We often make a good deal of being undershepherds of the One Shepherd in Christ’s Church. What does being an undershepherd mean? Do we really want to take on the burdens of being shepherds? Being under the Good Shepherd means being good in the ways He is good. His goodness expressed itself in His submission to the will and plan of the Father. That plan led to suffering and death. Submission is not really our thing. Sociologists suggest clergy types are independent operators, prima donnas at heart, with the least possible supervision from ecclesiastical authority. We have the reputation of wanting to operate with a holy sanction of our actions over against the complaints of the congregation. These tendencies lead us to struggle with the temptation to want the prerogatives of the representatives of God but to muster less enthusiasm about the providential burden of genuinely caring for sheep with the gentle strictness and strict gentleness of God Himself. Our Overshepherd is the God who defied the upright when they wanted to stone the prostitute, who invited Himself to dine with the despised exploiter of His fellow citizens, Zacchaeus, and who crossed borders to heal the Syro-Phoenician young lady. We too often are more into associating with those who provide enjoyment, satisfaction, and success.
Shepherds cannot operate on that basis. Like letter carriers, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stay” shepherds from the patient and sometimes painful completion of their appointed tasks. Shepherds are dependent on the mood of self-willed, stubborn, arrogant sheep. Shepherds are ready to confront the claws and teeth of wolves for the welfare of such often recalcitrant and contemptuous little lambs. Shepherds are sent by their Master into the dark crevices and thorny wilds of this world to seek and rescue sheep who are often quite determined to find their own way. We come to help sheep who are striving to pull themselves out of the holes they have dug for themselves, and to get along without help until their situations become too difficult to gain control of on their own.
God’s first venture into shepherding comes long before David or Ezekiel took Him as a model. It comes in Genesis 3 when He ventures into the Garden as it begins to wilt into wilderness to find the two lost runaways. Like a good shepherd, He is calling out, “Where are you?” We think of that conversation as painful for Adam and Eve, but it was even more painful for God with His aching parental heart. It is somewhat counter-intuitive to us shepherds that He was eager to waste His time going after the lost sheep, unsure if He can even find them, or if they will just not run away further when we do. But that is the model God gives us from Genesis on.
Isaiah describes the Servant of the Lord as a shepherd who carries the lambs in His arms. He holds them close to His heart, presumably giving them warmth and letting His own heartbeat set a rhythm of settledness and safety move from His own person into them. He treats them with gentleness as He leads them through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to still waters and green pastures (Isaiah 40:11).
Shepherds are sent by their Master into the dark crevices and thorny wilds of this world to seek and rescue sheep who are often quite determined to find their own way.
Becoming a shepherd in the Lord’s service brings with it formidable risks. In Ezekiel’s day, those God had appointed shepherds over His people were dining on the tastiest and dressing in the finest while treating their sheep with callous severity and harshness. God had set them in their service to encourage the weary, take care of the sick, bind up the wounds of the injured, bring the straggler into the flock again, and search for the lost. Instead, they had let the sheep stray and not given a thought to gathering them back to the Lord. These shepherds will be fired and cast away by the Lord. He Himself intends to rescue the sheep from their shepherds and to pursue the wandering in order to return them to Himself. He will construct their new home, go after the lost, return the straggler to the flock, treat their wounds and illnesses, and let the healthy and strong frolic in the meadow. He will feed them properly (Ezekiel 34:1-16).
Good shepherds desire with all that is in them to be the kind of shepherd God describes in Ezekiel—the kind of shepherd Jesus of Nazareth models in John 10. But do we really want to deal with the lost lambs and risk following them into who knows where, maybe to the brink of Hell itself? Is it worth it to suffer with them? Are we comfortable around high-powered businesspeople who cheat and steal, like Zacchaeus? Among prostitutes like Mary Magdalene? Among foreigners who expect from us sharing of our bounty when they have not earned it (of course, neither have we)? These are images of the lost in our day.
“Lost” in this case means “separated,” “unhinged,” unable to function properly as human beings. Suspicion born of doubt of God’s love puts up barriers. When God has been banished from a person’s life, the lynchpin for truly human life has gotten lost. These sheep often run when they see us coming. Among the gifts required of shepherds, patience and persistence stand high on the list.
Why did God have to use shepherds as the model for our ministering to His people? Shepherds are lonely. One of Satan’s not-all-that-secret weapons is cutting us off from members or bringing us so close we can no longer function as their shepherd because their burdens weigh us down or their sins defy our criticism. Shepherds suffer disappointments. Not only do not all the lost sheep want to come into our sheep pen and its safety, but some also come and decide it is not for them and leave again. From our congregations, the expectations and desires of those who have not experienced pastoral loneliness keep demanding no matter what. We stand in danger from the wily wolf, Satan, who kills with clever deceptions, from the pack of worldly wolves that wants to carry us off as booty or to devour us on the spot, and worst of all, from the howling beat of our own flesh, able to complain, to boast, to cover for ourselves, delude others and, to top it all off, ourselves.
Among the gifts required of shepherds, patience and persistence stand high on the list.
All that leads to us shepherds get tired, worn-down, and bowled-over. This is because shepherds have heavy, sometimes impossible demands, placed upon them. They are at the disposal of those entrusted to them and of our Lord, who wants to share His earthly experiences with us.
But, despite all this, shepherds have the deepest of joys because they sing with the angels over every sheep that is fed, rescued, and healed on their watch! Shepherds thought it was just one more chilly night until the hills around them burst out echoing the singing of the angels who announced the Savior’s birth. They taught that song to those shepherds, who returned to their flocks spreading the good news.
Shepherds are thankful for the Lord’s sharing the moments of carrying the lost sheep back to the fold, of consoling sheep who have lost a loved one, of holding the trembling, quaking sheep to their shepherd’s heart, joining them in tears which provide the only “answer” in moments of deepest fear or grief. Christ’s shepherds enjoy the satisfaction of birthing lambs for God’s flock, sometimes sharing the struggles of difficult pregnancies and treacherous deliveries that nonetheless bring new life to the Holy Spirit’s new creations. He borrows our bodies and our voices to make His presence real when and where no other help can breathe God’s breath into a dying situation.
Undershepherds of our shepherd—indeed, an enviable calling! For we go rejoicing as sheep among the lambs entrusted to us into God’s everlasting sheep pen, no shabby place to spend forever.