Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2018

O Leave your Sheep

Preacher:  The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

O leave your sheep,
you lambs that follow after.
O leave the brook,
the pasture and the crook.
No longer weep, turn weeping into laughter.
O shepherds seek your goal-
your Lord who cometh to console.
You’ll find him laid within a simple stable,
a babe newborn, in poverty forlorn, in love array’d.
A love so deep, ‘tis able to search the night for you.
A love so deep, ‘tis able to search the night for you.

This poem, written by Alice Raleigh in the 15th century, was set to music by Kenneth Leighton in 1962. It is the anthem you will hear the choir sing this evening, which captures, I believe, the timeless truth that love wins the night.

Love is the reason we gather here this evening. The birth of Jesus marks and remembers the day divine love broke the plane of human consciousness in a manner that we can know, mimic and reciprocate…and most importantly for our consolation. O’ shepherd seek you goal – your Lord who cometh to console.

Now in our culture the word console might conjure for you images of an eleven year old Doyt taking the podium to receive his consolation prize…(I know you know what I’m talking about) the one you get for showing up. Not an aspirational image in our culture of winners and losers; but probably an apt one in the Kingdom of God; because everyone is included in the Kingdom of God. Everyone gets the consolation prize, and it is the very best prize you could receive, because in the world as God designed it, the consolation prize is finding ourselves relying on God as our primary source for peace, joy, and love. God consoles.

Alice Raleigh identifies this consolation as the goal of the shepherds. That might surprise us. That might not be what we would have written as the goal of a shepherd if asked the question on a test.But what Raleigh unearths using the shepherds as archetype is what I believe we uncover whenever we search the depths of our own goals and aspirations… and even our loves; we find that we seek consolation: in the spouse we choose; in the work we do; in the wealth we amass; in the hobbies we pursue; even in the children we raise…we seek our own consolation.

It is what the nation of Israel sought during the occupation of Rome in the days of Jesus. It was a time of agitation and isolation, both practically and existentially. The practical came in the form of the Jewish community’s impotence in self-governance. And there was no help to be found, even, it seemed, from their God…and it was this silence from God which provoked the darker night of existential isolation.

And so, what the community did in the face of its unfulfilled desire for consolation was to turn into itself for solace, only to find division, bitterness, frayed nerves, and tattered relationships. Because, at the end of the day, when everyone seeks consolation as the core desire of their own heart; the only remediation is a love so expansive it breeches the darkest night within each and every person’s life. Human love is too weak and too small for this task, for it is often, maybe too often, that which the human heart loves and longs for and seeks consolation in, that breaks it open and causes it angst and throws it into isolation. And that was true in the days when Israel was ruled over by Rome, and that is true today.

I once had a professor, Bishop Mark Dyer, who said, “Doyt, if I were to find out in no uncertain terms that Jesus was not only not the second person of the Trinity, but never even walked the face of the earth, I would still maintain that he is the most influential and indeed important person to ever exist.” It took me a while to understand Bishop Mark’s insight; that the love of Jesus is a love that is both bigger than human limitations, and intimate enough to always illuminate the darkest night.

We live in an age of angst and isolation and that, based on the data, should befuddle our minds. This should be the happiest of times. Never in the history of humanity, proportionally, have so many been fed, have so many been liberated, have so many endured childbirth and lived into old age, have so many been healed, have so many been educated (Steve Pinker, Enlightenment Now). It is not a perfect day.

It is a better day by most measurable standards; and yet, in the midst of this steady improvement of the human condition, there is existential angst and isolation writ large. There are frayed nerves and tattered relationships, and bitterness and division…as each person, in the depths of their soul seeks a consolation that is more profound than can be soothed by a neighbor, or a resource, or a pill, or an ideology, or a government.

Which brings us to this night; a night anticipated by the prophets of Israel who sought in God consolation for their people. They understood that peace, joy, and love were not achieved through political victories, or amassed resources, or technological breakthroughs, but rather through an intimate, personal relationship with God.

Two thousand years ago the world was finally ready for this relationship; Immanuel, God with us, was born. Consolation arrived and the shepherds left their flocks to meet the child.

When Jesus was eight days old, he was taken by Mary and Joseph from Bethlehem on a four-mile journey to the Temple in Jerusalem for purification, according to the law. Living near the Temple at the time was an old priest named Simeon. “He was righteous and devout,” the scripture tells us, “and was looking forward to the consolation of Israel.It had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Messiah.”

“Guided by the Spirit Simeon came into the Temple and took the child Jesus in his arms and said: ‘Lord, you have now set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior whom you have prepared for all the world to see, a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel’” (Luke 2:22-32 para).
In the person of Jesus, even as a newborn child, there was a love so deep it was able to search the night for Simeon, and it is able to search the night for you and me as well.

Look no longer to your sheep, or babbling brook to find your consolation. Weep no longer over those things in which no consolation is found. Laughter awaits… It is the laughter of joy, resonating deep within you, to console your soul. In the presence of God, through the person of Jesus, we have a response to the existential angst and isolation of our times.

And yet, if the Way of Jesus seems too simplistic an answer to the world’s intractable problems, contrast it with the complexity of our present age and how our brilliance is insufficient in transcending raw division and frayed nerves of our time.

Maybe divine consolation is simple enough to meet you and me and anybody wherever we are on our spiritual journey. This is a different kind of love that seeks no consolation itself, but only the chance to love you; a love so deep, ‘tis able to search the night for you. And in that love your life will become a revelation even to you…and there will be a joy, a joy that surpasses human understanding.

It is possible, and it is what I hope for you…a love found in the face of a child, that becomes a man, who lived, taught, invited, died, was resurrected because of love, and then set upon the world a force of divine love that remains alive, present and accessible to this very day, this very night, this very moment.