Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Dirty Job: A Shepherd

I've heard several sermons about sheep--how sheep are dumb animals, how sheep know the voice of their shepherd, how sheep will wander off unless they are tended. The point of the sermon seems to be that we, like sheep, get lost and need a shepherd to save us. But I can't remember hearing a sermon about shepherds. If I were preaching this Sunday on John 10:11-18, a text that is super-familiar to us, I think I might talk about shepherds.

The image of Jesus as a shepherd, more specifically the Good Shepherd, isn't surprising to us, and it wouldn't have been surprising to first-century Christians. David, the shepherd-become-king, was legendary. The gospel tradition makes the connection between Jesus and David as more than a casual association. In its identification of Jesus, there is a direct genealogical link. Jesus is David's son yet, as the riddle Jesus puts to the Pharisees in Matthew 22 implies, David would call him "Lord." By calling him the Good Shepherd, we not only identify Jesus as one who cares for the flock but also as one who follows (and perfects) the Davidic tradition.

David was king of Israel at a time when Israel's political, economic, and military might were at their zenith. Because of that, it was easy to remember David as the king whose heart unwaveringly belonged to God. But how did he get there? How did David become the greatest king in Israel's history? He started as a shepherd. Samuel came to Jesse's house in Bethlehem to anoint Saul's rival-successor, and all of Jesse's sons passed in front of him, but the Lord let Samuel know that none of them was the right one. Finally, David, the youngest, is brought in from the field, where he was keeping the sheep, and the Lord, who looks upon the heart, identified him as the next king of God's people. It was from the pasture that David went to the field of battle. He was too young and inexperienced to join his brothers in war, but, when he arrived with a care-package from his parents, he stepped into the role of soldier and killed Goliath. This is more than a story about a shepherd who becomes king. David's legacy is that of the unlikeliest individual becoming God's chosen leader. Isn't that part of what we say when we proclaim Jesus as the Good Shepherd?

The irony behind king-as-shepherd or messiah-as-shepherd has faded just as the stable-birth and manger-bed of Jesus have become commonplace. "Where else would Israel's true king be born except among livestock in the little town of Bethlehem?" we ask. But shepherds aren't heroes. They're outcasts. No one wants to spend time with a shepherd. They have lice. They stink. They are uncouth. Their table manners are abysmal. With only sheep to keep them company, their conversation skills are deeply lacking. This is the king of kings? Well, sort of.

When Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd in John 10, he is borrowing from the David story, but he's also challenging us to see how God is at work. God's power is not revealed in palaces but in pastures. God's plan is not revealed by authorized prophets but by renegade rabbis. When we call Jesus the Good Shepherd, the words should sound funny coming from our mouth--true but bizarre. How can it be that our savior would be a peasant? Given the story of salvation that stretches from creation through today, how could it be anyone else?

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