Jesus, the Good Shepherd

 This is the sermon I preached on Sumday, April 21 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was John 10:11-18.

I like sheep. They’re so cute and warm and fuzzy. And in the Holy Land, they come in different colors! A bird's-eye view of a flock will reveal blue, red, or another hue on the sheep's back. This way they can be identified. 

Today’s reading from the gospels says that Jesus is the good shepherd. The I AM Jesus is using is emphatic and could be translated as, “I, I am” (Rob Myallis, lectionarygreek.blogspot.com). Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus identifies himself as many things:

6:35 I am the bread of life

8:12 I am the light of the world

8:58 I am that I am 

10:7 I am the door for the sheep (10:9 I am the door)

10:11 I am the good shepherd; lays down life; know voice

11:25 I am the resurrection and life

14:6 I am the way, truth and life

15:1 I am the true vine (15:5 vine) (Rob Myallis). 

In each instance, he uses “I, I am,” for emphasis. 

It’s interesting that Jesus should compare himself to a shepherd. In the Old Testament, David and others were called shepherds, and it was a positive thing. By Jesus’ time, shepherds were looked down upon. They were at the bottom of society and were considered dirty and untrustworthy. 

But Jesus was a “good shepherd,” which really had to mess with people’s minds. It was an oxymoron! How could there be such a thing? Good is a very understated way to express this. In Greek, it means, beautiful, ideal, model. Model shepherd, beautiful shepherd, ideal shepherd gives us more of an idea of what’s going on. One pastor writes, “Good is also an entirely wrong way to put this. What kind of shepherd goes and gets himself killed? A very, very bad one [However,] our good shepherd makes calculations very differently than normal humans do!”(Rob Myallis). 

Jesus punctuates and peppers this lesson with words about laying down his life, meaning, “the good shepherd dies willingly” (netbible.org). First, he is a good shepherd who looks well after his sheep, even to the point of giving his life. After the first “laying down,” Jesus compares the hired hand, who is not invested in the sheep, with a good shepherd.

"Laying down" number two shows Jesus' connection to his father. Then, we see its impact on his relationship with the sheep. Even those outside the fold will listen to Jesus’ voice. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is idealized as “one flock, one shepherd.”

Then Jesus’ life doesn’t stay “laid down” in the tomb. He rises! Finally, no one forces the Lord Jesus to lay down his life. “I lay it down of my own accord.” 

Back to the sheep, how do sheep behave? For so long, a falsehood has been put forth about sheep and their intelligence. They are not stupid or “mindless: Sheep can remember the faces of 50 individual people or animals for up to 2 years.” The thing is, they cannot be left to their own devices. “Sheep must be led — often by goats” (Wikipedia, Judas Goats). 

Sheep are extremely communal animals: having “established firm friendships and look[ing] out for one another in times of need: Rams were found to form long term relationships¦ [they] intervened on behalf of weaker colleagues and supported each other in fights,” says a 1993 study (onlinelibraryWiley.com). These acts of loyalty and friendship-building are driven by emotions” (Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler, pulpitfiction.com). So, comparing God’s people to sheep isn’t such a bad thing after all; especially with the kind of shepherd we have looking after us. 

What does this say about the behavior of the people of God, the church? We Americans are extremely independent. Self-sufficiency is considered a virtue. But we are a dependent community of faith, not those with only a “me and Jesus”-type individualistic faith; which leads to an inwardness that is unconcerned with what is happening outside your individual faith. We are dependent upon God and one another. 

The true characteristics of sheep, such as having firm friendships and looking out for one another. Doesn’t that sound like church? 

We live in a world with higher than ever instances of depression and suicide. People need each other. Pay attention to those around you, whether in the doctor’s office, grocery store or library. 

Do you see sadness, depression or loneliness in their faces? Engage that neighbor in conversation or just smile at them. Encourage that one in need. Tell them you’ll be praying for them. 

The bottom line is that Jesus lays down his life so that we may live out God’s love. We see this reflected in the reading from 1 John. “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17). We cannot always see the connection between the various scripture passages on any given Sunday. However, today on this Good Shepherd Sunday, it all comes together, including the beloved twenty-third psalm to boot! Amen. 

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