I have an ancestor, Mark Bishop, who - at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century was making his way as a sawyer. What is sawyer? Well the clue is in the name. He or she had a saw, or a set of saws, which - in the days before the invention of the circular saw - they used to saw tree trunks into planks. It was hard, back breaking, humble work. But thirty years later he is described in a different way. Now he has gone up in the world. He’s a carpenter, presumably because he can now afford the tools of the trade. I'll come back to the significance of that later.
Elsewhere in his collection of prophecies, Micah describes how God will intervene in human history to make up for the shortcomings of Israel’s rulers by leading them himself, but here he explains how a new ideal ruler will arise from within the nation.
Perhaps the two ideas are not truly separate. God often works by inspiring ordinary people to do his will. In this sense all of us can have a part to play in God's reshaping of history.
Micah says that the ideal ruler does this in a special way by embodying all the characteristics that are on God’s tick-list for the perfect leader. Above all he or she will be like a good shepherd, leading and caring for their people.
Again as Micah explains elsewhere, reliable shepherding is one of the hallmarks of divine leadership. It’s also one of the the key points of contrast between the way God deals with his people and the sort of all too frail human rulers that Israel had been lumbered with in the past. Far from standing by their flock, they had often behaved like hirelings, either deserting the nation in its hour of need or trying to lead but failing miserably and falling short.
The other mark of the ideal ruler is that he or she takes leadership back to its roots. According to Micah, good rulers don't come from a pampered elite surrounded by yes men and women and remote from ordinary life. They spring from the people themselves. They know what life is really like for their subjects because they too have struggled and had to make their way in the world.
David was a great shepherd of his people precisely because he had actually begun life as a shepherd. He was a courageous military leader because he had dared to fight off bears, lions and wolves singlehanded, armed only with a sling and some pebbles worn smooth by the brook where the sheep went to drink.
Micah contrasts the political elite of his day, tucked away safe from immediate harm behind the walls of their fortresses in Jerusalem and Samaria, with David who came from an ordinary place like Bethlehem, not far away but much more humble, with no walls or luxurious palaces. The important thing is not that the ideal ruler must come from the town where David was born, but for leadership to be re-minted in the same stamp or mould as someone like David.
Nonetheless, for Christians the coincidence was just too good to resist. Not only was Jesus the sort of humble leader that Micah had longed for, and not only did Jesus claim that his authority came - like David's - direct from God, but also tradition had it that Jesus actually was from Bethlehem, and from the same tribe as King David himself.
What could be more ordinary than being born in a stable? Although that was much more typical then that it would be now, it clearly showed that Jesus was a man of the people.
And, although carpentry is a good trade which requires a set of expensive tools and a workroom of some kind, what could be more humble than a leader who started out as a carpenter? We've seen that a carpenter is a person of substance, who either has to earn the money to buy tools and hire a workshop or else has to inherit them as Jesus did from his father Joseph. But if we're looking for a creative and inspiring leader who’s sprung from an ordinary background, who could be more perfectly cast for the role than an honest craftsperson; someone who makes and shapes things from bare wood with their strong but skilful hands! It's the next best thing to being a shepherd.
Jesus is the ideal sort of leader, who knows what ordinary life is like but is also inspired to rise above its limitations by God’s wisdom and love. And he calls us to emulate him and creatively mix our everyday hands-on experience with divine wisdom and compassion so that we can help him reshape our world the way God wants it to be.
At a time when some of our leaders have also behaved like hirelings, either deserting the nation in its hour of need or trying to lead but failing miserably and falling short, I think Micah’s message is still just as relevant and powerful as it was when he first uttered it. And at a time when all sorts of people in power or authority have been caught behaving badly by the spotlight of the Me Too Movement, and similar trends, the need for a role model like Jesus is just as great as ever it was on his very first birthday in Bethlehem.