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Advent & Shepherd Leadership, Part 1

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Matthew 2 recounts the story of Magi visiting the Messiah, Shepherd King. I encourage you to read it again for the first time.

One of the striking aspects of this account for me is that all the characters – Herod, the chief priests and teachers of the law, Mary – seem to take the news from the magi seriously. Strange, don’t you think?  Why?  Why didn’t they just dismiss these star chasing Eastern astrologers?  Why didn’t the current King of the Jews, true to his character just cut off their heads?  I wonder what it was about ‘those wise ones’ that made even Herod the Great and Terrible, pay attention– Perhaps it was their sincerity, perhaps it was their earnestness and devotion to and belief in their quest…

Perhaps it was because there was something about what the magi were describing that rang true…  Judea was expecting a king and a good one. But any King, perhaps especially a good one would be a threat to Herod, so Herod imagining that he could control history, summoned ALL the religious big wigs, all of them to confirm what the prophets said about this potential rival and then slaughter every male child under 2 in the region, the violence of those who seek power and control.

But in contrast, the prophet Micah declares in Matthew 2:6:

…out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.

Shepherd my people…. the idea of a shepherd leader would have been very familiar to Matthew’s original audience though not so much to us 21st century North American urban dwellers for whom, if you’re like me, the closest we’ve come to shepherding is watching the movie Babe. And even that is not very helpful, as there were no sheep dogs in the Ancient East, let alone sheep pigs! Sheep and shepherds however were as integral to everyday life in Bible times as bread and water. Not only were they common as a reality, they were a familiar part of the religious language and story of the people. The First Testament is laced with sheep, and shepherds like Abel, Abraham, Moses, Rachel and David of Bethlehem. Furthermore there are numerous descriptions of other leaders and rulers as good and bad shepherds for instance in Ezekiel, Nahum, Zephaniah, Zechariah and of Godself, as a Shepherd-Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd; Psalm 80, Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!  – At least 10 other Psalms; in the prophetic writings including Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah and even already in Genesis….the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day (Genesis 48:15)  … because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (Genesis 49:24).

A shepherd was the ideal of kingship according to Old Testament writers; a humble, trustworthy ruler who led as one of, from among, didn’t lord it over, wasn’t out for selfish gain. David was described for example in 2 Sam 5:2, as “standing and feeding his flock in the strength of the Lord”.  But somehow in the face of political servitude and economic oppression, this portrayal of the Messiah in the minds of the Jews in Jesus’ day was replaced with the desire for a ruler who would come in triumph and conquer in glory… how ironic, as the Sent One lies in a manger, innocent and vulnerable, taking on our frailties, bearing our burdens that He might rule, the Shepherd’s way…

So what is the shepherd’s way? How exactly does a shepherd rule? Not like a rancher –  THINK OLD WESTERN movies…. Ranchers herding cattle come from behind with prods and pokes, with whips and lassoes, steering their beasts in whatever way they can– making them go where they want them to- enforcing their will… with fear and intimidation…. sound familiar? Like any rulers we know?

Shepherds in contrast, assume a different posture, leading from among – like a team mentor, or a player-coach or a director-actor or FOLLOWERS OF JESUS ON MISSION TOGETHER IN A PARTICULAR PLACE.  In our community, we talk a lot about what it means to lead from among…. In John 10, Jesus Himself tells us what a Shepherd ruler is and does, affirming this Matthew text that was spoken over him as an infant. I encourage you to read that passage again for the first time and ponder anew the nature of a shepherd leader who unlike the Herods and ranchers of this world, gains the love, respect and faithfulness of his followers by coming alongside, caring and putting the needs of the sheep first…. I wonder what this means for missional leaders in neighbourhoods today…

Shepherds know their sheep (John 10:3,4).  The child in the manger will be a shepherd who knows His sheep- who knows you and me- not knows of –but knows, who calls by name…  Though there be billions of people who have and do and will walk this earth, still Jesus knows each one by name – your neighbours, your family, your co-workers…the lost, the broken, the hungry, the lonely, the hurting ones…He calls each one by name and leads them…

Oh that they, and we, would follow.

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