Sheep with a Shepherd

Telford Work, Westmont College
Montecito Covenant Church, July 23, 2006

Lectionary readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-17, Jeremiah 23:1-8, Psalm 89:20-37, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56.

So have you spent much time in the last week thinking about the Middle East? Me too – and not just because I’m an Internet news junkie. I’m writing a commentary on Deuteronomy this summer. On Thursday I hit the verse where Moses begs God to let him cross the Jordan and see the land of Israel and the Lebanon (3:25)! In times like these the places aren’t just points and lines on a map. It feels more like you and I and even Moses are just a mist that passes through their story – fleas arguing over who owns the dog.

I have been straining to figure out what to do about the war between Hezbollah-in-Lebanon/Syria/Iran and Israel. I think this week’s lectionary readings point to an answer.

Story number one. Once there was a man who ended up the leader of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing an empire’s oppression. They had no homes. They had no functioning societies. They were so used to being exploited and manipulated and killed off that they could no longer imagine any alternative. This man worked with them for decades in all sorts of capacities, and even while everyone was still stuck in camps they slowly started building a life. The leader and his people came to depend on one another. In fact, after enough time had passed and he had rescued them from enough crises, he came to see himself as indispensable, and maybe they did too. At his retirement he was worried: There is so much left to do! What will these people do without my experience? Without my wisdom, my charisma, my moral authority? They will be “like sheep without a shepherd”! Could anyone else do what I have done? Shouldn’t I stay on a little longer and see them through until they are relocated and settled? (Num 27:5-17 and Deut 3:23-29).

It’s a common enough temptation, to convince yourself that becoming president-for-life is the best thing for everyone. But this man wasn’t the right person for the job anymore. Not for the next part of the job, anyway. And it turned out that there was a person with the wisdom and the spirit to get them home. The sheep had a shepherd after all. In fact – and this is key – he had been there all along (Num 14:6-10, 27:18-23), standing right in front of him, though the people and even the old man himself couldn’t see it.

Do you know whom I’m talking about? Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas? No. The answer is ...

Moses and Joshua. God forbade Moses from crossing the Jordan with Israel, and for a while Moses got carried away in his enthusiasm for the mission and his attachment to his position and couldn’t accept being left behind. He couldn’t even see that Joshua was already the right man for the job. God’s solution was there, but he didn’t realize it. He couldn’t see that Joshua had the Spirit of the Lord, and the wisdom, and the faith, and the courage to pull it off.

This is ancient history. But ask yourself something: Is it just ancient history? How many leaders are convinced like Moses was that they are the key to fixing the problems in the Middle East, not to mention everywhere else? And when their followers throw all their support behind them, what happens to everyone’s vision to perceive true alternatives? Are you maybe even one of those followers?

Story number two. Once a man found himself in a job he had never dreamed of having. He had been a nobody, invisible, always the last pick in PE – but man, the Force was with him, and he went from rags to riches while he was still young. Soon he was running a whole empire of his own. And one day he thought: You know, I’ve got it made. I should be giving back. I should start a foundation. Do some good. It’s the right thing to do.

Is it Bill Gates I’m talking about? Not quite.

I’m talking about King David. At this point he was on a roll against the Philistines. He hadn’t yet Bathsheba yet. His kingdom was huge, unified, and prosperous. Sitting in his cedar palace, he felt guilty that the God of Israel had only a tent, and he decided to build God a house of his own. Even the prophet Nathan thought at first that it was a good idea. But then God shut it down. He told David, “The problem isn’t that I am camping; the problem is that your whole imperial order is flimsy. I’m the one who has been empowering you, shepherd boy; you don’t need to empower me. In fact, I still need to give you more – a lot more. I will build you something bigger than you can build yourself: a house not of cedar or stone but of generations. The people need you to have an heir who will reign well and reign forever as a Son to me. (I am paraphrasing 2 Samuel 7, which is one of the lectionary readings for this Sunday. Psalm 89:20-37, which is another, is similar.)

David couldn’t see past his own good times. He didn’t realize that they would be over soon. Not even his best prophet could see it! As a result he literally tried to put God in a box. The solution wasn’t there, and he couldn’t see that it wasn’t there.

When you read about this conflict, do you think that one of these sides has basically arrived at the solution and just needs to defeat its adversaries? (I confess that my own temptations run in this direction.) Then you ought to relate to David. But what if mere victory isn’t enough? What if the underlying instabilities just run too deep for victories to be anything but temporary measures?

