2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts bless you, Oh Lord, Our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Even as the early Christians lived in dangerous times, so also do we. The culture around us grows ever more hostile towards the people of God. We have never been truly understood by the world around us but it seems that we are even less understood today. Even as it seems the church is misunderstood by the world, within the church we don’t understand each other and every denomination seems to be separating itself from all the others. If that weren’t enough the world seems to be in chaos. Regardless of which side of the issues you are on, our country seems to be split down the middle as to the path forward. Around the world our country seems to face more and more adversaries. At every point we seem to be surrounded. It has ever been so.
Drawn to Egypt seeking food during a seven year famine, the children of Jacob (Israel), the beginnings of the people of the nation of Israel, would eventually find themselves slaves in that land. After 400 years God frees them through Moses and leads them back to Canaan. He does this not because of anything they have done but to be a sign of God’s love and mercy for all the world’s people. They weren’t chosen because they were special. They were special because they were chosen and they were chosen, blessed to be a blessing for the whole world. To remind them of this they were commanded to circumcise their male children. But they like sheep turned away, each to their own ways. This story was repeated over and over again for nearly two thousand years. Each time God’s chosen people lost their way God would raise up a new Shepherd to draw them back but time and sinful, imperfect shepherds would begin the cycle again. One of God’s most compassionate shepherds, King David, even lost his way. At the end of his life David wanted to build a house, a temple for God to dwell in, forgetting that God’s people were supposed to carry God to the nations. Like a good shepherd God desired to dwell among his sheep, his people experiencing their lives. He desired a dwelling place made not by human hands but by God himself.
As Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that Jesus came to remind the people of Israel, “the circumcision”, that they were chosen to bring peace to the nations. They were called to tell the “uncircumcision”, the Gentiles, that through the sacrifice of Christ they were now citizens of the Kingdom of God and as children of God members of God’s household. Jesus came as the good shepherd to guide God’s people into place as the foundation of God’s temple with Jesus as the cornerstone and each believer a stone forming the dwelling place of God. God, through Jesus demonstrated this relationship through the example of some of the most marginalized, lowliest people of Palestine, the shepherds.
Shepherds were considered the lowest of the low in Palestine. They were the homeless vagrants of that time and place. They could not serve as witnesses at trial as they were not considered trustworthy. They were considered unclean and were not welcome in the temple. They were often treated like thieves, much like gypsies. Despite this, God revealed the birth of his son through shepherds and used them as an example of compassionate leadership and of God’s intimate love for his people. A good shepherd cared for his flock. The shepherd provided the sheep with food, water, and shelter. The shepherd defended the sheep from harm, placing himself between the sheep and danger even offering up his life if necessary. The shepherd guarded the pen where the sheep were sheltered, sleeping near them. The shepherd was always with the sheep and if one were lost would seek them out wherever they had wandered. Jesus, declared himself the Good Shepherd but unlike those common shepherds who could never fully understand the sheep, he through the Holy Spirit dwells in us and we in him and we are God’s temple, his church.
Over the last two thousand years, that Church has done marvelous work in the world. The church has encouraged education, healing, and charity building universities, hospitals, and feeding and caring for the poor. The church has also encouraged democracy, promoting ideas such as the sanctity of each human life that has resulted in the creation of the United States and have continued to encourage freedom around the world. Yet like ancient Israel the Church has also lost site of its Shepherd, wandering away and following false shepherds too often. When the Church begins to hunker down in fear and loses sight of its mission, we no longer feel God’s presence and we become isolated and surrounded by the world around us.
Christian music artist, Michael W. Smith, recently released a praise song that reminds us that when we feel that we are surrounded, we should remember that it is God that surrounds us. The song is based on the beginning of Isaiah 61 that declares the mission of Christ and of His Church. It is the passage that Jesus stood to read in the synagogue in Nazareth.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
When we display God’s splendor through our praise, when we put on the garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair then we are able to fight against the surrounding darkness. When we look towards our Good Shepherd and lift his name in praise then we are reminded that he is in us and around us and we are in him.
The word says
“For the spirit of heaviness
Put on the garment of praise”
That’s how we fight our battles
It may look like I’m surrounded but I’m surrounded by You
This is how I fight my battles
In late 1944, American troops were overrun by a German offensive in the Ardennes Forest that would later be known as the Battle of the Bulge. A tank commander, Creighton Abrams, overheard a conversation between a soldier and a medic near Bastogne. Corporal Carson of Easy Company (the group that Band of Brothers book and show was based on) approached a medic and asked why everyone wasn’t being evacuated. The medic (whose name has been lost to history, somehow) replied, “Haven’t you heard? … They’ve got us surrounded — the poor bastards.” Right now it may look like we’re surrounded by too many difficulties to even name but we need to remember that our Good Shepherd is with us standing between us and the world. The Good Shepherd who is in us is greater than anything that is in the world. If we keep our eyes on him, if we follow where he guides us, he will give us rest and comfort. So, when it seems that we are trapped by the difficulties of this world, whether that means dealing with hostility towards freedom of religion, or if that means physical danger like many places around the world, may each of us remember our mission and our home that waits in heaven and say to ourselves, “They’ve got us surrounded again, those poor souls.” May God have mercy on them, because they’re going to need it. Amen.