|Walking along the Columbia River at Desert Aire, WA|
Monday, March 27, 2017
Faith for Life - The Great Shepherd
Preached on Sunday, March 26, 2017
Scripture readings: Psalm 23; John 10:1-21
A grandma gave her little grandson a big hug when he came in the door, and she said, “How’s my little lamb?” The boy’s answer was, “Grandma, I don’t want to be your little lamb any more. I want to be your little tiger!”
Jesus described us as his flock, with himself being our good shepherd. This has a lot to tell us about who Jesus is and what he wants us to become. It’s true that, compared to Jesus, we are pretty sheepish. But the main reason Jesus compares us to sheep in his parable of the good shepherd is to let us know that, if sheep are lucky to have a good shepherd, then how much better it is to be real human beings with Jesus as our Lord, our Savior, and our Friend. (paraphrase of Leslie Weatherhead)
The root of the Hebrew word for shepherd is the same as the root for friend. And shepherd is also one of the titles given to the ancient kings of Israel.
Jesus is our friend and our King: our Lord. He isn’t so much telling us that we’re sheep as he is telling us that he’s our friend and leader, and that we can count on him.
A good shepherd is an expert shepherd. Jesus means that he knows what he’s doing and so we’re in good hands. We’re in safe hands. Two kids were talking about their dogs. One kid had taught his dog to do lots of tricks. The other kid hadn’t, and he asked the successful dog-training-kid how he did it. His friend said, “Well, first of all, you’ve got to know more than your dog.”
A good shepherd knows more about being a sheep than the sheep do. Even if they could talk, sheep couldn’t tell you much about themselves. They could say: “I’m eating very well, thank you.” Or, “I’m playing.” Or, “I’m tired.” Or, “I’m scared.”
If you asked the shepherd how his sheep were doing, he could tell you where they were in the season, where they had come from, how long the present pasture would hold out, and where their next pasture would be. The shepherd could tell you if there were any signs of danger serious enough to worry about.
If you asked a sheep what a stream was for, they would tell you, confidently, that a stream was for drinking. The shepherd would tell you that a stream could also be for crossing to get to the next pasture, or to get back to the corral, and home.
Sheep know what they want to eat, and where they want to eat their way to. The shepherd knows whether their desires are good for them.
The sheep that’s always able to go its own way is, in the end, the lost sheep, the frightened hungry sheep, the wolf’s dinner. It’s the sheep who follow their shepherd that have the most abundant lives.
For humans following Jesus, there are two kinds of following.
The most sheep-like kind of following is the practical kind. It’s getting directions and being guiding in life’s choices. “What should be my life’s work?” “Where should I live?” “Who should I marry?”
“Shall I have a slice of the chocolate cream pie, or a slice of the coconut cream pie?” These are the questions about the mechanics of life. These are important, but not the most important questions.
After you eat the chocolate pie, you could realize your mistake and you could go back for some of that coconut pie. Although you could eat your way into the problem of having to stop eating any pie at all.
I prayed very hard for guidance before I came here, but I’m always aware of a problem about this. When I was in college, I had to make a choice between two completely different jobs. I struggled in prayer about this choice because I was a very serious Christian. I prayed, and prayed, and I felt, in the end, that God was laughing at me and saying, “Dennis, choose either job. I’ll bless you either way.”
That’s one way of following. The other way is for the more mature sheep. This means following Jesus where he goes morally and spiritually.
It isn’t so much a matter of where to go, but how you get there. After all, Jesus is more than a shepherd and we are more than sheep. Instead of leading us to pastures of grass, like different spots on the map, Jesus is leading us to pastures of fellowship and relationship with others, pastures of faithfulness, pastures of commitment, pastures of peace, pastures of involvement.
Jesus described his own best pasture to his disciples, and to the woman at the well, in Chapter Four of the Gospel of John. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” Jesus’ favorite pasture is serving his Father.
This is where Jesus really goes ahead of us and leads us. Being a sheep, in Jesus’ flock, means asking yourself, “How can I apply Jesus’ way of life, or his way of loving, or his way of praying, or his way of sacrifice?”
