Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"The True Shepherd"

Message preached November 24, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Order of Worship

            Newsflash: Family meals have just been placed on the endangered species list... Perhaps you are not familiar with this rare breed of animal. Iím sure, however, that you have seen one at some point in time, though you may not have recognized it as such. Once upon a time this species was very prevalent across our land. In fact, most homes had at least one of this domestic breed, if you can believe that. Research indicates that televisions, computers, multiple careers, and overflowing calendars have encroached on its territory, thus driving it toward extinction...

            Well... maybe not. Then, again, I wonder if things will so totally have changed by the time our children have children of their own that this unborn generation will have no idea why their ancestors ate together at least one meal a day. Once-a-year at Thanksgiving is enough, isnít it? Ah, you wondered where I was going with this, didnít you? For many of us, this Thursday will be unusual not because we eat turkey and all the fixings together with relatives we havenít seen for a while, but because we sit down together at the same time and eat as a family.

            If youíll allow me to move from a table to a field, and from turkey to lamb, letís talk about another kind of flock. In this instance, weíre not exploring the "eating" end of things, though the "gathering" aspect is still part of the picture. Turkey ... lamb ... these are things which come from supermarkets, right? Wrong. In case you were not aware, there is a whole staircase of steps leading up to the food that eventually ends up on our plate. An endangered aspect of our modern life is our connection to the land from which our food comes.

            Do you, for instance, really know what a "shepherd" does? When you hear those words, "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1), or read of Jesus saying, "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11), what does that mean? Like family meals, is it just a blast from the past which is interesting but has no connection to your daily life?... I just learned this past week that when Verlin Tombaugh was first married, one of his jobs was as a shepherd. I wish Iíd known that while he was living, so I could ask him about it.

            Now, I imagine the life of a shepherd would be pretty boring in this age of cell phones, instant messaging, "multi-tasking," "networking," and just general "inter-activity." Iím sure shepherding has changed some with the times - picture this person seated on a four-wheeler, with a PDA device connected to the Internet, watching over the sheep. Even so, shepherding still operates at a slower pace than many of us are used to. For me, that adds to its attraction. I donít know about you, but my life could stand to slow down a little.

            I wonder, amid all my "busy-ness," if Iím doing an adequate job of shepherding my family. Thatís right, I said "shepherding." No, my family is not made up of a bunch of dumb sheep (though sometimes...). In a way, parents (especially fathers) are called to be shepherds of their flock/family.  That doesnít mean being the big boss who lords it over everybody. "Christ the Good Shepherd," by MURILLO c. 1660In scripture, a shepherd is simply someone who keeps watch. Itís not a glamorous position, full of power.

            Next week we begin getting ready for Christmas (can you believe that time of year has come so quickly?). During Advent, church life is filled with all sorts of images that arenít part of our day-to-day existence. For instance, those shepherds "keeping watch by night" (Luke 2:8), who figure so prominently in the story of Jesusí birth. Aside from Joseph and Mary, they were the first to hear the good news - perhaps because they were looking out, keeping their eye on things.

            Now, letís not romanticize this occupation. In Bible times, shepherds were not exactly at the top of the career scale. That much hasnít changed. Back then, shepherds were considered the "hicks," for the most part hired hands you wouldnít want hanging around your daughter. Yes, King David took his turn out in the fields with the sheep, but remember - he was the youngest of many sons, not exactly a springboard position for higher things. Thatís what makes his story so inspiring. God called a "nobody" - a shepherd of all things - to become king of Israel, red hair and all. As the Lordís anointed (which is what the word "Messiah" means), he became the "shepherd" of Israel.

            It wasnít uncommon back then to call a king a "shepherd," even beyond the nation of Israel. Like today, folks expect a bit of humility in their leaders. All nations down through time have had their "rags-to-riches," "log cabin origin" stories of key politicians. Of course, often such tales have had to be manufactured. Thatís nothing new. Likewise, it was not unusual for a "god" back in Bible times to be referred to as a shepherd, for much the same reason.

            Whatís interesting in this morningís scripture from Ezekiel is what Israelís God had to say through this prophet about those shepherd kings. We didnít read the whole chapter, but in it is found a condemnation of those who were not doing the job to which they had been called. They paid more attention to their own stomachs, than to feeding their sheep - that is, Godís people. In fact, these sheep have merely become a means to an end. The shepherd kings have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured, brought back the strayed. "You have not sought the lost," God said, "but with force and harshness you have ruled them" (34:4).

