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The Shepherd: Good or Gruff?

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on November 20, 2011.

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46

It’s funny what you remember about growing up in church. 

I grew up in what today we’d call a fundamentalist Baptist church.  I remember the people were by and large loving and caring.  The preachers by and large were loud and scary.  And their sermons by and large were long and boring (I’m confident no children in our church will remember my sermons that way!).

Many of my church memories have grown hazy over the years.  But one thing I remember very well is a beautiful stained glass window in our sanctuary that depicted Jesus as the Good Shepherd, carrying a lost little lamb back to the fold.  Jesus had such a tender, loving look on his face, reflecting those wonderful words of Isaiah 40:11 that say of the coming Messiah, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.  That picture of Jesus made me feel like Jesus loved me so much he’d go to hell and back to save me. 

What’s interesting is that the sermons my pastors preached painted a very different portrait of Jesus.  The God they preached was angry at sinners, and his Son Jesus was the Judge who eagerly sent sinners to hell.  Every Sunday the stained glass window I saw portrayed Jesus as the Good Shepherd who loved me unconditionally.  And most every Sunday the sermon I heard portrayed Jesus as the Gruff Shepherd who would condemn me to hell if I didn’t stop sinning and get right with God.     

Which picture of Jesus is right?  Is Jesus our Good Shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep?  That’s who he says he is in John 10:11.  And the more liberal your theology, the more you think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who would never send anyone to hell. 

Or, is Jesus the Gruff Shepherd who separates the sheep and the goats and sends the disobedient goats to eternal hell?  That’s who says he’ll be in today’s scripture from Matthew 25.  And the more conservative your theology, the more likely it is you will say there’s not only a hell, but Jesus the Gruff Shepherd will not hesitate to send you there.    

Good Shepherd?  Gruff Shepherd?  Which title fits Jesus?   Surely it can’t be both!  Or can it?

The simple truth about us human beings is we like our truth simple.  We’d prefer our reality to be uncomplicated and clear-cut.  That’s why we love “either-or” thinking.  Either you are a Republican or a Democrat, a capitalist or a socialist, a conservative or a liberal.  We’d love to think there’s no middle ground, no shades of gray, no “both-and” because that keeps life simple. 

For years scientists argued about whether light was made up of particles or wave-lengths.  It had to be either-or.  Until those same scientists discovered that lo and behold light is composed of both particles and wave-lengths.  Turns out that both-and sometimes describes reality better than either-or. 

That’s definitely true of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The prophet Ezekiel, who lived some 600 years before the birth of Christ, represented a both-and kind of God.  For example, when Ezekiel (who prophesied during those dark days when the Israelites lived in Babylonian exile) referred to the shepherds of Israel, he was talking about both the kings of Israel, and the God of Israel. 

And God the ultimate shepherd has a beef with the kings, the under shepherds of Israel.  It turns out that over the previous 500 years, only a handful of kings had done even close to a decent job of following God and leading Gods people.  Most of the kings were a disgrace. 

Speaking through his prophet Ezekiel, God minces no words as he addresses these faithless kings:  You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep…You have not bound up the injured (or) brought back the stray…but with force and harshness you have ruled them.  So they were scattered because there was no shepherd (34:3-5).    

God, the Gruff Shepherd announces that he will henceforth be against his faithless shepherds.  In fact, like Donald Trump, he tells them in mass, “You’re fired!”  And then he replaces them with himself.  I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out, says the suddenly Good Shepherd. 

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down.  And if we are paying attention we immediately think of that most famous biblical passage about the Good Shepherd:

            The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,

                        He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,

                        He leadeth me beside still waters,

            He restoreth my soul (Psalm 23: 1-3).

The Good Shepherd continues, 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.  Then, the Gruff Shepherd asserts himself again…but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them justice. 

It turns out that not only the kings, but the more affluent Israelites have mistreated and oppressed their less fortunate countrymen and women, fattening themselves at the trough while their fellow citizens grew lean with hunger.  The Gruff Shepherd is not amused:  I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 

Then the Good Shepherd reappears, only this time he is announcing the eventual rule of another shepherd, one in the line of David, who will be the Prince of all shepherds, and the Prince of Peace. 

On this last Sunday of the Christian year known as Christ the King Sunday, those of us who follow Christ know to whom God was referring.  He was referring to the one who came looking for us when we strayed, who bound up our wounds and made us whole.  He was referring to our Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

Of course, there are so many scenes in scripture that reinforce the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  He was the consummate shepherd of all people, including the least and the lost, the blind and the lame.  He spent countless hours healing broken bodies and spirits.  He taught as one with authority so that all who would listen would know how to live life, and live it abundantly.  He showed compassion to the outcast, the prostitutes and tax-collectors all the riff-raff whom the religious types religiously ignored because these “low-lifes” were unclean. 

