"The Good Shepherd"

April 20, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  John 10:11-18

The image of a shepherd is an important one in the Bible, which is only natural, for the roots of this book go back to a wandering people. Sheep are portable, an important feature for nomads who follow the call of God. Abraham and his children were all shepherds. Recall that moment when God tested that first patriarch’s faith, calling him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. At the last moment God substituted a ram. Consider grandson Jacob, who tricked his nearly blind Dad into giving him a deathbed blessing with a bit of sheepskin. Such an act nearly cost Jacob his life, as brother Esau’s threats forced his early departure from the territory. Later on Jacob fooled his father-in-law, himself a sly rascal, out of a good portion of their common flock. He needed those animals as he returned to his family, using them to placate his brother, hoping the years of separation had calmed the anger.

Sheep figured prominently in the exodus story. The blood of a lamb, provided by some shepherd, was dabbed upon the doorposts of the children of Israel. The occupants of these homes survived that terrifying night when the angel of death passed them over and struck down the firstborn of Egypt, a story our Jewish friends are remembering once again starting this Tuesday, in their celebration of Passover. Shepherds were vital in the 40-year wilderness experience that followed, and not just for the food or the wool they provided. Sheep played an important role in the sacrifices instituted on Mt. Sinai, ritual that continued even in Jesus’ day.

When our Lord spoke of shepherds, he was touching upon a key feature of the ongoing story of God’s people. In this day and age, we may have a hard time associating with this image. After all, how many of us have any contact with an actual shepherd? The meat we pick up from the frozen food section, and the sweater we get from the store shelf is about as close as we come. If anything, we have a somewhat romanticized view of shepherds, based in part upon our reading of the Bible, especially texts like the 23rd Psalm.

In Jesus’ day, shepherds were not all that highly thought of. Since they spent so much time out in the wilderness, leading their flocks from place to place, they were considered a bit dirty in the eyes of most people. It was a job few really wanted, often tossed onto the youngest child who couldn’t toss it on anyone else. Remember David who went onto become King. Our first picture of him in the Bible is out in the hills somewhere taking care of the family’s flock. He was youngest, you know. Nobody expected him to amount to much. His father, Jesse, was quite surprised when Samuel asked for him on that secret journey to Bethlehem behind King Saul’s back. God chose a shepherd to anoint as the next leader. How ridiculous!

Shepherds were furthermore thought of as untrustworthy characters. The oral law of Israel actually forbade the purchase of milk or wool from shepherds for fear they had been pilfered. In Jesus’ day, good fathers didn’t want their sons to go into the trade, which seems quite strange to us seeing the good press the position receives in the Bible. After all, many of the Psalms are attributed to the shepherd-King David, and their lofty language often reverts to the nitty-gritty life of a sheep-herder. No, when Jesus walked this earth, folks weren’t romantic about shepherds like we are today about cowboys. It was a dirty trade, ripe for abuse in most people’s eyes.

It’s no wonder that there was a shortage of shepherds - that is, the ones who actually owned and managed their own flocks, who were invested personally in the business. Regardless, sheep were an important part, not only of the ongoing story of the people and their religious life (lambs were still sacrificed in the Temple), but also the economy. Meat, milk, wool - all were vital to the survival of a people who no longer wandered from place to place as their ancestors had. If, then, there were few shepherds by trade, somebody had to do the work. Most often it ended up in the hands of what was called a hireling, someone paid to take care of the animals, who had no personal investment in their well-being.

With all this in mind, it does seem strange, doesn’t it, for Jesus to call himself "the good shepherd." Then again, Jesus often did that, connecting himself up with questionable characters like, for instance, Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors. After last Tuesday, I’m not sure I could’ve stomached hearing something like "I am the good tax collector." The folks who first heard him speak of good shepherding would’ve had similar problems, though it would’ve been a mixed picture. For who could deny the likes of King David and his wonderful psalm of a Lord who shepherds his people to green pastures and still waters, and guides them through dark valleys to the abundant tableland of a high meadow in late Spring, who protects them from predators and cares for their scratches and wounds? Who could argue with the prophets, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who spoke of God as a shepherd who faithfully leads his people, in contrast to the Kings and other political and religious elite who are only in it for what they can get out of it? No, even though shepherding was a highly suspect, and lowly thought of occupation, it was too important a part of the story of the descendants of Abraham, even from day one, to be ignored.