            I listen to those words on various levels. Yes, they have something to say to the "kings," the politicians of today, encouraging them to feed and care for the people. Watching over the flock is not just a matter of keeping them safe from the wolves. It involves caring for them, even those who have become lost. Indeed, this scripture can function today as an indictment and a calling to those who lead politically, no matter what brand they claim. More than that, however, I hear in this chapter a personal word from the Lord concerning my own shepherding. I am not only the shepherd of my family, you know. I have also been called to shepherd this church. Thatís what "pastor" means, by the way - a pastor is a "shepherd."

            Lest you feel you are off the hook, this scripture is not just for some politician or for me as your pastor. You are not a bunch of dumb sheep. I must confess there are times when thatís exactly how I feel. Iím just "bah"-ing my way through life, getting lost here and there. By the way, I still remember when Karen and I first visited the sheep barn on the farm of Carson Landis back in the church I served 20 years ago. I had this image of sheep as cute and cuddly, all wrapped up in wool, with a mild "bah, bah" here and a "bah, bah" there. You know what, theyíre not. Entering that barn I came face-to-face with a Ewe who opened her mouth and out came the most disgusting belch of a sound I ever heard. We talk about domesticated turkeys as being so stupid that theyíll look up with open mouths during a rainstorm and drown. Well, sheep arenít too far behind... There are times I feel that dumb. You?

            However, weíre not just sheep. Thereís an extent to which we are all called to be shepherds, and so we need to hear this indictment from Ezekiel. Shepherds are called to be responsible for others. Are you responsible for someone? Note: I didnít say, "are you called to Ďrule overí someone?" Yes, parents have responsibility for their children, but the reverse is also true. Children donít parent their parents (though later in life that may be the case). Still, youngsters are also called by God to care for their parents, arenít they?... If you have a friend, there is a sense of responsibility that comes with friendship. Not to boss them around, but to watch over and care for them.

            Back to family meals, I hope this "species" doesnít become extinct like we joked at the beginning. There is more to "feeding," you know, than just eating. Gathering together around a table is still prime time for strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, seeking those who have strayed. In many ways, thatís what makes this (perhaps) antiquated Dinner most of us still celebrate on Thanksgiving Day so important. It reminds us of our responsibility for one another. Of course, sometimes that drives us nuts, cause families - being families - can be as frustrating as a flock of sheep. Even so, you can try to tune out family by tuning in football or whatever, but that God-given responsibility for another does not go away.

            Speaking of God, whatís so refreshing about this scripture and others like it in the Bible, is how God enters into it all. "I will seek out my sheep," says the Lord. "I will rescue them... I will bring them into their own.... I will feed them... I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep... 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." Unlike those who forget their responsibility - who will be accountable to me, "I will feed (my sheep) with justice." I will make things right. (Ezekiel 34:11-16)

            No matter what, the flock of this shepherd will not become extinct. God will not release his responsibility. "The Lord is my shepherd." How fitting that the familiar Psalm in which we find those words, ends with a meal - "you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows" (Psalm 23:5)... An important reminder as you gather together to eat today, Thursday, and every day - The true shepherd sits down with us. Make sure there is a place set for him. "I am the good shepherd," Jesus said. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11)... Thus we pray: "Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest."

            One final note. In the Christian calendar, which operates at a difference pace than our everyday calendar, today is the last Sunday of the year (believe it or not). A new year begins with Advent - which makes sense, for the expected birth of Christ, as well as his second coming, are fresh starts for Godís sheep. This last Sunday of the church year has been called the feast of "Christ the King." This king is our true shepherd. Letís stand and sing a song of praise, a melody to take with us to whatever pasture he leads us.

Bah!... I mean, Amen!


* Matthew 18:6-14 juxtaposes "little ones" - interpreted as either believers or children - with a "shepherd" leaving the ninety-nine in search of the one sheep who has gone astray. While this refers to God, a "Father in heaven," the comparison to an earthly parent is is not just one way. Thus, parents are like shepherds of their children.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Ezekiel.


©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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