Many of you are aware of my special affinity for angels. These mysterious figures make appearances throughout scripture, filling the depths of my imagination with stories of their continuous worship in heaven, particularly as described in the Revelation to John. If there were a runner-up for the affections of my heart, it would probably be shepherds. The primary responsibility of these country-dwellers was the husbandry and protection of flocks of sheep entrusted to their care.
In Luke, chapter two, we learn that shepherds were the first to receive the news of Jesus’ birth, announced to them by a multitude of angels. In just under two weeks, we may soon find ourselves singing a popular Christmas carol that begins: “While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around.”[i]
Throughout scripture, we encounter numerous references to shepherds. For example, the renowned King David of the Old Testament served as a shepherd for his father Jesse’s flock during his youth. King David, who was not only a shepherd but also a skilled musician and credited as the author of the Psalter, likely penned the words found in Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”[ii]
In the Gospels, not only were the shepherds the first to hear the news about Jesus’ birth from the angels, but we also find Jesus himself referring to himself as “the good shepherd.” He states, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”[iii] In a similar fashion, he identifies himself as the gate to the sheepfold: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”[iv]
Tonight’s gospel lesson features one of my favorite metaphors of a shepherd used by Jesus. In this passage, Jesus poses a question to his audience: “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So, it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” Certainly, we find this image endearing and comforting.
When I was praying with the passage for the homily this evening, I began to reflect on my life and the people who have served as shepherds to me. I consider myself fortunate, as there have been many such individuals. One significant memory takes me back to the youth program at my elementary school, which took place every summer and was sponsored by our local Department of Parks and Recreation.
While parents were at work, neighborhood kids, including myself, would ride their bikes up to the school. There, young adults employed by the city Parks and Recreation were on hand to facilitate various activities, including games, art, physical fitness, and field trips. As an only child navigating the highs and lows of a family life that was not always joyful, I found myself craving and in need of special attention.
There were two or three young adults during those summers who recognized that need and would play board games with me when no one else showed any interest. They shepherded me when, in a way, I was a lost sheep, bullied by other kids and isolated because I was not popular. When I received the attention I so desperately needed from these counselors, I felt happy, content, and, most importantly, safe. Perhaps this is what inspired me to ask my parents one Christmas if I could have an older brother. I wanted someone who cared for me, looked out for me, and who had walked the very path I had walked earlier in his life; someone who could guide, affirm, and encourage me when I felt especially alone and vulnerable. I think this is as true for the 52-year-old Jim as it was for the 9-year-old Jim. Who have been shepherds for you in your life? Perhaps there are a few people who stand out as shepherds who guided you, fed you, comforted you, and kept you safe.
While nestled in the comfort of these warm images, we might not think about the risks posed to that of a shepherd. While the images in our minds are often pastoral, idyllic, and serene, it may be lost on us that the vocation of shepherd was actually quite dangerous. In an essay titled “The Fighting Shepherd,” Dr. Alastair Roberts writes: “The biblical image of the shepherd is of a man surrounded by many threats from which he must protect the flock within his charge. He works within a harsh and unforgiving terrain, a place with much barren wilderness, rocky areas, and dangerous mountain valleys and passes, within which he must find water and secure good pasturage. He faces the threat of bandits, robbers, and thieves, who might kill or steal his flock, and of ravenous wild beasts who will prey on the sheep. Protecting the flock may cost him his life.[v]
In all of these metaphors Jesus uses about shepherds and sheep, I sometimes wonder if we get sidetracked by our focus on the sheep, when Jesus, I think, is asking us to focus on the shepherd. For a shepherd to fulfill the role effectively, the sheep must know and trust the shepherd’s voice. This is not an instantaneous process. While I admit I haven’t delved deeply into researching this dynamic, I’ve observed that Jesus aims to convey the characteristics of a shepherd—one that we, like sheep, can come to recognize, know, and trust.
A shepherd may prod with rod and staff, but in the development of the relationship, the sheep have come to find comfort in that guidance. The action of prodding does not instill a sense of shame or punishment but rather one of being led to safety. The shepherd is willing to take the risk to pursue the least of the herd so that none shall be lost. I ponder if a flock of sheep comprehends this. A shepherd is prepared to lay down their life for the sheep. How many of us here would take on the role of a shepherd, knowing that laying down one’s life is part of the job description?
And yet, when Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd of the sheep, one who is willing to risk his life for the sheep, this sentiment is far from platitudinal or empty. Jesus’ mission was directed toward Jerusalem, where he would be handed over to the chief priests and Pharisees by someone within his own community. This path led to his passion and death, transforming the great shepherd of the sheep into the sacrificial lamb, given once and for all for the sins of all. This profound sacrifice aimed to bridge the great divide between sheep and sheepfold, restoring the relationship between God and creation through Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
If we desire to know God as we are known by God, we must learn to recognize and focus on the good shepherd, trusting that he will lead us back into union with God as God’s beloved children—created in God’s image and likeness. Through this understanding, we realize our capacity to love, nurture, and guide others to the sheepfold where all may be fed, loved, and protected. Just as God called Jesus from a shepherd to sheep, Jesus is calling us from being sheep to becoming shepherds—an embodiment of God’s love and provision for all.
Acknowledge that you are loved by Jesus, the good shepherd, and in turn, become a shepherd for others by following Jesus’ example. Amen.
[i] Hymnal 1982, Hymn 94/95
[ii] Psalm 23:1;4
[iii] John 10:14-15
[iv] John 10:9-10
[v] Roberts, A. (2012, July 14). The Fighting Shepherd. Alastair’s Adversaria. https://alastairadversaria.com/2012/07/14/the-fighting-shepherd/
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