4. I AM the good sheppard
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Let us pray. O noble, loving, good shepherd of the sheep, help us this day, whether it be for the first time or the latest of many times come face to face with the grace and wonder of this truth, that you lay down your life for the sheep. Amen.
Is it a job or is it a calling? In one of my favourite movies, “Field of Dreams,” there is a character by the name of Archie Graham. As a young man he had been a baseball player. At the end of one season he had been called up to the major league team but never got to bat. He decided to go back to school; he became a doctor and then returned to his hometown where he became a beloved fixture in the town. Being a doctor wasn’t just a job for him; it was his calling. One could even say the lives of those he served mattered more than his own life.
This morning, friends, I want to explore with you the other part of the image that we began to look at two Sundays ago. In John 10 Jesus adds to his selfportrait using two images that come from the idea that God’s people are like sheep and that God or God’s Messiah cares for the people as a shepherd cares for the sheep. In 10:7–10, Jesus says he is the gate to the sheepfold. Through him the sheep come in for protection and go out for food. Beginning with verse11, Jesus explores the central image of this chapter, that he is the good shepherd.
Jesus begins with a contrast. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away— and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. There is a difference between a true and loyal shepherd and someone who is merely hired to watch the sheep. The hired hand is familiar with what is necessary to care for the sheep; he commits to his 7.5 hours each day and never misses a break. The sheep are always subject to attack, from wild beasts or from thieves; but when there is danger, the hired hand turns in the other direction. Reminds me of a story I heard years ago. A fellow was told that someone had quit his job at a local company. He went to see the owner and said he was there to apply for the vacancy created when Bernie quit. He was told that yes he was right, Bernie had quit, but unfortunately Bernie had not left a vacancy. Some of you have worked with Bernie, haven’t you?
What makes for the difference between the shepherd and the hired hand? There is one that is pointed out in the text in a very striking way. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. In all of our lives there are degrees of knowledge. I know that 1+1=2 and that 2+2=4; that’s one sort of knowledge. I know the older Italian lady who is always the cashier at the express checkout on Saturday mornings at the Garden Basket in Markham; that’s another sort of knowledge. I know my grandson Carter, how in character he reminds me of his father, our son, Mike and how in looks he reminds me of his uncle, our other son, Andrew; now that’s a much different knowledge from arithmetic and acquaintance.
Jesus says the good or noble or beautiful shepherd knows his sheep in the same way that God knows the Son whom he has sent to be the Saviour of the world. John intends to suggest a level of knowledge characterized by intimacy and a completely generous spirit. The shepherd would do anything for the sheep. There is a second contrast that at best is hinted at in the text. It is suggested by the wonderful Scottish scholar of another generation, William Barclay. “A real shepherd was born to his task. He was sent out with the flock as soon as he was old enough to go; he grew into the calling of being a shepherd; the sheep became his friends and his companions; and it became second nature to him to think of them before he thought of himself.” Admittedly this is speculation, but remember the world of Jesus is a world in which a boy was most likely to do what his father did, what his grandfather had done and what his great grandfather had also done. But this fits with Jesus: he came into the world to be the good shepherd. He was born to be the Saviour of the world.
This leads to the second thing that is said about this image. In the good shepherd we see a commitment to the sheep. Take a look at verse 12. Jesus describes what happens if the shepherd does not defend his sheep—the wolf snatches them and scatters them. One wolf could not grab all the sheep at once; but if the hired hand runs away at least one of the sheep is killed and the rest flee in terror, ending up who knows where. In other words the sheep need the commitment given to them by the good shepherd because the sheep are in danger.
Do you sense the spiritual danger that overshadows your life? I recognize that it is possible to excuse one’s own sense of responsibility by seeing a devil around every corner and a demon influencing every decision that is made. However I also know that one of the greatest intellects not just of his own time but of all time, St. Paul, said this about the nature of our spiritual struggle.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
Perhaps you will think I am overstating the argument, but I am very much aware of there being evil forces at work in our world that want you and me to fail as followers of Jesus. I sometimes find it a struggle to be unselfish; the forces of evil cheer those failures. I sometimes find it difficult to be compassionate; the forces of evil are working to make me cold and unfeeling. My life is marked by the grace of God; my life is also marked by spiritual danger that threatens to destroy me.
My friend through his books, Tom Wright, nails this insight for me. “Throughout the last chapters [prior to John 10] we have seen Jesus facing death threats. Now he declares that violent death is not just a dangerous possibility; it’s his vocation. …The sheep are facing danger; the shepherd will go to meet it, and, if necessary, he will take upon himself the fate that would otherwise befall the sheep. In Jesus’ case, it was necessary, and he did (John For Everyone, Part 1, p.152).
You could find a more complicated explanation of why Jesus was crucified, but I think what Bishop Wright has said is the one that makes the most sense to me. Jesus is our good and noble and beautiful shepherd. His whole life is committed to the wellbeing of the sheep. Our lives were in danger. The only way to defeat that danger was for the shepherd to give his life for the sheep. Jesus is committed to the sheep.
The full extent of that commitment is seen in Jesus intention to bring us into community. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. What does Jesus mean when he speaks of other sheep? Let’s back up a little bit.
It is agreed by the majority of biblical scholars that John’s gospel is the last one written, perhaps as early as 75 A.D. but likely between 90 and 100 A.D. One of the issues the church was continuing to deal with was the matter of its Jewish beginnings and its expansion into the non-Jewish world. The gospel of John then has more of the teaching of Jesus that speaks of this being part of the plan of God. For example it is in John 4 that we are told the story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman whom he meets at Jacob’s well in the city of Sychar. In the prelude to that story it is said about Jesus that he had to go through Samaria (John 4:4). Most Jewish travellers did whatever they could to avoid Samaria. Our text adds to this teaching by telling us that Jesus has other sheep and he intends to be the one shepherd of one flock.
In the early church there can be no doubt that this talk of bringing other sheep into the fold referred to non-Jews or Gentiles becoming part of God’s people. This is no doubt true, but there is something more here. Look again at the last part of verse 16. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. This appears to be one of those sentences in Greek that is hard to put into English. One scholar says the words, one shepherd ought to be heard as an exclamation as if Jesus spoke the words something like this. “There will be one flock. One shepherd!”
What shall we say and think about this? We have a long way to go don’t we? But I feel strongly friends that we need to hear the urgency expressed by Jesus— One Shepherd! You see, there is a progression in this text as Jesus paints the picture for us. He is the good, the noble, the beautiful shepherd who will do anything for the sheep. More than that he will actually give his life for the sheep because our lives were in danger and he defeated that danger by giving his life. Now we see the gracious and glorious purpose of Jesus being the good shepherd—to draw all of creation into the community of God’s kingdom.
I have told this story before but hopefully you won’t mind hearing it again. When my mom lived in Barrie I would drive north on 404, west on Green Lane and then north again on Highway 11. North of Bradford I would pass through the village of Churchill. On the east side of the road there is a sheep farm and I stopped in one day to ask if when they sheared the sheep if they also sold the fleece.
During my conversation with the farmer I told him how often when passing the farm it stirred my soul to see the sheep in the pasture because it reminded me of Psalm 23 and Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze.” This fellow looked at me as if I had suddenly sprouted a second head and quickly dismissed what I am sure he took to be citified romanticism. “Those sheep are a lot of work, you know!”
Yes we are, Jesus would say. We are a lot of work. But the good, the noble, the beautiful shepherd does his work, his work of love because he wants to save us and draw us together into one flock.