Things About Shepherds (Fourth Sunday of Easter)

Sermons on YouTube…

When I first went on a trip to the Holy Land, I had a few expectations.  I expected that I would see ancient sites and learn about ancient traditions.  I expected that I would learn about the geography, which would help me better understand the stories of the Bible.  And I expected that I would also gains some insight into more modern things, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All of those expectations were met.  But in every trip I’ve made, I’ve come away learning things I didn’t expect to learn about.  Shepherds are one of them!

Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we read sayings of Jesus about being the “good shepherd.”  The problem for most 21st century Americans is that most of us have rarely, if ever, seen a shepherd.  And even if we have, being a shepherd in 21st century America is often pretty different from being a shepherd in first century Israel.

But what I’ve learned in my Holy Land trips is that shepherds in the middle east today continue to function a lot like shepherds did in the first century.  And, shepherds and their flocks are still common sights, especially if your tour group is running late.  Then, you can almost always count on a flock of sheep blocking the road!

And so as I’ve observed, and been taught about, these shepherds, I’ve learned three things about shepherds that color my understanding of what Jesus is talking about.

We often romanticize shepherds as lovely, carefree people keeping watch over calm scenes in rolling green fields.  But in the middle east, shepherds are people who actually:

  • Get down and dirty with the sheep – I’ve actually never seen a clean shepherd, and when you get near the flock, both the sheep and the shepherds stink – this is why shepherds were NOT considered members of polite society in Jesus’ day, and part of the reason they’re still relegated to the outskirts of towns and settlements … (and it’s why the “shepherds fields” in Bethlehem are down in the valley – downwind of the town…)
  • Assume risks and dangers – because they’re relegated to the outskirts, even today there are wild animals, thieves and very little help if they get into trouble… (also part of the reason that the “shepherds fields” were in the valley was that the town as built on a hill, which was defensible in case of attack; shepherds were expendable, and are still kind of looked on that way…)
  • Live in the midst of chaos – the sheep wander across the road not because the shepherd sent them there – they just wander all over; they get lost; they don’t necessarily stay together.  Far from watching peacefully while sheep graze in the field, shepherds are constantly managing the chaos; if you’re a Type A personality who likes things to be neat and in order, shepherd is a REALLY bad career choice for you…!

And so when Jesus talks about being the good shepherd, he’s making it clear that he willingly accepts:

  • Getting down and dirty with us – in Jesus, God is not going to be aloof and watching from afar; and it’s important to remember that these words of Jesus are his commentary on having healed a man born blind by spitting on the ground and making mud to put in the guy’s eyes – he’s literally messed in the mud to heal the sheep…
  • Risks and dangers – the easy way to deal with danger is to run away; but that doesn’t stop the danger to the sheep; Jesus, in what he’s doing, is making people upset with him and it’s why they finally crucify him; but assuming the danger is the only way to stay with the sheep, who will continue to face the dangers of life in any event …
  • Living in the chaos – there were neat, orderly ways to live in religious community in Jesus’ day.  You could stay in the Temple, or simply teach in the synagogues.  But Jesus was constantly in the midst of the chaos and confusion of life, because that’s where we sheep so often live…

And having a shepherd like that makes a difference for how we face life.  For while a shepherd can run away from the mess, risks and chaos of life, we often can’t.  And so these words of Jesus are intended to assure us that Jesus is with us when we face:

  • The messes of our daily lives … whether we have a shepherd or not, our lives are often a mess, and filled with messes.  But Jesus as our shepherd means that the dirt and the mess is sometimes the way God works to bring us to healing, just as it was the vehicle of healing for the man born blind …
  • The inherent risks of living … we’ve spent the last year being warned about the dangers of Covid; but as we come out of this time of pandemic, we’re being told about “relative risk.”  At that raises the reality that all of life involves risk, whether we’re thinking about it or not…; Jesus as our shepherd means we don’t face the risks alone, and even though Jesus doesn’t eliminate risks for us, he is always there helping us deal with them …
  • The chaos of the world around us … Much of life lately seems consumed by chaos. And in the Old Testament, chaos is the opposite of life and creation (Genesis portrays creation not as God’s act of bringing something out of nothing, but rather creating order out of chaos).  Death is the ultimate chaos that destroys life and creation.  And Jesus as our shepherd means that in the end, the chaos doesn’t win.  Resurrection is God’s ultimate act of taming the chaos and restoring life and creation.  And so Jesus as our shepherd gives us the courage and fortitude to know that the chaos won’t ultimately be the end of us.

Whenever I’ve watched those modern middle eastern shepherds, deep down I always think to myself, “I really wouldn’t want a job with this much mess, risk or chaos.”  But then I realize that, even if it’s not in such obvious ways, my life and yours are always going to be filled with all of those things.

And that’s why it’s good to be reminded that Jesus is like a good shepherd who often shows up in the worst messes of our lives.  Jesus is like a good shepherd who stands with us and helps us through the dangers and risks of life.  And most of all, Jesus is a good shepherd who guides us through the chaos of the moment, and into the promise of new life.