Lost Sheep

“Lost Sheep”

Matt 9-36 sheep, shepherd people

Matthew 9:35-10:1 (9:36) – June 14, 2020

In college, I can remember times when I heard fiery sermons about missionaries, and about how God provided the world as a harvest field for the followers of Jesus. I can remember how the preacher would thunder “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few! Pray that the Lord will send out many into God’s harvest fields!”

I attended a Christian college, and I did hear a number of sermons like that. Yes, that Bible reading is from Matthew 9:37. Perfectly appropriate for preachers to take this verse and highlight it in a sermon meant to urge people to go out to the mission field. The very next verse is where our Lord Jesus chooses the 12 disciples, and commissions them to go out into the villages and towns and heal, preach and do just what Jesus had been doing.

However, when I read these verses from Matthew to prepare a sermon for today, I was drawn to the previous verse, verse 36. When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

I am NOT going to focus on the harvest being plentiful, and the workers being few – in that case, this would be a very mission-oriented sermon. I do preach mission-oriented sermons when I feel God leading me that way, but for this Scripture reading at this particular time, I see a different picture. Instead of God sending followers out into the world, I see Jesus full of compassion and caring. I see Jesus as a loving Shepherd, caring for His lost sheep who don’t even know they are without a shepherd.

Many, many people around the country have not been in physical contact with anyone else for a long, long time. In some cases, for months. People are still suffering from social isolation, from limited and limiting conversation from behind a mask, at a socially-acceptable distance of six feet—or more. Have you felt isolated and alone? Have any of your extended family, or loved ones, or friends been in that situation? Jesus would be able to give you a hug, for sure. As a Shepherd, Jesus would certainly lift up and carry little lambs in His arms.

Can you imagine how comforting that would feel, to be held in the arms of our Lord Jesus? What a wonderful feeling, to be protected and made secure by our Heavenly Shepherd.

For those who did not know, I am in the middle of a 4-part community video series involving the recent months, the pandemic and the shelter-in-place order in Illinois. This series is in collaboration with the Morton Grove Chamber of Commerce. I am the host and narrator for the project, and we are very grateful to the Village of Morton Grove and associated departments for all their help in making this series a reality.

As I think back a month, to the beginnings of this idea for a video series, it all started with a conversation. Or rather, two conversations, with Father Dennis and with Mark, the Director of the Chamber of Commerce. In both, we talked about how disconnected and discouraged many people felt. All three of us – Father Dennis, Mark, and I – had many people sharing with us how disheartened they were, for a number of reasons, all stemming from the pandemic, the shelter-in-place, and the social isolation that gripped so many across our nation.

Which leads me back again to this verse from Matthew 9:36, where the Rabbi Jesus spoke of compassion, and nurture, and how Jesus cares for each of us as His sheep. Jesus did not just preach from a pulpit, or up front on a raised platform, separated from all the other sheep—I mean, people. No, Jesus had compassion on these lost sheep.

Jesus felt such love and compassion towards these members of the house of Israel, He felt it deep down to his “splachna,” down to His guts, or bowels. According to the original Greek, in the first century, to be moved right down to one’s bowels was to be moved with compassion, or to have compassion inside. The bowels – or guts – were thought to be the seat of love and pity at that time. This expression denotes the very heart of Jesus’ understanding and personhood.

With Jesus, His compassion was not impersonal or disembodied. He did not simply see abstract problems that could be explained away. Instead, Jesus had compassion on real people. He saw each individual, the real self inside, and considered each one worthy of compassion and care. To know that someone has seen the real self, hidden underneath and still manages to love and accept us. What a profound difference that makes in our lives, in our hearts, in our self-image. Can we do less when we seek to engage the community around us?” [1]

What an earth-shattering thing, for Jesus to see us, to know us deeply, down to our hearts. We can praise God for this wonderful certainty, even as we are in the midst of such anxiety and fear. As a community, we can gather together to name our stresses and losses, and to grieve and mourn. Yet, Jesus shows us how to have compassion on ourselves and on others.