And then there was his death on the cross.  The Good Shepherd gave himself up as the Lamb of God, a sacrifice for the redemption of our sins.  By his stripes we were healed.  By his blood we were cleansed.  He did for us what we could never do for ourselves.  By his grace and mercy we were made whole, brand new in Christ, transformed in this life and heaven-bound in the next life. 

What are we to do to become a Christ-follower in this life and saved for eternity in the next life?   The New Testament is clear.  In John 3:16 Jesus says whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.  Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, says the Apostle Paul, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31).  By grace you have been saved, adds Paul, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).

Well that sounds pretty clear!  Faith, not works, is the requirement for Christian discipleship.  But wait a minute!

In Titus 3:8 that same Paul says that those who believe in God should devote themselves to good works.  And James, the half-brother of Jesus, says if we tell the naked and hungry that we wish them well, and that’s all, we’re missing the boat because faith without works is dead. 

Could we be dealing with another both-and?  Are Christians to exhibit both faith in Christ and works for Christ?

In Matthew 25, it certainly seems so.  In the Parable of the Talents recounted earlier in Matthew 25, Jesus is clear that we will be held accountable for using the gifts God has given us.  And those who sit on their talents will find themselves in a dark place, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 30).

Then comes one of the most famous, and most troubling of all passages of scripture.  Jesus, who is about to be crucified on the cross, resurrected from the dead, and eventually will ascend into heaven, is looking forward to the day when he will return in his glory, and all the angels with him. 

And once again the Gruff Shepherd we saw back in Ezekiel 34 makes a grand entrance.  Once again this Gruff Shepherd will be rendering judgment within the flock of all the peoples of the earth, this time separating the faithful sheep from the faithless goats. 

Of course, the sheep and goats are simply images of those who have been faithful to God in Christ and those who have not.  Many artists have depicted this spellbinding moment in time when the great separation will take place, and the blessed will ascend into heaven while the condemned will descend to hell.  Judgment before the throne is both a heavenly and hellish moment all wrapped into one.

The shocking part of the story, of course, is the criteria the Gruff Shepherd uses to distinguish the sheep from the goats.  Truthfully, it might not be so shocking if we had listened carefully to Jesus explain the heart of the Law, and the core of faith is, namely to love God with every molecule of our selves, and our neighbor as ourselves. 

Nevertheless, we are surprised to learn that the blessed are those who loved their neighbors, who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger (homeless or immigrant), clothed the naked, tended the sick, and visited the prisoner.  Moreover, when the righteous did this, they did not realize they were ministering to Jesus himself. 

By the way, here’s another both-and.  When we minister to the poor and the hungry and the homeless, we are not just ministering to hurting people.  We’re ministering to the Jesus who inhabits those people, even if they don’t know it and we don’t know it!

The goats, on the other hand, are blind to Jesus, and to their obligation to help  folks in need.  And in that sense they blow it.   In fact, they blow it so badly they pay the price for all eternity.

Friends, that’s a hard word to hear!  Does this mean faith in Jesus doesn’t matter?   No, of course not.  That’s either-or thinking.  Both-and thinking recognizes that we serve both a Good Shepherd and a Gruff Shepherd, and he expects us to have a vibrant faith that bears fruit in good works, caring especially for those who are most vulnerable.   

Which leads us to still another both-and in the Christian life.  Many of us grew up very concerned about our sins of commission and oblivious to our sins of omission.   We were so worried about sinful thoughts and actions that we forgot about sinful ignorance and inaction. 

The famous evangelist Billy Sunday was once asked, “What must I do to go to hell?”  Sunday answered, “Nothing!” 

That’s exactly what Jesus the Gruff Shepherd is saying.  Christ-followers cannot be satisfied with doing nothing wrong.  They are engaged in doing the work of the Kingdom.  And by the way, that work includes evangelism and social ministry.  Those who insist only on one or the other miss the point.  Serving Jesus means telling some lost soul about how they can know Jesus and accept him as their personal Savior.  But what might need to come first is clothing or feeding or housing or educating that person and even helping that lost soul find a job. 

Christ is the Lamb of the World who’d give up his own life for you in a heartbeat.  But he’s also the mighty King of this world, and one day he will reappear in glory to clean up our mess and make all that’s wrong in this world right.

Don’t whittle him down to your preferences by making him either the Good Shepherd or the Gruff Shepherd.  He’s both. 

So, let’s live like it!  And let’s love like it!