Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday—Sheep Sunday, some call it. This is the Sunday chosen each year to celebrate that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. We are treated to some of the most beloved and beautiful phrases in scripture:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me (v. 14)
Jesus the good shepherd reminds us of soft images of a Jesus with flowing robes, cuddling a tiny lamb, while others lie peacefully at his feet. It was exactly that kind of depiction that I used to look up at when I was growing up. Our old church at Eleventh and South "A" in Richmond, Indiana had a huge central Good Shepherd window in the old-fashioned sanctuary. I must have looked at it hundreds of times; its image is seared into my memory—the robes of Jesus, with a span of red in the midst of the white, the lamb being cradled by him, the staff at hand, and several sheep scattered around him. The image is idyllic, and it is the inspiration for art spanning the continuum from stained glass windows to Sunday School dioramas. It suggests familiarity, nurture, and care.
But, in truth, perhaps our understanding of this image ought to be quite different. More appropriate to the modern world might be that of Jesus on a motorbike or scooter, disappearing over the hills behind a cloud of blue smoke, sheep dogs running behind.
The ancient shepherd of Palestine had to be tough, often working in areas of sparse growth, frequently amid danger from wild animals and thieves. Shepherds had to protect the flock, especially at night, when they were often rounded up into a small pen. John 10 reflects this less than ideal world. The bland cuddly image gives way to one of tension, contrasting the positive side of the job with the threats of danger to sheep and shepherd. Life and death, as we learn in the weeks of Lent and Easter, hang together.
The shepherd was a common metaphor for rulers from ancient Egypt to Israel. It reflects both strength and nurture. It's an image of engaged leadership. The great King David too was once a shepherd. When Ezekiel complains about the "shepherds of Israel" and their failure to care for the sheep, he refers to kings. The assumption in the ancient world is that government has a caring role, a welcome idea in any century.
John's gospel appears to focus more on leadership within the community of faith. He rails against the failure of Israel's spiritual leaders and attacks the professionals, who are in ministry for its benefits, not because they see it as a calling. They avoid rocking the boat and keep themselves and their flocks safe.
In radical contrast, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is prepared to face danger and death for the sake of his disciples. His commission is to bring life out of death, not bring forth cuddly little lambs for our amusement.
This text is written to the Christian community in which John lived; and, as John sees it, that community was in trouble. It was not being the community of love it was called to be (15:1 17). People weren't dedicated to one another with heart and soul, mind and strength. Instead, they were dedicated to self-preservation. When the going got tough, they deserted one another like the "hired hand" in our text (10:12). What resulted was the death of community: a people more interested in making comparisons than giving acceptance, a people more dedicated to competition than to mutual care (13:12-17).
According to John, the evils in community stem from the "voice" that people heed. They tune out the voice of the good shepherd and tune in the voice of another. They become captivated by that voice. They take it to heart and believe in it religiously.
Jesus is the good shepherd who comes among scattered sheep, once and for all, to gather them. What characterizes his shepherding as "good" is that he is not swayed by other voices, but is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. One recalls the temptations of our Lord in the wilderness and his refusal to heed the voice of temptation.
And that is the example for us. We are called to heed the voice of the one who knows us and who desires that we also know him. "I know my own and my own know me."
So, what makes the voice of this shepherd worth our attention? Why should we bother to listen to Jesus?
There are plenty of other voices competing for our attention. The voices of the media may have overdone their calls to caution this week over the matter of the possible flu epidemic; people in places not remotely affected were taking extraordinary precautions. The voices of so many—and our pension and investment statements—seem to call us to grave concern for our future. Those who desire to sell us products offer enticements of all kinds and tell us that spending is exactly what our economy needs at this time. Politicians manipulate us towards whatever state of mind that serves their needs. Family, neighbors, and community seek to define life for us in ways that don't square with our perceptions of the gospel. And Jesus says simply: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. I lay down my life for the sheep.
Jesus says succinctly here some very important things.
When we listen to Jesus, we hear him saying "I am." John's gospel is filled with phrases that begin this way. "I am the door." "I am the light of the world." I am the resurrection and the life." "I am the good shepherd."
It is no coincidence that the words "I am" begin these phrases. They are the words that identify Jesus with God the creator. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is the God who says "I am." When Moses stands on Mount Sinai, he hears that same holy phrase, "Tell them that 'I am' sent you." "I am who I am." It is the name of the God who refuses to be named.
"I am," says Jesus. Like God, "I am the good shepherd."
And then the statement that catches my attention today: "I know my own and my own know me." It is a statement well worth our contemplation.
Isn't that really at the very core of what we all desire in this life—to be known, fully and graciously and tenderly and strongly and intimately? Isn't that what all of the anxious seeking after this or that, of the following of this sage or that, or the mastering of the works of this or that great person is about? We seek after a way of being intimately connected beyond ourselves.
When we get that wrong, it always eventually goes terribly wrong. When we get it right, it is a wondrous thing.
"All those other voices competing for our attention don't really want to know us. They can't possibly know us. But there is one who does. The one who says, "I am," wants to know us. In fact the one who says, "I am," already knows us just as the Father knows him.
"God knows us. And in that knowledge, we know God. If we really let ourselves hear what Jesus is saying, we can come to know God. Not a lot of propositions about God, not things about God, but we can experience the reality that is God
"This naturally frightens [as well as beckons] us. But such fear is not mere sentiment, but rather manifests itself in a way of life, as the First Letter of John speaks about it - a way of life that shows we respect the majesty and power of the God who says, "I am." A life that ought to lay down its life for another.
"As verse 16 says: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuse help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." For those who listen to Jesus, the shepherd becomes the Paschal lamb slain on the feast of the Passover to save us from our sins, and we are the sheep of his pasture. We are poor sheep like those he tends and leads beside still waters. We become his people, his body and blood for the world.
"There are many competing voices. But only one voice calls us each by name. Only one voice knows us by name. Only one voice speaks the great, "I am." That voice is Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever." (Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek, Sermons That Work, 2008)
So, what makes the voice of this shepherd worth our attention? Why should we bother to listen to Jesus? Because he's tough enough to protect us. Because he cares enough to lay down his life for us. Because he knows God. And because he knows us by name.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, whose goodness and mercy follows us all the days of our lives—from the moment of our borning cry and our new birth in water and spirit to our last day on earth. We are always loved and cared for and forgiven by and known by the good shepherd.
Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, works still to redeem our isolation, worthlessness, and despair, our pride and complacency, all of which grow out of the power of death. In so doing, he knows us and opens for us a space to know the victory of the resurrection and the grace of new and abundant life; space to be led in the green pastures, beside the still waters, and to dwell in the blessedness of the Lord's House. In Jesus, we are known fully and eternally treasured. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.