Sheep Need a Shepherd (a sermon on Mark 6.34)

It’s a sure sign to us baby boomers that we’re getting older when we realize how many of our favourite musicians are either dying or retiring! When I was a teenager I became a big Simon and Garfunkel fan, so I was particularly struck by the fact that Paul Simon is officially retiring from touring this year, at the age of 76. I’ve always admired his ability to write a good song, and one of my favourites has always been ‘America’. Some of you know that it describes a bus trip across the continent in search of ‘America’, and toward the end we hear these poignant lines:

‘Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping;
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.

At the time he wrote these words Paul Simon was already an enormously successful songwriter. And yet, in the midst of his success, he confessed that he was empty inside, that he was lost and couldn’t find his way. I suspect that there are many more people like him: financially comfortable, competent, successful, but inwardly empty and desperately trying to find a way to fill that emptiness.

I think that’s the sort of thing Mark had in mind in our gospel reading for today when he wrote these words:

As (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6.34)

Jesus saw the people he met as being ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ – they had no leader, no guide to show them the way. I suspect things are not so very different today. But what happens to sheep without a shepherd? Let’s think about this for a minute.

First, sheep without a shepherd can’t find their way.I didn’t see too many shepherds where I grew up in inner-city Leicester, but of course we all knew about how shepherds used sheepdogs – often border collies – to drive their sheep in the right direction. However, in the time of Jesus shepherds didn’t drive their sheep, they went out in front of them and led them. Without the shepherd, the sheep would start going off in all sorts of different directions and getting lost. And that’s true of people too: we go off in all sorts of directions and get lost, and we desperately need a wise shepherd to show us the way.

Life today is like a gigantic multiple-choice question; there are so many choices open to us and it’s so difficult to choose the ones that seem right for us. We can make choices about our values: what’s really important in my life? Is my life about getting as wealthy as possible? Is it about success in business? Is it about experiencing the greatest possible degree of happiness or pleasure? In other words, what’s the goal of my life, and how do I know I’ve chosen the right goal?

Is there a way to live my life in such a way as to be in harmony with what I was created for? In other words, are there ethical standards, moral laws, rules or guidelines to follow as I go through life? Are there right things to do, and wrong things to avoid? How do I know which is which, and where can I find a reliable guide to choosing one from the other?

And what about God? Churchgoing may be on the wane today, but spirituality certainly isn’t; many people are fascinated with it and are intensely interested in finding a way to connect with the spiritual world and with God, whoever God may be. But how can I find God? There are so many paths on offer; are they all equally valid? If I think so, what do I make of the fact that some of them tell me that I can serve God by flying planes full of people into tall buildings, or by bombing abortion clinics? How can I find a true path through this maze, a path that will help me to connect with the true and living God and find his will for me?

We all need shepherds to guide us in finding answers to these questions. But who are our modern shepherds? Who are the voices we turn to for guidance? Newspaper columnists? Political leaders? Celebrities? Motivational speakers?

I have a friend who is an Alliance Church pastor. A few years ago he left pastoral ministry for a while and began to travel across the country as a motivational speaker. When he was on his way through Edmonton once we met for breakfast, and he told me that a lot of his Christian ministry these days was to other motivational speakers. “It’s pretty sad, really”, he said; “They stand up before large audiences and share their five steps to a successful life, but when you get to know them as individuals you discover that a lot of them are as messed up as everyone else!”

So where do we go for help? We go to Jesus. In all of this confusion, the clear voice of Jesus speaks to us from the pages of our scriptures: “Follow me”. God has not left us shepherdless; he has come among us in the person of Jesus to show us the way. Jesus said, “I am the Way”. God’s revelation to us in the pages of the Bible comes to its clearest focus in Jesus as we read about him in the gospels. Jesus promises to lead us to the Father, and to guide us about the sort of life we should be living in God’s world. I find it interesting that in today’s gospel, Jesus’ response to the people’s shepherdless state was instruction: ‘he began to teach them many things’. Still today, if we follow his teaching, we will find our way.

For many years now I’ve been suggesting a prayer that I think gets right to the heart of what being a disciple is all about. It goes like this: ‘Jesus our Master, teach us today to see life as you see it, and to live life as you taught it’. I think if we live our daily lives in the spirit of that prayer, God will honour our request, and Jesus will show us the way.

First, then, sheep without a shepherd get lost and can’t find their way – but Jesus says “I am the way”, and he promises to guide us to the Father and to the way of life that is the Father’s will for us. Secondly, sheep without a shepherd can’t find pasture and food.A big part of the shepherd’s job is to make sure that the flock gets adequate nourishment. Nowadays most sheep live their lives behind fences, in fields belonging to their owners, but that wasn’t the case in the time of Jesus; in those days sheep were pastured on the open range. It was the shepherd’s job to lead them to fresh pasture where they could find the food and water they needed.

