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Which Shepherd Are You?
November 20, 2022*
(Christ the King Sunday)
By Pastor John Partridge
Jeremiah 23:1-6 Luke 23:33-43 Colossians 1:11-20
I saw a cartoon the other day about pyramids. The joke was simply that instead of thinking that aliens were needed to explain why cultures around the globe chose to build pyramid shaped structures, maybe it was just because everyone figured out that this shape allowed them to make an enormous building that didn’t fall over. It wasn’t aliens. It was physics.
In any case, while we don’t build as many pyramids as once did, we do use pyramids to describe a lot of things. “Pyramid schemes” are bad because, as investment vehicles, only the people at the top ever make any money. But most businesses, non-profits, not-for-profits, military units, charities, churches, scout troops, and almost everyone else, use some kind of pyramid shaped organizational structure. There is one, or at least a very small number of people at the very top, then more people that report to them, then an even larger number of people that report to them, and so on. Sometimes those pyramids are quite large and sometimes they are flatter. The Catholic Church has the Pope at the top, then cardinals, then archbishops, bishops, and then priests (I think), and our church is a little shorter without a pope, we have bishops, district superintendents, and pastors. But that’s not exactly right, but we’ll come back to it before we’re finished.
Years ago, when I first read The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, I encountered a word that I had never seen used before. While its component parts were all familiar, the assembly was new to me. The word that I met, and have grown to appreciate over the years, is… “under-shepherd.” The idea is familiar to any of us with experience with pyramids and organizational charts. There’s a shepherd, and then there are subordinate shepherds that work for the shepherd who are therefore under-shepherds. The concept is simple enough, but it is a useful, and meaningful, way of thinking about our relationship with Jesus. This is, I think, particularly true as we read God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 23:1-6 when he says:
23:1 “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. 2 Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. 3 “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. 4 I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.
5 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for Davida righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.
Obviously, in the time of Jeremiah, Jesus had not yet come, but even so, even as far back as the book of Genesis, God was often referred to as the shepherd of his people. But more to the point, the rulers of the nation and the leaders of the church were called to be, and were known as, the shepherds of God’s people. And some of those under-shepherds were not behaving… shepherd-ly. The leaders of God’s people were scattering and destroying God’s sheep and God was taking it quite personally. Because of their actions, God declares a curse and a punishment upon them for the evil that they had done. God says that he himself will regather a remnant of his flock and will find new shepherds who will do what shepherds are called to do. They will care for the people under their authority, they will have a spine, and will stand up against the enemies and the dangers that face them, and they will protect their flock so that none of them are afraid or go missing. In fact, it is at this point that God declares that he will raise up the good shepherd, a righteous branch from the root of David’s family tree, who will do what is right, who will reunite the nations of Judah and Israel, and who will be called, The Lord, our righteous Savior.
And although it may not seem like it at first, that is the image that we have of Jesus in his last moments on the cross. Although he is dying, the good shepherd gives his life for his sheep. In Luke 23:33-43, we hear these words:
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there, hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Even in his last moments, with one of the last breaths that he had left in his body, Jesus was rescuing the lost and, with his dying breath, he gave his life so that he could rescue God’s sheep. Jesus is the good shepherd, the righteous branch of David’s line that God promised to his people. He is the king of kings, the ruler of the nations, and the rescuer of all humanity. But, as I often ask, what difference does it make? How does any of that teach me what I need to know to get through my day today? How does that offer me guidance on how I live my life? And we find the answer to some of those questions in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae in these words from Colossians 1:11-20.
We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified youto share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Paul’s prayer for the church was that they would be filled with a knowledge and an understanding of God’s will for their lives, mission, and ministry so that they could live lives that were worthy of God and would please God in every way. Paul prayed that the church would be strengthened with God’s power, have great endurance and patience, and give thanks to God for qualifying the church to share in the inheritance of eternity in heaven. But Paul also prayed that the church would bear fruit through every good work, and daily grow in their knowledge of God. I want to repeat that part for emphasis. Paul prayed that the church would bear fruit through every good work and grow in their knowledge of God.
And then, Paul repeats the resumé of Jesus and reminds everyone that Jesus is the Messiah, the good shepherd who rose from the dead, and sits on the throne of God as he seeks to rescue all people, reconcile all who are lost with God, and make peace throughout all creation.
All of that, from Jeremiah, to Luke, Jesus, and Paul, serves to remind us that our role, our mission, our place in the pyramid organizational chart, as the followers of Jesus Christ and as the members of his church, is to be under-shepherds. It is our work, not to scatter and destroy God’s sheep, but to gather them and protect them with our lives, to grow his flock, to rescue the lost sheep, to risk everything that we have to recover the ones that have wandered, to bear fruit, to grow God’s flock, to do good works, to grow in the knowledge of God, to be filled with great endurance and patience, and to give joyful thanks to God.
As the good shepherd has rescued us, let us, as under-shepherds, spend our lives rescuing others, growing, and caring for his flock, so that we might live lives that are worthy of God and please him in every way.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.comThe “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™