If you’ve been in class with me, or if I’ve taken one of your classes, you may have noticed that I am a knitter. Some people doodle, some people twiddle their thumbs… I make fabric by tying elaborate knots in fiber string with two sticks. This week, I’m knitting a yellow hat, but I usually work on socks. Socks are utilitarian objects, simply constructed, and crazy comfortable. You can make socks out of stuff called sock yarn, which is shockingly thin to people who don’t knit socks. You can use “regular” yarn, which is what sweaters are knit from, and you can even use really thick, bulky yarn if you want a big, cozy pair of slipper socks. My favourite kind of yarn to knit socks is wool yarn that has a little bit of nylon twisted in for added strength and stretch.
Wool yarn itself has a pretty cool story — it starts out as fuzzy curls on sheep, and goes through a giant process of being clipped off the sheep, then cleaned, washed, brushed, brushed, brushed, and eventually spun into yarn.
I am a tiny bit embarrassed to confess to you that I never really held together my affinity for all things knitting and wool with my affinity for Scripture until I spent some time with this week’s lectionary reading. I don’t know if this admission will get my either my Seminary or Pro Knitter Membership cards pulled. But I’ve learned some interesting things about sheep.
The sheep metaphor is strong throughout the Old and New Testaments. Back in the day, this might have been a really useful tool for teaching about God considering that shepherds and sheep were known throughout the many cultures in the Bible. Using sheep to teach about God and the church is probably the equivalent of telling a sermon story about Facebook or the many orange barrels that dot the highways in New York State. But for us today? Sheep are not super relevant.
Sheep are social animals. They stick together in groups called flocks, because sheep are prey, and there is safety in numbers. If one sheep is threatened, its only reaction is to flee the situation, and when one sheep flees, the rest of the flock follows it. When one sheep is isolated from the flock, it becomes stressed immediately. This stress can be so intense and overwhelming that the sheep will quickly become sick if the stress levels continue at a high rate. Not only can an isolated sheep not protect itself, it also is at risk of death from stress.
The flocking instinct can be positive for the group of sheep, but it can also be dangerous. In Turkey in 2006, every single sheep in a 400-member flock plunged to their deaths when one of the flock fled off the edge of a ravine. Sheep cannot be guaranteed to lead themselves well; they require a shepherd.
Shepherds can prevent unmitigated fleeing. Shepherds can guide their sheep away from land that has been thoroughly grazed, away from piles of stool infested with mites and parasites. Shepherds can lead their sheep into the shade when it is hot — sheep will not relocate to escape the heat. They will lay down and die of heatstroke. Shepherds can ward off predators, and take steps to keep their flock peaceful and stress-free. Shepherds notice when the sheep arrive back at the pen out of order. They know that there’s a problem when the sheep who is usually toward the front of the flock is walking at the back of the flock.
Can you see the parallels? Humans are social animals, even those of us who identify as introverts. We stick together in groups called friends, families, and co-journeyers. Humans are predators, yes, but we are just as often prey. We have a couple more reactions to danger than just fleeing — we also fight and freeze. When humans are isolated from other humans, we become stressed, sad, and lonely. Sometimes entire groups of humans become isolated from their regular habitat, or their communities, and I think we all know how horribly damaging that can be.
Humans need shepherds, too. We need shepherds to walk with us as we travel; we need a shepherd in times of stress. We need shepherds to make sure we have adequate food and water, and to lead us into shelter in times of storm. We need shepherds when we lose our footing, or step out of line, or when we find ourselves dangerously close to the precipice.
The shepherd is concerned with the well-being of the whole flock, it’s true. But which of the flock receives the bulk of the shepherd’s energies?
The answer is in our scripture from Ezekiel 34:16, then verses 20-22:
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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
The lost. The strayed. The injured. The weak. The ravaged.
I WILL SEEK THE LOST. I will feed them with justice.
Friends, this is the story of the Incarnation of Christ. We are here today, teetering on the edge of the season where we celebrate the Advent of our Saviour, where we fill our time with extraneous activities that we have been conditioned to believe are meaningful, so much that we often miss the entire point of why that baby was in that filthy manger.
The magic of Christmas is that Christ came to earth as the God-Man to seek the lost. The magic of Christmas is that Christ who always is God, and had always been the Logos became a man, and existed simultaneously and fully as God and Man for one reason: to go out into that far country (to quote Karl Barth), so that all the lost would be found.
The magic of Christmas didn’t happen in a barn. It didn’t happen in that little town of Bethlehem. It really happened somewhere inside a closed-up cave outside Jerusalem, sometime between Good Friday and the Resurrection. It happened because Christ joined our flock, and became a sheep like us, and gave himself over to the Predator to pay the price for that time we used our horns to push another sheep out of the way, or used our hooves to trample one another on the way to the top of the heap. He didn’t flee, or trip one of us up so that we could be the prey. He knew his role, our loving Shepherd-Sheep-God-Man, and not only did he fix it so that we don’t have to be the prey any more, but he also showed us how to see the lost, the strayed, and the weak. He modeled how we should love our flock.
What does it mean to model how we ought to love our flock? First and foremost, it means we need to know how many are in our flock and who they are, and then we need to identify the ones who are lost or lagging behind. Where are they: the lost, strayed, injured, weak, and ravaged? Not at the center of the flock. And they are definitely not the ones at the head of the flock.
They are the ones on the edges, in the margins. The ones who are hungry and need food. They are thirsty and in need of water; naked and needing clothing. They are the ones who are sick, and imprisoned, and need to be visited. And whenever we come alongside the marginalized and buoy them with deeply needed resources, we are not only shepherding well, it’s as if we are shepherding Christ. And when we shepherd like Christ, we become the hands and feet of Christ, and we tell the story of the Incarnation with our very lives.
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
Here’s the thing, though. Sometimes the margins seem really far away. It’s so much easier to go the same places you always go, and to leave the margins to someone else. It’s so much easier to blame the people who are on the margins, for being in the margins, than it is to help.
Therefore, God, the Master, says: I myself am stepping in and making things right between the plump sheep and the skinny sheep. Because you forced your way with shoulder and rump and butted at all the weaker animals with your horns till you scattered them all over the hills, I’ll come in and save my dear flock, no longer let them be pushed around. I’ll step in and set things right between one sheep and another. Ezekiel 34:20-22 (The Message)
Just as Christ entered the wilderness alongside us, to bring us to himself, we need to go out from our comfortable places. We need to get up out of our pews, walk out the door, and meet the people who are lost, in the places where they are. We need to come armed with food for the hungry, and drinks for the thirsty. We need to stand between the plump sheep who force their way with shoulders and rumps and horns, and the weaker ones who are getting pushed around. If we are to imitate the Shepherd, we need to get out of the barn.
This is the Gospel of Life. This is the euangelion. This is the legacy of the Jesus Way. And if we learned anything by studying the life of Jesus, we know that it is not an easy path. Jesus was on the road for the entirety of his ministry. Jesus walked that road even unto suffering, and into his death.
And he asked us to walk with him, and to live our lives as a gift, just as Christ lived and died. I invite you to spend some time in the wilderness this Advent season, and to take on the mantle of the Shepherd. Let’s travel out across the hills to seek the lost and live like we really believe in the miracle of Christmas.