Wolves have a bad reputation in European and North American folklore. They are fearsome, and their presence inspires hatred and terror. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about “Peter and the Wolf”, “The Boy Who Cried Wold”, “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three Little Pigs”. Whenever we read about wolves, they are always the enemy—and that’s partly because of the way Scripture refers to them.
Beyond the literal meaning, the term “Big Bad Wolf” in Western culture is almost always a metaphor for the fear we carry within ourselves. Sometimes the “Big Bad Wolf” for a child is really fear of the darkness. In older people it’s the fear of failure or the fear of death or the fear of loneliness.
The Big Bad Wolf is symbolic of the things we fear—and since we all have fears, we have this in common. I have my own fears: I’m terrified of drowning in deep water at night; I’m afraid of falling off a high building. As a result, I don’t climb ladders or walk on rooftops and I never, ever go swimming in lakes or oceans at night. Not ever. Whatever keeps us awake at night, or whatever fears make our blood race, those are probably our Big Bad Wolves.
Just last week I had a variation on a recurring nightmare. I’ve had this basic dream all my life, with certain details changing as my career and responsibilities changed. Last week, I arrived at church and Ann was waiting for me, asking me where the palms for Palm Sunday were and if I had forgotten to order some. I was stunned, “Ann, it’s the end of June and we’ve already had Palm Sunday and Easter,” I replied. She took out a calendar and there, to my chagrin, was evidence that in fact, June 29 was Palm Sunday. So, I ran upstairs to the upper room and grabbed the plastic palms and began cutting off branches with Donna, explaining to Ann that we’d have to have artificial palms this year. My heart was racing, and I was in a panic because I had no Palm Sunday sermon to deliver, and I hadn’t asked Madonna to change the paraments from green to red. The tower bell rang just then, signaling the start of worship and just then I glanced down at the calendar Ann had left me. It was for the year 1913, not 2013, so as Ann and I made our way up the aisle, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and told her, “It’s not Palm Sunday after all, that calendar you showed me was from 1913 when Palm Sunday did fall on June 29.” She smiled and said, “Oh, good.” And then I was wide awake, heart pounding, blood pressure boiling!
That dream, and the hundreds of variations on it I’ve had since childhood, reveal exactly what my Big Bad Wolf is: a fear of failure due to lack of proper preparation. That fear is very real to me. I know this because I have dreamt I was delivering a sermon with only boxer shorts on. I’ve dreamed that I was showing a non-curriculum film in history class when suddenly President Obama walked in and I hurriedly shut off the projector and began lecturing utter nonsense about the ancient dynasties of China—of which I know practically nothing in real life. I’ve dreamed a million times that I was giving a performance in a large music hall and as the music began, I realized I had learned a completely different piece! I didn’t have the music to the piece that I was expected to sing, and worse, I had never heard it before so I couldn’t fake my way through it. So, who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? I am. And if you allow yourself to ask that question seriously, you are too. We all are.
The Big Bad Wolf is Big and Bad. And he is hungry. We meet him and see his big teeth showing. We have every reason to be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, whatever it is that he represents in your life.
Fortunately, in the folklore of our culture the Big Bad Wolf is always conquered. He is defeated by the hero. And as we face our own fears, we realize that we become the heroes who outsmart the wolf and become victorious.
And like the people in the fairytales, we, too, are usually looking for someone else to save us. We take that image with us when we read the scriptures and are grateful for the image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who protects us from the Big Bad Wolf. We like the image in the 23rd Psalm of the Lord as our Shepherd who leads us beside still waters, who restores our souls (Ps 23:2). We find comfort in the midst of the Big Bad Wolves and the “darkest of valleys” because the Shepherd is with us (Ps 23:4).
But in our text today, Jesus sends the “lambs into the midst of wolves” (Lk 10:3). Not only that, they are not allowed to bring anything along with them to defeat the wolves – no money, no food, no weapons, no change of underwear. They cannot possibly succeed, that much seems obvious. So, what kind of shepherd is Jesus anyway that he would do this??
It’s one thing for the shepherd to lead us through a valley where there may be wolves lurking, but what kind of a shepherd knowingly sends the sheep into the midst of hungry wolves where they have no means of protection? The sheep don’t have the knowledge, or the experience, or the capabilities to go out on their own! Where is the “good news” in this chapter?
Well, there is some. First, notice that the sheep weren’t sent one-by-one, but two-by-two. One lonely lamb certainly cannot survive on his own, so there is significance in the fact that they are not sent alone. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says, “there I am among them” (Mt 18:20). So, in point of fact, the sheep are not alone. The shepherd is with them.
And to ensure they trust the shepherd and not their own abilities or skills or resources, Jesus tells them not to bring anything along. They must trust him entirely—just like lambs in the midst of wolves that trust the shepherd to lead them through.
Amazingly, 70 out of 70 go–and as far as we can tell, they all come back safely. Thirty-five pairs of servants go and face the wolves and 35 pairs return sharing the excitement of having been carried through safely by the power of God. And like the proud parent of a child who has just learned to ride a bike, Jesus rejoices in what has happened.
Second, we need to pay attention to something: Jesus isn’t sending the twelve Apostles to preach the Good News. He’s sending a larger group than that—meaning, it’s not up to the core group alone to spread the word, it’s up to every one of us, even you and me.
We have all been sent to serve, and we are all sent in such a way that we know we must trust Jesus to be with us. We must face our own “Big Bad Wolves”, but not on our own. We do it as part of a community, so we know that Jesus is with us wherever we go.
It doesn’t matter if your Big Bad Wolf is the fear of visiting shut ins, or volunteering for committees or facing health challenges, or wondering how you’ll pay your medical bills. We always have the choice to face our fears and allow God to conquer them through us.
One way I confront the “wolf” of my own fear of failure due to poor preparation is to structure my time wisely. I work on sermons well in advance and I try to make sure that I’ve spent adequate prayer and meditation time on the lectionary texts, weighing them and digesting them patiently before I actually sit down to write a sermon. People say that I’m a “high energy” person, and maybe that’s true. It’s also possible that my energy level is the same as everyone else’s and that I’ve just found ways to stay structured in how I use my time.
But as your shepherd, I also want to help you face your own “wolves,” too, whatever they may be. I feel called to do that because I’m convinced that God wants all of us to stand up to the “Big Bad Wolf” that we fear. Together, we can respond without fear to the Shepherd’s call to go out and serve. We can learn to trust God to lead us, protect us and work through us.
Whenever we face our fears, God smiles. Whenever we unmask the Big Bad Wolf, God rejoices with us. Fear is the opposite of Love: wherever one thrives, the other languishes. The message of Jesus is to release every fear and to press forward in love. If we can do that, we will have peace of mind and the inner assurance that all will be well—no matter what. We don’t need to know all the details because God already has the outcome well in hand, and our shepherd—the one who has never let us down—is certainly not going to abandon us when we feel most frightened and vulnerable.