Sermon: The Good Shepherd
SCRIPTURE: John 10:11-18
When Jesus speaks of himself as the “‘good‘ shepherd” in our text he is distinguishing himself from other shepherds in a very significant way. Shepherds were universally recognized characters in biblical times, so it is not strange that such a figure along with his surroundings and the flock with which he was charged was used in a variety of ways to depict people and responsibilities in varying positions in the nation of Israel.
Because David was a “shepherd king,” e.g., called from tending the flocks of his father to be anointed as the king of Israel succeeding Saul (1 Samuel 16:10-13), those who ruled Israel in later times were also called “shepherds” on occasion. The most prominent of such references occurs throughout the thirty-fourth chapter of Ezekiel. The setting in which Ezekiel wrote, however, was such that the “shepherds” were being called to task for being so self-serving, so disinterested in the well-being of the nation over which they were ruling. In other words, there was nothing inherently good about shepherds when the term was applied elsewhere
The chapter from which today’s Gospel is taken is filled with imagery surrounding shepherds and their circumstances. The sheep they were to tend were not out in the fields all the time. There were few places of permanent residence in the countryside. The culture of the day centered on “town living” for the sake of security. The sheep, accordingly, when brought in from the fields where they were grazing, were kept in a sheepfold guarded by a gatekeeper. The verses immediately preceding our text refer to that place of security. Because of that, Jesus’ first reference to himself in this chapter is this: “I am the door of the sheep. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” (v. 9 ESV)
His first reference to himself, therefore, had to do with how to gain entrance into the place of safety or – exit. Jesus calls himself the door. the access to the secure place of protection supplied by the Father whose flock he was to protect or the way out in order to provide pasture to the same flock.
Yet another aspect of this chapter and the words around which our attention is being centered is the way Jesus uses the phrase “I am. . . .” One need not read very long in the entire Gospel of St. John to find that Jesus introduces a number of self-descriptions with this phrase “I am.” Rather early in the gospel Jesus was challenged concerning his authority to speak and act as he did, charging him, in fact, with being possessed by a demon. A dispute of considerable intensity was recorded, culminating with his claim “I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (8:58)
That was more than merely a claim to have preceded Abraham in terms of human existence. It was a claim to being one with the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush, where he first identified himself in this way, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Upon further questioning by Moses he named himself by means of the unique phrase, “I AM WHO I AM” (“Jahweh” in Hebrew) as the definitive way Moses was to speak about him. “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you. . . This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.'” (Exodus 3:6-18 ESV) It was with this name that he went to Pharaoh, demanding the release of the Israelites, the children of the great “I am.” (Exodus 5:1 ff.)
John tells us that Jesus used that phrase-name in a wide variety of ways as a self-identification: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger. . . ” (6:35 ESV) “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (8:12 ESV) “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (11:25,26 ESV) “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6 ESV) “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (15:1, 2 ESV) Every one of those phrases sets forth his uniqueness – the one who satisfies deepest human hunger . . . who alone lights the path . . . the true source of life even in the face of death . . . the one from whom all good fruit draws its nourishment, etc.
When, therefore, Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep,” he is making a very exclusive claim! Those who are of God’s flock come in and go out through him. He is the key to the security of God’s people.
Then follows the words we heard as the Gospel for this day – yet another “I am”: “I am the good shepherd.” This phrase, in fact, is repeated twice just as his reference to himself as being the door was repeated twice. Quite contrary to Ezekiel 34, however (although drawing practically all its imagery from that chapter where the shepherds were poor examples of shepherds), Jesus claims to be “the good shepherd.” While that designation has been broadly and commonly used to identify Jesus among Christian people throughout the ages, this is the one and only place in all the gospels where that name is applied to him! He is called the “great shepherd” (Hebrews 13:20), “the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25), “the chief shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4), or the Lamb and the shepherd combined in Revelation 7:17. But this title of “good shepherd” is found only here . . . and it is closely connected with his self-designation as “the door.”
A father of the early church named Chrysostom pointed out, “When he brings us to the Father, he calls himself a Door; when he takes care of us, a Shepherd.” That was a wise observation. Once the door is open and the sheep are free to go to pasture, they are under the care of the shepherd and not the gatekeeper any more. The good shepherd leads them out, for shepherds of his time went ahead of their sheep. They were not “driven” as though they had to be rounded up and held in place. Quite contrary, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” (vv. 3, 4) The sheep know that they are in safe-keeping when they follow him with whose voice they are acquainted. It is his task to care for the sheep.
That is the substance of the psalm appointed for this day, that oft-quoted and beloved twenty-third psalm. There the Lord, himself, is the shepherd. (Is this not exactly the very one whom Jesus is proposing himself to be when he calls himself the “good shepherd”?) His sheep do not worry about what to eat or where their safety lies. He knows the green pastures and leads them to the place where the grass is free of poisonous weeds and dangers of other sorts. He knows where the waters run quietly, making it possible for his flock to slake their thirst without risk. Those who follow him can be sure that their path is the right one, going to the pastures where they can graze safely. Especially when the path is steep or the shadows of mortal danger surround them, they are confident that the good shepherd will keep them in safe ways. When wolves or lions threaten them, he has the weapons to fend them off. It is, in fact, in the very face of all hostile forces that he “sets a table” for them at which they can forage and dwell safely. If they are wounded, he cares for them. How could one ask for more? “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 ESV)
All of this is caught up in that simple phrase, “the good shepherd.” Linguists tell us that the Greek word for “good” combines a sense of beauty with a sense of being fit for the task at hand. The word has more in it than merely a sense of “good intentions” or a “kindliness of the moment.” It has to do with the willingness and capability of the noun it describes to carry out everything necessary for the good of the sheep.
