Years ago, a professor at my seminary told me that one of the main troubles with the church is that people start out to learn to be Godly and end up being sort of Lordly instead. Like the difference between religiosity and spirituality, and the difference between good shepherd-servants and bad ruler-kings as well.
Lordliness might be "putting on" religion like a role or robe to wear: as a face or mask for meeting the world: maybe it’s like “Church-ianity" rather than Christ-ianity but the most radical difference between Lordly and Godly can be seen most clearly in the breech between word and deed. But the fact is that most of us talk a better game than we live, so we need to be understanding and forgiving when we see that in others, because we all fall into that kind of hypocrisy at one time or another, and there is nothing new about it.
Because there is the same disparity in Jerusalem in the sixth century BC, in our first lesson, when the people on their way to exile are asking Jeremiah "what went wrong?" Jeremiah answers that the shepherds who were called to protect and gather have destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture! And he prophesies both a small threat and a big promise. To the false shepherds, those Lordly people, he says that God, “will attend to you for your evil doings.” But to the people of God they were called to protect, Jeremiah prophesies that God, “will gather the remnant, bring them back to their fold, and will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing... “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
And that’s both very big and very good news: not only a new vision of shepherd, but a new vision of kingdom; not only a new way of being religious in the world, but a whole new world.
So time passes, life goes on, and there are exiles and wars and new attempts to build the peaceable kingdom that don’t do all that well.
And then this shepherd-king Jesus shows up and brings it together. First he does the deep work of mercy: he strengthens the weak, heals the sick and the lame, brings back the lost and those who have strayed. He searches them out and calls them home with infinite mercy in his voice; even calls them by name.
But he goes further than this. He pours out himself for them as living water for the thirsty and hungry, the poor and those with no home, wanderers and beggars of God. He becomes sustenance, bread and wine for them. He not only acts out but he serves to flesh out, pour out, an understanding of how God loves us and feeds us, of who we are, and of how we are to be to one another.
For he is not only a servant and a shepherd, but a king and more than a king. He is what one Baptist preacher called “the place where God hugs humanity to himself”. You can say that Jesus is the absolute antithesis of Lordly; and instead the full picture of Godly: not only a real king but a true servant, not only a true servant but a full picture of what it means to be a human being alive with the glory of God.
And in the end who he is - as God and human, as a shepherd and a king - says everything about who we are: our meaning and our ministry in the place where God meets humanity; in this kingdom that is coming even here and now.
Maybe that’s why we need four Gospels, because it’s so complex. We can look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John like four family photo albums with their collections of snaps on the life and ministry of Jesus. There are different pictures and various kinds of focus in each gospel, for each one has unique concerns, but in all there is a consistency of caring, of charity, that brings God's love home.
And when you really look at the pictures over time, then a strange thing happens; you start to see the paradox of what our Epistle for today calls the "fullness of God" dwelling in human form. It might even look like a double exposure!
For here is our King Jesus, the good shepherd, the rule of God's love, as a human being; feeling hunger, thirsting, crying, having family problems, organisational difficulties, clashing with the prevailing political and religious establishment, and finally becoming one with homeless sinners, those who cry and cry out, one with people who have no voice and no name. And being put to death by the state as a false king, Jesus becomes one with those who are written off as officially expendable.
And I believe this Royal gift, this shepherd ministry, the light of this life lived out in love is a way to insure that we are safe from being caught in the trap of Lordliness, but rather drawn into the deep embrace of Godliness, into our ministry in the reconciling ministry of Christ.
It isn’t easy. C. S. Lewis writes, in The Lion. The Witch and The Wardrobe, when the lion Aslan, the Son of Emperor Over-Sea, comes to save the people of Narnia from the curse of a cold winter, comes to bring them a new spring, one character asks in a rather Lordly tone: "This lion, is he safe?" and the response comes immediately; "of course he's not safe, but he's good!"
Jesus is like that. He shows us that there is no place where we might be safe from the surprise of God. No place where the love and largess of God might not be found, no place where this ruler might be ruled out. For in the life of Jesus, God is hugging all of humanity to himself, calling out our names, bringing all stray sheep to be found in the heart of his love. And this is our salvation and our hope and our destiny and our ministry and the reason why mere Lordliness will never be enough.
For we are a people finally called by God to be both completely human and fully holy, and that - I think - finally means that each of us is called to take up the risk to be prophetic shepherds and servant rulers: not safe, but good; not Lordly, but Godly.
As Bishop Athanasius said in the late third century, in Jesus, God becomes one with humanity so humanity can become one with God.
In Christ, the inconceivable wholeness of God has come to be seen in the holiness of humanity, that God’s flock may be fed, God’s kingdom come, and God’s will will be done: and we are called, all of us, to join Jesus in that wonderful work.
It is almost the season of Advent, our shepherd king, our friend and saviour, our Lord and God draws near. Come, let us adore him.