Knowing the Shepherd
“The sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger… [John 10:4b-5a]
This fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday. Year after year on this day, we read scriptures depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Jesus presents himself as the Good Shepherd on a number of occasions in the Gospel accounts. Among the “I AM” statements of John’s Gospel, we read specifically in John 10:11, Jesus’ words, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
In this morning’s lesson, leading up to this pronouncement, Jesus indentifies himself as the gatekeeper of the sheep. Only the true shepherd can enter the gate and call the sheep of his fold to follow his voice. Jesus’ words are intended to chastise religious leaders who mislead the flocks entrusted to them. Sadly, these commissioned to lead are strangers to those whose spiritual lives are their responsibility. Jesus labels these deceptive leaders as thieves and bandits who enter the sheepfold for dishonorable reasons. They are not true shepherds and they are not to be followed.
Shepherding is an humble profession. We encounter imagery of the shepherd leading his sheep throughout the Bible – Old and New Testament. Jesus frequently used analogies drawn from the imagery of sheep and shepherding, an aspect of life very familiar within the culture of the 1st century.
Historically, shepherds have been lowly nomads, often smelly and travel-worn from endless days seeking greener pastures and safe territories for their flocks. Shepherding was not an easy glamorous life, but Jesus used this profession as the very best illustration of the purpose of his life and mission.
Many of the key familiar figures of Hebrew history spent at least some time as shepherds – Father Abraham possessed a wealth of sheep; Jacob, who would become the father of Israel and his twelve sons had significant experiences with sheepherding; Moses was tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when God appeared to him in the burning bush; and David was shepherding the sheep when the prophet Samuel summoned him to be anointed King.
David was an accomplished shepherd. David knew well the challenges of providing for the safety and nurturance of sheep over long hot thirsty days on dangerous terrain and cool nights fraught with the threat of predators lurking about the herd. David understood the necessity of constant vigilance and good judgment required to lead the sheep. He understood the importance of the relationship and the comforts of familiarity between shepherd and sheep.
David knew this role well and he used this motif as he wrote what has become the most well known of all the Psalms – Psalm 23, our appointed Psalm for today. From his position among the flock, David illustrates his understanding of God’s ever-present compassion, protection, and guidance. Though written long before the earthly birth of Jesus Christ, still, we look to this psalm to illustrate our life within the sheepfold of Jesus Christ – lives lived in abundance of the overflowing cup of God’s grace through our faith in our Risen Lord.
To complement Good Shepherd Sunday, our appointed Psalm each year on Fourth Easter is this Psalm – the 23rd Psalm. Of all the scripture in the Bible, this is the one that almost all – churched or non-churched – can recite nearly by heart. We know the words so well that we do not even reflect on the words, as we should, until a slice of life brings the words to mind in surreal moments.
On the English countryside, sheep dot the landscape. As the sheep rest seemingly effortlessly on the hillside in the lush green grass, basking in the warm sun and cool breeze; there is the sense that God has placed them there; they are nourished and protected – all needs provided, they want for nothing. Riding along the paths through the rolling English hillside, viewing this pastoral scene, the words of Psalm 23 bubble up. We shall not want; God, as our shepherd, makes us to lie down in green pastures of solace and sustenance. We rest alongside the still waters of provision and peace from which we drink our fill in the still waters of abundant safety – all because our shepherd is supplying our need.
Our souls are revived as we are led along the right pathways. The Hebrew in which the Psalm is recorded is much more descriptive than is our English interpretation. The intention of meaning is that God fully restores/repairs the totality of our being with his complete and perfect care. And, as restored beings of God’s creation, we follow his lead, aware of our total dependence on his guidance along the right path of life.
Yet, Jesus himself confirms that evil will be forever present until the end of time. Thus, it is reality that we walk through “the valley of the shadow of death,” whether from external threats to our safety or times of deep personal despair and darkness. This “valley of the shadow of death” always comes to mind for me when I view the photo of the people of New York City running panic-stricken through the street, the tall buildings creating a valley for the rushing firestorm of dust and debris that seeks to encompass them as the twin towers were exploding and collapsing behind them.
Sheep remain always in danger; evil lurks and they are easy prey for predators. Yet, even in the face of this constant threat, they are at peace – peace that comes solely from confidence in the vigilance of their shepherd – absolute trust in the shepherd’s protection – absolute trust in the gentle but firm discipline and guidance of the shepherd’s rod and staff.
We, too, remain in constant danger, easy prey for our enemy the devil. But, being disciplined and guided by our Lord’s rod and staff, we choose the right path with increasing appreciation and awareness of the Lord’s bountiful goodness and mercy, dwelling in the house of Lord now and forever.
Jesus affirms, we do not go to dwell with a stranger. Through prayer and scripture and worship, mission and ministry, we know our Good Shepherd’s voice and we follow.
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – dwelling in the house of the Lord forever – dwelling in the sheepfold of our Lord whom we know as our friend and not a stranger.