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The Good Shepherd

Last week we heard Jesus say “I am the gate to the sheepfold.” Today we hear him say, “I am the good shepherd.” John Chrysostum, one of the early church fathers who was a well-known preacher in the fourth century, said that Jesus is the gate in that he introduces us to the Father, and he is the shepherd in that he takes care of us.

Jesus as the good shepherd is one of the most familiar and blessed images for Christians. Psalm 23 is one of the most dear and cherished passages in the Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd…” Churches name themselves “Church of the Good Shepherd” because this picture of Jesus is so comforting, inviting and soothing for us. There are no “Church of the Angry Man Who Overturned the Money Tables.” There are no “Church of the Parable Teller” though Jesus was known for his deep teaching through his parables. There are no “Church of the Coming Judge” though Christians look for Christ’s second coming. No, we like a good shepherd.

When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” he was doing more than speaking a calming image. We need to hear Jesus’ claim as the good shepherd against the backdrop of God’s heart and hope for his people, Israel.

Listen to what the prophet Jeremiah, one of the Old Testament prophets, said on behalf of the Lord centuries before Jesus:

“My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains…Israel is a scattered flock that lions have chased away…Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says…I will bring Israel back to his own pasture…”[1]

And here is the prophet Ezekiel whom the Lord charged to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel saying,

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?…You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”[2]

The Lord goes on to say how he is against the shepherds of Israel and will eventually remove them. And then he makes the astounding statement that he will search for the sheep himself. He will rescue them. He will pasture them. He will tend them. He will bind them up. He won’t send someone on his behalf. He will be their shepherd. The Lord says, “I will shepherd the flock with justice.”[3]

When we hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd” he wasn’t just trying to make himself to be a mild, gentle, compassionate Savior who will lead us beside still waters, although that is true. He is claiming to be the Sovereign Lord who called out through the Old Testament prophets that he himself would come seeking for his lost people. And that he would lead them to a place where they can eat and lie down in good pastures, which are metaphors for the true life Jesus gives.

Jesus is the good shepherd because there were bad shepherds. And God said he would come himself and shepherd his people because God wants his people cared for.

Israel, long before Jesus came, knew the Lord to be its shepherd. They prayed to God as their shepherd. Psalm 80 begins, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock…”

Jesus says, “I am that good shepherd, the one Israel has been waiting and looking for. I will rescue my people. I am the one who called Abraham and Moses and has been leading you all these years. I have come to fulfill what Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied, to shepherd in the right way those who belong to God.”

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd in John 10 but we need to hear what happens in John 9 to fully appreciate it.

In chapter 9 Jesus heals a man who has been blind from birth. He does this on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees - the serious, bible teachers of Israel, who keep the law to the letter – are enraged that Jesus would do such a thing on a day when God’s law strictly forbids working. They are so blinded by religious zeal that they miss the bigger picture of God healing a poor blind man. They condemn Jesus and they condemn the man who can now see, throwing the man out of the synagogue.

“You have no place with us. We don’t want you. You offend our serious religious sensibilities.”

It says that when Jesus heard that they had cast out the formerly blind man, he went and found him. Jesus goes and searches after the man. Remember, the Lord said, I will come and search for my sheep.

The Pharisees, like the bad shepherds of Ezekiel 34, seemed to have no sense of compassion or love for this man who had been blind. They see rules, regulations, and religion. Jesus, the good shepherd, goes and seeks out this man, and draws him into relationship.

John 9 is an illustration of how the good shepherd moves.

Seeking out the lost and hurting is one of the characteristics of the good shepherd. There are others characteristics of the good shepherd. Jesus tells us…

Ø The good shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. Jesus said, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…”[4]

The good shepherd knows us. He knows our thoughts. He knows our dreams. He knows our fears. He knows our peculiarities. He knows our hurts.

Do you feel lost? You aren’t. Oh, we sheep can get real good and lost. But the good shepherd knows exactly where you are. Do you feel unknown? You aren’t. If you belong to Christ, he knows exactly who you are. Do you feel like nobody cares? The good shepherd cares for you.

Our good shepherd, knows what we can handle and what we can’t. He knows what is too much for us and what will break us. He knows our wounds and our healing. He understands our pace and our limitations. He knows our joys and disappointments, our strength and our weariness. In fact, he knows us better than we know ourselves. The good shepherd knows his sheep.

The good shepherd calls his own sheep by name. In last week’s Scripture we heard Jesus say that the gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep listen to his voice. He uses the sheep’s name to call them. We are not a number. He will never say, “hey you.” He can perfectly identify us.

The good shepherd leads his sheep and goes out ahead of us. Good shepherds go ahead of the sheep to find where the best pasture and streams might be. They go ahead to clear the path of any danger. Wherever you are going, the Lord is there searching out your path. Through light and darkness, through the smooth places and the rocky places. Jesus is leading. He is way out in front.

The good shepherd will not abandon us like a hired hand, or the false shepherd. Jesus protects his sheep. He will not run away when we are attacked, and he will not abandon us.

