Here’s a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B:
The Supreme Shepherd
A Sermon based on Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-18 and John 10:11-18
Ever since Moses, God’s people had thought of themselves as a flock of sheep. God had taken Moses from tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, and put him in charge of shepherding Israel. Years later, God had taken a shepherd boy, David, and raised him up to be king of Israel. God’s people were used to seeing themselves as sheep and their leaders—both religious and political—as shepherds.
What a time God’s sheep were having when Jesus came on the scene! It wasn’t the first time that their shepherds had been interested in things other than the true welfare of the sheep. In fact, the sheep were used to it. But still it rankled.
The political shepherds from Rome were interested in power. They kept their feet on the necks of the people of Palestine, using terror, taxes, whatever worked to keep them in line and cooperative.
The religious shepherds—scribes, lawyers, Pharisees—religious professionals, in other words, were likewise interested in power: maintaining their sacred empire, centered in the Temple. Their empire was built out of layers and layers of law that, they were certain, only they could rightly interpret. They and only they really knew what God’s will was. Everyone else must submit without question. It was a burden, and it was hard for God’s people to bear.
Jesus shook his head. He had just observed how the authorities responded when he healed a man on the Sabbath. See John 9. The leaders hardly noticed the wonderful gift of sight Jesus had given the man who had been born blind. Instead of giving thanks, they launched an official investigation and declared Jesus a sinner because he broke the Sabbath law—their interpretation of it, at any rate.
Jesus shook his head at them. As far as he was concerned, shepherds that were mainly concerned with their own power and authority and position weren’t really shepherds at all. No wonder his heart ached with compassion for the crowds of people. They truly were like sheep without a shepherd.
Literal shepherding was supposed to operate something like this: each shepherd had a relatively small flock. Each sheep had a name. The shepherd called each sheep by name, and each sheep was tuned in to the shepherd’s voice. The shepherd walked ahead of his flock and they followed. When he stopped, they stopped. At night or in severe weather, the shepherd put them in a small pen to keep them safe from predators and thieves. Each sheepfold had a small opening in the wall, a doorway. The shepherd led his sheep to the door, then straddled it so each sheep went in between the shepherd’s legs. As each entered, he examined it, cleaned the burrs out of its wool and rubbed salve on any wounds. Once they were all in the fold, the shepherd lay down across the entrance and became the door.
Now that’s what the shepherds of God’s people were supposed to be like, Jesus said. A real shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. If you can’t count on a shepherd to have the best interests of the sheep at heart, they aren’t really shepherds. At best they are hired hands. At worst they are wolves. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus said. The Greek word used there means more than “good.” It means true, noble, supreme.
“I am the True Shepherd, says Jesus, and I lay my life down for the sheep.”
This week I read a most interesting story about how you can tell a true shepherd from a false one. During World War Two British intelligence officers discovered that spies disguised as shepherds were sneaking through a mountain pass on the Turkish border. Problem was, the British couldn’t tell the imposters from the true shepherds. They looked alike.
Finally somebody came up with the idea of using small airplanes to buzz the sheep—to frighten them. Lo and behold, the frightened sheep ran to their true shepherds. Anybody dressed like a shepherd with no sheep clustering around him was an imposter! Those sheep knew who truly cared about them. They knew who would keep them safe. (Ron DelBene, From the Heart, p. 16f.)
“I am the True Shepherd, says Jesus. I know my own, and my own know me.”
Surely this is what every human heart longs for: a shepherd you can count on. No wonder we treasure Psalm 23 so deeply. No wonder it is read at so many bedsides and gravesides. Lord, show us the water, the green pastures, the fertile areas. Restore our souls. Go with us through the valley of the shadow. Defend us from peril.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus declared, and I lay down my life for the sheep.” And he meant it!
The Good Shepherd touched the wounded, healed the sick, set people free from evil forces, made friends with sinners, granted forgiveness, released people from death. He laid down his life on Good Friday, and he took it up again on Easter. He loved the sheep enough to die for them.
