“Like sheep without a shepherd”
Message preached on
July 22, 2018
Are you tired of all this “shepherd” talk yet? We have read it in our scriptures, mentioned it in our prayers, and sung it in our hymns. And we’re not done. Our final song is another rendition of the 23rd Psalm. If you have noticed, we’ve a lot of hymns in our songbook that connect in some way with this well-known and loved Psalm. So, let me ask again: Are you tired of all this “shepherd” talk yet?
If you are … well … I guess you’ll just need to grin and bear it. This image – of a shepherd – is an important one in the Bible. It’s really a corrective to some other images, a subtle message God conveys to us about how “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” upends our world as we normally perceive it.
Perhaps you remember that shepherds in Bible times were not exactly at the top of the pecking order. The profession of caring for sheep, which may seem such a quaint and nostalgic occupation to us today, was a job in which few wanted their children to be employed. It was near the bottom.
“You say you’d like to marry my daughter…
Shepherds were the butt of jokes and the source of rumors (false or true) about what lonely men might do with docile animals. A funny thing about the Bible is that God sees in this lowly occupation a corrective to the power structures of the world. Do you want to know what the real realm of God is like, what – in fact – the One who is “King of kings and Lord of Lords” is like? Well, look at a shepherd caring for sheep.
The way power normally operates in this world, whether in Bible times or today, is from the top down. The one in charge sits at the top of the pyramid, in a throne or a palace or in a White House. Everyone obeys, and if they don’t, they’re fired, or beheaded, or imprisoned, or just generally disregarded. The boss is the boss.
But that’s not how it is in the world as God made it, the one we profess in the Lord’s prayer. In this reality, power operates from the bottom up. The leaders of Israel, whether they were king or priest, were to be shepherds. Do you get how radical that is?
We attribute the 23rd Psalm…
We attribute the 23rd Psalm to who? … King David. Of course, we remember that David did not start out as a king. Anything but. As the runt of the litter, the youngest of several sons of Jesse, not much was expected of young David. His task in the pecking order was to care for the sheep. But when the spiritual leader of the children of Israel came, at God’s direction, looking for someone to surreptitiously anoint as king to one day replace Saul, Samuel called out the shepherd David. David became a model for kingship from that day forward, mainly because he never forgot his shepherd roots. This 23rd Psalm, which we say he wrote, is - perhaps - the most known passage of the Bible. And it revolves around the least desired occupation – shepherding.
The kings of Israel who followed David were expected to remember that they were shepherds. When they forgot, the prophets let them have it with both barrels. You did listen as we read the scathing words of Jeremiah, didn’t you? “You are supposed to be like shepherds, keeping an eye on my flock and seeing that they are kept united and safe. But you have butchered them and scattered them. You have driven them off and left them defenseless” (Jeremiah 23:2, Laughing Bird version). God expected (and still expects) those called to leadership to take on the lowly role of shepherd, not the high and haughty position most usually chose.
I’m sure kings of old, like politicians and celebrities today, well understood the lonely aspect of the life of a shepherd. “It’s lonely at the top,” they say. But shepherds of old lived and slept among their flock, not in some gated community, with fences and walls to keep out the riff-raff. To care for sheep involved knowing them well enough to tell them apart, to be aware when even one of them (remember that story of Jesus?) went astray and got lost. A real shepherd – not to be confused with a “hireling,” someone just wanting a paycheck and nothing else – would not cut his losses and let that one go. She would go in search of that lost animal until it was found.
You do understand that Jesus painted this word-picture of the “1 of 99” (Matthew 18:11-13, Luke 15:3-7) to say that God is like that shepherd. It’s not just that the Lord expects leaders to be like shepherds, the great “I am who I am” is like a shepherd to us. By the way, when God first spoke that name to Moses through the burnings bush that was not consumed, do you recall what Moses was doing when he turned aside at the sight and wandered closer? … He was caring for sheep. He was a shepherd for his father-in-law, Jethro’s flock. Do you see what I mean about this image being woven throughout the Bible? Moses was called to, like a shepherd, lead the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. In fact, the infamous rod of Moses was what? … a shepherd’s staff. You know all this, I’m sure.
