three images of an idealized leader: a loving father, military ruler, and shepherd. We may, perhaps, have a decent grasp of the first two categories, so today I will speak to the latter; particularly, because we just read from Jeremiah about the bad and good shepherds of Israel, giving us a leadership model to which we might, perhaps, aspire.
The shepherding motif is prevalent in OT, where it echoes other ancient sources (cf Homer’s writings and Hammurabi’s codex). Jacob refers to God as his shepherd, and all the patriarchs, Moses, and David themselves were all shepherds. Jeremiah asks, “who is the shepherd who can stand against me?”, referring to Israel’s enemy Egypt, while Isaiah names Cyrus the Great as the shepherd that would rescue it from Babylon. The prophets had choice words for their own inadequate leaders – the “wicked shepherds” whose lack of care had caused the 70 year trouble; those who only steal and destroy, and when confronted with danger, save only themselves. Ezekiel describes vividly how these leaders treated their flock with “force and severity”, and “slaughtered their sheep for their own gain, rather than feeding them”. The most devastating result of bad shepherding to all OT prophets (Ez., Is., Jer., Zech., and Mic.) was, in fact, the scattering of the flock: they became lost, preyed upon, with no one to seek them out. Yet, the prophets were also hopeful re. the coming of the one whom they called the Good Shepherd, the epithet that Jesus applied to himself, centuries later.
And so, Ezekiel promises that in place of the wicked shepherds, one day, his people will have the One who will “search for the sheep and seek them out,” feed them upon the mountains, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick, let them enter into a time of abundance and blessing (ch. 34). The words of Isaiah, which were made popular by an aria from Handel’s “Messiah”, are similar: “Like a shepherd he will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs, And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes” (ch. 40). These references are echoed by multiple NT passages, including Jesus’ taking children into his arms, as the shepherds would carry the lambs, and Matt. 2: “He will arise and shepherd His flock, In the strength of the Lord”.
But, there is one caveat. Consider a very interesting and complicated passage in Zech. 11, in which the Shepherd asks for his wages, receives 30 pieces of silver, and throws them, disdainfully, to the potter. Consider another famous text from Isaiah about the suffering servant. Prior to Christian interpretation, no Jew would have made the link between the Good Shepherd of Israel – her long-awaited, conquering King, the Anointed one from the branch of David referenced by Jeremiah – and these passages, which the Jews applied to Israel herself, but through the lens of which we now, in a literal leap of faith, see Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and death. As expressed in Rev.: “the Lamb on the throne shall be their shepherd,” of course, highlighting Jesus’ self-sacrifice.
And so yes, we did read the end of the gospel of Luke today, on the Sunday before Advent, even as many of us, especially with all the snow we got this year, are already pulling out the Christmas decor. Well, we certainly hope that Jesus will remember us when we come into his kingdom, in Paradise. But as we reflect on the connection between self-giving and leading, Christ’s crucifixion and his kingship, might we also consider our own role as his co-workers in the Kingdom of the here and now – as the co-shepherds? As Jesus said to Peter: “if you love me, feed my lambs”. But as Jesus warned Peter in his next utterance, and as we all know from personal experience, the desire to serve God and consequently, his people, might lead us to “where you do not want to go.” Being in leadership here on earth while trying to uphold Christian values might sometimes look as though you’re receiving the cup you would want to pass. Note also that neither prophets nor Jesus spoke of the “skilled shepherd” as the ultimate leader of Israel (cf Ps 23). No, the goodness of the true Shepherd exceeds a professional ability to nourish, lead, and protect, as the word “good” used in this passage has a much broader sense of being excellent in nature, morally beautiful, and noble. May we, in our own leadership opportunities and life as a whole, continue to serve as instruments of unity and peace wherever we serve, seek out those who are forgotten, emulate Jesus’ self-sacrifice, and offer service from the depth of our hearts, rather than the minimum required to get the work done. In doing so, may we, with God’s help, become truly Good shepherds, rather than “skilled” ones. Amen.