The Lamb is the Shepherd

We want to know Jesus. We want to know who he is; who he is in relationship to God; who he is for us; who he is for the world. We want to know who he was when he told people the good news of God’s reign in Galilee and in Jerusalem, and we want to know who he is now that he is risen and comes to us in word and sacrament, in the stranger and the prisoner, hungry and thirsty. And we don’t just want to know about him. We want to know Jesus.

John knew him and he tells us he heard him say, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This knowledge is not the kind one acquires by studying, but rather a deep familiarity, like that between parents and children, or the trust-filled openness between friends, or the intimacy between lovers. In John’s telling of the gospel, Jesus uses all kinds of metaphors to speak of himself and who we are to him; and the cup of language is not only brimming with rich imagery – it runs over. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. He is the bread of life, we are hungry. Jesus is the light of the world, we are seeking a way in the darkness. He is the living water, and we are the parched and thirsty ones. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, and we are his flock. Vine, water, bread, and light speak to us with incredible immediacy, but the shepherd comes to us from a very distant land. There are not a lot of sheep around these parts, these days, and most of us depend on movies or documentaries about sheep dogs or romantic poetry and paintings for familiarity with a shepherd’s world.Chances are that for a good many of us the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word shepherd is Jesus – and the Jesus we know helps us fill the word shepherd with meaning, rather than the other way round, where the world of shepherding helps us get to know Jesus. But shepherds were common in the ancient world, and the image was all through the Hebrew scriptures: Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro when God called him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.[1] David was keeping his father’s sheep when Samuel came to anoint him king over Israel.[2] In Israel’s imagination kings and leaders were shepherds whom God had called to guide, protect, and care for God’s people. When the rulers and leaders, in their quest for power and wealth, trampled the people, the prophets proclaimed God’s judgment and promise:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.

Thus says the Lord God, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.[3]

“I am the good shepherd,” John heard Jesus say. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” The good shepherd doesn’t run when the wolf comes, the snatcher, the scatterer. The good shepherd doesn’t run when the promise of life in fullness is torn to pieces by our sin, but lays down his life to redeem us.

In the first four centuries of the church, the image of a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders was the most popular depiction of Jesus. It was painted on frescoes over baptismal fonts and next to graves on the walls of the catacombs, proclaiming the good news of the shepherd who guides and protects his own throughout all of life. And even today, when you’d have a hard time finding a shepherd and his flock out in the hills of Middle Tennessee, you wouldn’t have to go far to find a stained glass window or an old tombstone with Jesus the good shepherd. We tend to sentimentalize and romanticize the image, but still, we connect to the reality of Jesus as caring and fiercely protective and particularly committed to the weak, the injured, the strayed, and the lost. But it’s one thing to understand the image of the shepherd, and quite another to be found and carried by him. It’s the difference between knowing about and knowing the good shepherd.

In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells her readers about Ken, a man in her church who was dying of AIDS, “disintegrating before our very eyes,” she writes, and who had lost his partner to the same disease. A few weeks after the funeral, she says, “Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there ever since. Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. He looks like God’s crazy nephew Phil. He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.”[4]

The shepherd and the flock. This is what being known and being found by Jesus looks like. But there’s more. Lamott goes on to talk about a woman in the choir named Ranola, who, she says, “is large and beautiful and jovial and black and devout as can be.” Ranola had “been a little standoffish toward Ken.” She had “always looked at him with confusion,” when she looked at him at all. Or she looked at him sideways, “as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head on.” Ranola had been taught “that his way of life—that he—was an abomination.” It was “hard for her to break through this.” But Ken had been coming to church nearly every week for the last year and it was getting to Ranola. “So,” writes Lamott,

on this one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which goes “Every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up. But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap. And then when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen—only Ken remained seated ... and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?” And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up—lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me.[5]

How beautiful is that? Jesus can fill a hole in a man’s heart who has lost the love of his life, and this strong, gentle shepherd can free one sheep to let herself be so overcome with love for a most unlikely other that she becomes a shepherd herself, taking him in her strong and loving arms and holding him. This is what being known and found by Jesus looks like. This is what knowing the good shepherd looks like. This is the life to which we are called: to let ourselves be loved by God and learn to love each other. Knowing this shepherd changes us, in ways we have hoped and longed for, but also in unexpected ways. The paths in which the shepherd leads us are rarely the ones we drew on our life’s map when we set out on the great adventure, but he leads us toward fullness. We follow him trusting that in every circumstance we are led and protected by one who doesn’t run when the wolf comes, but lays down his life in faithfulness to God and to his own.

The lamb is the shepherd. I fear no evil. His love is the power that makes all things and restores all things. Even though I walk through the long hallway at the cancer center, you are with me. Even though darkness is creeping in from all sides, you are with me. Even though rulers and leaders, in their quest for power and wealth, trample the people, I will not lose heart. Your love has made all things, and your love will make all things whole. You lead us to the waters of baptism so that your life becomes ours. You prepare a table where enemies taste your peace and are reconciled. Your goodness and mercy pursue us, every last one of us, until we are all at home with you and with each other, so there will be one flock, one shepherd. You gather us in, Jesus, no matter how far we have strayed. Thank you.

[1] Ex 3:1-12

[2] 1Sam 16:1-13

[3] Ez 34:3-6, 11, 15-16

[4] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 64.

[5] Lamott, 64-65.