Ps 23 & Jer 23.1-6 & Mk 6.30-52 - Jesus Is My Shepherd
[After reading Ps 23 & Jer 23.1-6]
1. Jesus is the good shepherd. In the passage from Mark we are centering our time together on this evening, Jesus cares for the crowds who come to hear him and for his followers through actions that show what it means for him to be the good shepherd. We’ll see this when we look at it a bit later in the service.
In the passage from Jeremiah that we just heard, God is accusing the leaders of ancients Israel of being bad shepherds, of failing to care for the needs of the people and instead being concerned only with their own wants and desires. The Bible often uses the picture of shepherding to describe what a good ruler is supposed to do. Ezekiel, another prophet, blames Israel’s leaders for failing to care for the sheep. He accuses them: “You do not feed the sheep! You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. They were scattered because they had no shepherd, and they became food for every wild beast.”
If we think about kings as shepherds, king David comes to mind pretty quickly. David is the most important king in the biblical imagination, a king who had a special relationship with God. He was not only a good shepherd to the people, but he had in fact started out tending actual sheep in the fields before he was anointed king.
God always maintains that he alone is the true ruler of Israel. The psalm we read tonight begins, Yahweh is my shepherd. The prophets often return to the idea that because Israel’s rulers have proved themselves to be poor shepherds, Yahweh, the true shepherd, is going to step in personally to care for his people, often by setting up a good king, a good ruler. In the passage we heard from Jeremiah, God says, “Then I myself will regather those of my sheep who are still alive from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture. . . . I will install shepherds over them who will care for them. Then they will no longer need to fear or be terrified. None of them will turn up missing. . . . I, Yahweh, promise that the days are certainly coming when I will raise up for them a righteous Branch, a descendant of David. He will rule over them with wisdom and understanding and will do what is just and right in the land.”
We’re trying something a bit different tonight. After we sing another song and listen to the passage from Mark, we’re going to go over to the tables where some large sheets of paper are laid out. We’re going to process artistically the ways in which Jesus is our good shepherd. Then we’ll hang the artwork up here to surround us as we look forward to Easter. Then afterward, we’ll come back and sing, I’ll say a few things more directly about the passage from Mark, and then we’ll go into our prayer and sharing time.
2. The story from Mark that we’ve been talking about and singing about and making art to represent, it’s a really rich story. It’s also a really special story in our Christian memory of who Jesus is and what it means for him to be the Messiah. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand and then going and walking on the waves out to his disciples in the boat is one of the handful of events that all four Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--all tell. The other events are Jesus’ betrayal, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and, strangely, his disruption of the market-vendors and money-changers in the temple courts. Maybe we’d think that all the Gospels would tell about Jesus’ baptism or about the manger in Bethlehem or maybe one or two of the more spectacular healings. But the only events outside of the passion-resurrection narrative that all tell are the purging of the temple and the story we are thinking about tonight.
I’ve already made plain that I think these passages are about how Jesus is our shepherd. This might not seem immediately obvious, but pay attention to the language Mark uses to describe the scene: when Jesus sees the crowd as he’s getting out of the boat, he has compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then after this initial red flag, Mark echoes the language of Psalm 23. In the psalm, Yahweh makes the sheep lie down in green pastures; here in Mark Jesus makes the crowds sit down on the green grass, where he feeds them, which is what sheep do in lush, green pastures. The psalm says that Yahweh leads the sheep to quiet waters. One part of the Mark passage that has always given me trouble is why, after Jesus walks on the water to his disciples in the boat and climbs in, Mark says the wind ceased. But if we read the psalm and the story together, we see that Jesus is leading his disciples to still water.
Now, finding parallels between the Old Testament and the New Testament isn’t always a good thing because, if you try hard enough, you can make yourself see just about anything as parallel. My seminary professors made up a word for this: parallelomania. But I think we’re justified to see shepherd-imagery in this story from Mark. If you read through many of the Bible passages while we created our artwork, I hope you could see the many ways in which Mark is using a lot of Old Testament imagery to make a very important point in the way he recounts Jesus’ miraculous action in this passage. Mark is telling us something about who Jesus is. Throughout our study through Mark, I’ve stressed that Jesus’ identity is really important, and Mark is making it very plain to us here who Jesus is, even if the disciples don’t understand it yet. The Old Testament says over and over again that God is the true shepherd of his people. Here Mark is showing how Jesus is the true good shepherd for the people. And if we do the logical math, we end up with Jesus being God, or, more properly, the Son of God.
If we pay attention to the difference between how Jesus’ disciples behave and the way he behaves, this shows up even more clearly. Mark introduces the story by saying that Jesus takes the disciples away with him so they can rest and get some food to eat. They’ve just returned from what amounts to a shot-term mission trip proclaiming the good news about God’s kingdom; they’re excited and they want to tell Jesus everything. But they’re so excited that they haven’t even gotten a chance to sit down and eat. They need some R&R after all this hard work. But just when they’re getting ready for some time off by themselves, the crowds show up. Jesus has compassion on the crowd, so he begins to teach them. And then he continues to teach them. And by now it’s gotten on to late afternoon, even early evening, and the disciples still haven’t gotten a meal. So they walk up to Jesus and gently suggest that these people might be hungry. And what does Jesus do? He tells the disciples to feed them. With what are they supposed to feed this mob? They’re easily five thousand people they’re. How are Jesus’ followers, the ones he just told last week not to take any money with them, supposed to get food for all these people? But Jesus says, Give them something to eat. Yahweh told the ancient shepherds of Israel to feed his flock. But the disciples come back holding only five loaves of bread and a couple of fish, looking at Jesus, asking “what now?” And then Jesus makes the people sit down on the green grass and he feeds them. In fact, after he prays for the bread, it feeds the people and then some.
But the disciples don’t understand. They don’t think back to who can feed people when food is scarce. They don’t remember the stories about Moses and the Israelites in the desert and God’s provision of manna. And so, later that night, when they are all alone in the boat in the middle of the lake, fighting the wind and the rough water, they don’t recognize Jesus when he comes walking on the water. The Old Testament is full of pictures of God trampling down the chaotic waves, most of all the important story of Yahweh leading his people through a path in the Red Sea. And so they can only look up in dumbfounded astonishment when Jesus tells them, “Have courage! I am.” I Am--the words with which God identifies himself at the very beginning of his relationship with the people of Israel, the words that he speaks to Moses from the burning bush, the words that give us God’s name, Yahweh. And Mark says, They were completely astonished, because they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
I’ve struggled with what God says to us as a community through this passage. On the one hand, I think we could talk a lot about leadership--shepherd-ship--and how that must be Jesus-shaped. I think we could expand that to talk about the ways in which we are all responsible to care for, to shepherd one another.
But I think the big thing that God says to us through this passage is that Jesus is our good shepherd, that Jesus is the God who cares for us. If we do not know deep down that Jesus cares for us, that he is the God who watches over us, who feeds us, who binds up our wounds, who pulls us back into his people when we start to wander off, who defends us from all threats, we won’t be able to follow him faithfully. That’s what the disciples show. They don’t understand that Jesus is the good shepherd who provides, so they can’t respond faithfully when he comes walking on the sea to them. We can only follow Jesus if we know who he is, if we know that he is the God who loves us.