As in last week’s passage so too in this week’s Jesus mentions that the sheep listen to his voice. Several times Jesus emphasizes how his sheep hear his voice.[5] There are many voices calling to us in this life. Whose voice are we truly listening to and following?

But far and away, the primary and most vital mark of the good shepherd is that he lays down his life for the sheep. Four times Jesus speaks of his laying down his life for the sheep. He was speaking of the cross.

A so-called Christianity without the cross is not Christianity. The laying down of the good shepherd’s life on the cross is the center of Christian faith.

From time to time different people have used this sanctuary to make films or videos. Last week Tonya showed me a beautiful video that a group of musicians recorded in this sanctuary. It was a song called “Beautiful Savior.” Many of you have seen it. It’s on Youtube. The music is moving. The musicians and vocalists are very skilled. They were LDS. It’s all very well done.

As I enjoyed the video I noticed that they had taken away the cross on our Communion table. You could see lovely stained-glass windows. Candles. A pulpit. But the cross was removed. That told me everything.

You can talk about Jesus, admire Jesus, read about Jesus, sing about Jesus, use Jesus’ name, but if you take away the cross you don’t have Jesus. Jesus’ death on the cross, in our place and for our atonement with God is the center of his life and mission.

Shepherds in Israel raised lambs to be sacrifices. If anyone was going to die and be sacrificed it would be the sheep. Whoever heard of a shepherd giving up his life so the sheep could live? Yet, Jesus laid down his life for us.

When Israel heard those words of Jeremiah and Ezekiel could they ever have imagined that God would not only come as a shepherd, but as a shepherd who would give up his life for them? Of course, that was part of the scandal of Jesus. Many could not accept that God would come near and die on a cross. Many still cannot accept that today. Some still believe they can earn their way with God.

And Jesus did it willingly. “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.”[6] He wasn’t controlled or forced. He became obedient to death – even death on a cross. He was driven by love for his sheep.

Someone put it this way,

“…Jesus was by no means a victim of circumstance, like a windblown leaf whipped about by evil forces. No one took his life from him. He offered it freely. Before the Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate, he is in control. He declares that they would have no power over him save from on high. He can already see his place at the Father’s right hand of power. These others cannot…

“Herein lies the power and mystery of the Easter faith, that this risen Lord and faithful Shepherd has done the decisive deed in beating down sin and robbing death of its paralyzing thrall.”[7]

Jesus says he not only lays down his life, but he takes it up again.

And in doing so, Jesus “puts [those who belong to him] on the resurrection side of every cross.”

Do you really think we sheep are a match for death? Later Jesus will say that he gives eternal life to his sheep, and “no one can snatch them out of my hand.”[8] Not even death can separate us from him.

He has gone before us into and through the experience of death, coming out on the other side victorious, and will put us on the resurrection side of the cross with him.

Now that is a good shepherd.

If the Lord is the good shepherd, then that makes us sheep.

Sheep are not the smartest or brightest animals in God’s creation. They wander off and get lost. They get trapped. They become easily scared. Sheep can be resistant to help.

I am always being reminded of what a sheep I am. I need one who will watch me, be aware of me, care for me, and help me. I need one who will pull me back up when I fall down in the crevasses and pits. I need a shepherd who knows me and can navigate the terrain that is often too rocky and steep for me. I need a shepherd who will guide me by going before me, calling out to me with a clear voice when I get lost.

I need a shepherd who will courageously lay down his very life for me, because aside of all the dangers of this life, death is someday going to take me. But when it does it can’t keep me. Nothing can ultimately snatch me out of my good shepherd’s hand.

My good shepherd will put me -

a sheep of his own fold,

a lamb of his own flock,

a sinner of his own redeeming,[9]

on the resurrection side of the cross.

If you have never given yourself to the good shepherd, place yourself in his hands. He longs to have you in his fold. He doesn’t force himself on anyone. It merely takes telling him – in the quiet of your heart, where our deepest convictions take place, “Jesus, I take you as my Lord.”

If you are of Christ’s fold, remember,

…you are known,

…you are being led,

…you are being guided,

…you are loved with a life that was laid down for you.

You belong to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and nothing can snatch you out of his hand.

Prayer: Jesus, I accept you as my Shepherd; help me to trust your provision and follow your leading. You know what is best for me and for my life. Help me to relax in your protection and recognize the signs of your presence. In your name I pray this… and all who agreed with this prayer, said - Amen.

[1] Jeremiah 50:6, 17-19 [2] Ezekiel 34:2,4 [3] Ex. 34:16 [4] Vv. 14,15 [5] Vv. 3,4,5,8,16,27 [6] V.18 [7] H.H. Farmer, Quoted by F. Dean Lueking, in an article that appeared in the Christian Century, April 9, 1997. see [8] 10:28 [9] These words come from The Service of Witness to the Resurrection for someone who has died in the Pastoral Edition of the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I often use them in a service, or at the graveside.

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