This morning the Old Testament prophet Micah pleas with the Lord to be for his people their shepherd, an image that for us might evoke nostalgia for the perceived peacefulness of rural life. The shepherd is not something real in most modern people’s experience and as such we know it only through what our imagination provides us. The imagined experience of a shepherd is far from the real thing.
Shepherds were considered in the ancient world to be rough men, capable of enduring hardship and willing to live with less, rather than more. It was not simply the lives of the sheep that was their concern, but the life of the community that was supported by the sheep- the safety of the sheep literally kept the community clothed and fed. Shepherding was often a matter of life and death, exposing the shepherd to the danger of natural elements, predators, and thieves. Often, shepherds were the first and last line of defense in terms of a community threatened by invading enemies. A good shepherd was strong, reliable, trustworthy, no nonsense and tough. People went about their day and slept easier at night knowing that shepherds were keeping vigilant watch. But at the same time, shepherds were not the kind of people one invited into polite company. You wanted the shepherd with you in distress, on your side in a fight, but you wouldn’t invite him to your dinner party, and if you did, it is likely he wouldn’t come.
Good shepherds were highly prized. Bad shepherds were dangerous.
When the Bible appeals for the Lord to be the shepherd it is often because those men and women who are acting in leadership roles in their communities bad shepherds and they want God, the good shepherd, to come and throw them out.
That description gives you some context for understanding the persistent appeal the Bible makes in regards to the Lord as a shepherd. The appeal is not for a the Lord to be a smiling politician or wealthy benefactor, or a socialite who flitters from party to party, but a shepherd who will treat his people the way a shepherd treats the sheep.
We might think of a shepherd as gentle, meek and mild, but that has nothing to do with what the Bible is referencing. The last thing you wanted in a good shepherd was for him to be nothing but gentle, meek and mild. The Bible, in invoking the Lord as shepherd, is appealing to God to be tough, to be strong, and willing to risk his life to set a people who had gone wrong back right.
This may not be what we want God to be for us, but what we want God to be doesn’t really matter. Who God really and truly is is what matters.
The Bible doesn’t just plead for God to be a shepherd, but also to be a father for his people.
Today, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus provides perhaps the thickest description of how God is a father to his people- and the Lord Jesus’ description is as provocative now as it was when he first announced it.
God is described by Christ as a father who is willing to love his children who are both good and bad, wicked and righteous, and his affection for his children is not based on whether his overtures of love are returned.
In fact, his overtures of affection for his wicked children exceed all expectations and might be confused by the righteous as being rewards for being bad. God the father doesn’t intend this, but he is prodigal in his love for his children. Rejoicing as much over a wicked child who comes to him seeking forgiveness as he does over a good child who does not need to be forgiven.
This confounds and confuses both wicked and righteous because it does not conform to our expectations of what so many of us believe that love should be- something earned and delivered to us in accord with our expectations.
Christ the Lord, who knows God literally, not figuratively, as his Father, gestures in his description of God the Father’s love for us toward the great revelation of God in Christ which is that God is love.
Nothing sentimental helps to make sense of the unique revelation that God is love, for the love of God is not akin to a feeling but akin to an act of will.
God wills what is good- not just for some, or for his favorites, but for all. Love is not just a feeling or an idea. Love is an act of will, willing what is good for others- and by good is not what the others thinks is good, or what they want to be good, but that which is really and truly what is good.
To truly grasp this strange revelation is to understand what it means to say that God is love. If this explanation exceeds your grasp, then consider the image of the father in the Lord Jesus’ parable- that image is what it means when we Christians profess faith in the revelation that God is love.