John 10:11-18 New International Version (NIV)
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people;
Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who
calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with
you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
Every week, I lead a Bible study at the nursing home here in town. It is not a very deep study, since most of the residents are not able to completely understand all of the ideas, and truthfully, most are looking for something to do during the day, but we read stories from scripture together and I pray for each of them. In the last few weeks, one of the residents has asked that I read Psalm 51 and Psalm 23 to them every week. I have started to do this – I open with Psalm 51 at prayer time and then I close our prayer time with Psalm 23. I do not know why those particular Psalms are important to the resident, but both of them talk much about the character of God and the ways in which God’s care for us is manifested in our own hearts and lives. Psalm 23, in particular, which we read to open the service today, gives us the perspective that God is our shepherd, that God pursues us, protects us, knows us, and walks with us. Shepherds are not as common in our day to day, but they are and were in Israel, where Jesus lived. They were and are common in other parts of the world, too, and in reading and learning about them and what they do this week, I have seen a lot of parallels. David’s poem in scripture is one of a Good Shepherd. It is one that tells us that God is our Shepherd. Perhaps it was thinking of David’s imagery that compelled Jesus in this passage. Jesus claims for himself the role of Good Shepherd for us, his sheep.
So how can we see Jesus in the Good Shepherd? There are a lot of ways in both this text and Psalm 23 where we can see parallels to how shepherds take care of their sheep and what it means to be a good shepherd, but there are three that we are going to focus on this morning. The Good Shepherd protects his flock. The Good Shepherd knows his flock and they know him, and the Good Shepherd is with his flock.
We can see Jesus in the Good Shepherd when we think of him as the protector of his sheep. Sheep are very peculiar animals. They have little in the way of natural defense mechanisms and so they rely significantly on their owner for protection. King David, who wrote Psalm 23, would have had a very keen awareness and a certain understanding of sheep and shepherds, because, as we know, he was in charge of his father’s flocks before he was sent to live with Saul.
He tells stories of his protection of his flock: bears, lions, and wolves would come and try to maul or kill and eat his animals. Jesus tells us that he will protect us from the wolves who are looking to break in and remove us from the flock. Those ‘wolves’ are not physical wolves, but they are the things that would keep us from following Jesus – sin and doubt and lies the enemy tells us to try and move us away from the one who has called us to him. We have rejected what the world tells us is right and good and instead, we cling to the One who is right and good. And when we do that, there are voices that would try to distract us from the truth – that we are valuable to God, that we are living more abundantly in God’s kingdom, that we are being transformed, that we are loved.
Jesus proclaimed himself the the way, the truth, and the life as well as the good shepherd. And so we answer the lies with the name of the Good Shepherd – Jesus. Jesus has proven our value, Jesus has promised and is giving us abundant life, Jesus is transforming us, Jesus loves us. This is how the Good Shepherd protects us from the enemy – the enemy that is sometimes just the words we say to ourselves in the dark. The whispered name of Jesus drives the enemy from us and draws us closer to the Good Shepherd who wants to keep us safe. You see, Jesus already laid down his life to protect us from sin and death. Jesus already willingly and obediently gave all of himself for us. When we call on his name, we are simply acknowledging the power of that gift – and claiming Jesus’s work on our behalf. Jesus can keep us safe.
The second way that we can see the Good Shepherd and know it is Jesus is this: Jesus knows us. He knows our name. We know his voice. We recognize him as the one who has laid down his life for us. In fact, I would say we are like the bummer lambs.
Sheila Walsh describes bummer lambs this way:
Every now and then, an ewe will give birth to a lamb and immediately reject it. Sometimes the lamb is rejected because they are one of twins and the mother doesn’t have enough milk or she is old and frankly quite tired of the whole business…
Unless the shepherd intervenes, that lamb will die. So the shepherd will take that little lost one into his home and hand feed it from a bottle and keep it warm by the fire. He will wrap it up warm and hold it close enough to hear a heartbeat. When the lamb is strong the shepherd will place it back in the field with the rest of the flock.
“Off you go now, you can do this, I’m right here.”
The most beautiful sight to see is when the shepherd approaches his flock in the morning and calls them out, “Sheep, sheep, sheep!”
The first to run to him are the bummer lambs because they know his voice. It’s not that they are more loved — it’s just that they believe it. We haven’t necessarily been rejected by our parents, but we have rejected the world, we have moved into a Kingdom the world can’t understand, and we do that without knowing so well that Jesus, this Jesus who is our Good Shepherd, he knows us.
He knows that some of us struggle with addiction. He knows that some of us wrestle with past hurts. He knows that sin you hide from everyone else. He knows that greed or selfishness or pride or lust or anger or jealousy that you harbor. He knows that spirit of unforgiveness. He knows everything about you – past and present. And he loves you. He knit you together in your mother’s womb, Psalm 139 tells us. He knows the scars you have, the wounds that aren’t scars yet, and the pain that can defeat you in a moment – and in every place where you see deficiency or lack – he whispers your name. He knows you – you are fearfully and wonderfully made – and he cares about you.
He won’t leave you in those spaces. When sheep are in a place where all the grass has been munched, they will stay in the same place unless the shepherd leads them to a new pasture. Jesus takes you from the places where you have lost everything, used everything up, and he calls you to the place of abundance and transformation. And because he knows you – it is the best place for YOU.
Scripture tells us that God sings over us, that our names are tattooed on God’s hands. That our inmost being is known and loved and cherished by the God who made us. Jesus knows YOU.
Finally, we see the Good Shepherd in Jesus by virtue of his very presence in our lives. Whatever we are going through, whatever the circumstances: he is with us. He promised us two things toward the end of his ministry: we would have trouble and he would be with us. It is that presence of Jesus that carries us sometimes when all else seems lost. He protects us and knows us, but he is also WITH us.
I have a friend who runs a farm in Maine. The last few weeks have been lambing season, and this one for her, this year was a very tough one. One of the first births this year was an ewe who had twins. Neither survived the labor. After the ewe went through all of that, my friend put her babies with her and the ewe was ‘talking’ to the lambs and to my friend, very quietly, very gently. My friend said “[the sheep] try to tell their shepherd”.
That is because they know their shepherd is there for them. The sheep try to tell their shepherd in the only language they have because they can sense the shepherd’s presence. The shepherd draws near in the places of deepest pain, darkest hurt. David says it in one of the most compelling ways – even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he writes, YOU ARE WITH ME. Jesus is with us. Every week, our benediction says “May the presence of Christ you have known today be with you through the rest of the week” and that is not a call for Christ to be with you – it is a call for you to recognize that he IS with you, that he has not left you. Jesus, the Good Shepherd is WITH you, is protecting you, is loving the you he knows so well. There are many more characteristics of Jesus that correlate with his being our Good Shepherd. But if we focus on these: He protects us, he knows us, and he is with us, we can rest in the knowledge that we can see the Good Shepherd when we see Jesus.
Before we go to communion today, it seems appropriate to read Psalm 23, from the most familiar translation, the King James Version:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.