Speaking of food, I’ve seen statistics claiming that the average Canadian goes out to eat more than anyone else in the world. Today in Canada we are experts at feeding our bodies with the most varied and delicious foods – some of them nutritious, some of them perhaps less so! But have we lost the skill of nourishing our souls?

Physical food gives us the strength to continue our bodily existence, but we are not only physical people – we are also souls, people with minds and hearts and emotions. ‘Soul food’ is food that feeds our inner life, food that gives us the strength to be the people we want to be and know we should be. Where do we find this food?

Over the next few weeks our gospel readings will be addressing this issue as we read through the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. In John 6:35 Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In some mysterious sense, Jesus himself is our soul food; Jesus lives in us, by his Holy Spirit, and nourishes our inner life. Our conscious faith and dependence on him every minute of the day is what keeps us going as Christians. Coming to him and believing in him is what satisfies our souls.

Do you find this idea difficult to grasp? You’re not alone; many people find it hard to get their head around this. It’s a bit too abstract for us, so God in his compassion gives us a concrete sign of it: the sacrament of Holy Communion. The old Anglican prayer book uses the phrase, ‘feed on him in your heart, by faith, with thanksgiving’. That’s hard for me to do in an abstract way, but I hear those words, in the prayer book, when I’m actually holding out my hand to receive the bread of Holy Communion. Scripture teaches us that as we receive the bread and wine with faith in our hearts, so we are fed spiritually by the life and power of Jesus. We are coming to his table to receive our spiritual food. This isn’t the only way that he comes to us, of course, but he has promisedto meet us here. Are you spiritually hungry, thirsty, tired, burdened? Come to the Lord’s Table and be refreshed!

So Jesus our shepherd is leading us into God’s will for us, and he’s nourishing us so that we can have the strength to do it. But there’s one more thing about sheep without a shepherd: sheep without a shepherd have no defence against danger.

Sheep grazing out on the free range are exposed to many different dangers. There are steep cliffs and ravines; there are wild animals out to kill and eat their prey; there are thieves and robbers out to steal the sheep for themselves. And we as human beings and Christians are also exposed to spiritual dangers. In the first letter of Peter we read these words:

‘Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).

The New Testament writers assume that there is an enemy of our souls who wants to separate us from God forever. He does this by tempting us to leave the path Jesus is leading us along and to take a path we’ve designed ourselves. Right at the beginning of the biblical story he tempted the first humans to ‘be like God’ – in other words, to choose their own path rather than sticking with the one God had chosen for them. That temptation continues to be a powerful one today. 

In this situation, where is the safest place for me to be as a sheep? The answer is, in the flock, behind Jesus my shepherd, doing exactly as he tells me to do. When I do that, I put myself in the position where he can defend me; otherwise, I’m all alone. That doesn’t mean our shepherd never comes to look for the ones who stray – the gospels assure us that he does. But it would be much better if we didn’t stray in the first place. 

So we need to stay in the flock with the shepherd. In other words, we need to be part of the Christian community, and fully a part of it – not just half-heartedly, when it’s convenient, when it doesn’t clash with our busy schedule. It’s here that we listen to the word of the Good Shepherd, here that we experience his presence together and are fed with his body and blood. We are a community of people following Jesus together, and in that community is the safest place for us to be. 

Let’s go around this one last time. 

Jesus looks out on the world and has compassion for everyone he sees, because so many are like sheep without a shepherd. He wants to be our shepherd. How do we take advantage of this?

First, Jesus leads his flock to the Father and teaches us how to live, so we need to learn to listen to his voice and practice what he says. So our prayer is, ‘Lord Jesus, help us know the Father as you do. Help us listen to your words. Help us to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it’. 

Second, just as the shepherd leads his sheep to pasture, so Jesus is the nourishment we need for our souls. So we learn to depend on him day by day, and to rely on his presence to sustain us on the way. Most especially, we come to his Table regularly to receive the spiritual food he offers us here. 

Third, just as the shepherd protects his sheep from danger, so Jesus protects us from the attacks of the evil one. And we make it easier for him to do that by staying close to him and to his flock – his Church.  The closer you are to Jesus and his community, the safer you are from the attacks of the enemy. 

Let me close with some more words of Peter. In his first letter he writes:

‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:25)

May this be a living reality, for all of us, as we follow our Good Shepherd.

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