He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
I can’t read these words without hearing them in my head sung to the melodies of Handel’s Messiah.
The prophet Isaiah proclaimed this message of hope to people who had lived in exile for at least forty-seven years, and their exile was not over yet. The Israelites still had two years of waiting in front of them before they would be released. Sometimes, hope can be tantalizing, almost tormenting, as we recognize that deliverance is just around the corner but it isn’t here yet.
Maybe that is why the prophet offers this image of the shepherd feeding his flock, gathering the lambs in his arms, and carrying them in his bosom. The day of their redemption is coming soon, but it is not here yet. The prophet foreshadows the Good Shepherd who one day will invite all who are weary and heavy laden to come to Him, and he will give us rest (Matthew 11:28).
We hear promises of a vaccine that will be available soon. It is tempting to throw caution to the wind, to throw away our masks, to abandon the disciplines of social distancing, and to celebrate the holidays as we normally would. But the pandemic is still here. We have not been delivered yet. I hear the message inviting us to wait, to draw near to God, to trust that the day of our redemption is drawing nigh, and to spend these days safe in the arms of the shepherd.
But I think that the message is broader than the pandemic. Many of us are held captive in other ways.
· The pandemic has obscured from view other illnesses, other diseases, that also are claiming the lives of people—sometimes because people were unable or unwilling to seek medical care because of COVID.
· Many are still suffering the anxiety of providing clothing, food, and shelter for their families, because the economic fallout from COVID will remain with us long after the virus has gone.
· Many are disoriented, looking for a renewed sense of direction and purpose, after COVID has disrupted our own lives, and the lives of our families, friends, and even the lives and ministries of our churches.
Those fears are real. The message of Isaiah does not deny those conditions; but it reminds us of the Good News of the Gospel: Emmanuel! God is with us! The word of our God will stand forever. So to you who are ill, to you who are anxious, to you who are disoriented, and to you who are simply weary, I invite you to listen to the voice of the shepherd who calls you by name and gathers you into his arms. Listen to the voice of the shepherd.
This post is adapted from a sermon preached on December 6, 2020 at Mount Zion United Methodist Church (Esmont, VA) and Scottsville United Methodist Church (Scottsville, VA).