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at Cunningham United
Who Is Our Shepherd?
April 26, 2015
It has to be one of the most beloved phrases in the Bible. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1). I have read this Psalm in every funeral service that I have conducted, including the two that I conducted this week. These words seem to speak universally to us at our times of deepest needs. They offer to us in our times of trouble the images of lying down in green pastures, and walking alongside cool, quiet pools of water. This Psalm even calls to mind the image of a loving shepherd who will gently apply the pressure of the rod and staff to guide us in the way we should travel. It gives us a note of hope in the midst of our dark times—the hope that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. It’s no wonder that this Psalm is so universally loved.
It occurred to me this week that the Jewish people living in Galilee and Judea 2,000 years ago would have loved this Psalm just as much as we do. The life of the shepherd was an even closer reality for them than it is for us. Where we might sometimes become a bit sentimental in reading these words, they knew first-hand the realities of the life of the shepherd. Shepherding was hard work.
If I am right that this Psalm was as beloved then as it is today, then Jesus must have known this Psalm, as well. I would have to assume that this Psalm was read at funerals 2,000 years ago. Perhaps Jesus read these very words when burying his stepfather Joseph: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.” (Psalm 23:6).
I mention all this to put into context just how big a step it was for people to hear Jesus proclaim the words of today’s Gospel Lesson, “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11). We have heard these words so many times that they become tame with familiarity. For those first century listeners, these words were shocking—for some, they were blasphemous.
For the devoted and faithful followers of Yahweh, there was one Lord, the Lord who was proclaimed in the prayer from Deuteronomy: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). It was the Lord whom they knew as their Shepherd in that Psalm that they knew and loved so well. It was the Lord God who the prophet Ezekiel was speaking about when he prophesied, “For thus says the Lord God; I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” (Ezekiel 34:11, 15-16a). And here was Jesus saying to the Pharisees that He was one with the Father. He was God. He was their Shepherd. And they were appalled!
If we read the context in which this story comes up, we won’t be surprised. Jesus was speaking these words in the middle of a controversy. He had just restored the sight of a man who was born blind. Jesus had made some mud and spread it on the blind man’s eyes and instructed him to go wash it off in the Pool of Siloam. This took place on the Sabbath, which put Jesus at odds with the Pharisees. Instead of celebrating with the man who once was blind but now could see, the Pharisees challenged the man who had been healed, told him that he was “born entirely in sins,” and then drove the him out of the temple. Jesus affirmed to the man that Jesus had come “so that those who do not see may see…” (John 9:1-40). To those religious leaders, however, who said, “we are not blind, are we” Jesus said, “your sin remains.” (v. 41).
It is at this point that Jesus identifies himself with the Good Shepherd. Jesus offers His listeners several characteristics of the Good Shepherd that they will find in Him:
· Jesus says that he is the gate by which the sheep enter the sheepfold. (John 10:7-9). Those who enter through this gate will be healed and restored to abundant life, for Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10).
· Jesus says that his sheep know him. The true shepherd knows his sheep by name; he calls them and leads them. They will follow him, but they won’t follow the imposter, the stranger, because they don’t know the voice of the stranger. (John 10:4-5, 14).
· Jesus says that he is not like the hired hand who runs away; He is the One who lays down his life for His sheep. (John 10:15).
Jesus’ description of the Good Shepherd brings to mind the words of the Prophet Isaiah that we hear during the Season of Advent, which promise that God “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isaiah 34:11).
How did the religious leaders react to all of this? Some said that Jesus was possessed by a demon and was out of his mind. (John 10:20). But others wondered at His words. “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:21).
Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd” in the middle of a heated discussion about blindness—both physical and spiritual. The spiritual leaders, who should have been able to see who Jesus was, were not up to the task. In their blindness, they couldn’t see who Jesus was. They couldn’t see that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, not only would restore sight to the blind beggar on the street; Jesus also would restore their own sight if they asked. They couldn’t see that Jesus not only would lay down his life for the poor and the oppressed; Jesus would lay down his life for them too.
How do you react to Jesus when He says that He is the Good Shepherd? How do you react when you see Jesus breaking the rules to restore sight on the Sabbath? How do you react when you hear Jesus speak with a tax collector or a woman with a bad reputation? How do you react when Jesus sits at table with sinners? Do you join in rejoicing because the lost has now been found, or do you find fault?
“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14). This shepherding business is not all still waters and green pastures. It also means taking the sheep through the Valley of the Shadow. It also means laying down your life for your sheep.
It is that way for us, too. Jesus sends us to love just as He loved. As our reading from 1 John shows, love is more that words; love reveals itself in deeds. Jesus “laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3:16). “[Let] us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:18). We are supposed to love like that.
During these Fifty Days of Easter, we have spent the first few weeks recalling the historical events recorded in the Gospels—events that describe the Resurrection. Now, we broaden our focus to the even larger picture and ask, in light of these events, who is Jesus for you? Who is your shepherd? Who are you following today?
For Jesus to be your shepherd, you don’t have to understand the theology of atonement. You don’t have to solve the mysteries of creation. You don’t have to figure out the secrets of miracles. You simply listen for the voice of the shepherd, and then follow Him. You simply need to turn around, to change direction, and to follow the Shepherd in His way of living and His way of loving.
The Shepherd is looking for you today. Will you follow?
 Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on the Fourth Sunday of Easter.