Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation
As I helped my daughter put together the nativity set, I was confused. It wasn’t hard finding the larger parts of the set. The stable, the manger, the magi, and the animals. I found Mary, and set her in her place. But where was Jesus? Ahh, there he was in Mary’s arms … one of those radical nativity scenes that doesn’t have Jesus laying in the manger.
I was also confused in my search for Joseph. We had to look it up online. I mistook him for one of the shepherds. And then there they were: the shepherds. The ones who were in the fields and who, according to Luke’s gospel were the first to hear the announcement of the birth of Jesus brought by the angels. Their faces gave them away. The warm gaze of care that we expect shepherds to have.
Then today here comes Ezekiel shattering the beautiful nativity put together so carefully. He talks about shepherds that don’t look like our shepherds. He tells about shepherds who have not fed the sheep, but instead fattened themselves with what was intended for the sheep. They wear the sheep’s wool, and the butcher the healthiest among the sheep. For the most part, however, the sheep are weak and helpless against the predators. The shepherds are not focused on the sheep, at all.
In the last several years, I have read that we are suffering crises of leadership. In civil government … in the corporate world … in institutions of higher learning … in our churches, just to name a few. While there are many different ways to talk about the leadership vacuum, one of the keys to understanding ineffective leadership is found in this passage.
The shepherds against whom Ezekiel prophesies are the leaders of Israel … the religious leaders many of whom are also those who govern politically. Ezekiel seems to be writing about 30 years after King Josiah discovered many of the Hebrew scriptures that had been lost to the people. When Josiah realized how far his people had strayed from the laws of God, he instituted what would come to be known as deuteronomic reforms (meaning “second law” or “second telling of the law”).
The people of both the southern and northern kingdoms of Judah and Israel were astray like lost sheep, and when these reforms failed to bring the people back to God, Ezekiel saw the complicity of these “shepherds” who had failed to care for God’s sheep.
Leadership that becomes focused on the leader, you see, is not leadership. Sir John Dalberg-Acton, in a letter to Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton dated April 1887, wrote that doctrines of infallibility of either Pope or King was irresponsible. “Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Shepherds and leaders who make it about themselves and their own infallibility are destined to be corrupt.
Where, then, is God in this narrative? We have a God, you see, who is all about being poured out. We have a God who is focused on the poor and the most vulnerable among us. We have a God who is fulfilled when the children of God experience fulfillment. We have a God who cares for the sheep and who comes to claim the sheep.
The True Shepherd is the one for whom we wait. In the meantime, perhaps it would do us well to practice shepherding by pouring ourselves out for God’s sheep, no matter who they may be.
God Our Shepherd: Bless us as we seek to find our place among the sheep in your fold. Empower those who lead to lead with your shepherd’s heart as shown to us through Jesus Christ. Amen.