Are you lost?
We all get lost sometimes. I get lost around these parts fairly regularly. I wept like a little girl more than once my first year as a priest in Greenwood, when I was lost in the country because someone had stolen a street sign or because I missed an obvious landmark. We get lost in other ways, too, of course. We forget who we are and start acting in a way that is false and hurtful. We get lost in the deep seas of grief or depression. We get lost in our relationships. We get lost in our social circles, in school, or at work.
Getting lost is a human problem. Even Mary and Joseph were lost for a little while. They were travelers against their will, filling a civic obligation. They were not wealthy and had not planned ahead. They were going through an experience that must have been completely isolating and strange. They were in an unfamiliar land and in a completely unfamiliar situation.
Being lost is scary. Being lost makes us feel vulnerable and unprotected. We are not people who are designed to be lost. We are designed to be safe at home, blanketed in love and security. Yet, like sheep, we get lost. All the time. Over and over.
Wouldn’t it be nice if when we got lost, someone would come after us? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were say.. .a shepherd who would guide us through our difficult and lost times?
It is no mistake that the first visitors Jesus had after his birth were shepherds. After all, God could have sent the angels to any group of people. Why not milkmaids, shopkeepers, or doctors? Why were shepherds the lucky ones who got to hear the good news first? The author of the Gospel of Luke is an extremely careful storyteller. He is not loose with words and carefully considers every detail in his account of the Gospel. The fact that shepherds were the first to visit Jesus should grab us by our collars and shake us to attention.
Where else in Scripture is the image of the Shepherd used? Why would shepherds be the first to visit Jesus?
Shepherd imagery is used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Imagery of Israel as lost sheep begins as early as Numbers:
Numbers 27:17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
Verses almost identical to this can be found in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.
Later, King David describes feeling shepherded by God in the Psalms, when he says in the 23rd psalm: The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
But God does not speak of himself as a shepherd explicitly quite yet. First, in Isaiah, the prophet records God telling him that a king will,
feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
But of course king after king after king failed these ideals, so God begins to identify himself as the shepherd of these lost sheep.
Years later, in the 31st chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet says, “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd of a flock.”
And then the prophet Ezekiel fleshes out this imagery further, saying that God as shepherd will rescue his people:
Ezekiel 34:12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
Ezekiel goes further and says God will act as Shepherd through King David:
Ezekiel 34:23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
Remember that before David was King of all Israel, he was a shepherd boy. The author of Luke is setting up Jesus as the great Shepherd who will gather God’s people together. Jesus comes from David’s line-so Jesus already has David’s credibility both as shepherd and as king.
When Jesus grows up he acknowledges his role as shepherd, too. In the gospel of John, one of the primary images of Jesus is as the Good Shepherd. In the tenth chapter of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus fulfills years of prophecy and steps into the role of God as shepherd, as our caretaker.
The shepherds who come to honor the infant Jesus foreshadow the infant’s future role. Just as these shepherds gather and watch over their flocks, Jesus will gather the people of his time together. Jesus will watch over them, and Jesus now watches over us. A shepherd’s job is to tend to sheep: to make sure they stick together, to make sure they have enough nourishment, to find any sheep that might go astray. Jesus does that for us.
Jesus gathers us stray sheep here, now, in community. Jesus invites us in from wherever we might have been a few hours ago: whether we were having a wonderful celebration or fighting with our partner, rolling our eyes at our parents, celebrating Christmas without a cherished loved one-wherever we were-Jesus gathers us together.
We gather, here, now, to remember that we are not stray sheep. We are not wandering in the wilderness alone. We are sheep who belong to a shepherd. A shepherd who loves us with great passion-such passion that he was willing to be born as a human, in a stable, to parents who were just as lost as we are. A shepherd who would grow up and love us so deeply he would offer his very self on our behalf.
Today we honor this Shepherd’s humble birth, and we give deep thanks that he has found each of us, and gathers us to himself. We give thanks that with the birth of Jesus, we are no longer lost.
And we gather every week, here, in this space together, not just to remember this Shepherd, but to encounter him. When we worship together, when we gather at the altar, when we offer each other the Peace, we meet this Shepherd and occasionally we get a glimpse of the deep, patient, all-encompassing love this Shepherd feels for each of us.
We may be sheep. We may be lost sheep. We may even be spectacularly lost sheep, baaing away in the wilderness, but we are beloved, sought after lost sheep. And that makes all the difference in the world. Amen.