Story number three. There was a man who lived in a time of great international instability. His world was a powder-keg ready to explode. But his contemporaries had convinced themselves that really bad things wouldn’t be happening to them. They had alliances and agreements. They had backers. Their enemies hated one another, and their rivalry maintained an uneasy balance of power. For quite a while things had been basically peaceful – well, peaceful enough – sort of. But the alternative to the status quo was too painful to think about. Besides, this society had a proud heritage! The territory was theirs! Things would carry on, if only the naysayers and pessimists who could only see disaster would shut up. They only made things worse. They riled the people, upset the economy, and encouraged the hostile forces. Well, this man was one of those pessimists. He was a patriot. But he was a miserable one, because he saw the deep, deep roots of the problems of his day. It wasn’t just that his people’s enemies were strong. It was that his own people were weak. They were decadent and cynical. They were incapable of fighting even the evil in their own society, let alone the evil abroad. He told them so, over and over, but it didn’t make him any friends among his people. They wouldn’t listen. Finally the government imprisoned him.

Ralph Peters, a conservative and an Israel supporter, declared in the New York Post that Israel was losing this war. Hezbollah has the momentum and is more powerful than Israel had realized. The world media are invested in the old strategy of appeasement, which works to Hezbollah’s advantage just as it worked to Hitler’s in the thirties. Iran and Syria are too powerful to Israel to stop by itself. The world powers are just interested in calming things down rather than actually solving them. Israel’s army and intelligence aren’t what they were a generation ago, not least because Israel has been losing its spirit. Its prime minister is trying to keep the risks low by fighting with too many bombs and not enough troops, and it isn’t working.

A few days earlier, Diana West, another conservative and Israel supporter, warned in The Washington Times that international terrorism is growing in the space left by “the expanding emptiness of the modern nation-state.” Political loyalties line up with citizenship less and less. Immigrants in London and Dearborn are watching Al-Jazeera television. Lobbies for a range of foreign countries influence American foreign policy. She and others think the nation-state system that has dominated the west since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 is breaking down. The world powers have a lot invested in that system – especially the United States – and are not as equipped to deal with its enemies as they think they are.

So am I talking about unhappy people like Peters or West?

Despite all the parallels, I’m really not – because the person I am describing could see beyond the coming catastrophe to the bright future that lay beyond it. He said these conflicts would ruin his people because his people needed to be ruined. His society was filled with injustice, exploitation, abuse of power, and hypocrisy. It needed to go. It was bound to go. The coming revolution would bring a lot of suffering – but it would also bring an end to the suffering. He predicted that a time was coming when justice and equality and mercy would return, and never leave again. The problem wasn’t optimism, it was cynicism that avoided pain at all costs. His society’s cynicism was bringing its leaders’ downfall. Fortunately, their downfall was just what the people needed. A new class of leaders was emerging that would lead everyone into the brightest future imaginable.

Who is he? Karl Marx? He thought so, but nein.

Ahmedinejad in Iran or Sadr in Iraq? They apparently think so too. Some think these leaders expect this war to usher in the revealing of the long-awaited Twelfth Imam of Shi’i Islam. I doubt it.

Hal Lindsey? Thirty years of being wrong haven’t stopped him from spinning end-times scenarios with current events – you can read all about Lebanon this week on his website – but no.

I’m thinking of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Jeremiah didn’t want to see Judah destroyed and exiled. His heart was tender. He hated the injustice all around him. And he wanted Judah’s worthless shepherds gone, never to return, because it was their fault. They had given up on God. But Jeremiah saw that God hadn’t given up. God would raise up a new shepherd – the very shepherd Moses had wished for. His coming would be so glorious that when the exiles returned to Israel, their stories would overshadow even the exodus (Jer 23:1-8).

Jeremiah saw the answer, but he also saw that it wasn’t there yet. The next few centuries would see his homeland subjugated by four empires in a row.

Are you a reactionary? When you watch the news, do you weep and feel like all is lost? Are you a revolutionary? Do you quietly rejoice that U.S.-Zionist imperialism is faltering, or that the headlines mean Jesus is coming soon? Either way, you have a little of Jeremiah in you. But ask yourself this: Has something changed between his time and ours – something that demands a different response?

Story number four. Once a man grew up in the occupied territory of a proud people. As a youth he had to flee his homeland to escape one of his own ruler’s massacres. An enemy far away pulled the strings of the local authorities and terrorized those who even looked like a threat. Factions jostled. Bosses assassinated rivals. Militants went underground and drew the desperate and the crazy into futile rebellions that were always brutally put down. Collaborators profited by cooperating with oppressors. Ethnic animosities simmered. Tribal chiefs did what was politically expedient rather than what was right. Religious leaders prayed and fasted and purified their own spiritual lives and policed other people’s morality, which of course solved everything. Cultists withdrew to compounds at the edges of society and waited for the end. And just about everyone silenced troublemakers.

