His Name Shall Be Called: Everlasting Father*
And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This week we turn to what is perhaps the strangest of these four titles for the Christ-Child, the Messiah. Today, we think about what it means to think of Jesus as Everlasting Father. We’re familiar, of course, with thinking about God as a parent. Jesus frequently speaks of God as Father, even Abba, Dad, a familiar, intimate title. But how can we think of Jesus, the Son in the Father-Son relationship, the Son in the Trinity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit, as Everlasting Father?
When Isaiah was writing this oracle, when he was hoping and longing for a ruler for Judah who would redeem the people. They are headed for war. They are perilously close to being conquered, overthrown, driven from their homes and their way of life and the practice of their faith. But Isaiah has this hope, this vision of what a ruler might be. And when Isaiah calls the ruler Everlasting Father, he’s using language that would have resonated with his audience. In a patriarchal society, the father was the traditional head of the family. The father exercised the most power and the most responsibility. (34) But the role and responsibility of the father is all based on the way God operates in the world. In other words, God is the model, the true Everlasting Father, and earthly parents embody true parenthood in as much as they emulate the character of God, Everlasting Father.
So what is God like as Everlasting Father? Everlasting means reliable care and protection. You can depend on something that is everlasting. It isn’t wavering, there sometimes and missing others. It is a constant, enduring force. God, and God’s care for us, love for us, is everlasting. In a world of short attention spans, God’s everlastingness is a precious treasure. As a parent, God can get angry, when we hurt each other, when we don’t listen, when we walk away from God. But, our kinship with God – that is, because we’re God’s family, God’s anger is “not the last word.” (37) And God’s role as our parent is also to protect the most vulnerable. Throughout the scriptures, we find that God has particular care and compassion for what is sometimes called “the quartet of the vulnerable” – the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. God takes action, again and again, through the law, through God’s leaders, through the work and words of the prophets, to highlight protection of the most vulnerable. This is what God, Everlasting Father, does.
And God expected that the kings, the rulers of God’s people, would have been about this work as well. The task of the king was to emulate as much of God’s character as possible, to be a servant leader. And so a king was meant to be Everlasting Father too, because they “[guarantee] the well-being of the family, clan, or tribe, and eventually the state.” (39-40) A king’s task was to make sure that the society was prospering and flourishing, and that couldn’t truly happen unless the needy and vulnerable were protected too. (40)
But, there’s been a failure. The kings of God’s people have not been doing their fatherly duty. Instead, they’ve been self-indulgent, self-interested. (41-42) And so, God, the true Everlasting Father will step in and do what has been left undone. That’s where we find ourselves in our text from Ezekiel today.
Ezekiel is writing in the time of the Babylonian exile. This comes after the times of Isaiah, but it’s all tied up in the same narrative. Since Isaiah’s time, Judah hasn’t really been in control, in power, and has instead been open to foreign attack and invasion. Now, Babylon had invaded and occupied Israel and the people of Israel were scattered – what Ezekiel calls scattered sheep. Ezekiel spends the proceeding chapters of his prophecy criticizing the history of bad royal leadership Israel has had. When humans have tried to be king, we have done a pretty bad job at it.
Ezekiel shares the word he says he received from God: “Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel.” God says the shepherds of Israel – that is the kings, the rulers – they’ve been feeding themselves, but not feeding the sheep. They’ve been failing in their most basic purpose. “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool,” we read. “You slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” The result of this neglect? They sheep are scattered when there is no shepherd, and they become easy prey for wild animals. Metaphor for exile and conquering. No one is left, writes Ezekiel, to search for those who have been lost.
But there is hope yet, because God will step in as shepherd where the rulers of earth have failed. “Thus says the Lord God,” says Ezekiel, “I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” I will rescue them from where they’re scattered, says God. I will feed them. I will be the shepherd. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
Later, after our text for today, Ezekiel goes on to say that God, Shepherd, will judge between sheep and sheep. This is because some of sheep eat their fill but trample down the rest of the good grass so others can’t have it. Some of them drink clean water, but then stick their feet in the water and make it dirty for others trying to drink. Some of them push the other sheep, and butt at the weaker animals, pushing them away from the rest of the flock. “I will save my flock,” God says. I will judge the sheep, and no longer will they be ravaged. God, Everlasting Father, will become the Shepherd where the rulers have failed to do so.
And suddenly, it becomes a little clearer how Jesus, the Son, can be Jesus, Everlasting Father. Because we know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” We’ve talked about Jesus being Ruler of the Impossible, about Jesus, Mighty God, creating pathways of new life. And just what Jesus, Good Shepherd, Everlasting Father speaks about: I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.
Jesus embodies the Good Shepherd that the kings of earth could never be, and at the same time calls us to follow his example. Jesus is in the orphan business, just like his parent is. (46) He calls for the children to come to him, and calls us to enter God’s kingdom like they do. (47) He is the “carrier of the family promise,” (48) showing Father and Son in solidarity. In Jesus we hear the words of Ezekiel fulfilled: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” That’s just what Jesus does. Jesus, Good Shepherd, Everlasting Father.
As always, that brings us to the so what. So what does it mean for us? First, I think, if the role of the shepherd is beyond us, then perhaps our first task is to learn to be better sheep, better members of Jesus’ flock. Remember, God says that not only were the shepherds not taking care of the sheep, but also some of the sheep were showing little in the way of concern for their other flock members. They weren’t taking care to make sure that there was good food and clean water for all of the sheep, and they were even hurting each other. What kind of job are we doing as part of God’s flock? Are we only concerned with making sure we get ours? Making sure our needs are covered? Are we keeping an eye out for those who are getting shoved to the side in life? Or are we the ones doing the elbowing? Let’s try to be good sheep, keeping our eyes on the Good Shepherd, listening for the voice of Jesus, and following where he leads.
But we can also strive to win back the responsibility of sharing in shepherding, being God’s servant leaders. Walter Brueggemann writes that one of the reasons we can see Jesus as Everlasting Father is because Jesus so closely identifies with and emulates the Father that they share the functions of parenting, of shepherding. (49) In other words, Jesus is so full of God that Jesus also shares the responsibility of God, the Great Shepherd. That should be our aim as well – not that we can be God – but we can be full of the Spirit of God. We can be imitators of Jesus. We can make sure that we, too, are champions for the quartet of the vulnerable – the poor, the orphan, the widow, the foreigner. We, too, can seek after the lost, those who have strayed. We, too, can work for justice for those who are oppressed.
In this season of Advent, the great surprise is that the tiny babe born among us is also the parent who longs to protect us, and the Good Shepherd who longs to guide us, willing, even, to lay down his life for us. We give thanks to the Everlasting God for this gift of comfort and joy. Amen.
* All references are drawn from Chapter 3, “Everlasting Father,” of Names of the Messiah by Walter Brueggemann.