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St. Stephen’s Church
The Rev. Joseph P. Murphy, Ph.D.
January 12, 2003

How to Have a Shepherd

Text: Ezekiel 34:1–10, John 10:11–16

Two of this morning's readings are obviously thematically related. Ezekiel 34:1–10 describes the failure of the shepherds of God's people during the days of Ezekiel, in the centuries prior to the coming of Christ. Those shepherds looked out for themselves. They were not concerned with God's people, but only with themselves. Then John 10:11–16 describes the opposite kind of Shepherd, the good Shepherd Who lays His life down for the sheep. Let's look at the rest of the Ezekiel passage not printed in our bulletins, to see just how these two are tied together, starting at verse 11:

For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: "I myself will search for my sheep and look after them."

Again, verse 15,

“I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down," declares the Sovereign LORD. "I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.” 

Finally, in verse 23,

“I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken."

The Lord has spoken, He alone is the Shepherd of His people, and specifically He has given that task to One Shepherd Who is David, His servant. Ezekiel, however, prophecies long after the kingship of David in Israel. So, the prophecy is not about David, per se, but about the promised Messiah, the Son of David. Likewise, the Lord says two things here. First, He says He Himself will be their Shepherd, and then He says that He will place the Son of David over them as their Shepherd. In Jesus, these two apparently separate promises come together, for as Jesus is divine, He alone is the Shepherd of God's people, and as human, He is the Son of David to Whom alone is entrusted the Shepherding of God's people. Jesus is affirming exactly this in John 10. He is the Good Shepherd, and His teaching in John ought to evoke in our ears the Word of God through Ezekiel: Jesus is the Messiah, the Shepherd and Judge of God's people.

Jesus, then, is the Lord when we say in faith the Psalmist's phrase, "The Lord is my Shepherd." God has placed One Shepherd over us Who is Jesus Himself. That means that there is a fundamental difference between the Old Testament religion where Moses acted as a Mediator between God and His people, and the reality of our life in Christ. After the coming of the Messiah, God's people have a direct relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ, because Jesus is God incarnate. Each of us, then, who trusts in Christ, has the Lord alone as our Shepherd. He will seek us out when we are lost; He will bind up our wounds and heal us; He will encourage us and strengthen us; and He has already laid down His life for us, an effective sacrifice for eternity. With this Shepherd, what else could we possibly need?

Yet, in Paul's letter to Ephesians, we read that Christ gave gifts to the Church, which is the gathered people who believe in Christ, so that we individually have different functions and roles within that one Body of Christ. One of the gifts Paul mentions is that of shepherd, or as we term it in English, pastor. How does that work? How does a person have a pastor, when Christ alone is their Shepherd? The change in the word is one way we are fooled into forgetting the truth that the Lord alone is My Shepherd. Try saying this to yourself, "The Lord is My Pastor."  Pastor/Shepherd—they are the same thing; there is no distinction at all between these two words except the sound. That reinforces the question, what is a pastor in the Church if Jesus is My Pastor?

First, let's look at two verses just to be clear on the reality of God's having placed pastors and other leaders in the Church, and what that means for us. Let's look at Hebrews 13, verse 17:

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

What does it mean to obey and submit to our leaders? Does it mean that your pastor has the right to tell you what car to drive, what clothes to wear, what food to eat? Some people have thought, and still think so. "What would Jesus do?" is a question that has been become somewhat popular in recent times. In Christianity Today some months back there was a full age ad by some Christian leaders entitled, "What would Jesus drive?"  The point of the ad was that Jesus would have wanted to conserve the earth's resources, and refrain from polluting the atmosphere. A reader responded that the ad really missed the point of the question. Jesus needed room for 13, and He traveled in rugged terrain, so He would have needed several SUVs!  Do these leaders have the right to tell you what car to drive? Or, more to the point, does God hold you responsible to obey these leaders, and recycle your SUV? Jim Jones was a very dynamic leader of people, and I have heard Episcopalians tell me that they attended his church in the mid 1970's and were very positively impressed. Then Jones led his followers to Guyana, and induced over 900 of them to commit suicide by drinking poison. Were these people obeying Scripture? Your answer, hopefully (tell me if its not!) is no, of course not. They were deceived. Jones had no authority from God even to have these people leave their homes much less kill themselves. So, if blind obedience is not what Scripture means, what does it mean?