Morton Grove and the surrounding neighborhoods are finding resilience, togetherness, hope and even joy. Praise God for the example of our Lord Jesus. We can join (virtual) hands in community. Is there any better, more holy calling than to make friends with everyone we meet?

Remember, God loves everyone, no matter who. And, we might be surprised at who becomes our new friend in the Lord as we show compassion, too.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/open-our-eyes/second-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-lectionary-planning-notes/second-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-preaching-notes

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Together with Christ

“Together with Christ”

John 14-3 prepare a place, words

John 14:1-7 (14:3-4) – May 10, 2020

When I was in middle school and high school, I attended a Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin for several years. I vividly remember the girls who got so homesick while they were there. Several really missed home, and needed lots of TLC, tender loving care, for a few days. Have you ever been homesick? Can you relate to the frightened, heartsore feelings of these girls?

I don’t remember being homesick, but I can remember feeling scared at camp. I can remember being really scared on other occasions, too. I wonder if the disciples got scared while they traveled with the Rabbi Jesus from place to place? From what we know about Him, Jesus was an itinerant Rabbi, with no real home, no place to call home base.

What must that have been like, not having anywhere to call home? The Rabbi Jesus and His followers, His disciples kept moving from place to place. Different people react to being on the road a lot in different ways. It can be stressful and cause people considerable anxiety.

Added to that, all of the disciples knew very well that their Rabbi was not viewed positively by many Jewish leaders. Repeatedly, prominent Jewish teachers and lawyers had argued with Jesus. A group of leaders actively opposed this upstart Rabbi with the radical ideas and preaching, even if Jesus was a miracle worker.

The situation when the band of disciples entered Jerusalem must have been tense, to be sure. That Passover dinner on that Thursday night was not the most comfortable, I imagine. Yet, what does our Lord Jesus say to His disciples at that meal? How does He deal with this tense situation? Jesus says, “Don’t be worried! Have faith in Me!”

Have faith? Don’t worry? Listen, Jesus, Your friends have been on the road with You for many months. They are tired, they are tense, they have no home base to go back to. What do You mean, saying to them, Have faith and don’t worry!? Isn’t that expecting a lot from these guys? Isn’t that expecting a lot from us, Your followers today?

The next words are nothing but reassurance, comfort. He says, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I wouldn’t tell you this unless it was true. I’m going to prepare a place for you. And if I go, I will come back and take you with Me. And then, we will be together.” Total reassurance and comfort. Jesus encourages His disciples just as much as He encourages us.

However—Jesus’s disciples just don’t understand. They can’t get their minds around the metaphor Jesus is using. They mistake His reference to a heavenly house to a real, geographical space. Thomas—who likes concrete explanations, remember—asks for exact directions to plug into his GPS. [1]        How often are we like Thomas?

How often do we need (or want) exact directions, or latitude and longitude, or a detailed list of bullet-pointed things to do? And how often are we told by Jesus that we already know the way? We know Jesus, who is the Way. Precisely because Thomas knows Jesus—precisely because we know Jesus—we cannot become irrevocably lost.

Last week was Good Shepherd Sunday. We talked about the psalm for that week, Psalm 23. I can see definite tie-ins for that beloved psalm with this week’s Gospel reading, as well. Who does not relate to the idea of God shepherding us when we are lost? Who yearns for God to spread a feast in front of us, and to welcome us to the Good Shepherd’s heavenly home?

This week is the Fifth Sunday of Easter. Today is also Mother’s Day, traditionally celebrated on the second Sunday of May. This heartwarming adaptation of Psalm 23 is not only a reminder of that beloved psalm, but also a celebration of mothers.

