Our Good Shepherd

Prepared for First Presbyterian Church, Apopka.  Primary passages: John 10:11-18, Psalm 23

Every time I get to these passages with sheep and shepherd metaphors, I want to pick up the phone and call my cousin, Wayne.

Wayne and his brother used to raise show cattle – bulls in fact – the huge, mostly docile ones that they would take to livestock shows and other competitions. Whenever we went to visit my Uncle and Aunt, we would go out back to the barns to meet the latest residents.

One year, Wayne and a friend of his had invested in several sheep instead. There must have been a dozen of them out in the paddock, mostly ewes and a few older lambs. When it was feeding time, I went along to help. I imagined it would be like going into an all-sheep petting zoo. You know, they would come over to see if I had food, eating from my hand, curious and happy to be touched.


I climbed over the fence, like I had always done with the calves and bulls, and don’t you know those sheep started bleating like I was a lion or wolf coming in to tear them apart. They went running like crazy beasts, crashing into each other and the fence… Until Wayne came walking into the pen.

He spoke calmly to them, walked slowly among them. He filled and shook the feed bucket and started calling the mothers by name. In just a few minutes, they coalesced into something like a herd and the panic eased. Pretty soon they were all focused on their meal instead of the threat (me). Chaos had become order. But not on my account.

I am clearly not a sheep whisperer.

I don’t know that Wayne would lay claim to that title either. He prefers the goats he raises now over the sheep.  But what I saw several times over that long weekend in West Texas helps me to imagine a bit of what Jesus is describing.

Jesus is a good shepherd, a model for what shepherds are meant to be. The true sheep whisperer.

He’s talking to the pharisees in this passage – the teachers with whom he spent much time debating during his ministry, as rabbis did then. As they still do today. As was his custom, Jesus set up a comparison between himself and other teachers, between his understanding of God’s plan and the prevailing teachings.

First he describes himself as the gatekeeper, the one who assures that no one but the shepherd has access to the sheep, the one who assures no one can get in to steal or hurt the sheep. Jesus says that this way the sheep will hear and follow the shepherd (God), but not the strangers.

They must have looked at him the way I would have before watching the sheep go bonkers around me. John tells us that Jesus tries another metaphor.

Now Jesus says that he’s the gate for the sheep, that whoever enters the pasture by him is safe. Unlike those who came before, doing harm by claiming to be the messiah, Jesus is not a thief, out to steal or destroy. Instead his way offers life – abundant life. This is why he came.

John doesn’t say so directly this time, but this metaphor must also have been met with confusion because now Jesus goes with a third – the good shepherd. Jesus begins to describe the attributes of a “model” shepherd.

A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

The flock would have spent a good portion of its time out in fields or on mountainsides without modern fencing that does at least a passable job of keeping predators at bay.  We know from descriptions of young David’s bravery that good  shepherds were ready to protect their flocks from wild animals. More than once David fought with lions and bears, and killed them, which explains his skill with the sling and the stones.

A good shepherd knows his sheep.  

He counts them going out and coming in. He looks for blemishes and injuries, so that he can take care of them right away. He knows their needs and assures they are in pastures with plenty of grass and access to water.

A good shepherd is around his sheep enough that they know him, they recognize his voice.

The shepherd is not a stranger. His voice is a comfort to them because of all that he has done for them in the past. The sheep can trust the shepherd has their back, so to speak.

Jesus says again, I am the good shepherd. Then he goes on – I know my own and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I wonder if, at this point, some of those who are listening to Jesus begin to recite to themselves…

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

You may have gone there, too, and not just because we sang it a few moments ago. The 23rd Psalm is among the most familiar and most memorized passages of scripture. When I worked as a hospice chaplain, patients and families from all kinds of Christian traditions would ask for it.

I will never forget looking up a Spanish translation for a Cuban gentleman who was no longer able to speak. As I sat by his bed and slowly read it aloud, he squeezed my hand and silently mouthed the words right along with me.

By the end of that year, it no longer surprised me that even people who had left the church long ago still found comfort in those words. After all, this psalm has brought comfort to a people who spent generations in exile centuries ago, and survived atrocities and attempted genocide a generation ago. This short psalm continues to bring comfort to individuals, as well. In no small part because of that first person singular pronoun… the Lord is MY shepherd; I shall not want.

The psalmist models for us a hopeful tone, a certainty that virtually explodes with faith in a God who not only knows us but knows our every need. Our shepherd brings us into green pastures- the places where we can safely roam, where the grass is tender and new. He leads us to places where the water is calm and easy to drink. Our shepherding Lord renews and restores us to the very core of our being.

We can trust this shepherd to lead us on the right paths. And when we follow, because the sheep have to follow for a shepherd to lead, others can see that our Lord is faithful and worthy of trust. This is how we bear witness to God’s goodness, bringing glory and honor to his name.

Even when we must walk the darkest valley – the valley of the shadow of death – whether we are approaching the end of life, experiencing the depths of depression, or walled in by the demands  of work, family, and (let’s be honest) sometimes the demands of church life…

No matter what casts a dark shadow over your life, God is there with you.  God is right there, in the dark with us – talking us through the valley. Not just taking us into it, not leaving us there, but walking with us all the way through.

The psalmist has painted a clear picture for us of God – the Father and Creator – as the good shepherd. We are comforted because we know and we are known by this shepherd who protects, renews and provides all that we need.

Jesus paints us a similar picture. We can trust that God  – the Son and Savior – is the good shepherd. We can know and be known by this shepherd in the same way that God the Father and God the Son know one another.

And while in this passage, Jesus is focused on his identity as the Shepherd who lays down his life, we must be cautious… We may be tempted to read this one particular aspect of Christ’s work as a new and improved model of the good shepherd.

For the people who followed Jesus, the shadows of death were not metaphorical. Hunger, illness and poverty were more likely to steal, kill and destroy their lives than old age. They needed hope for their lives in this world, not just in some eternal afterlife. They longed for the sort of mercy and justice that the prophets had been seeking for generations.

Jesus taught and preached from the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah. He drew on the same images and metaphors as Amos and Joel. He was raised by the very people he came to save. And so he knew how crazy it would sound that he also came for their neighbors…  the people his family and followers never imagined welcoming into God’s great big flock. Including gentiles like you.  And me.

And Yes – In addition to being the gatekeeper, the gate,  and the shepherd, John the Baptist called Jesus The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

We follow Jesus because we believe he forgives our sins and makes possible our relationship with God. And He laid down his life willingly, even though he had opportunity to walk away, he suffered and died before displaying the power of God by rising again on that first glorious Easter morn.

But that is not the end of the story… because he made clear that we have work to do. The good shepherd sends us, his sheep, to display the resurrection power of God in our own lives, making disciples and changing the world.

God so loved the world that he sent Jesus, the Good Shepherd,
so that the Light of the World would shine, even in the darkest valleys;
so that we can sit at the table, eating and drinking in memory of him; and
so that we might be anointed with the Holy Spirit and empowered to live as good and faithful sheep.

God so loved the world that he sent Jesus, the Good Shepherd,
so that we will not want, AND
so that we might assure others have all that they need.

God so loved the world that he sent Jesus, the Good Shepherd,
so that we might know hear and know God’s voice, AND
so that we might go out into the world, bleating out loudly to anyone who might hear, the truth about God’s love and grace

Jesus is our Good Shepherd. And that is very good news, indeed.



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