So, our choice of what to do and where to do it is not as important as our choice of how to live with the Lord, and with others, along the way. Things like our job and our place in life are mainly something that occupies us while we apply ourselves to serving Jesus and others, and loving Jesus and others.
At the same time, the practical choices we make will set us up for a special set of opportunities and problems that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. God will use what we choose, and work it into our lives with the proper blessings, and losses, and people, that will allow us to grow the most in faith and love.
There seem to be wrong turns and detours, but the main part of following the good shepherd is following how to live, not where to live. Following Jesus is moral and spiritual, and that is the obedience of following that will allow him to make you the person he created you to be.
A sheep can never hope to become like its shepherd, but Jesus is more than a shepherd, and we are more than sheep. We will never be like Jesus in all his glory, but we can be like him in surprising ways: in humility, in simplicity, in love.
That’s what matters. Whatever your practical choices, you will look back and see that you might have done better. You might have been wiser. Yet the good shepherd always gave you the best that you were prepared to receive. You will see that Jesus has always provided for you and cared for you along the way, and he always will. Even the times when he had to correct you were right and good.
Following the good shepherd means following the love, the good faith, the strength, the courage, and the wisdom of Jesus in all your relationships. If you do this, then you will look back and see the growth and the leading that the Lord has given you.
You will look back and see the Lord’s power at work, leading you and caring for you. That is another part of following. There is power in this.
The Greek word used here for good (as in the good shepherd) also means “beautiful”. It means a beauty that is attractive and powerful. This beauty doesn’t only serve itself, it actually does something to those who see it. We have to experience this strange, and powerful, and compelling beauty, or else we won’t know anything at all, no matter how well we might follow.
Something of the beauty of Jesus has to go into our heart, or else something essential will be missing. Jesus describes the powerful beauty of his voice as the bond between him and his sheep: between him and us.
I was at a church women’s meeting once, where there were a couple of mothers with babies and there was a baby sitter in a nearby room with the babies and the older kids. We heard a baby start to cry and one of the mothers got up and left the meeting, because she knew that the sound of crying came from her own baby’s voice. Her baby’s voice had power, and that one voice moved her, and not the others, because the crying was just for that one mother.
Who Jesus is, and what he has done for us, is a unique, powerful, and beautiful voice that reaches inside us, changes us, and motivates and moves us. Who Jesus is, and what he has done for us, is a bond that ties us to him, and we are no longer the same.
Jesus is the sacrificing shepherd. His rod and his staff are the cross that comforts us, that heals us and promises that we are loved with a love that is safe and indestructible.
An ordinary shepherd would die for his sheep only because he was risking his life to keep them, and himself, alive. An ordinary shepherd wouldn’t want to die because, if he did, that would be the end of the sheep, just as much as if he had run away. The enemy would have a free hand and the flock would be defenseless and lost.
Jesus is different because he intentionally sacrificed his life for love of us. In his life, and death, and resurrection, we see how far he went to share everything that we have got to deal with it, and also to give us everything that he has for new life.
Jesus fought with, and took the punches of, all our enemies: temptation, weakness, tiredness, abandonment, sin, and even death. Jesus intentionally went all the way so that wherever we are he can come to us qualified to be our good shepherd.
The cross is his tool (his rod and his staff) because it is how he guides us to live and encourages us to trust. The cross represents a real battle that he has fought for us, and for our salvation (our rescue), because it really was the weapon of his success. The cross is how he sets us free from our sins, and our guilt, and our fears. The cross is the sign that Jesus is the best shepherd (the great shepherd), and that he will never quit, and never hold back.
Paul the apostle wrote “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Corinthians 1:20 RSV) On the cross, God, “made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 RSV) These are the accomplishments that Jesus achieved by using the weapon or the tool of the cross.
When we follow Jesus, our Good Shepherd, we start out as sheep: smelly, foolish, and fuzzy. The path we take with him is changing us into something else. Instead of merely guiding us and protecting us; instead of merely planning for us; the skill and the beauty of Jesus are changing us into his children; his own sons and daughters; his own little brothers and little sisters. Jesus is much more than any good shepherd. Jesus is our Lord, and Savior, and Friend.