It was written by Laurie Hays Coffman, and is called A Child Learns to Trust. [2] It says:

“My Mom is my shepherd; I shall not want. She makes me lie down under cool, downy comforters. She watches me play beside still waters. She restores my soul. She leads me in paths of respect, responsibility, and goodness, for I am her namesake! Yea, even though I walk past monsters in the dark, I will not be scared, because my mom is always near me. Her hands and her voice, they comfort me. Mama sets the table and cheerfully calls me to dinner even in front of big, mean bullies. She anoints my skinned knees and broken heart with kisses. She smiles and throws me a towel when my cup runneth over. Surely God’s peace, power, and mercy shall uphold me all the days of my life, for my Mother taught me to dwell in the house of God forever.

Yes, this is an imaginative way to think of Psalm 23. And, this adaptation gets across several of the same ideas that Jesus communicated to His disciples at that Passover dinner, too.

Do we take Jesus’s word as true? Even though it’s an anxious time right now, do we trust Jesus to carry us and remain with us—walk with us, even through the dark valleys?

We are in uncharted territory right now, quarantined, apart from each other. Can we hold on to Jesus’s promise that between now and whenever we are all together again, Jesus is showing us the way? His way! Yes, we may walk through dark places and shadowy spaces now, but Jesus our Good Shepherd stays right by our side.

Jesus also said He’d prepare a place for us—a room for us in His Heavenly Father’s house. Jesus assured us we would be reunited with Him at that heavenly banquet. What a celebration that will be! Jesus said so. We can count on it. Praise the name of Jesus!

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3218

David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[2] https://www.desperatepreacher.com/mothersday.htm

Compassion for People in Need

Matthew 9:35-38 (9:36) – July 9, 2017

Matt 9-36 compassion, words

“Compassion for People in Need”

Who do we know today who comes to help people in need? Our Lord Jesus talked about sheep and shepherds in our Gospel message today. If you were to think of a modern example of a shepherd—someone who guides, protects, and cares—what or who comes to mind, especially in our neighborhood?

Let’s hold that thought in our minds and hear what Jesus said again. Jesus traveled all around the wider area, teaching in all of the local places of worship, the synagogues. As He went from place to place proclaiming the Good News, Jesus had compassion for the crowds, who were milling around aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd.

Taking a closer look at these bible verses, I think I know what “compassion” is, but I wanted to see what a proper, in-depth word study on the word “compassion” had to say. According to one word study, “Com-passio literally means to “suffer with.”  In Latin, com means “with” and passio means “to suffer.”  “Passion” is suffering, which is why we talk about “the Passion of Christ” during Holy Week.” [1]

In other words, Jesus was suffering with His fellow Israelites while He was traveling around the country. Jesus saw them hurting, and His heart went out to them. “True love … involves suffering.  Suffering is an inevitable consequence of the deep joy that comes with binding oneself to the heart and soul of another.” [2]

Our Gospel lesson from Matthew said Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We are going to take a tour through the Bible, tracing these words and these terms. This description using the word “compassion” and the term “sheep without a shepherd” is awfully similar to a description from the Hebrew Scriptures in Ezekiel 34. Picture this: the prophet said the nation of Israel is seen as sheep scattered over the mountains without a shepherd, lost, in danger. Sound familiar?

I understand that sheep are dumb animals. This word image is used over and over in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Herding and keeping the sheep together is a big concern with sheep. Without someone to guide them, they move about aimlessly. They get lost. They wander off and often pay little attention to what is going on around them, especially dangers and difficulty. “This is the spiritual state of the people in today’s passage, and we see that in Jesus’s actions to teach the people. “ [3]

I would like to return to the word “compassion.” We looked at the Latin roots of that word, but the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek. If we take a closer look at what the Greek word “compassion” means, we see the word splagchna, which appears in the letter to the Philippians. The Apostle Paul’s words in the King James Version say: “I long after you all with the bowels of Jesus Christ.”  The word splagchna means “bowels” – literally, the innards in your belly.  It’s an earthy image that might offend some.

