Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The idea of Christ as a shepherd is a strong one. It is so strong that I just know that if I showed the children of this congregation a picture of a man with long hair, with sheep around him, that the kids would immediately know it is Jesus. Today’s scripture readings point out that we need a shepherd, and that our shepherd is none other than the Son of God, Jesus. In fact any time we read about sheep in scripture, they are always in the direct care of a shepherd, or are shown to be in need of a shepherd.
Let’s begin by looking at why sheep need a shepherd.
Firstly — and I say this for those who haven’t ever raised these critters — sheep need a shepherd. They REALLY need a shepherd. Sheep are as a whole, stupid animals. And as a boy who was raised with 20,000 chickens, plus cattle and sheep, I know all about dumb animals. They are prone to injury and loss. Sheep think nothing of climbing up high like goats do, but often lack the manual dexterity and intelligence to get down again. I’ve known people who have had to get sheep off the roof of a barn weekly! Sheep also enjoy such hobbies as getting stuck in small spaces, falling into holes, and getting lost. Sheep are also prey animals — by that I mean that there are many animals who think, like I do, that sheep taste great. In Canada, we host many animals that enjoy mutton - Coyotes, domestic dogs, cougars, bobcats, bears, foxes, wolves, and even eagles! In the middle east, the largest predator of sheep are wolves and jackals. Let’s face it — sheep need constant care if they are expected to thrive and multiply. If you turn your back on them, they seem to almost jump into the nearest hole or into the mouth of a predator. They are very dependent on their shepherd to keep them safe from their own excursions and curiosity.
And before anyone laughs at those silly dim-witted sheep — and I’m sure you know this is coming — we really aren’t much better. We might make fun of sheep, and yet in the eyes of God what do we do whenever we think He isn’t looking? We stray constantly! Humans, given the chance, will always fall into sin. It’s the curse of our human nature. We are masters at straying. We are so good at it, we are able to fool ourselves into thinking that we are staying at our master’s side while we are actually wandering away from Him. And to make matters worse, unlike a sheep, we all know the devastating results of our sin — an eternity of torment in hell. But lest you think that this is some new kind of failure, a quick peek at the bible says that this has always, ALWAYS been the case. In the book of Genesis, the world is new, and to God everything is “very good”. What happens? Eve looks around, doesn’t see God, listens to a snake, and the human race falls. God’s people, after being rescued from Egypt by Moses, sit in the desert waiting for Moses to return from the top of Mount Sinai. What do they do while they wait? Force the high priest to invent a new God for them, so they have something to worship. And what about King David and King Solomon? Look how easily Bathsheeba, perhaps without meaning to, led David astray! Look how willingly Solomon let his seven hundred wives lead him into worshipping false Gods! As soon as we think God’s back is facing us, our instinct is not to walk away from God, it’s to run away.
So yes, we all need a shepherd. They protect us from certain doom. What do shepherds do? Well, one task is to guard the sheep. How do they do that? They have a few methods to protect the sheep. They have whistles to gather the animals into a small group, as predators have trouble tackling a tight herd of animals versus scattered animals. They have Daggers, clubs or staves to attack a predator if it decides to come after the sheep. And finally, they have the crook, which is useful to keep sheep out of danger - in Israel I saw a young shepherdess leading sheep across a busy road, and she used a whistle to keep them together, then led them with the crook across the road one by one. It was a painstaking labour of love to protect each sheep individually.
Another task is to feed the sheep. That’s often not as easy as it sounds, especially in the middle east, where for most of the year, food is very scarce. Feeding even a small flock of sheep in winter time in the Middle East is a big deal — the shepherd must lead the sheep along these winging valley “goat paths” to reach safe grazing grounds. Then, because there is so little water and the grass regrows so slowly, the shepherd must carefully move the sheep to new pasture, from hill to hill, in order to rotate the food source and preserve the grazing grounds. In the very depths of winter (mostly July and August), they must pull the sheep from the grazing grounds and withdraw them into a paddock, where they will be fed bales of hay.
And you know what else shepherds do? They teach the sheep. Yes, sheep are not overly smart, but they can be taught. What would a shepherd need to teach a flock of sheep? There are three primary things he must teach them. Firstly, they need to learn to trust the shepherd. This takes immense patience and kindness to get them to trust you. Once that trust is established, you can move them onto the next teaching tool, which is to get them to follow the shepherd, whoever he may go. Sheep are stubborn yet curious, and left to their own devices will almost always wander off. Once trained, sheep can follow a shepherd, even if he has to traverse a safe path in a dangerous area, such as through canyon floors, where in Israel is where many of the predators hide. Finally, once they trust and follow the shepherd, he can teach them the final lesson, which is to take the food that the shepherd offers, when and where he offers it. Sheep who are well trained know to graze where the shepherd leads them, even if they smell what seems to be better food elsewhere nearby.
