Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And can’t tell where to find them.
Leave them alone and they’ll come home
Wagging their tails behind them.
Works for Mother Goose. Not so much for Mother Church! Sheep wander off. It’s the nature of sheep to wander, for one to lag behind the others. They nibble and nibble and nibble, moving from one tuft of grass to another without any awareness of their surroundings. If the flock is not guided by an alert shepherd, the flock could lose a sheep every hour all day long!
In our Gospel Reading, we’re back before Easter. Jesus is walking through the Temple. It’s winter. In fact, it was the festival of Dedication. We know it better by the name of Hanukkah! It’s the festival to celebrate that time when Jerusalem was freed from its Syrian oppressor Antiochus Epiphanes during the Maccabean Revolt a century and half before Jesus appeared on the scene. Antiochus’ henchmen had defiled the temple by setting up an altar to Zeus. The Maccabees and their followers rose up to defeat the Syrians, then they cleansed and rededicated the temple.
So now it’s winter as Jesus walked. The colonnade of Solomon, an area at the southeast end of the outer court, would have provided the most protection from the weather. And as Jesus walks, with His outer garment pulled up around His head from the wind, perhaps He hears in the wind the voices from the past as well as the nagging voices of the paparazzi who hound Him at that hallowed site. Jesus could hear the cries of anger and anguish, the voices of oppressors and the oppressed, the shouts for vindication and freedom, as the people’s prayers and praises echoed around the temple walls during that holiday.
As Good Shepherd, Jesus would be reflecting on the people scattered by the hand of their oppressors and gathered again by the hand of God. As He walks, it is easy to picture Jesus’ mind dwelling on those who are lost and isolated, those to whom He would reach out His crucified hand. This Shepherd, being the Good Shepherd, would have His flock on His mind.
It’s easy to picture Jesus with this kind of imagery, because Jesus uses it. “My sheep listen to My voice,” He says. “My sheep listen to My voice. I know them and they follow Me.” There is no Flock without the Shepherd. And the Shepherd is never without His flock. Solidarity!
But the world we live in is becoming more and more a confinement system, a life hemmed in with all kinds of unwritten rules, a system designed to produce uniformity. It’s happening more and faster in our era of uncertainty. Life in this world is becoming a confinement market industry.
A lamb is born. You vaccinate it with some education, and keep moving the youngins from pen to pen, from organized activity to organized activity until the day they graduate. Then you stick ‘em in with all the other sheep in the big confinement pen. There, together with all the others, they get managed some more!
The Englishman, C.S. Lewis, wrote a science fiction trilogy, the last book called That Hideous Strength. Written in 1945 the book is similar to other dystopian novels of that era, like George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In Lewis’ story, the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (with the acronym “N.I.C.E.” nice) is a scientific, social planning agency, secretly pursuing the exploitation of nature and the annihilation of humanity. The Institute is directed by beings which Lewis calls the “Macrobes,” superior beings—kind of like the “Brights” as atheist Daniel Dennett calls folks unburdened by religious superstition—the bright Macrobes rule over the benighted “Microbes,” the insignificant beings in Lewis’ tale.
Social activities, music, movies, books, food, clothing, politics, everything gets put to the service of N.I.C.E., making humanity think the right way, act the right way, live the right way…hold the right opinions, think the right thoughts…safe and secure within the walls of the pen. But…little do these sheep know that this sort of solidarity spells their doom.
In one rather contemporary sounding conversation, one of the leaders of N.I.C.E. says: “Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to N.I.C.E. is represented as a Leftist action in the Rightist papers and a Rightist action in the Leftist papers. If it’s properly handled, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us.”
So the denizens of N.I.C.E. slowly demolish any sense of right and wrong by keeping all sorts of ideas floating around at once, creating the illusion of free thinking, but slowly destroying the human race. Mr. Lewis once said about the reality behind his fiction: “All the time—for such is the tragic comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible…. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” [Abolition of Man]
Jesus the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, says simply, “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them and they follow Me.” His Flock is not a “nice” system of managed, confined animal husbandry, where everyone thinks the same thoughts, holds the same opinions, acts the same way, talks the same way.
No! It’s sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd. That’s it! Our sole purpose here in this place is to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, to ensure that the voice of Christ goes out to be heard. Anything and everything we do is related to making the voice of Christ heard. As the hero in Lewis’ novel says, “There are a dozen views about everything, until you know the answer. Then there is never more than one.”
But this is where the Hanukkah season and the Maccabean revolt makes a great contrast for Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd. Unlike the Maccabees and other politically zealous believers through the ages, our Lord does not use force to rescue an oppressed humanity crushed under this world’s confinements of thought and word and deed. He conquers by His own death.
Nor does our Shepherd whisk us from the world into some Christian confinement. He does not remove us from the world’s fears, from the world’s conformities of thought and opinion, from any of the oppressive forces that humankind is subject to in this confining world. In fact, He joins us under that oppression.
Where, surprisingly, our Good Shepherd takes us into the places where those wolves can get us. Yet in those very places we hear His voice: “Fear not…no one can snatch you out of My hand.” He leads us into places where we fail, where we begin to conform to the thinking of the world, where we become inattentive to His voice and wander. In other words, He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death; leads us where we sheep would never dream to go if it were all left up to us. Jesus leads us through His own crucifixion to see the glorious Day of resurrection!
Yet in each and every place where He leads us, oppressive as we may find it, there His voice is heard: “Fear not…My Father is greater than all. No one can snatch you out of My Father’ hands.” “I and the Father are one,” He says. Solidarity. “Where I am there My sheep will be,” He says. Solidarity. Not by conformity. Not by confinement. By hearing the one true Voice; one Shepherd, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all.
Martin Luther once observed, “thank God a seven year of child knows what the Church is; sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd.” A voice, and ears which listen. A Shepherd and His attentive Flock. “I know My sheep,” He says. “My sheep know Me.” Solidarity!