By now I bet you know which man I’m talking about. One day in the reign of the emperor Tiberius, in the midst of all that mess, Jesus received the Father’s message that he was the One: Moses’ true successor, Joshua’s namesake, the Son of David, Jeremiah’s righteous shepherd (Luke 3). He was going to clean it up. And not just later, at the end of time, but right now. The reign of God was already at hand.

That sets the stage for today’s lectionary reading from the gospels, Mark 6:30-34. Earlier Jesus has appointed deputy shepherds to announce God’s reign, to cast out unclean spirits, and to heal (Mark 6:6b-13). He and his apostles are a busy bunch (6:30). They can’t even take a break, because the crowds are too eager to leave them alone (6:31-33). Exhausted and overwhelmed, Jesus comes upon one of these crowds – and

he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mark 6:34).

That’s it! That’s what I’ve been seeing on the news all week, all year, all my life. These thousands of people are up to their necks in “leaders.” They have a Roman emperor, a provincial governor, a puppet king, a council of Sanhedrin, local rabbis who tell them what the Bible says, Zealot activists who want their loyalty, tax collectors who confiscate their money, masters who own them as slaves, husbands who rule them as wives and children, Pharisees and priests who tell them what God commands them to do … leaders, leaders, and more leaders. And yet they’re sheep without a shepherd.

I think Jesus looks down from heaven (or over, or something) and still sees the same damned thing. The Middle East has leaders up the wazoo: politicians, pundits, diplomats, bosses, religious leaders, celebrities, tycoons, generals, princes, allies, partners, patrons, bullies, and on and on. The rest of the world is no different. But leaders aren’t necessarily shepherds. Let alone good ones. We’re still like sheep without a shepherd.

Yet we have a shepherd! That is the most striking aspect of this scene. The whole long saga of Israel, from Moses through David and Jeremiah, has been heading here.

(If it helps, here’s a truth table I drew up especially for my colleague Jim Taylor. As an analytical philosopher, he loves these things.)

Anyway, the solution is finally here on the Galilean shore, and Jesus realizes it. But the crowd doesn’t! If only they knew they don’t have to wait any longer!

So what does Jesus do in the face of this incredible irony? He teaches them.

After all, there is really nothing more to do when the solution is right in front of them but point it out. And the way he does it is just marvelous. After hours of instruction, he sits them down in an orderly arrangement of hundreds and fifties just as in Moses’ day – herds them, as it were – and then feeds them, thousands of them, using only what he and his deputies already have (6:35-44). Does it get any more obvious than that? Ba-a-a-a-a?

The sequence of stories in this part of Mark can seem jumbled and strange. But look at it through the lens of this passage and it becomes crystal clear: He is the shepherd. They don’t realize it, but he is the shepherd. He does not point the crowd toward the right leader or ethnic group or political strategy because he is the shepherd. It takes his disciples so long to realize this that the book is already over by the time it hits them … but it does hit them.

Has it hit you that he is the shepherd? Have you really come to terms with the fact that Jesus is the leader beyond all of these other “leaders” who compete for our loyalty? Have you appreciated the implications of his reign?

What should we do about events in the Middle East? Well, what has the shepherd taught us? Under his leadership the apostles “went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6:12-13). Jesus didn’t have his disciples go out and take sides over the Romans versus the Judeans. He had them do his work. He had Simon the Zealot, Matthew the tax collector, Peter the fishermen, Paul the expat Pharisee, and Lydia the Roman businesswoman all working side by side. They took his side, because he is the shepherd.

Jesus even knew his homeland was only a few years from being leveled by Romans sick and tired of their rebellions, and yet he stayed focused on his mission. Think about that.

At first his Church really knew that it belonged to him. It knew that it was the most important social force on earth simply because it was doing what its shepherd taught it to do until he returned. Staying focused helped his disciples remain compassionate for everyone who suffered and sure about how to help them.

The first Christians knew that the world’s other leaders were important. They heeded them insofar as it was right to do so. And of course they still had their own political views and cultural loyalties. However, they refused to treat any of them as the shepherd or any of their missions as nearly as important as the shepherd’s mission. In fact they were overjoyed that Jesus had freed them from those lesser tasks and given them parts in this glorious new thing God was doing for everyone – not just for Israel or for the Romans or for masters or wives but for everyone.

Is his Church like that today? I think we’re back in Mark 6. We’ve lost our focus, so we find ourselves still in a world of sheep looking for a shepherd. I see us taking sides – if not in our deeds then in our hearts.