No wonder the earliest images of Jesus in Christian art show him as the Good Shepherd. For the first three centuries it was perilous to be a Christian. There was danger everywhere. Leaders like Saul of Tarsus saw to it that Christians were rejected, put out of synagogues and into prison. Roman neighbors looked down on the Christians for their strange rituals. What was all this eating flesh and drinking blood? We know it was communion, but the Romans were suspicious. What’s more, why did these Christians have to be stubborn? Why couldn’t they go along with the official Roman religion? What was so wrong about bowing to the emperor? At times Christians literally became the prey of wild beasts for entertainment purposes as well as to make an example out of them. You Christians keep on defying the law, this is what will happen to you.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus declared. “I am committed to you with every drop of my life.” The sheep of the early church counted on the Good Shepherd for healing, mercy, forgiveness. They counted on him to lead them to life. They counted on Jesus to lead them home to God even if they way led through a Roman arena full of wild beasts and jeering crowds.
It is not easy to be a sheep of the flock of Jesus Christ now. His church finds itself in perilous times again. Yes, there are some places like Indonesia where it literally is dangerous to be a Christian. But in the United States and Europe, although there is some hostility—as when neighbors complain about a church’s ministry to homeless people or some other undesirable population—the biggest threat to the church here is apathy.
Many see the life of faith is just another hobby. They think worship is a specialized form of inspirational entertainment that people attend when there isn’t something else more interesting or more important to do. In the world beyond the flock, sacred time is not recognized or respected. Going to worship every week looks like a big waste of time! You could be achieving something. And isn’t time money? Some business executives think so. And, they would add, there’s nothing wrong with putting war toys in children’s Easter baskets. Who cares whether it’s appropriate or not. It’s what the customers want. Those who walk behind the Good Shepherd are out of step with the world around us!
Threats to the flock can even arise from within, as when negative spirits take hold and eat away at a church’s soul. You can see this big time in congregations where divisiveness is the norm, where splitting is the way they resolve problems. Obviously it’s not healthy for a flock to keep fracturing.
But there are other negative spirits, too, as when fears of different kinds take control. As when people are afraid to say what they really believe for fear of rejection, or when feel they must hide their struggles from one another. Anxiety about whether there will be enough of what’s needed in the future. As when people are afraid to believe that God has anything wonderful in store for the church’s future. Best not get hopes up.
This is the flock Christ laid down his life for? YES! “I am the Good Shepherd, and I lay down my life for my sheep. Period.” Notice what he does not say. He does not say, “I lay down my life for the sheep that deserve it. I lay down my life for those that perform well for me. I lay down my life for the ones that have their act all together. I lay down my life for the big sheep with lots of thick, showy wool.” NO! “I lay down my life for the sheep. Period.”
I was really impressed by the great variety of sheep my family saw in Scotland. We saw small, dark brown sheep with thin fleece and multiple horns. Jesus might have seen this kind of sheep. We saw big merino sheep with thick fleece. We saw a whole spectrum of colors. Natural wool can range from almost snowy white to coal black. We saw white-faced sheep and black-faced sheep.
Think about this little Morton flock. Surely there is room in Jesus’ flock for all varieties of sheep, including small, quiet varieties like us. Jesus laid down his life for all his sheep. Friends, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, is the shepherd of Morton Church. We can count on him! Our shepherd is tough! Our shepherd is determined to save us from peril. Our shepherd is invested in us. How much? Jesus Christ has invested every drop of his blood in us! How can we question his loving care for our little flock?
Yea, though we walk through a valley of questions and uncertainties. Yea, though our forms of ministry are not showy, nor can they be easily counted statistically. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of sickness and death, we will not give in to anxiety. The darkness will not overcome us. We will not resign ourselves to despair, for Christ, the supreme shepherd is with us.
Indeed he is walking ahead of us. In Scotland we also saw how shepherds lead their flocks. I always assumed that shepherds would do what my father does when he drives cattle: walk behind and urge them on. But shepherds walk in front of their flocks. Sheep dogs crisscross behind the flock, helping to keep the sheep from straggling behind. They help hold the group together.
Are we willing to go forward with the shepherd? Nipping at our heels are his goodness and mercy. That’s for certain. The Lord’s goodness and mercy follow us wherever we go. Therefore, the question is this: will we trust him, even if he leads us to unfamiliar pastures? Will we trust him so deeply that we would lay down our lives, and lay down our church’s life for him? How much are we willing to risk for Jesus Christ, and for the neighbors he wants us to touch for him?
Fear not, little flock! Says Jesus. I am your Good Shepherd. I laid down my life for you. Now: follow me.