“The people of the ancient world believed that all of the most intense feelings originated in the belly.  For them, “guts” did not mean “courage,” but depth of feeling.  It’s easy for us to understand why they would believe that, because when we feel anxious or afraid, our stomachs churn.  Our lower innards give away how much we are affected by our circumstances.  Splagchna oiktirmou means something like “’the bowels of deep feeling.’” [4]

We are talking about Jesus feeling deep feelings right down to His guts. Literally.

We have some vivid images here. Lost, defenseless sheep. Jesus feeling deep feelings for those sheep, right down to the bowels of deep feeling. Right down to His guts.

But, Jesus does not leave those lost sheep defenseless, afraid and isolated. No! He has recruited helpers. Shepherds sometimes have assistants or guard dogs that help them with their job. If you were to think of a modern example of a shepherd—someone who guides, protects, and cares—what or who comes to mind, especially in our neighborhood?

Think of an accident or a fire. Or, someone getting lost, especially a child. Who shows up? Who are the first people on the spot in an emergency situation? I was thinking of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders. What about people like social workers, trauma workers, and the medical team from a hospital’s emergency department or intensive care unit? They protect, guide and care for people in trouble, today.

That is the depth, the enormity of what our Lord Jesus was thinking of, in this reading today. In observing his fellow people of Israel, He was moved with compassion down to His guts, His “innards.”

And, what was Jesus’s compassionate response? Jesus did what He could to meet their spiritual needs—with salvation!

If we were to see a child running ahead of their parents or caregiver down the sidewalk, and that child went toward a busy street, what would any sensible person do? They would run to save the child, and stop him or her from running out in traffic. That’s what Jesus wants to do here, in our Scripture passage.

Let’s think about us, today. We are described as sheep. I own that. I realize that I am sometimes stubborn as a sheep. I sometimes wander off, blithely going in my own direction, away from the way that I know God wants me to go. And, sometimes I get lonely and lost. I get turned around and don’t know the way back to my home, to that safe place where people love me, care for me, and are concerned for my welfare. Does anyone else relate to these deep, anxious, lonely feelings? Are there some other sheep out there, in this congregation?

Jesus offers us salvation. He offers us the opportunity to become a sheep in His flock, a lamb in His tender care. Jesus is doing this out of the compassion of His heart, just as He did for His fellow countrymen, the fellow Jews in the country of Israel. Remember, Jesus saw the people as lost, alone, without direction.

How has Jesus been a shepherd for you, in your life? Either today, recently, or at a time when you really needed it? Has Jesus cared for someone close to you, for a loved one or a dear friend? Jesus is doing this out of the compassion, the deep feeling of His “innards.”

What is more, Jesus offers us the opportunity to show compassion to each other. We can show our friends, our loved ones, even absolute strangers the same compassion. We all know that feeling when we feel anxious or afraid, when our stomachs churn.  Our lower innards give away how much we are affected by our circumstances.  That is how deeply we are to feel with compassion! We are urged to go out of our way and care for others.

Can you think of ways in which you can show compassion this week? Nothing would make our God happier than to have us walk in our Lord Jesus’s steps and show compassion to others, today, and every day.

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] Compassion in the New Testament (Part 1) http://www.jmarklawson.com/traveling-in-place/2012/03/compassion-in-the-new-testament-part-1.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/sheep-without-shepherd/  Ligonier Ministries – The Teaching Fellowship of R.C. Sproul

[4] Compassion in the New Testament (Part 1) http://www.jmarklawson.com/traveling-in-place/2012/03/compassion-in-the-new-testament-part-1.html 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Sought by God

“Sought by God”

luke-15-lost-word-cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 11, 2016

Many people have expectations of leaders and important people. I am not sure whether these expectations are realistic or not, but regardless—many people do have them. Think of teachers or professors. Executive directors, or CEOs. Partners in executive firms, or coaches of athletic teams. And—what about pastors and ministers? Leaders of houses of faith? Do people have expectations of them? Sometimes, unrealistic or disapproving expectations? Of course they do.