That is what Chrysostom was getting at when he made the observation noted earlier. Once the door is opened and the sheep (i.e., we, ourselves) are brought out from their secure sheepfold, they must be cared for very vigilantly and watched over very attentively.
When all is said and done, it is this very promise that lies at the heart of today’s Gospel: “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. . . For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
This shepherd is fit for the task at hand! He is carrying on his shoulders the welfare of all of God’s fallen creation! When he leads his flock forth he knows full well the dangers that lie between the sheepfold and the eternal pastures. He knows that the flock must walk “through the valley of the shadow of death,” for it is the way to the pastureland where the sheep will find all that is necessary for their wellbeing. It is because he knows all this and yet is willing to shepherd them that he is called “good“!
He also knows, however, that, to protect the sheep in these dangerous places between the sheepfold and the pasture it will be his own life that stands between them and safety. It will, in fact, be on one of those hills looming large over the welfare of his sheep that he will lay down his life, diverting the threatening foes from the ones they originally sought by putting his own life on the line. He did that with every confidence that, by trusting in the one who commissioned him for this task, he would, himself, come through the valley of the shadow of death and not be so swallowed up by it so that he could return again to his flock after the darkness had passed and new light shone across the face of the earth..
We gather here this morning as those who continue to celebrate that victory accomplished in the death and resurrection of the one who spoke the words of our text a relatively short time before he met that death and experienced that resurrection. It is quite remarkable, in fact, to think of one whose entire life was devoted to a path leading inexorably toward his own self-appointed death in behalf of those who had placed themselves into such dire danger of eternal rejection by their waywardness. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” He used his rod to beat off the threatening foe. He used his staff in selfless love, placing himself into the treacherous situation where he leaned far over into the very precipice of death to snag his wayward sheep from the destructive ledge onto which they had fallen.
Is it not, indeed, a wonder that God could love us with a love like that? To think that, as he took us from the safety of the sheepfold, leading us out to the green pastures, we would even dare to wander off on our own, becoming entangled in the thorns and briers of this world’s wilderness, making it necessary for him to free us from those threatening places, anointing our heads with the healing oil he carried in the veins of his own body! To think that, rather than following him who called us to follow him into safe places, we would follow our own inner voice misleading us to the very shadow of those who would destroy us, making it necessary for him to leave the “ninety-nine in the open country” to rescue us, carrying us on his shoulders, rejoicing that he had found us in the nick of time! (Luke 15:3-7 ESV)
It is a wonder, indeed! But he did it!
So let us rejoice and be glad! He daily opens the door of the sheepfold, inviting us to follow him to the green pastureland of his grace and mercy. We hear his voice in the words of our text, and we know it is his. We regularly hear that beloved voice in and through the words we read and hear as we gather in worship or as we read them in the quietness of our room or when we speak them to one another as his children. It is his voice, calling us to come and follow him – to follow him into the valley of the shadow of death where we, with him, are to daily die to our old selves that we might daily rise again with him to the newness of life first planted in us at our baptism. He invites us to follow him with our rekindled life, to the pastures where he renews our weary lives with the refreshing bread and wine within which his very own body and blood is offered to us.
For, as he put it in the words of today’s Gospel, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” You know, do you not, that we are some of those “other sheep that are not of this fold”? He promised that he, speaking to those who called themselves Jews at the time, would cause his voice to sound out over the whole earth, far beyond the boundaries his listeners thought were set for God’s people, leading people who, at that time, were considered far outside the fold, to the same pastures to which he was leading those of his own time. We are them! His voice has called across centuries, across national and cultural boundaries, across continents and populations of many times and spaces, to the far parts of the earth . . . and his sheep have heard and followed him.
We, the heirs of this marvelously wonderful word of grace and salvation, are now, ourselves in turn, the voice of the good shepherd, calling to all whose hearts are heavy, whose lives are burdened, whose consciences are seared with guilt, whose lives teeter on the very edge of despair, whose hopelessness has become so deep that they see nothing other than the valley of the shadow of death.
“Come, follow me,” the shepherd calls.
We follow . . . with all our faults and failures, knowing that he will anoint our heads with the oil of his merciful forgiveness. We follow . . . filled with the promise that he is the one who, himself, is “the way, the truth and the life,” trusting him to lead us into those pasturelands which the Father has prepared for those who love him. We follow . . . rejoicing in and celebrating a future that would not be possible were it not for this Good Shepherd whose life, suffering, death and resurrection is, itself, the future of all of us who have been baptized into union with him.
For he knows the Father just as the Father knows him – and he knows us, who are his own, with equal intimacy – and he speaks the words that fall on our ears, calling us to come after him, to participate with him in the glory that is known only by being in the presence of the Father.
“Come, follow me,” he says to us. Using an alternate metaphor, but maintaining the sense of our text, he invites us to “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29, 30 ESV)
“Come, follow him,” we say to our neighbor! “He will lead you to green pastures where you will find rest for your souls. For he is a ‘good‘ shepherd!”
This message by Rev Hubert Beck is brought to you by Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain View, Arkansas. For prayer or more information, contact Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected]. A Pass it On Project You may read more at Goettinger Predigen in Internet.