By Haddon Willmer, While It Is Yet Day

Through the night, shepherds watched over their sheep.

In Psalm 23, the Lord is shepherd, and human beings “the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100.3).

Human beings need shepherds, whatever names they go under: politicians, managers, influencers. Be moved with active compassion, as Jesus was when he saw people as sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9.36).

Ezekiel saw the rulers of Israel through the metaphor of shepherding (34.1-16). He tore into the rotten politics of his time. God will call self-serving shepherds to account. Today, what a mixture of shepherds we see in the Covid enquiry, in CoP 28, in Gaza-Israel, in Ukraine, in… Too often people get shepherds who don’t care (or can’t care) for them, who feed themselves, exploiting the sheep rather than looking out for them.

Ezekiel also called people to hope in God for good shepherding: “I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice”.  And “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays” – rescuing even the one in a hundred from deadly loneliness, gathering them into his life (John 10.1-18, Luke 15.1-7).

The Christmas angel said the same thing in another way: “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2 10-12).

Good shepherding is in process, even if its only sign is paradoxical, a baby in the darkness.  But in God’s grace a baby is a happy, if fragile, promise. A tiny seed starting on a life-time’s way, proving along the way a strong, humble Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

Not that Jesus does all the shepherding needed in this interdependent world of frail and wonderful creatures. Jesus called people to share his work: “Peter, since you love Me, feed my sheep” (John 21.15-19). It means being neighbour to people we come across casually, doing what is called for by their plight, in the moment and later, till they are restored to life (Luke 10.25-37).

Cain, where is your brother? A bad shepherds answer: “How should I know?  Am I my brother’s keeper? Anyway, that one is not my brother” (Genesis 4. 5-9).

A great Christmas read – hopeful, honest, bracing – is Rory Stewart’s Politics at the Edge (2023). It’s a sobering (but now, not surprising) uncovering of bad shepherding in the ongoing night of British politics, by a humble man who is not afraid to argue in parliament that “in the end what matters…is the human ties that bind us in the name of love” (p 137). As Prisons Minister, he got on learning practical shepherding, “loving strict” (p 304). There is more than a whiff of the angel’s message to the shepherds in this book.