Our Good, Grizzled Shepherd

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“Jesus is the Good Shepherd.”

When you hear those words,
what images come to your mind?
What are the paintings, the drawings,
the stained glass windows from your childhood
that all make up the Good Shepherd
in your brain?

If you grew up with the same images I did,
chances are what you see is
that classic, luminous picture
of a young,
svelte,
well-groomed,
lily-white,
blonde-haired,
hazel-eyed,
fresh-from-the-salon,
no-dirt-under-the-fingernails Jesus,
standing in flowing blue and white robes,
surrounded by docile happy sheep,
looking completely and utterly bored.
Is that about right?

Well guess what?
I am here today to tell you
to wipe that from your minds!
Throw it in the bin
and press delete,
for that, my friends,
is nothing more than a lie
perpetrated by the stained glass shepherd
industrial complex.

In actuality,
when Jesus
and the prophets
and poets before him
spoke of God as a shepherd,
they would never have pictured
what you and I think of.
They would have taken one look at that
and said, “That’s not a shepherd!
That’s a princess!”

You see, in those days,
the shepherds who lived in the dry Judean landscape
were sleepless,
weather-beaten,
grizzled,
leather-skinned wanderers
who were never off duty.
Their clothes were dirty and tattered with wear;
their eyes were dry and farsighted
with the burden of perpetual attention and vigilance;
and their beds were the very ground
on which the animals slept.
Their only defense against the night-prowling wolves and hyenas
(not to mention the occasional thief or bandit)
was nothing but a modest staff
or a gnarled wooden club kept close at hand.

These shepherds of which Jesus speaks
were anything but serene.
They were cunning and fearless,
vigilant guardians who loved their flocks so deeply, so fiercely,
that everyone knew that a good shepherd
was a terrible force to be reckoned with.

I don’t know about you,
but if you and I are looking for a powerful symbol for God’s love,
I like this one a whole lot better
than the stained glass, domesticated version
we usually see.

They say that in those days,
there were—from time to time—
certain nights when the temperature might grow warm and pleasant,
and a shepherd would let his flock
wander a little too far into the hills.
Instead of returning late that night to the town or the village,
the shepherd would choose instead
to collect all the sheep into a sheepfold
located in the hillside.

These sheepfolds were nothing more than a large patch of land
enclosed by a circular wall made of sticks or stones.
And in these walls,
there was only one gap through which the sheep
could enter or exit.
There was no door, no gate.
Instead, the shepherd himself
would lie down at night in the dusty gravel,
or the mud,
or the sheep dung,
and sleep in that uncomfortable opening.
He was the gate . . .
and anyone or anything seeking to harm even one sheep in that fold
would have to do so literally over the shepherd’s dead body.

So when Jesus tells us today that he is the Good Shepherd,
what he’s really saying is that in the darkest hour of night—
when predators and thieves are prowling all around—
Jesus lays down between us and them,
and says, “Over my dead body. Take me instead.”
We know love by this:
that he laid down his life for us.

Truth is, every once in a while in this life, we get lucky.
Every once in a while,
the grass is green,
the waters are still,
and life is easy.
But God knows those moments are rare,
and most of the time for us
there’s at least some level of struggle,
some level of anxiety,
some kind of bandit or thief in our lives
causing us to fear what may or may not be.

But here’s the good news.
The grace for us today and every day
is that God has looked into the face of all of that,
and God has sent us a Good Shepherd,
one who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.

So when life gets hard—
particularly if it is hard for you right now, today—
remember that there is nowhere you can wander
outside the fierce and protective love
of our grizzled and vigilant Good Shepherd.
“Though you walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,
you have no evil to fear;
for God is with you,
and his rod and his staff are a comfort.
Surely his goodness and mercy shall follow you
all the days of your life,
and you, my friends, will dwell
in the house of the LORD
for ever.”

Amen.