Here in Luke 15 we have a crowd of tax collectors and “sinners” gathered around the Rabbi Jesus. But, the Pharisees and teachers of the Mosaic Law Code—the righteous religious people—were disapproving. These self-righteous folk had misconceptions. They had the wrong kind of expectations about how the Rabbi Jesus was “supposed to” minister. Imagine that!

Let’s take a step back, and look at the setting of this passage for today. Luke 15:1-2 tells us that the Rabbi Jesus ”welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It seems to be the case that Jesus was the host at dinner—at least, part of the time. But that isn’t the main thing, for the self-righteous folks. What about those tax collectors and “sinners?” What was the matter with them?

Yes, it was all about those evil, disreputable “sinners.” The people who did not keep the Mosaic Law Code were considered “sinners,” by the orthodox, observant Jews. A Pharisee and any of his family were forbidden to have anything to do with “those people.” No business dealings, and certainly no meals together.  According to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus was mixing in really bad company, especially for a decent, self-respecting Rabbi. At least—that was an unrealistic expectation a lot of people had about Him.

Luke chapter 15 is all about Jesus telling three stories. The first two stories—the two parables we had read to us in our Gospel passage today—could be about anyone, anyone at all. Not necessarily about Pharisees, observant people who were extremely strict about keeping the Mosaic Law, but about anyone. Anyone at all.

Do you remember high school groups and cliques? The popular kids, the cool kids. The math nerds, the science geeks. The jocks, the honors students. The Pharisees and teachers of the Mosaic Law considered themselves to be the ultra-cool kids. The kids who wouldn’t hang out with anyone else. They were the only kids who were going to make it into the presence of God. Everyone else? Tough luck. No way. Maybe—just maybe if the other people followed the Mosaic Law especially closely, dotting every “I” and crossing every “t”. Maybe, just maybe, God would allow the other groups and cliques into heaven, too.

What does Jesus say to these ultra-cool kids, these Pharisees and teachers of the Law, He tells some stories. The first story is about a shepherd and his hundred sheep. It was hard work being a shepherd. There was not a lot of arable pasture land in Palestine. Being a shepherd took a great deal of grit, persistence, and self-sacrifice. In this story, the shepherd lost one of his sheep—one out of one hundred.

To today’s loss prevention and quality assurance mindset, one sheep lost out of one hundred was an acceptable loss. Think of the rough and rocky terrain. Expecting a shepherd to keep track of all hundred sheep? To some people, that could be an unrealistic expectation. Shrinkage happens. It isn’t a huge deal. Except—to that one little lost sheep. What’s more, shepherds were excellent at tracking. They were personally responsible for each sheep under their care.

Let’s take a look at the second story. The Rabbi Jesus tells a parable about a woman. (Unusual for the Bible! Out of the ordinary for Jesus, too.) Reading from Luke 15:8-9, “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ “

This second parable is a similar story about a lost thing. The typical Palestinian home was not huge. One room, two at most. Can you imagine this woman, losing a precious silver coin? The interior of the house probably did not have many windows. So even in the daytime the interior was dark, necessitating the lighting of a lamp. Can you see her sweeping carefully, methodically, listening for the clink of a metal coin?

The woman’s coin was lost. It didn’t grow legs and run away. All the same, the coin was lost. The sheep may have strayed away, but it still got lost. Both parables have lost things. What is to be done?        

Let’s go back to the ultra-cool kids, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. If you can imagine such a thing, they avoided all contact with anyone—anyone at all—who did not keep the Mosaic Law Code to the absolute maximum degree. If you can go a further step in your imagination, these ultra-cool, ultra-strict Jews looked forward to the destruction of the “sinners.” Not, as Jesus said in 15:7, ”I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” And in 15:10,  10 ”In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

This is something radically different. Jesus sends a message of lost and found. Jesus sends the welcoming message to everyone, to anyone, a message of radical welcome. At least, as far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law are concerned.

