Aloha Friday Message – December 2, 2011 – The Sheep Herder

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Isaiah 40:11 Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

Isaiah 40:11 – Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

God is rather fond of shepherds. Have you ever wondered why? It began – as all things do – in The Beginning. You’ll find Abel, a man who tended flocks, giving an offering to God. God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s – who was his older brother – offering. Cain got very angry and ultimately committed the first recorded murder – he killed his little brother. It’s a very famous passage and includes the familiar quote, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Why did God reject Cain’s gift? The story in Genesis 4 gives only thin hints of why God rejected Cain’s sacrifice, but there are other hints elsewhere.

There are some additional clues in the Old Testament in places other than the book of Genesis. In the letter to the Hebrews, the author alludes to the reason for God’s rejection of the offering as Cain’s lack of faith. (Hebrews 11:4). The first letter of John describes Cain’s acts were linked to Satan, (“belonged to the evil one”) and because of his own evil nature. (1 John 3:12). In the Letter of Jude there is an allegation that Cain’s only made the offering out of greed, hoping God would increase his “profit margin.” (Jude 1:11). I also believe that, because Cain was the older brother, he believed that his status as the eldest counted for more than the quality of his gifts.

Cain brought “to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Cain’s gift was some of the fruit of the ground, but we are left wondering if it was perhaps not the best (“first”) fruits of his labor. It was apparently an imperfect offering – he held back the best for himself. Abel did the opposite. In this story, it was the shepherd’s gift that was favored, and it cost the shepherd his life.

The Ideal Shepherd Isaiah talks about is the Davidic Shepherd in Psalm 23, and in Ezekiel 34, especially 34:15-23. Isaiah portrays this shepherd carrying the lambs with tenderness and care. Little lambs have a lot of energy, but they also tire easily. When they are moving with the flock as they graze, the little guys sometimes get tuckered out and just can’t go any farther. The good shepherd will pick up that little one and carry it for a while so it can rest without being left behind. As for the ewes, especially those still carrying their progeny, they must be led with care – slowly, with an eye toward safe paths, gentle slopes, adequate water, and quietly so as not to endanger their lives. When Jacob and Esau were going through the process of reconciling with one another, Jacob makes a comment that driving the herd hard would kill the future of the herd – the ewes and the lambs they carried. Here’s the thing: If there are lambs around, there will soon be more during the herds birthing season.

For the nation Israel, livestock was a central component of everything from worship to shelter to clothing. Animals were important, and they were cared for as the investments they truly were. We know the story of the lost sheep. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to realize that losing one lamb would be a bad setback. Losing a ewe and her unborn lamb would be far worse. God says that he himself will be the shepherd to Israel, and for the Israelites that was a brilliant illustration. God’s “hired hands,” the Priests who were supposed to lead and protect the people, had failed in their job, so God announces, “I will do the job myself because I care about my sheep so much I don’t want them to suffer like this any longer.” Then he promises to send another Davidic Shepherd, the heir of David’s throne, and like the shepherd David, this Good Shepherd will lead God’s people in the right way, defeat God’s enemies, and establish a Kingdom where God and his Shepherd rule with justice and equity for ever.

Beloved, that is – of course – the Kingdom of God, and you and I already live there. So does every living soul on this earth. All of us live in the Kingdom of God, but not all of us are part of the Kingdom of God. If Jesus is your Shepherd, you are part of His Kingdom. If Jesus is not your Shepherd, you live in the World, but not in the Kingdom. No one is excluded from the Kingdom by the Shepherd. The only way to be excluded is to ignore the Shepherd. And if Jesus is your shepherd, then you have to go where Jesus goes; that’s what we mean when we say, “follower of Jesus.” We go where he goes, and conversely, we do not go where he does not go.

He leads us tenderly, graciously, safely, sweetly, gently, caringly to “verdant pastures” and “beside refreshing streams.” He give us rest and restores us. He blesses us and protects us. We are important to him, and he himself chooses to guide us and protect us. That is such good news. As we proceed through the season of Advent, we will once again hear how God favored shepherds with the first glimpse of the Good Shepherd. I have always dreamed about being with those shepherds on that first night. I can just barely hear that heavenly chorus as the announcing angel was joined by the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to all people.” Wow! Give me chicken-skin!

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About Chick Todd

American Roman Catholic reared as a "Baptiterian" in Denver Colorado.

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