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Title: I want to be a shepherd
Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner
Readings: Jeremiah 23:1–6, Colossians 2. 16–23
Date: 31 December 2023, First Sunday of Christmas
Each Christmas when my daughter was a child, I very naughtily told her teachers, that all Abi ever wanted to be in any Nativity play was a Shepherd. Not Mary; not an angel; not a King – but only ever, a shepherd.
Well obviously because a shepherds costume is so much simpler to organise! Some loose fitting over-sized shirt (no particular colour) and a tea towel. Simples.
In all the hassle and hurry of the weeks leading up to Christmas this was really, really helpful to me so that I didn’t have to over-think some exotic costume creation and send her as the second lobster of the nativity (You need to know your Christmas films for that reference).
So every year there was Abi dressed as a simple, no nonsense, down to earth, every-day, shepherd. Sorted.
Now, if those particular qualities appealed to me, they also seem to appeal to God.
Shepherds are everywhere in the Bible. They are there as themselves of course, but they are also used as an image for the leaders charged with looking after God’s people.
In our first reading, however, we find that the shepherds charged with protecting the sheep have become a threat to the sheep. The sheep have been destroyed and scattered by the very people called to unite them and protect them.They have failed to attend to the sheep God entrusted to their care and failed to live holy lives.
Therefore, says the Lord God of Israel,
‘I will attend to you’.
God is going to take over the care of the sheep directly. The old shepherds will disappear, and new shepherds will be raised up. God intervenes to save the people by raising up a righteous branch for the people of King David – a new King who will be a wise ruler.
For Christians the righteous branch that is promised comes to us in Christ. When Jeremiah prophesied that God would take over the work the shepherds had failed to do, we find that prophecy fulfilled in the birth of Christ. Because, as our second reading puts it,
‘For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily’.
Here is the shepherd, born amidst the people, the coming of God to lead us into the way of salvation. Baptism becomes the way through which the sheep are made part of God’s own flock – and all our trespasses are washed away, ‘erasing the record that stood against us’.
In the powerlessness of the cross the rulers of the world are disarmed, because in Christ we have a dignity that they cannot touch, and a relationship with God which nothing can divide. All the baptised are called by God to be as Christ in the world – to live Christ’s story and express in word and deed the love of God for all people.
I think the prophet Jeremiah would find countless examples in our society where leaders have not attended to needs of the people.
When shepherds’ have placed their own wants above the needs of those placed into their care. At Evensong on Christmas Day we heard Isaiah’s alternative vision of a city in the time when shepherds are faithful and God’s will is accepted with joy:
‘no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime, for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth’
The costume for a shepherd might be easy to find, but having the heart of a shepherd is a much greater challenge. As we stand on the cusp of a new year let us hope and pray – and speak and act – in ways that draw us closer to the world as God calls it to be. And let us each find in our heart the desire to be a good shepherd, and to support good shepherds, enthroning the Christ child in the centre of our lives.
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