Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Christ, the Shepherd and Bridegroom of our souls

“When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep."

It is a familiar story, this story of Jacob’s first encounter with his future bride; and as a story it has been passed down for generations, from father to son and mother to daughter, for generations.

Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, flees his father’s house and journeys to the land of his mother’s people, where he hopes to find a wife. Along the way he stops to rest, using a rock for a pillow, and dreams an uncommon dream in which he sees a stairway, thronged with angels. There, at the top of the stair, stands the Lord, the God over all Creation: "I am the God of your father Abraham,” the Lord says, “and the God of Isaac. …I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go…I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised” (Gen. 28:13-15).

The next day Jacob arrives on the outskirts of a country he has never visited, but which he knows is the country of his mother’s brother, a man called Laban. He sees a well in a field, surrounded by three flocks of thirsty sheep. But the mouth of the well is blocked by a large stone. This, conceivably, does not surprise Jacob – as it was the custom of that time for shepherds to wait until all the flocks had been gathered before watering the sheep (Gen.29.3).

I imagine the sight of the shepherds roused Jacob’s interest, and inspired him to overcome whatever fatigue might have been slowing and stiffening his weary limbs. “Do you know a man called Laban, Nahor’s grandson?” he asks the shepherds, with some urgency. “Yes,” they say, “we know him. And here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep.”

A coincidence? Perhaps. But Jacob recognizes in this chance encounter the providential guidance of a faithful God. For the moment his somnolent eyes fall onto Rachel’s lovely form it seems that a chill like a lightening rod passes through his being, electrifying him into spontaneous action: “he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep.”

I, too, when my somnolent eyes swept over this story, was electrified by certain narrative elements - elements which have always been there, but which, until recently, I had never "seen" before: a well, sealed behind an enormous stone; three flocks of thirsty sheep; and – most riveting of all – a shepherd, moved out of love for a woman he does not yet know, to apply all the force of his strength to roll away the stone and water the sheep which have been entrusted to her care.

A coincidence? Perhaps. Or could these details be strung together to foretell a different narrative? Could they stand like a flaming arrow, pointing to Jesus Christ, that great Shepherd and Bridegroom of our souls?

Indeed, in Jacob I see the distant echo of another Shepherd, a Heavenly One, who out of love for His bride – the church – entered history some two thousand years later, to live and die and roll away an infinitely larger stone so that His sheep could receive the water of everlasting life. Thus Jacob the man serves as a kind of type of Christ - the biographical details of his human life anticipate the coming of Christ, and his shortcomings as a human being underscore the need for His coming.

In the same way, in the character of Rachel – that outwardly beautiful but inwardly idolatrous woman – I see the bride of Christ.

Put another way, in the character of Rachel I see myself – a bride in need of cleansing (Eph. 5.25-27); a woman gripped by petty jealousies, and fear; deceived and deceiving; an unfaithful wife who would willingly cling to worthless idols rather than entrust herself completely to the loving care of a God whose faithfulness has been demonstrated countless times before.

"But Jacob loved her.” And so Christ loves us. Broken, misguided creatures though we are… He loves us; and like Jacob, who proved His love for Rachel by working fourteen years in her father's pastures, tending sheep that were not his own - so Jesus Christ has proven His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, He died for us. "I am the good shepherd," Jesus said on the night He was betrayed, "and the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep...No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord."

This, among an infinite number of other things, is what I love about the Word of God - for just as God breathed life into man so that he became a human being, so He breathes Christ into Scripture, making it a living thing through which Christ speaks to us across ages, in the precise and complicated circumstances in which we live.

"I am the good shepherd," says Jesus, "and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice."

O, Living Christ, attune my heart to the sound of your voice... May It be the guiding principle of my life, my strength in times of weakness, my consolation in despair; a light that shatters even the darkest darkness, bidding me onward and upward, into eternity.

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.” ~Mark 16.4

*Photo by Peter Buncombe Photography*