So now that we have explored how badly sheep (meaning both us and the guys who produce wool) need a shepherd, let’s look at how God has provided us with shepherds, and how our Good Shepherd is not just another in a long line of shepherds, but is truly the perfect keeper of God’s holy sheep.
Since the beginning of scripture, God has sent us shepherd after shepherd to try and protect us from our sinful world and ourselves. God used Joseph to lead his people to a better life in Egypt, showing God’s love for His people. God sent Moses to draw his people out of captivity in Egypt. Moses and Aaron were given instructions by God on how to live, so that the people would lead God-pleasing lives. Over the next thousand years God sent judges, kings, and prophet after prophet to shepherd and guide His flock. These shepherds all tried to do God’s bidding — some did better than others, but ultimately, they all failed, because at the end of the day, they are worldly shepherds.
“What’s so bad about being a worldly shepherd," you ask? Well, lets see. Human shepherds get distracted. When I was in Israel, a shepherd who had a cell phone was charged by the police because while he was playing around on his cellphone, a few dozen of his sheep wandered onto a roadway and were slaughtered by high speed traffic, resulting in two people being killed. Our world is full of distractions, and it’s really easy to be distracted. How comfortable do you find that pew. Does your back ache or is your bottom sore? How about now? Is the light coming through the window distracting you? Is my voice putting you to sleep? Our world is full of things to take your mind off the word of God, and it’s a struggle for anyone, whether sheep or shepherd, to stay focused for long.
When the threats loom too large, shepherds will abandon their sheep and run for their lives. I’ve heard about shepherds who run away during really bad storms or when packs of predator animals come by. Imagine being in Israel as a shepherd, where you cannot have a gun unless you are a settler or a solder (either active or reserve). Now imagine that you see a wolf pack coming over the hill. Is your club or knife going to stop them? Not likely, so you’d probably run for your life. I would. And ultimately, this is the failing of all human shepherds — they are men and women, boys and girls, not God — and so ultimately, all of the shepherds, from the fathers of the people to the prophets to modern day pastors, are just sheep.
But Jesus, now He is a different story. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, the perfect shepherd for an imperfect people. As both true man and true God, Jesus can succeed where all other shepherds failed. Where all earthly shepherds get distracted, run in fear, or act like sheep themselves, Christ succeeds.
His gift of the Holy Spirit upon us means that we are given the power to trust in Him. This gift f grace is truly beyond measure. The Spirit lets us listen to Christ, to trust in His word, to trust that His actions are for our benefit, and to trust in His love for us. Jesus, as king David puts it in his Psalm, leads us beside still waters, the still waters of safety and peace and love, offered by a God who cares deeply and with loving-kindness for His adopted sons and daughters. Jesus came to us as the culmination of all salvation history, meaning that all of scripture was slowly and purposely leading us to Him, and His Word is our food, which He Himself gives us for our own nourishment, that we might believe and be offered eternal life. Thanks to our Good Shepherd, we are taught to trust, to follow and to be fed by Christ.
Jesus also never runs in fear from the predations of the devil. He fearlessly stood where we could not, and he boldly hung on the cross where we deserved to. Jesus never wavered in his ministry when threatened, he continually taught His sheep. He never stopped showing love to His people, even when they did not love Him. Even in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus willingly accepted God’s will that He suffer instead of us. Thanks to our Good Shepherd, we don’t have to suffer the agony of total separation from God.
And that leads us to the final way in which Jesus is our perfect shepherd, our Good Shepherd. Jesus was willing to die for His sheep so that the sheep would not suffer eternally. We didn’t deserve this protection, as Paul writes, Jesus died for us while we were still His enemies! And of course Easter wouldn’t offer us eternity if Jesus had not been raised again from the dead on the third day. But as our reading says, Jesus lay down His life, only to take it up again. With our shepherd resurrected, we are offered eternal life. Thanks to our Good Shepherd, our temporal death is just that — temporary — we will in time be resurrected, along with all of the other sheep, to stand before the throne of the lamb, our Good Shepherd, praising Him and celebrating life and peace forever.