Years ago, in the popular police television drama Hill Street Blues, every episode climaxed with Sergeant Esterhaus completing roll call with the admonition to his officers, “let’s be careful out there.” The phrase went that generations’ version of viral because it captured the stark reality of which we are all too often reminded today that police work is dangerous business. In a very similar way, pastors must be so reminded of the dangers of their work, and they must assiduously protect the sheep.
Twice in Ezekiel 34 (verses 5 and 8 ) the Lord rebukes the shepherds for their failure to protect the sheep. The sheep were scattered and ran away when danger approached and were overpowered by an enemy who was more powerful “because there was no shepherd.” The shepherds had become selfishly concerned about their own needs and ignored those of the vulnerable sheep.
The fact that the Lord has chosen the image of sheep to describe His people is both appropriate and continues to be relevant despite an increasingly urban society. Sheep are vulnerable. They do not possess the ability to defend themselves from predators and they are too slow to outrun them. Moreover, it is not always clear that they are smart enough to identify impending danger.
To be sure, pastors should be careful about pressing the image of sheep too far. We must avoid implying that church members are unintelligent and weak. Moreover, it is true that sheep are generally bred to be killed and consumed, which is an image that doesn’t sit well in a New Members class.
Failure to protect the sheep is tantamount to ministerial treason.
Yet the Scripture is very clear that the dangers to the sheep are real and the responsibility of the shepherd to protect them is unequivocal. Failure to protect the sheep is tantamount to ministerial treason. Jesus reminded the religious leaders in John 10 of the distinction between a shepherd and a hireling. The difference is that a hireling won’t lay down his life for the sheep.
Upon Paul’s completion of a three-year ministry in Ephesus, he challenged the church leaders in Acts 20 to “take heed to yourselves and to the flock.” To do that they were instructed to watch and warn the sheep over whom they had been made overseers. Paul cautioned the leaders that after his departure, “savage wolves” would come to attack the sheep, implying both the reality of dangers to the sheep and the fact that Paul had protected them. The wolves weren’t allowed to attack the sheep as long as Paul kept them safe.
The shepherd doesn’t have to experience every peril to warn the sheep against it with integrity. You don’t have to jump off a bridge to know that falling is dangerous or experience every pain to know that it hurts.
We must watch and warn. We can’t just L.O.L while the wolves move ever closer to the sheep. The shepherd must stand in the gap declaring to the wolves of the world that they can only get to the sheep through him. He must be vigilant in guarding the door and cognizant while watching the exits of possible dangers ahead.
When false truth and weak theology threaten the fellowship, the shepherd must warn the sheep. When the church blurs the lines of right and wrong, the shepherd must disambiguate the message. When technology makes compromise convenient, the shepherd must courageously expose it.
And when absolute truth is mocked, the shepherd must lovingly, passionately, persuasively, and relentlessly defend it as the foundation of our faith and the bedrock of our authority.
And when absolute truth is mocked, the shepherd must lovingly, passionately, persuasively, and relentlessly defend it as the foundation of our faith and the bedrock of our authority. For wrong is not wrong because the world disagrees with it. It is wrong because God declared it to be so. Where there is no absolute right, there can be no consensus on what is wrong.
We cannot be found sleeping while the sheep are in peril. We cannot flee when danger approaches. We must watch over the flock, and we must warn the sheep.
Indeed, Bilbo Baggins was right when he said, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Let’s be careful out there. The world can be a dangerous place, especially if you are a sheep.