The picture, or image, of the shepherd and his sheep runs like a golden thread through the Scriptures. Already in Genesis 4 we are told that Abel, one of the first generation born into the world, the son of Adam and Eve, tended livestock, and the details noted indicated that he in fact was a shepherd. Fast forward to the patriarchs, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and we are told that they were herdsmen, shepherds. When Moses fled Egypt and was employed by his future father-in-law Jethro, he tended sheep. There was nothing unusual about the Patriarchs and Moses tending sheep, since the such a vocation was typical for the nomadic life of the Near East.
After the children of Israel, that is, the children of Jacob, settled in the promised land, many continued in the shepherding business. In fact, King David came from a shepherding family, and himself shepherded the sheep belonging to his father Jesse. It is no wonder, then that as He meditates on God’s faithfulness to His people, that He uses the image of God as shepherd, feeding and taking care of those who are His own, and that our Lord Jesus Christ also uses that image and presents Himself to us as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.
Caring for sheep can be hazardous business. When I was on sabbatical teaching in Australia, one of my students, named Malcolm, or Mal, went back to the ranch during spring break (that’s September there) to help with sheep shearing. His job was to pick up each sheep by two legs (a front and rear leg on the same side) and to toss the sheep over the railing into the shearing pen, where he would be shorn of his wool. But poor Mal picked up one sheep at an awkward angle, tossed him into the pen, and threw out his back. Mal was laid up for the rest of the semester. The professors got his assignments to him and he completed the semester, but he couldn’t move for months. A few years later I saw Him in Canada, where he had come to visit family, and he was doing fine, but it was a long road to recovery.
We who are urban and suburban may not always appreciate the images evoked in the original hearers’ and readers’ minds. To help us out, Philip Keller, who spent much of his life as a shepherd, wrote three books that detailed the responsibilities of a shepherd: A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm, A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd, and A Shepherd Looks at the Lamb of God. As he carefully unpacks the image of Christ as Shepherd, we see how he cares for His sheep, feeding them and restoring them to Himself when they wander off.
As the Kingdom of David was fractured and as God’s people continued to wander away and needed to be restored, we hear in our readings that God’s love for His sheep will lead Him to seek them out and restore them to green pastures. And as God did for His people Israel in the Old Testament, so He continues to do today for His people Israel, those who are both Jew and Gentile.
First, we can take comfort in the fact that God feeds all of his creatures. In Job 39 God calls Job to account for trying to second-guess him, as it were, trying to figure out why God would allow him to suffer, when he seemed to be doing everything right. God answers from the whirlwind, saying “Were you there when . . .” and details the marvels of creation, how God provides for them even without human care. He points to the wild ox, noting rhetorically that he will not eat at the manger of the farmer, for why should he? God provides his food for him. This calls to mind Psalm 145:15-16, words that Luther in his Small Catechism suggests as a table prayer: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” This prayer of confidence in God’s promised care for us reminds us that if He cares for the lower creatures, He will care for us as well, showing Himself to truly be our heavenly Father.
As we remember God’s faithfulness, we need also to remember that His chosen nation did not always remain faithful to him. The prophets rebuked the people for their wandering away. When we look at the words of Isaiah, we see early on a word of judgment, yet at the end a promise that God has put away their sins and has restored them to Himself. Zephaniah speaks a word against the enemies of Judah, namely the seacoast people, the Philistines, warning that even though they continue to pester the nation of God’s people, they will not prevail. Both Isaiah and Zephaniah declare that God has removed His judgment from the faithful remnant, that the sheep that listen to the voice of their shepherd will be restored, and they will receive from Him the sustenance that they need. Isaiah, in chapter 40, promises the nation in those words of comfort that John the Baptist was to pronounce, that He will feed his flock like a shepherd. Like a shepherd feeds his flock, so God will feed His, leading them out to pastures where they can peacefully graze under the watchful eye of the shepherd, who will see to it that no enemies will sneak up on them. So it is in the church. Lutheran Church of Australia pastor and professor John Kleinig told an international gathering of Lutheran theology professors that one of the duties pastors are to perform is that of sentry. He is to stand guard over the people entrusted to him. Your pastor is to pray for his people that Satan may not harm them or get to them in any way. When they begin to wander he is to call them back and restore them through the precious consolation of holy absolution. He is to feed them with the word of God and with the precious food which is His body and blood. By those means God is at work keeping His people safe.
Speaking from exile, the prophet Ezekiel castigates the priests of his time, because as shepherds they were not feeding the sheep as they should. Rather than feeding the sheep, they were more interested in fleecing them. They had not strengthened the weak or healed the sick, bound up the wounded, or brought back the strayed. Rather than as shepherds, they were behaving as hirelings. But the LORD goes on to declare that even though their shepherds had failed them, God would seek out His own sheep, uniting His flock that had been scattered. He would rescue them. Bring them back to their own land. He is the one who would strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the wounded, bring back the straying.
As we hear these words, we could wonder, when will these things happen? Well, we know when, don’t we? Our Lord tells us that He is the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down His life for the sheep. God’s promise to be our shepherd is fulfilled in Jesus, who fulfills that promise to make us lie down in green pastures. As we heard from Mark 6 a few minutes ago, Jesus invited his disciples to follow Him to a “desolate place” for a time of rest, but the crowds followed them out. We are told that Jesus had compassion on them because they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” What else was He to do? He became their shepherd! He fed them, we are told, by teaching them many things. Then, when the day grew late, and there was no place for the crowds to go because they were in a desolate place, he fed the 5000 men, plus women and children, with five loaves and two fish. It is noteworthy that He bade them to sit down in groups on the green grass. Fulfilling Isaiah 40 and Ezekiel 34, along with Psalms 23 and 145, in green pastures He fed His flock like the shepherd He is. This desolate place may have been deserted, but it was not desert, but rather uncultivated pastureland. Jesus had them sit down in green pasture, where He restored both their bodies and their souls. So also, He bids us come here, where He gathers His flock together and feeds us with His word, His body, and His blood.
In another week, we will be celebrating the Nativity of our Lord. The reading in Luke 2 that we are so familiar with tells us that when Jesus was born, He was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, as we see on this evening’s bulletin cover. That word “manger” is related to the French word manger meaning “to eat.” The French term used in the fashion industry, pret a porter, meaning “ready to wear” was adapted by an English fast food place where you can pick up pre-packaged sandwiches, yogurt, crisps, and drinks, which the owners named pret a manger, “ready to eat”. The manger is a feeding trough. The angels directed the shepherds to look in Bethlehem for a baby lying in a feeding trough, and that this would be a sign to them. If this was a sign to them, what did it point to? Here we see the Good Shepherd lying in the place where the sheep feed. As we look at this, we, if we stretch the metaphor a bit, can see that lying in that manger is the one who is not only the shepherd, but the one who Himself is food for His sheep. Some thirty years after that He would feed the five thousand, and a short time later feed the four thousand. With the little that was available He fed the many. How much more extraordinary is it that this same man, the God-Man, now feeds His sheep with His own body and blood, an act which ties us to those who saw Him face to face. As He said to them, so He says to us: Take, eat; Take, drink; this is for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. How remarkable, yet how true; He feeds His sheep, He feeds His flock like a shepherd, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Thanks be to God. Amen.