Jesus is the good shepherd. I would guess someone has preached this sermon before. I would bet we have all heard this sermon before. Some might have it just about memorized. And how does anyone approach this idea with anything new? One doesn’t. However, there are some things worth considering, even if we are repeating themes. No matter where one is in the Word of God there are always things worth considering.
Consider the sheep
“But I don’t want to be a sheep,” Bob said. “Sheep are so helpless and spineless and, I don’t know, stupid?”
“Not as stupid as turkeys,” Nichole responded. She turned her head to the sky in imitation of a turkey drowning in the rain. (Turkeys do that, you know).
“Still, I would rather be a bear. What do you think, Harry?”
“I’d rather be a lion,” Harry said.
“Why not eagles?” Nichole decided to get serious. Isaiah wrote “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:13)
“That sounds good.” Bob nodded. “Why can’t we be eagles? Why sheep?”
Harry shook his head. “I’d still rather be a lion.”
Listen, the Lord chose the image of sheep, not because he was recommending that for us, but because in some ways there are striking parallels to us. He once said we should be like little children or we would not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He was not saying we needed to get physically young again and become innocent and ignorant. But maybe we should get over being so jaded and cynical and stop thinking we already know everything about life. Maybe we could be better at listening and learning, at growing and be more willing to change what needs to change. Maybe we could listen to God and trust God the way a little child trusts their father, you know?
So here, he refers to us as sheep, and maybe we should look for the parallels here, too. Actually, I think the prayer of confession got it right when it says “we have erred and strayed from God’s ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” I think God sees things clear enough. The truth is we seldom fly like eagles. All too often we act like sheep. We don’t pay attention to the shepherd. We stray from the flock. We consume the wrong things and can never find the good pasture without guidance. The truth is, we are stubborn, sometimes helpless, sometimes spineless, and yes, sometimes stupid. But that is okay.
We are forgiven
Consider the sheepfold
A sheepfold is a protected area that no wolf or lion can break into. There is only one vulnerable spot, the gate. The good shepherd lies down in the gate, and if several flocks are in that fold for the night, the shepherds camp at the gate.
The sheepfold is safe, secure, and the sheep seem to know it. You see, sheep are communal. We don’t even have a word for one sheep. We are community in Christ, not just individuals. And we seem to know when we are in a place that is safe and secure, when the good shepherd is in the gate to protect us. The thing is, when we are surrounded by family and friends and all seems well with the world, we have this tendency to become complacent, like sheep.
Did you ever notice when bad things happen we encourage each other to pray, to trust in the Lord, to follow Jesus one step at a time – one day at a time? But when things are good, somehow God is never mentioned. It is like when we are happy and comfortable – in our comfort zone as they say – God is never brought up. Why is that?
We share with family, friends, members of the community including the church, even if God is not part of that sharing, I am not sure about how God feels about that. You could ask him. He is even now laying in the gate to protect us from the wolves and lions, and to be honest, that is the only reason we are able to feel safe and secure at all. Grace is the only reason we can have comfort zones.
Note this also, though. Comfort zones are not isolated and alone. As a species, we are most comfortable in community. But then, Jesus came to save the whole world, not just you and me individually. It is why we gather together every week. Yes, we can meet Jesus on any road, but the witness suggests we are most likely to encounter the good shepherd when we are gathered together. That is why two of the most powerful words in the Christian witness are these:
Consider the shepherd’s voice
“But what about me?” I believe Bob asked that, or it might have been Nichole. “Doesn’t God care about me? Or does he only care about the community?”
Remember the lost sheep, the little lost lamb? He left the 99 in the wilderness to find it. But he found it with every intention of returning it to the fold. You see, with a shepherd, there are good constraints on how far he will let us stray in this difficult and broken world. But then, to insure our safety, sometimes he does have to apply the rod. That is the part we don’t like and often don’t understand. I think it might help if we recognize that this all begins in the sheepfold – in our comfort zones. The thing is, we become complacent.
When the morning comes, the shepherd calls to his sheep. The sheep get excited when they hear his voice, but honestly they are reluctant to move. Sheep have no natural inclination to leave a place that is safe and secure. Now, the shepherd knows where the field of sweet, green grass is waiting and where the still waters are. But the sheep don’t know this, and though the shepherd has taken them every day to this wonderful feast, they remain resistant to the idea of leaving their comfort zone.
In the passage in John here, most translators suggest the shepherd (has brought) or brings out his own. But to be honest, the word translated “brought out” suggests a bit more effort must be applied. You see, it is the same word in scripture applied to demons when they are “cast out.” It is the same word applied to the moneychangers in the Temple when Jesus throws them out or drives them out.
The truth is sheep often have to be driven out of the sheepfold, and that notion has often brought to my mind thoughts of first century dentistry. A tooth, you know, rots slowly. We feel it more and more each day, but the pain grows gradually until it reaches that point when we can’t stand it. Now, in the days before Novocain, it was a serious decision to have a tooth pulled. It was not a painless process. Of course, once that bad tooth is out, though the gum might be sore and need some healing time, the relief from all that pain is palpable.
So it is when Jesus calls us to leave the safety and security of the sheepfold. Sometimes he needs to yank us out with the shepherd’s crook. Sometimes he needs to spank us out with the end of his staff. A friend of mine has often said God needs to hit him on the head with a sledge hammer to get his attention. Okay, but the reason for this is to get us to the field of sweet, green grass and still waters. If we only know, we might not resist so hard. You see, we are made to live an abundant life, and we will never find it hiding in our comfort zone.
Then again, the real world is full of dangers, but life cannot be lived in a safe environment. It must be lived in the real world, and the world can do far worse to us than a simple tug on the collar or spank on the rear. Fortunately, while the shepherd drives us out into the world, he remains close, he watches over us, and if the least of us strays beyond the field, he will search until he finds us and brings us home. Why? Because:
We Are Loved
There are many more things to consider here. I have not even mentioned the idea of Jesus as the gate, but I have rambled enough for one post. Besides, I think I need to save some considerations for next year. After all, the message of the good shepherd has been talked about before, and it will again – about this time every year. So for this year, just say, “Baa,” and be happy.