It does us well to delve deeply into the actual words of Scripture.
One of the Acts of Discipleship is to study. The easiest place to begin studying is to look at Scripture and ask ourselves questions about what the text is telling us. Of course, there are other things that we can study as relates to our faith, but the most fundamental place to study is Scripture because Scripture is the measure against we judge all teachings. Now—while it might seem dry to speak of “studying”—just ask any school-aged kid—the truth of the matter is that without sufficient knowledge about things, anything, we are ill-equipped to understand let alone appreciate what’s going around us. We have to learn in order to be able to function. And it’s in learning more that we grow…and it’s in growing that we change…and it’s in changing that we find happiness, contentment, and peace. I have yet to find someone who’s at peace who hasn’t undergone a great deal of change, and underneath that change is a growing awareness, a learning that transforms the way they look at their life and the world around them.
And so it is that we study Scripture, we intentionally set out to learn about and, perhaps more importantly, from God’s Word so that we might grow, that we might change, and we might ultimately find peace, the peace promised from God that surpasses all understanding. The deeper we go into God’s Word, the more fundamentally we will know this peace. So let’s never grow weary of studying God’s Word.
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Of the 31,102 verses in the Bible, this one is one of the more memorable. It’s also one that belies a lot of complexity. At face value, it doesn’t seem terribly complicated. Jesus offering comfort to people. And to be sure—that’s what this verse is about. Jesus offering comfort to people. But there is a lot in this single verse, a lot that can help us better understand our relationship with God, with one another, and with all of God’s creation. Let’s take a little time today to break it apart. We’ll look at it in three parts.
The first part of the verse is “Do not be afraid.” The issue of fear is one that comes up a good bit in St. Luke’s gospel—in the whole Bible, in fact, but particularly in the gospel of Luke. When the angel greets both Zechariah and Mary to tell them they will become parents, the first thing said is “Do not be afraid.” In this chapter in particular, Luke 12, fear makes an appearance three times before coming up here. In this chapter, the people are afraid that some kind of harm will come to them or that whatever they need for this life won’t be satisfied.
Jesus now is bringing that full circle and telling the people, “Do not be afraid,” much like the angel who came to Zechariah and Mary. The angels were messengers of from God bearing this message, and now God himself in Jesus is saying, “Do not be afraid.” The reason is simple. Things are about to change. And while change can be scary, and indeed even good change can be scary, change is necessary for the old ways to fall away in order for something better to come along. “Do not be afraid” is a prelude to comfort. It sets the stage to ready our ears, minds, and hearts to receive why we shouldn’t have fear.
The next part of this verse is “little flock.” Here Jesus is speaking to the people. He is not speaking to individuals, but to a group. And the addition of the word “little” tells us Jesus is speaking kindly to the people. We might be tempted to think that calling the people a “flock” is to bring home the tender message of endearment, but that’s not the case. Sheep were, especially in the time of Jesus, seen as livestock. Like cows, pigs, and chickens today. We think of sheep as sweet animals, but to Jesus and those who lived when he did, they were to be tended and cared for, a source of income and food. Sheep were slaughtered like any other livestock. So don’t get too caught up in the sweetness of being a sheep.
No—calling the people a flock is, in fact, picking up on a long, long tradition of identifying the people of Israel as a flock of sheep. Remember that Israel was the name that God gave Jacob after he had wrestled with God, and each of his sons went on to be the namesake of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The people of Israel later came under the rule of David, the shepherd king, and all the kings after him were spoken of as the shepherds of Israel. The prophets speak out against the evil shepherds, and this is the notion that Jesus draws upon when he speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10. And what’s more, that God is the Good Shepherd who tends to his people, to his flock—who will give his life for the sheep. And so here in this verse, Jesus is speaking with lovingkindess to the people, but he is reminding them they are Israelites, the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. The people have value to God, like sheep have value to a shepherd.
This small, two-word phrase “little flock” also is a bit ironic. Jesus is speaking to the people, not to a single person. He is speaking to the flock, not the sheep. But what’s ironic about it is that the flock of the people of God is anything but tiny. In today’s first lesson we are reminded of God’s promise to Abraham, long before Jacob herded his sheep or David sat upon his throne—we are reminded of the promise God made to Abraham to make him the father of many nations. The people of God, the flock under the Good Shepherd’s care is hardly a “little flock.” It’s great and glorious flock, a constellation of many herds with sheep from across time and place. And so we know that Jesus here is reminding us, in this one word “flock,” that God’s promise isn’t simply an individual promise, but one that impacts many, many people. God cares for the masses, not just the individual.
And finally the next part of this verse is “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” in particular the “good pleasure” and “give.” Immediately before this verse, Jesus is speaking to people about their daily, bodily needs. He speaks of the ravens and the flowers of the field and how God cares for them. And tells them that if God cares for them, how much more will he not care for his children. And then the iconic line, “seek first the kingdom of God and these things will be added unto you.” Luke’s gospel doesn’t include the provision about righteousness as St. Matthew does, but we can assume that is part and parcel to seeking the kingdom. But in this verse, we are told that it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Instead of seeking the kingdom, it’s something that’s given to us, and what’s more, it’s God’s pleasure to do so. God wants to give us the kingdom and all its righteousness, all its goodness, all its peace, all its shalom. It pleases God to do this. We know this is true because it comes from the very mouth of God himself—from Jesus, Emanuel, God with us.
As you can see, this verse has a lot more going on in than meets the eye. But what difference does knowing this make for us? What difference does it make for us today?
A lot of religions, today and throughout history, focus on how to please the gods, what to do so that we can avoid the wrath of God. There are laws, rules, prescriptions and proscriptions about how to lead a life that doesn’t bring about God’s angry judgement. And even if the question of judgment or wrath or anger or some other bad consequence isn’t at play—because, believe it or not, not all religions are directed at those things like some others—there is still a seeking, a doing, a striving toward a goal, an end goal.
Many Christians today, and down through the ages, have lived lives like this—in fear of upsetting God and being banished, alone, to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And yet here Jesus is telling us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus is telling us not to be afraid, we won’t be left alone, and in fact the kingdom isn’t something that we have go looking for ourselves, but God wants to give it to us. We don’t have to find a way to please God, to earn God’s love, because God is pleased to give us the kingdom because he loves us already!
In this way, we can say that Christianity is less a religion, and is more an anti-religion. It’s not about pleasing God. It’s not about doing this or doing that right or wrong, particular rituals or rites. It’s about living in relationship with God who is well pleased with us, who loves us already. Christianity is a relationship much more than it’s a religion. True Christianity transforms us in our relationships with ourselves, with other people, and with God.
Jesus reminds us of God’s unconditional love for us today in this single verse…He reminds us that we aren’t alone—God is with us, all of us, and he protects us as a Good Shepherd, the ruler of all things. We are his sheep. We are his people. We are his. He loves us, and he doesn’t want us to be afraid. He wants us to love him, not out fear, but out of perfect joy at what he promises to give us. God is giving us righteousness in Jesus—all his goodness, all his peace, all his shalom. He wants us to love him, not in fear, but in perfect relationship with him. For perfect love casts out all fear.
When we give up fear and embrace love, things change—everything changes. We see ourselves differently. We see each other differently. We see the world God has made differently. We see God differently. When we give up fear and embrace love, we find the kingdom of God and all its righteousness, and truly, goodness and mercy shall attend us all the days of our lives and we will live in the house of God forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.