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Like Sheep in the Wilderness

July 25, 2021

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44


Have you ever watched how sheep behave? I remember once, on a visit to Scotland, we were driving along a charming country road and suddenly our way was blocked by a huge flock of sheep being led, apparently, from one pasture to another by way of the main road. The sheep were in no rush. They trotted along, or stopped to nibble, oblivious to the growing line of traffic they were holding up. They were content. They were being led somewhere and life was good. Without a shepherd, though, sheep are uneasy, skittish, easily startled and apt to scatter in all directions like so many 2nd graders just let out on the playground.

Our Scottish Presbyterian ancestors knew sheep… and they knew themselves. They must have seen metaphors for human life in their sheep because our old hymnal had six different musical settings for the shepherd psalm, Psalm 23—all about sheep being fed. (Our current hymnal references verses from that psalm no less than 21 times!) In today’s gospel you heard that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd… and in the end he feeds them. But if you heard today’s gospel story as just another unexplained food miracle—loaves of bread suddenly multiplying like bacteria under a microscope… listen again.

First, there’s something odd about the setting. There’s a dream-like quality about it—where the illogical seems natural, normal. Jesus and the disciples had set off for an “uninhabited place,” an eremos. It’s the same word that describes the wilderness where Jesus spent forty days before beginning his ministry. That was a place so inhospitable that angels had to come and feed him—a place of scorpions, and poisonous snakes, of heat and rocks. Now, Jesus is taking the disciples away to the same sort of deserted place just at the start of their ministries. And they’re going there so that they can eat?! Eat? In the eremos. It’s a strange place for a picnic.

But, of course, by the time they got there, it wasn’t deserted after all. People had run from every direction to go where Jesus was going. And, miraculously, when Jesus’ compassion kicks in, and he tells them to sit down, it isn’t on rocks and scorpions. It’s on green grass! This is obviously no ordinary wilderness.

To Jesus, they looked like sheep without a shepherd, running about in the wilderness with nothing to eat or drink, with nowhere to rest… and it broke his heart to see them like that. He couldn’t send them away.

How often had God’s people been in a place like that? Just out of curiosity I checked with Strong’s Concordance on occurrences of the word sheep. 185 times! And roughly half of the time the texts are about the sheep being without a good, caring leader. That was certainly the situation Jeremiah had addressed.

The oracles of that passage attack Judah’s unjust rulers—those kings and priests who had failed to care for the sheep, God’s people, for whom they were responsible. God expected compassionate care from those who held power over others, and the kings of Judah had failed. Jeremiah’s words of accusation—“destroyed”, “scattered”, “driven away”—could apply as well today where harsh regimes still create fear and dismay, where people simply disappear and are never seen again.

But speaking through Jeremiah, that prophet of doom, God promises to break into the affairs of humanity, to bring in a reign of justice and righteousness. The Babylonian puppet-king Zedekiah’s name meant, “my righteousness is God.” But God says that corrupt self-righteous human power won’t have the final word. “This is the name by which [the Savior] will be called: The Lord is our righteousness.”

The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want…

Though they had whined and complained bitterly, God’s people hadn’t wanted for food as they wandered in the desert of Sinai. God miraculously provided them with manna—just as Jesus would that day in Mark’s gospel. But for Mark, the miracle wasn’t just about food. It was also about the wilderness greening up. It was not just about physical hunger, but about spiritual nourishment and the effect of God’s presence on a desperate world.

Jesus saw the people running about in the wilderness and the first thing he did was to teach them many things. It’s after that that he tells the disciples to feed everyone. Finally, he blesses the food and it multiplies to feed thousands.

When the crowd was hungry, Jesus didn’t ask who’d applied for food stamps or who could afford to pay for someone else’s meal. This time it wasn’t about economics; it was about spiritual need. And Jesus saw that everyone was hungry. Rich. Poor. Old. Young. They were all in the wilderness. Jesus, the good shepherd, quieted them, taught them, and he fed them all manna to sustain them in whatever private wilderness they were in.

As a model for us, this says that our ministry can’t be limited just to social responses alone. Nor is it sufficient just to teach and preach. What the world needs is to know the calm/peace of God’s presence that settles our frantic shepherd-less running about, and then teaches us…but doesn’t stop there. We also need to be gathered with other people in communal groups—in flocks—to be fed. That may happen in refugee camps, or homeless shelters, or right here as we still come together around this table or the tables in Cove Hall where we have often sat to share a meal.

The richness of the passage offers us still one more word. Not only are we shown what to do, we’re also told how to do it. We’re to feed people with the same compassion Jesus had for those who had been misled or abandoned by their shepherds—who’d been left hungry and leaderless. So, though Jesus and the disciples longed for a respite, a quiet meal by themselves, at the sight of human need, Jesus’ compassion overrode personal desire. This is how ministry is defined. The sheep must be fed first.

In the Gospel of Mark, people are always rushing to be near Jesus—begging for an opportunity to be made whole through an encounter with him. And though our lives are also full of disconnected hurry and brokenness, we usually don’t see folks hurrying to Jesus for quiet and restoration. People we know are far more likely to go to on a vacation, or to see a therapist, or to shop in the self-help section at Barnes and Noble than they are to come to church to be made whole. But Jesus and his disciples didn’t wait for people to come to them; they encountered people in need as they moved about from place to place. Healing and feeding and teaching and communion took place where the sickness and hunger and ignorance and loneliness were—in the wilderness of people’s lives.

There is still a lot of wilderness in the world. People are still hungry for words of peace and reconciliation and wholeness. They’re still hungry for spiritual food. In emotional deserts, people are still in need of communion, of fellowship with each other in small groups who gather for both physical and spiritual nourishment.

This story gives us two starkly contrasting pictures: one shows life in the desperate wilderness of seeking and hunger. The other shows a life of settled peace and fullness in the presence of Christ. Mostly we like to find ourselves sitting among the folks who are enjoying a peaceful picnic on the grass, not the ones desperate for healing or deliverance or food. But right in the center, between hunger and fullness, is where we find Jesus and the disciples.

That’s where we’re supposed to find ourselves, too, right in the middle of the needs of the world, hearts broken for their sadness, fixing supper for thousands of God’s hungry sheep.

Amen.

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