We get a glimpse of the answer by looking a few verses earlier, in Hebrews 13:7, which reads,

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

Imitate their faith. Look at them, look at how they live, and imitate them. So, if you watched me, you would see that I live in a house with a screen door that had a small tear in it, that our cat and dog have ripped wide open. We have a desk on our porch that I started to refinish 6 months ago, the very week I got a pinched nerve and had to stop. We had a tree fall down in our back yard, and I started to cut it up that same week. Since that week, I haven't done any of those chores, and I am embarrassed every time I see all of that. So, should you imitate this? Of course not!  We aren't to imitate our leaders, we are to imitate their faith!  As they in faith obey the Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, so we should imitate them. Even that kind of imitation, though, requires that we know what is worth imitating when we see it. Being shepherded by another human is not a passive activity for any of us, even if we are like sheep in God’s eyes. Remember what Jesus said about the Pharisees, that because they sit on the seat of Moses, we should obey what they say, but not do as they do? We have to know the difference. Unless you have a relationship with God through Christ yourself, you can't benefit from seeing my, or any Christian leader's faith, and imitating it. All that will happen is that you will deceive yourself, and imitate the wrong thing. For the Christian, the Lord is your Pastor.

One of the implications of this understanding is that pastors can be seen for what they are, just other people. Pastors have as many problems and shortcomings as anyone else. When we place a pastor on a pedestal, we're setting him or her up to be toppled off, so that then we'll go around wringing our hands about it when it happens. What a far better Church it would be if we treated each other exactly the same, encouraging each other and forgiving each other, as needed. “Well, OK, so we'll give you a break, pastor, you're just human like all of us, but then what's the deal with you being a pastor? How is a pastor any different?” The answer is that the pastor isn't any different. What is different is the gift of God. If you believe the Scripture, then, there are real implications for you in recognizing that the pastor is just an ordinary schmuck, but that God has given the gift of shepherding to certain persons in the Church for your benefit. Those gifts are from God to you, for your building up in faith and equipping you for your life of ministry in the Lord.

Another implication of this is that you need to know how to have a pastor. One approach is simply to come to Church. Many people do this, and they expect that the pastor will call on them occasionally, and that they can be baptized, confirmed, married, and buried by the pastor, or not, as they choose. In other words, they have a pastor that they can use or not, as desired, simply because they show up on Sundays in some frequency or other. Well, pastors typically won't turn you away if that is your approach, but you don't really have a shepherd. You are at the periphery, the far edge of the life of the Church. Another approach, is to use the pastor to reinforce what you've already decided to do. You make up your mind about a course of action, and announce it to your pastor, expecting him or her to bless it. Many of us are familiar with this approach from being someone's willful child. There is little role for the pastor except to smile, and dutifully ask God's blessing. Again, you don't really have a shepherd.

On the opposite side of things, you may engage a pastor seriously, and almost ask permission for things in life. In other words, you may really want a pastor to dictate to you what God wants you to do. The reality is that there is no pope. No pastor can tell you what you should do in specific details with the authority of God, in the majority of cases. They cannot tell you what car to drive, what clothes to wear, or what to eat. They just don't have the authority. The Lord is your Shepherd.

That doesn't leave the pastor as useless, however. Far from it. Your pastor has far greater authority, because the authority God gives to pastors is over your faith. The teaching of Moses and the apostles, of Christ, and of the apostles, is the food that the pastor is commanded to bring to you. This teaching will affect your entire life, everything you do, if you obey. But if you have a relationship with God through Christ, you will hear the voice of the True Shepherd as those he gifts as shepherds interact with you. So, for you to benefit from having a pastor, you need to establish a pastoral relationship, to let your pastor know in some way that you are part of his or her flock. People do that in numerous ways, from saying it in so many words that "Pastor, I want you to watch over my spiritual life" to simply asking to have a talk and opening up about issues in your life. What's important is not how you do it, but that you enter into a relationship with a person that God has gifted for shepherding where your spiritual life, your faith, is open for discussion, so that you can hear from God through them.

That's where the obedience comes in. Because when you realize that a pastor is there is help you in your relationship with God through Christ, to encourage you in that relationship, and to better equip you to be the person God calls you to be, then you will avail yourself of what a pastor has to offer, whether it is teaching, counseling, prayer, encouragement or correction, all the while imitating their faith as you perceive that is in accord with the Scriptures. In contrast to all other approaches, if you have issues and decisions to make in your life, you wouldn't approach your pastor to get the answer, you would approach the Lord Jesus to get the answer, and get together with your pastor, actively listening not for his or her opinion, but for God's voice. If we will do that, the Lord is faithful to speak to us there, not because of the pastor, but because the Lord Himself is our Shepherd.

This sermon was preached extemporaneously at St. Stephen's on 01/12/03.  The text here is a recollection of that sermon, adapted for Good Shepherd Sunday on 5/11/03  at  St. Mary's-Fleeton.

© 2003 The Rev. Joseph P. Murphy, Ph.D.

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