Both of these parables are about God seeking the lost. How dare God forgive sinners! This is about false expectations about God, just as much as Pharisees had false expectations about Jesus.

Do we have false expectations about God? Is there someone who we don’t think God should look for? The woman in the parable was diligent in finding that lost coin. The shepherd was determined to seek out that lost sheep.

As one of the commentators on this passage said, “Many of the flocks were communal flocks, belonging, not to individuals, but to villages. There would be two or three shepherds in charge. Those whose [sheep] were safe would arrive home on time and bring news that one shepherd was still out on the mountain side searching for a sheep which was lost. The whole village would be upon the watch. When, in the distance, they saw the shepherd striding home with the lost sheep across his shoulders, there would rise from the whole community a shout of joy and of thanksgiving.” [1]

Do we have faulty expectations about God? Or, is the woman from the parable diligent to search and search, turn her whole house topsy turvy until she finds that lost coin? Is the Great Shepherd of the sheep concerned about absolutely every sheep that wanders away—no matter what? That is the picture Jesus paints for us in these two parables. God knows the joy of finding someone who was lost. No Pharisee ever dreamed of a God like that, a God with extravagant welcome, a God who would seek and save the lost, no matter what.

And both parables? They end with a grand celebration. “Then the shepherd calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” God does not want sinners—or anyone else—to be lost. These stories from Jesus illustrate that the goodness and mercy of God is for everyone, especially the most neglected and despised. Truly, good news for us all. Alleluia, amen!

 

[1] Barclay, William, The Gospel of Luke (The Daily Study Bible Series), (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975).

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

One Who Brings Peace

“One Who Brings Peace”

Micah 5-5 He will be our peace

Micah 5:5 – December 20, 2015

Peace. Peace is the subject today. Today we light the Advent candle of peace. Here, inside the church, it seems like peace is a realize-able actuality. But—not on the outside. Not out in the cold, cruel world. Peace, peace, is the cry! Here in the 21st century, we have wars and the rumors of war. Fighting, skirmishes, various attacks of various kinds. Will anyone hear our cry for peace? Will anyone—anywhere—heed our cry?

In biblical times, there was always some tribe or country beating up on another tribe or country. Always somebody marching off to war. To enlarge territory, or to gain political advantage, or to right some wrong. So seldom did the nation of Israel have true peace! Much of this book of the prophet Micah deals with war, conflict and fighting. Except for right here.

Our Gospel reading from Luke tells of the pregnant Virgin Mary going to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who prophecies that Mary has within her the baby Jesus, the Son of God. Usually, the Scripture readings are chosen with great care. Chosen with an eye to common themes. So, what is in common, here? The prophecy of a strong leader to come, from our Old Testament text, and the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah, from our Gospel reading.

Here we are at the fourth Sunday of Advent. We have had Advent for a long time. Since the last week of November. I can just hear the children saying, “When is Christmas finally going to get here?” Some schools have already gotten out for the winter holidays. I know some local churches are featuring a Christmas cantata today, or a Christmas pageant in worship.

Yet here we all are. The last Sunday of Advent. Isn’t Christmas here yet? Isn’t it time for angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph and the Baby in a manger? Can’t we hurry things along?

As we look at the prophecy in Micah, we can see that the prophet is certainly not thinking about warm and fuzzy Christmas carols. Not about the lion lying down with the lamb, about God reaching down and bringing peace on earth, good will towards all people. Or, is he? What is Micah saying in our reading today?

Yes, a strong leader will rise up. Who do you think Micah’s contemporaries thought the prophet was talking about? I was fascinated to read in one commentary that most people would connect this strong leader to King David. But, wait! David had been dead for two hundred years, by the time that Micah wrote his prophecy. How could the Jewish people think “David” when they heard prophetic words like this?

