Sermon: “He Will Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” (December 7, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“He Will Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” (Isaiah 40:11)
December 7, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God.” Today’s Old Testament passage from the prophet Isaiah is one of the most comforting passages in all of Scripture. Isaiah is prophesying about the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, who was born about seven centuries later. There are many aspects of the ministry of Jesus that Isaiah describes in this passage, but in this sermon I am focusing on just one: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd.”

During his earthly ministry, as Jesus walked among the uncomfortable crowds, Scripture tells us that “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). “Harassed and helpless”…you could also add another word to describe the crowds, another word that begins with “h”—hungry.

And it is no different in our own day. In various ways in our lives we are all “harassed and helpless”—and we are all hungry—and we all need to be fed by the Good Shepherd.

In the third season of the classic TV show Seinfeld there is an episode in which Kramer and George are talking at a café and they have a hilarious conversation about this inner hunger all of us have:

Kramer is waxing philosophical, “I was living in the twilight, George, living in the shadows, living in the darkness, like you.” Like me? George replies. “Oh yeah, I can barely see you, George.” Okay, stop it, Kramer, you’re freaking me out. Kramer joins George on his side of the table, leans in and continues, “Do you ever yearn?” George has a puzzled look on his face, Yearn? Do I yearn? Kramer with a far-off look on his face goes on, “I yearn, oh yes, I yearn. Often I sit…and yearn. Have you yearned?” George pauses and then responds, Well, not recently…I crave. I crave all the time, constantly craving, but I haven’t yearned.

Kramer shakes his head, “Look at you. You’re wasting your life.” George becomes defensive, No, no, I am not. What you call wasting I call living, I’m living my life. “Okay, now tell me,” Kramer presses, “Do you have a job?” No. “Do you have money?” No. “Do you have a woman?” No. “Do you have any prospects?” No. “Do you have anything on the horizon?” Uh…no… “Do you have any conceivable reason for even getting up in the morning?” George meekly says, I like to get The Daily News—to which Kramer responds, “George, it’s time for us to grow up!” (from Season 3, Episode 23, The Keys, 1992).

In the first stanza of his stark poem The Hollow Men (1925) T. S. Eliot describes the same thing Kramer and George describe, but from a darker perspective:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

And even one of the mightiest protagonists in all of literature, Ulysses, had this inner hunger—as Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson puts it in his poem Ulysses (1842), Ulysses was “always roaming with a hungry heart.”

And similarly Bruce Springsteen, in a song his originally wrote for The Ramones, emphasizes this again and again:

Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
(from “Hungry Heart” on his 1980 album The River).

The truth is you and I also yearn and crave. We are hollow men and women “roaming with a hungry heart.” And this is not some existential yearning or craving for meaning. It goes way past that. It is a hunger for a relationship with the living God.

And that is exactly where today’s comforting words from Isaiah meet us: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd.”

There is only one miracle found in all four accounts of the gospel. Do you know which one? It is the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Thousands of people have flocked around Jesus and spent hours listening to his teaching because Jesus spoke words of comfort, words or healing, words of life. And when Jesus saw that the crowd was hungry he fed them—and not just as much as they needed, but “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11). And there were still baskets and baskets full of leftovers.

And the day after this miracle the crowds tracked Jesus down again, and he spoke comforting words to them about their deeper hunger, their hunger for God: “I am the bread of life,” he told them, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

I recently visited Andersonville National Historic Site. As you may remember during the Civil War thousands of Union soldiers were held as prisoners of war at Andersonville, and it became a place of unspeakable suffering, marked not only by disease and violence, but also by deep hunger and even deeper thirst.

And yet on a scorching Sunday afternoon in 1864 something miraculous happened, as is recorded on one of the signs at the park:

“During a heavy rainstorm on August 14, 1864, a spring suddenly gushed from the hillside. The prisoners were desperate for fresh water and over time the event became legendary. Several men claimed to have seen lightning strike the spot just before the spring burst forth…Whether an act of nature or divine providence, the effect of the stream was an answer to thousands of prayers.”

One soldier described it this way:

“A spring of purest crystal water shot up into the air in a column and, falling in a fanlike spray, went babbling down the grade into the noxious brook. Looking across the dead-line, we beheld with wondering eyes and grateful hearts the fountain spring” (John I. Maile, 8th Michigan Infantry).

And now we’ll move from the Civil War to a Danish film from the 1980’s…how’s that for a smooth transition? ☺…

In the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast, set in 19th century Denmark, a young French refugee named Babette spends years serving as a cook and housekeeper for two elderly sisters whose father was a pastor. Her only remaining connection with her beloved Paris is a lottery ticket that a friend of hers renewed for her every year. One day Babette learns that she has won the lottery, and she receives 10,000 Francs. Without telling anyone, Babette spends all 10,000 Francs on preparing a gourmet feast for the two sisters and others from the church—a gourmet feast just like she used to prepare when she lived in Paris.

At the end of the extravagant feast, everyone has left except the two sisters. As Babette begins cleaning up the dishes one of them complements her:

“Oh that was indeed a very good dinner.” Babette replies, At one time I was the head chef at the Café Anglais. The sister continues, “We shall all remember this evening when you are back in Paris.” I’m not going back to Paris, Babette tells them. “You’re not going back to Paris?” Babette shakes her head, There’s no one waiting for me there, they’re all dead…and I have no money.

“No money? But the 10,000 Francs?” All spent. “10,000 Francs?” Dinner for twelve at the Café Anglais costs 10,000 Francs. “But dear Babette, you should not have given all you owned for us…Now you’ll be poor the rest of your life.” Babette gently smiles, An artist is never poor.

At a different dinner for twelve, the Last Supper Jesus, knowing that we all have a hunger and thirst for God that recurs over and over again, instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion. Just as he took the bread and broke it at the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand Jesus again took bread, and this time when he broke it he gave it to the disciples and said, “This is my body, which is given for you”—and he took the cup of wine and gave it to them with the words, “This is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

And the day after instituting Holy Communion Jesus gave all he owned, even his life, for you—and the miracle of the unconditional love of the Good Shepherd unexpectedly sprang up and began to fall “in a fanlike spray” over the whole world.

And as you come to the altar rail again and again with your empty hands and hungry hearts, to receive again and again the sacrament of Holy Communion—what is described in The Book of Common Prayer as a “certain sure witness and effectual sign of grace” (872)—you can be reminded again and again that you are fully known, fully forgiven, fully loved.

“He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” Isaiah writes—and the good news of the gospel is that Jesus the Good Shepherd feeds all of his harassed and helpless and hungry sheep with…himself.

And when your earthly days are done you will find that there is indeed Someone waiting for you, Someone who triumphantly passed through “death’s other Kingdom,” Someone who loves you more than you can fathom—and you will behold him “with wondering eyes and grateful hearts.”

Amen.