We can do our own form of ignoring by romanticizing this picture the Bible portrays. It becomes real to us as we allow the living God to speak in words that both challenge and comfort. Ponder what Jesus said. "I know my own and my own know me." The consolation of those words is that our Lord knows us intimately, by name (as we sought to convey earlier with the children). The 139th Psalm speaks of this so well. "Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely." (v.4) Of course, such knowledge goes beyond what could be expected of an earthly shepherd, but God is no ordinary handler of sheep, just as we are not dumb animals (even though sometimes it may seem otherwise). God’s knowledge of us is a comfort, but it’s also a threat, isn’t it? If God sees what is truly in the heart, then we, who so often live out of mixed motives, have a greater accountability we ultimately cannot deny.

The shepherd King David himself could not hide his heart from God, even though the Lord was strangely taken by it. As the most powerful man in his empire, David could not get away with the arranged death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. God was not fooled by David’s subterfuge, and confronted him through the prophet Nathan. It was a subtle story Nathan told that led David to see what God saw, and to indict himself with his own words. That’s the threat of God’s intimate knowledge of us. Of course, we can still do what my kids do when words of discipline are spoken, sticking our fingers in our ears, and closing our eyes. However, when we ignore the challenge of the shepherd’s "rod" (in the words of that much loved psalm), we miss out on the true comfort of the shepherd’s staff.

In his own words, Jesus is our Good Shepherd for one primary reason: he lays down his life for his own. For all the negative images of a shepherd that abounded in the minds of his listeners back then, there was a major difference between a shepherd and a hireling which was to the credit of the shepherd. When it came to the care of sheep, no one could doubt the commitment it took. When your very life is invested in the wellbeing of something, it matters what you do to take care of that investment. For the shepherd, his family (if he had one) depended upon that flock, not just upon what he was paid. A lost sheep may have meant the difference between making and breaking it in a given year. Ask the folks in the Dakotas about their investment in the land as they watch the waters roll over their livelihood. Even slight flood damage can bring disaster to people already living on the edge financially. The farm crisis of the last decade is far from over for too many people. Family farms are slowly disappearing. I pray these are not one day lost to nostalgia, for they are important to our nation’s ongoing story, but I digress.

A real shepherd is invested in his flock, so much so that even one lost sheep matters. Remember Jesus’ story about that? His hearers back then couldn’t deny that a true shepherd wouldn’t cut his losses and leave the lost lamb to its own devices. A hireling might, but not a shepherd, in spite of all his dirtiness and his shady character in the eyes of many people. Furthermore, when danger lurked, a predator on the loose, a real shepherd doesn’t run away, but stands in harm’s way, between the threat and his flock. A hireling couldn’t be expected to give up his life, possibly, for something in which he was not personally invested, especially if the peril was a pack of wild dogs. What can a shepherd’s staff do against such an onslaught? A true shepherd would not even ask the question. He would do what needed to be done, risking his own life.

And that’s what Jesus did. He willfully stood in harm’s way to save his own. He did it because he was and continues to be invested in this flock called God’s people. He wasn’t God’s hireling, paid to do God’s dirty work. The one to whom the flock belongs, and the good shepherd are one and the same. In the eyes of God it is not an oxymoron to combine the words "good" and "shepherd," for there is no contradiction. God’s "goodness and mercy," in the words of the Psalmist, "follow (us) all the days of (our) life," and beyond. It’s not just during the dark valley times that our Lord leads, carrying us if need be. It’s also through the green pasture and still water times, which can be just as dangerous. If left to their own devices, a flock of sheep can overgraze a pasture and thus bring about their own famine.

Of course, we’re not sheep, and furthermore, wild mountain sheep are not as mindless as their domesticated relatives. All images have their limits, right? However, we need to hear about God’s care for us. Like a shepherd in the days of Jesus, our Lord leads us not from behind, but from ahead. There is no where to which God calls us that he hasn’t already been there ahead of us paving the way. We follow. We aren’t pushed. That’s a major difference.

There is much more that could be said about good shepherding. I’ve only addressed half the picture. You see, Jesus calls us to shepherd one another. Not that we could come near to how he shepherds us, but that’s a given which undergirds all our efforts. We are called to be shepherds, not hirelings, to be invested and care about God’s flock. Now, you do pay me to be a shepherd of this particular flock, but I am not a hireling. I’m not saying that self-righteously, but by way of self-reminder, to emphasize to myself that my investment is not what I receive, but what I give.

That’s true for us all, you know. We are shepherds of one another, not hirelings. There is a major difference between the two, as I said. Hirelings are not invested. When the going gets rough, they’re "outa here." Real shepherds stick through thick and thin.

Ultimately, though, this morning’s message isn’t so much about us, but about the Good Shepherd, who "knows his own, and they know him," who cares for his own, and who willingly laid down his life ... for us. He lives! And he is still our Good Shepherd.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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