There is a curious dichotomy in the Old Testament understanding of shepherds. On the one hand, when prophets and poets spoke of “shepherds,” they were often using the term as a metaphor for kings and kingly behavior. On the other hand, there was a prevailing opinion within Old Testament society that shepherds were dusty and smelly, and their work was beneath the sensibilities of those who could do better. Thankless job, shepherding - and one could certainly argue that ruling a nation isn’t much better at times. As American poet John Godfrey Saxe once quipped, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made” 1
However, let’s not focus this morning on the odious nature of governing, though it could be a humorous adventure. I want to draw your attention to the difference between this week’s gospel reading and last week’s reading. These two readings paint two very different pictures of what it means to shepherd one’s people; one falls under the condemnation of Jeremiah from our first reading, while the other shows the care and tenderness described by the poet of Psalm 23. Some time, then, to reflect on shepherding and who, indeed, is the Good Shepherd. Let us pray:
Compassionate God, You have compassion enough for all.
Lord in your mercy, Have compassion for us.
Jesus, out of your compassion for us, you invite us to come away with you to a place of rest and quiet.
Help us to say yes and then to be able to come away with you.
Lord in your mercy, Have compassion for us.
Lord, out of your compassion you care for those who are harassed, helpless, and lost. Sometimes we feel that way ourselves
Lord in your mercy, have compassion for us.
Lord in your compassion teach us to follow you, to trust you, to love you and to love as you love.
Lord in your compassion feed us who are hungry; physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Lord in your compassion heal us in the places we need healed.
Lord in your mercy, have compassion for us.
And Lord in your having compassion for us teach us to have compassion for others as you do.
Help us to show compassion in action the way you did, and remind us when it is time to come away with you for quiet and rest.
Lord in your mercy, have compassion for us. 2
What do you remember about Herod Antipas? Conflicted, greedy, adulterer, incest, killed John the Baptist. All of that is true, of course. But the Herods were more than simple corrupt kings. The Herods used anything they could to gain an advantage on their enemies, their friends, even their families. When Antipas’ father Herod the Great died, his will stipulated that Antipas would be one of three sons among whom their land would be divided. Antipas traveled to Rome to argue, unsuccessfully, that he should be the ruler of all the land his father once occupied. The Herods were Jewish, but often the extent of their faith matched the corresponding benefit: when it fitted the Herods to flatter their masters, the Romans, they did so with an ease that shocked the people they ruled.
So, last week we examined Herod Antipas, a king haunted by the execution of John the Baptist. One wonders if Antipas would have been troubled by the words of the prophet Jeremiah we heard this morning. As Professor Rolf Jacobson said in a podcast this week, “[Jeremiah] is only [bad news] if you’re the king! If you’re the people, who have a king who sucks, this is total gospel!” Kings are entrusted with the care of their people, as shepherds are entrusted with the care of their sheep. Herod made a bad job of it, but not so our King, Jesus of Nazareth.
See him here in Mark, gazing out on the crowds who’ve gathered and are following him. Jesus wanted some time apart for himself and his disciples, but the people’s needs are so great that Mark says “they hurried [to where Jesus was going] on foot from all the towns, and arrived [at their destination] ahead of [Jesus and his disciples].” It brings to mind images you see of travelers in the poorer sections of India, where children scurry to the nearest tourist, begging for a handout. Jesus saw that the needs of the people were so desperate he couldn’t take time away just at that moment: his heart was filled with compassion for this flock of shepherd-less sheep, and so Jesus began to teach them on the spot.
It seems that God’s view of the world is a reversal of our own. It is said that when Herod the Great died, he was worried that people wouldn’t mourn his passing. So he arranged for several of his soldiers to be killed at the same moment, so that there would be mourners close to his body. Thankfully no one carried out those orders, but can we deny that when our own kings die, we are any less misled? We’ve spent the past three weeks detailing and reliving every second of the admittedly tragic life of Michael Jackson; how many homeless men, women and children have also died, unnoticed, in that same period of time, and who has spent millions to mourn their passing? God knows - God sees - God judges our lack of vision and calls us to remember what it is God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
In that remembrance, God also promises the good care of a good shepherd. Jesus taught; Jesus healed; Jesus cared for the world in which he lived, and the Holy Spirit of God continues that work in our time, in our world, through our hands. We are not governed by a King who exploits every situation for his own advantage: we are ruled by a gracious King who is peace and life and grace in himself. As the writer of Ephesians wrote,
“Jesus is our peace: in his flesh he has made both [circumcised and uncircumcised] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Jesus has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace...So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
So we are gathered into the fold under the watchful gaze of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. But let’s not forget that shepherds also call their flocks out into the world - and so we, too, are called into the world by our Good Shepherd. In his book Why Christian?, Douglas John Hall writes:
Christianity does have a mission to the world, and that mission is the most basic reason for the existence of the church. There are religions ... that do not have a missionary impulse in them; but Christianity has been pushed out into the world from the beginning, like a little fledgling bird nudged out of its cozy nest by its parents. That is in fact a good simile, because what drives Christianity (as distinct from Christendom) towards the world is not personal eagerness for exposure to the public sphere, nor a desire to become big and powerful, nor a sense of its superiority over every other faith. No, it is "sent out" (that is what the word apostolic means), usually against its will, by the God who has called it into being, because of love for ... the world … the mission of the church is of central importance to Christian faith, so much so that it constitutes the most basic reason why the church must exist. Of course the church needs to have periods of retreat from the world, to recover its own identity through study and prayer, to renew its courage, and so on. But precisely in these times of renewal, the church learns once more that it does not exist for its own sake. A church that hived off to itself and was content to be a comfortable "fellowship" would contradict in the most flagrant way the whole message of the New Testament.3
So we are both gathered in and sent out under the eye of the King who rules us. It is bad news when we think we control the world, or our little corner of it, kings of our own little domains. It is good news to realize, as the disciples and all who follow Jesus eventually realize, that Jesus is indeed in the business of kingdom-building, and the work is glorious indeed. The kingdom of God isn’t a place we go, but a reality in which we live, just as a sheep knows its shepherd’s voice whether it is in the paddock, grazing out on the hills or lost in the valley of the shadow of death. Listen for the voice of your shepherd, your king, and follow it where it leads, trusting that our king, unlike Herod, is a good, wise, benevolent king, who will not lead you astray. Amen.