Because—because of the prophecy of David’s prophet Nathan from 2 Samuel 7. A direct descendant of David would be king. God had promised King David that exact thing. So, who else could this strong leader be but a direct descendant of the great King David?

All well and good! Except, it gets more complicated, fast. Micah mentions “out of you [Bethlehem] will come one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Now, I can understand a strong leader. A ruler, a mighty King. A descendant of King David. I can even understand the prophecy of a baby, from Luke, chapter one. The descendant of David needs to be born. Elizabeth prophecying and praising God that the mother of the Messiah to come was coming to see her. Okay, I’ve got that.

I am so indebted to John C. Holbert’s article on this Scripture reading. [1] I was aware of some of this material from the book of Micah, but by no means all. And never in so much depth!

Micah’s prophecy foretells a strong leader, yes. A descendant of David is presumed. (Micah doesn’t specifically say so.) Adding two and two and two together, from the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, people have ascertained that this prophecy also refers to the Messiah. And then—Micah adds the part about the ruler “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” This part definitely needs more explanation.

These phrases are a challenge to translate from Hebrew. The best that anyone can figure is that there are several meanings for these words. “Origins” can also be translated “coming forth” of old! Dr. Holbert says that God put this word ‘olam, or “ancient times,” “into human minds in such a way that they may know a bit of what has happened in the past, and a tiny portion of what may come, but just enough to teach them that they in fact know precious little about either past or future in the end. There the word appears to mean something like a very long time or deep in the past and far into the future, not quite eternity but as much as any puny human mind may conceive.”

Talk about not being able to understand Scripture. These couple of phrases blow me away. I feel small when I read this. Really young, like a preschooler. I realize I do not know very much about God or about the Bible, at all. Period. God surely can flatten me, humble me with a phrase from the prophet Micah.

But, wait! There is more! Let’s unpack this reading, further.

Holbert continues: “Who then does Micah have in mind? This is no simple heir of David; here is someone primordial, someone from the most ancient of times yet also uniquely prepared to act decisively in the present.” In other words, Micah is talking about Someone more than human. Looking forward to the future, talking about Someone who not only is the promised Messiah to come, the promised descendant of David, but also looking back to the far distant past. To the beginning of time, even beyond the beginning.

Then, in Micah 5:3, the prophet brings up the image of a woman in labor. What is our Gospel reading from Luke for today? It’s about two pregnant women. Elizabeth prophecying about the Child Mary is carrying. The Child is the Lord. The Son of God. The next verse, Micah 5:4 speaks of the promised one who will be a shepherd. Just like King David! A powerful and godly shepherd who keeps the flock safely; “and they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” Again, this is Messiah language, and more!

Who is this Messiah, anyway? Descendant of David, check. Born in Bethlehem, which is David’s ancestral home. Check. But, Micah says from ancient of days? Luke calls Him the Son of God? The Lord God Almighty?

This great Shepherd will not only be concerned with the flock of Israel, but also the flock of the entire world. And—this is the most important part to me, right now. This strong leader, this Shepherd will be our peace.

This Messiah will not just be peaceful for Israel’s sake. No! Our Messiah, our Christ, from ancient of days, will act peacefully for the safety and well-being of the whole world!

Do you hear the Good News from the prophet Micah today? This Messiah was not going to act in the way that so many other Middle Eastern potentates did. Or, for that matter, like any other earthly ruler ever has. Instead, we are told in our Scripture passage today that He will feed His flock. The Messiah’s flock will have the opportunity of living secure, safe, and peacefully under Messiah’s mighty protection. I thank God that I am one of the worldwide flock.

God extends that opportunity to everyone, so that we all can have the security and care of the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the Babe of Bethlehem, the ruling King. Praise God for God’s wonderful gift of protection and care.

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Who-Is-This-Peaceful-One-John-C-Holbert-12-11-2015

(Many thanks and much appreciation to Dr. Holbert! Wonderful article on Micah.)

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!