Lest you’re under the illusion that having Jesus as a Good Shepherd who calms his flock is a sweet thing you can pull out of your Easter basket with your jelly beans and Peeps, I’m here to mess you up. Being called a sheep is most decidedly not a compliment.
If you walk into a sheep pen in springtime and cast your eyes around, you’ll see the newborn products of lambing season. The word “gambol” had to have been coined to describe how lambs move, especially when they hear their mother’s voice. It’ll elicit an immediate “Awww!” from you. But then you’ll also notice the incessant maa, maa, maa that continues ad nauseum.
The ewes will add their own alto baaing to the barnyard chorus. They’re nothing like the sheep on the bulletin cover on Good Shepherd Sunday. Spring sheep aren’t white. They’re overgrown balls of dirty gray wool with sprigs of Russia thistle tucked in and you-don’t-want-to-know-what hanging off their backsides. Can you say odoriferous?
The ram will be on his own, waiting to do his job again and bleating his own declaration of kinetic testicular potential. Don’t even think of getting in his way when there’s work to be done.
Once the flock is loosed from the pen, you will note the manifest lack of computing power available to the ovine brain. Here’s how it works: 1. Put nose to grass. 2. Nibble and chew. 3. Move forward. 4. Repeat steps 1-3. Notice there’s no step that calls for looking where you’re going. Sheep are all elemental brain stem activity. Walking id. Which, of course, marks them as easy prey for pasture predators. Sheep just can’t help themselves. If there’s a spirit animal for Martin Luther’s assertion of an unfree will captive to itself, it’s the sheep.
If Jesus is the shepherd and we’re his flock, he’s got his hands full chasing after one sheep who’s nibbled her way over a cliff, another being eyed by a coyote, and all the rest being susceptible to a long list of diseases, from pizzle rot to scrapie to uterine prolapse. Those guys in the nativity story outside of Bethlehem weren’t working sheep because it was the most desirable career available.
But isn’t it just like our Lord to take on a skittish batch like us? It’s our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, but it doesn’t come where we sheep imagine it will manifest itself. It’s not to be found in verdant pastures with predators kept at bay. Surely those will come, but they’re not the thing that quells our panic at the possibility of scarcity or danger.
It’s our Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom in the person of the very one whose mouth speaks peace and calm. We need this shepherd, not to reform us and make us so self-confident that we can face down our jitters, but to take on every malady and enemy that menaces.
It’s a dirty job. Who would willingly take on the messes that hang off our backsides? Who but Jesus would bear the approbation of decent folks like me who sneer both at the moral turpitude and idiocy of his flock and at his own degeneracy in being willing to hang with this crowd? It would be an odd savior who would step away from and onto this cross.
Jesus can bid us to have no fear, because he knows the dangers better than we do. The ultimate predator had him marked from the beginning. His minions among the proper, the proud, and the pious prowled in ever tighter circles until he was caught and trussed up for slaughter. Yet his death took away the danger for his flock, so they wouldn’t wind up as mutton on the table of the powerful. His resurrection sealed the deal that brings the kingdom. It put a sheep tag in your ear that marks you as his.
When Luther wrote to his colleague Philip Melanchthon with advice for how to be a better preacher, he said his friend should first become a true sinner. He could just as easily have advised becoming more sheeply, that is, more dependent, more needy, more full of sin’s stench, more perilously close to death. To confess it is to shuck off the flock’s fear and have it replaced with faith.
This is the shepherd whose voice we know. You’ve heard it in baptism and in his Supper. If you’re skittish, you have good reason. But even better, you have this Shepherd who knows your voice, your cry, your incessant baaing. Even now he’s set his border collies to work to bring you into the safety of his sheepfold. Put your head down and nibble your way to his promised cote. You’ll find the good stuff there.