God is like a shepherd to us. That’s one of the most comforting images in the Bible, and maybe one of the most challenging, as well. Our shepherd is always nearby. If there is danger, we are protected. If we are hurt, there is the oil in the shepherd’s first aid kit. The shepherd is constantly on the lookout for our basic needs: green patches or water sources in a dry and barren land. When we, in search of something to sustain us, wander away from safety, the shepherd’s crook gently pulls us back. Sheepdogs don’t get much press in the Bible. Maybe it was only later that they came into use, but I imagine a faithful hound as part of the picture.
This image is comforting, but it’s also challenging. After all, the shepherd is always near, seeing us at our best, but also us at our worst. Yes, as the Psalmist says (133:3-5):
A comforting thought. But there is no way of pulling something off without the shepherd knowing. The psalm can be a “pslam” if you look at it from a different angle. Of course, if you type in “angle” wrong, you might spell A.N.G.E.L. (angel)… Shepherds and angels sort of go together in the Bible. According to Luke’s gospel, who first received the good news of the birth of the Messiah? … “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (2:8). And who brought them this message? … “an angel of the Lord” … plus “a multitude of the heavenly host” (2:9, 13). It wasn’t a mistake that we enjoyed a bit of Christmas in July earlier, singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (2:14a)… You all know this story.
The first witnesses of the birth of Christ, other than Joseph and Mary were … shepherd’s. Do you think there might have been a reason for that? … The Bible, after all, tells things from the bottom up, in a last shall be first, the least is the most important, sort of way. It is always a challenge, a corrective. If the words become too comfortable, so that we start reading them in a top down manner, thinking they justify anything we do because we’re in charge, because we are the chosen ones, because we’re the people on the hill, because we know best because we’re the light, because we are the majority … well, the simplest of words “pslam” us.
“…you are with me,” the well-known words sing out; “your rod and your staff — they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Imagine the shepherd staff of Moses, which turned the Nile red along the way of convincing Pharaoh to let God’s people go free (Exodus 7:20), and then parted the sea (Exodus 14:15). Later, this staff brought water from a rock (Exodus 17:6, Numbers 20:11), and helped the Israelites prevail in battle whenever it was lifted up (Exodus 17:8-13).
This shepherd’s staff is a powerful symbol in the Bible. To be comforted by it is also to be challenged by it. The word in Hebrew for “comfort” is נָחַם - nacham (naw-kham'). Yes, nacham/comfort speaks of consolation, compassion, rest, and relief. However, this word also speaks of repentance, turning, and changed minds. It’s a word that can both tear down and build up, but that tearing down is always for then building up. To be comforted is to be fortified with the bottom up strength of God. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…” (Matthew 5:4-6).
In this upside-down, right-side up way, God is like a shepherd to us. And we are shepherds to one another. Not only that, we become shepherds to people around us – our neighbors, as well as strangers along our way. And, strangely enough, we can allow them to shepherd us, in good-ole’ “last shall be first, first shall be last” fashion. You did note in the Gospel from Mark we received this morning, that Jesus looked out at those who came to him, “and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). He drew them into his flock. Which is what we are called to do, continuing his work.
Before I end, let me speak to the shepherding to happen in the coming months within this flock. Yes, I am your pastor, which is another way of saying that I am your shepherd. However, for the next few months this shepherd won’t be traveling to the high pastures or leading through the dark valleys … physically. Maybe spiritually, but not physically. There will be weeks when chemotherapy or surgery will bring me low, energy-wise, such that I won’t have much to give. My shepherding will be minimal.
Through it all, lets remember that our shepherding God is always near. God has promised to be with us until the end of the age. The Holy Spirit is present, sort of like God’s staff – there to part the sea, provide water in the desert, and generally prepare the way of the Lord for God’s people. We are not sheep without a shepherd. I may have limitations that keep me from fulfilling my calling in the ways I would like to and hope again to be able to. Remember that I am not the only shepherd here. You are also shepherds to one another. I have had several folks shepherding me from this flock this week. I count on it in the weeks to come. Please, take up your own staff and shepherd those around you, both within our fellowship, and around your neighborhood. Do understand, however, a shepherd is not a judge. You are not called to judge people. Just love and care for them, using whatever gifts God has provided you.
Okay, God’s flock. I imagine you might have about reached your fill with all this shepherd and sheep talk. We’ve one last song that’s full of it, another rendition of the 23rd Psalm. Be comforted by the words. Be “psalmed”/ challenged as well… Please turn in your hymnal to #578, and let us rise and sing together, “The Lord’s my shepherd.”