Now I am not neutral about this war. And believe me, I am not arguing that the different sides are morally equivalent. I certainly have my ideas about what is better and what is worse for the Middle East. I bet you do too. But as insightful as you or I might be, the shepherd’s agenda trumps ours, doesn’t it? I mean, if Jesus Christ really is that shepherd that Moses wanted and David was promised and Jeremiah foresaw, then we do what he says, right? We trust him to know what the world needs more than we trust ourselves, right? That’s Shepherding 101: the shepherd’s wisdom is more reliable than our own instincts.

Maybe staying focused on his mission is what we should do for the Middle East.

Story number five. A man (sorry they’re all men, but that’s the lectionary this week) grew up as a minority in the same empire. He was raised to be a Pharisee; but in a big surprise he met the risen Jesus, who commissioned him as his witness to the Gentiles. Reflecting later on what it all means, Paul told the Ephesians that

You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are … members of the household of God, built with the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Eph 2:11-22).

That is our lectionary reading from the epistles, and it’s just the right way to end. Ephesians is perfect for a worldwide Church that needs to refocus, because it has to be the most focused book in the Bible. So let’s take it to heart. Only the shepherd is our peace. Only his blood bridges every fault line. Only his flesh breaks down every partition. And wehis deputies – are the only ones in a position to see this and help the world’s other sheep see it too, before it’s too late. He put his mission in our hands. We do have something to do for the Middle East – and North America too. Hallelujah!

The BBC features a map of the Lebanese-Israeli front line, updated every day. What do you see on that map? Tactics, threats, opportunities? Do you just see what the typical BBC reader sees? Or do you also see sheep who have a shepherd?

Postscript: The morning after I delivered this sermon I received an e-mail from a friend who graduated from Westmont several years ago. She now works in Amman, Jordan. She writes:

I had a dream last week that reminded me how important it is to be covered and protected by the intercession of Christ and His Body. In this dream I was at home and the doorbell rang. When I opened the door there was a large snake lying dead on the doorstep. I closed the door and again the bell rang and when I opened the door I saw another, a different snake lying dead with someone standing on top of it, though I couldn't see whom it was. This happened a third time and this time when I opened the door I could see it was Jesus standing outside holding another dead snake in his fist. He said to me, "Becky, do you want to know how many snakes I've killed for you? The safety that you're accustomed to comes at a price, a price that I've paid. There are real and dangerous threats out there, but don't be afraid, I'm always with you, I will always protect you. Do you want me to show you every snake I kill?" My reply was, "No Lord, spare me the ugly details, but thank you for reminding me. Thank you for watching out for me."

A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand;
But it shall not come near you.
Only with your eyes shall you look, and see the reward of the wicked
(Psalm 91:7-8).

A day or two after I had this dream the tensions between Israel and Hizbollah erupted, and they have continued to escalate. Over 100,000 Lebanese have flooded into Amman via Syria. There seems to be more foreigners than Jordanians in the country with over a million Iraqi refugees and people coming from the Gulf to escape the summer heat. Airlines and hotels, including the one I work at, are booked solid and everyday I'm talking to people directly affected by the violence. Everyone has family and friends caught in the crossfire. My heart breaks at the destruction and loss of lives and homes and a beautiful country that has been trying to rebuild itself after 15 years of civil war.

These are our neighbours to the north and west. To the east is Iraq, another country being torn apart by war. Over 100 people on average are killed everyday in Baghdad. My good friend and flatmate Maiada is Shiite Iraqi and she recently left Amman to go home to Karbala, a city one hour from Baghdad. She tells me that Sunni fighters have been entering homes in her Shiite neighbourhood and killing people at random. It's insanity. I can only cry out to God for mercy and trust that she's in His hands. Maiada came to know Christ during her time in Jordan and she has a strong faith and trust in God. She often received visions when we prayed together and God clearly directed her to go home despite the dangers.

May His kingdom come and His will be done.

Please pray with me for the people of the Middle East. These are difficult times for so many. I'm grieved and burdened by the hopelessness, the anger, the hatred and the fear that I sense in my friends and Arab society at large. But God is my refuge and my shield from being swallowed up by such feelings myself, and by His grace I am responding with His message of hope.


I'm praying that prophets will arise today to be a witness of the Good News of the healing, freedom, comfort and joy we have in the Risen Lord. I'm praying that I am one such prophet with my friends, in my place of work, as I talk to taxi drivers, the dry cleaning guy, and the ladies at the gym. This is what gives me joy. This is why I love living here.

Anyone who knows Rebekah knows that she is already the prophet she is praying to be. She is moving to Jerusalem next year. Please pray along with her, and give God thanks that she follows the shepherd.