The gospels contrast John the Baptist with Jesus. For one thing, repentance dominates John’s message. God’s judgment is coming; the ax is poised to cut down the fruitless tree. Like a drill sergeant John readies the troops for the coming battle.
Jesus urges repentance too, but tenderness and compassion dominate his ministry. His words and actions continue the Prophet Isaiah’s message in today’s Advent reading. “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end.” Isaiah 40,1.
You must take a desert road, John says in his preaching. You must take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, but again, the way’s not hard because we walks with him. His yoke is easy, his burden light. “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.”
“I am the Good Shepherd,”Jesus says, echoing another theme from Isaiah. “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” An aria based on that text is one the highlights of Handel’s “Messiah.” Listen to it at the end of this blog.
A few years ago Carol Rothstein took the picture above of shepherds in the Jordan Valley along the road to Jericho from Galilee. Jesus and his followers likely traveled this same way on their epic journey to Jerusalem; they surely passed a scene like this. Would he have told them the story of the Good Shepherd then?
What makes Carol’s picture so interesting is the mountains in the distance. Can you imagine a shepherd taking off to search for one of his flock lost in those distant hills? What an effort it would be! The wondrous merciful love of God for each of us is like that, as our gospel today reminds us.
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it
than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.” (Matthew)
That’s a story of God’s mercy. As he ends his earthly journey, Jesus will give a powerful example of God’s mercy when he reaches out to a sheep that’s lost– the thief on the Cross–and brings him to Paradise.