Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
One of my wife’s favourite icons is the picture of the Good Shepherd carrying the wayward sheep on his shoulders. We have it hanging in our house. My wife also grew up hearing that little children’s hymn many learned in Sunday school. In fact, when my kids are fussy, tired, or need a little comfort, Laurin and I will sing this little hymn to them:
I am Jesus little lamb;LSB 740:1
Ever glad at heart I am.
For my Shepherd gently guides me
Knows my need and well provides me
Loves me every day the same
Even calls me by my name.
The image of Jesus as the good shepherd might seem quaint and cute to many. Something we tell our children. It has a warm, gentle glow of safety and warmth about it. If we think we’ve outgrown that little song, we need to spend a little quality time with image of Jesus the Good Shepherd. We may have grown from little lambs to big sheep, but we’re just as much in need of a shepherd. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says. This is more than a nice little figure of speech for the children. It’s a solemn revelation of who Jesus is. This morning we’ll look at what this revelation says about us, and what is says about Jesus.
We are the Sheep of His Hand
The main point of our Gospel reading today is found in verse 11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Note the different reaction of the hired hand in verse 13: since the sheep do not belong to the hired hand, he does not care for them. Tending sheep is just a job. But the good shepherd cares because the sheep are like his own family. They are his sheep; they belong to him, they have an intimate relationship with him (“I know my own and my own know me”). He calls each of his sheep by their name, and they hear his voice. They follow only his voice and no one else’s. That’s what Jesus is and does for us. He lays down His life for the world, for you in particular.
Sheep require a great deal of maintenance for an animal. We get a hint of this from Psalm 23. Shepherds tend to be quite busy. This means that if Jesus is the good shepherd, we are the sheep. Like we said in Psalm 95 this morning, “we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” Being called a sheep will upset many today. We like to think of ourselves in more flattering terms than as sheep. Sheep are not very bright, stubborn, often mean and irritable, prone to wandering off. We butt heads with each other, and we bully the weak. We are sheep who hurt each other and hurt ourselves. Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; everyone has turned to his own way.” We don’t naturally like to stay close to the flock.
Sheep are prone to straying, and so are we. We’ll drink any contaminated water that promises refreshment. We like to munch on any grass in the pasture that looks appetising, no matter how poisonous it might turn out to be. We want to jump on board political band-wagons, embrace erring philosophies, and swallow the narrative our culture gives us hook, line, and sinker. We’ll wander off on our own, thinking we can go it alone. Just me and God, thank you. Who needs all the difficulties of congregation and community when you can go it alone? I know better after all. But, a lone sheep is an easy meal for the wolves. As independent as we like to think we are, we follow the leader, and if that leader isn’t the good shepherd, we’ll follow the leader to our own death and destruction
Our waywardness comes from the original itch of wanting to be gods in place of God, sticking our hand into the middle of the garden to pluck fruit that brought death instead of life—doing it our way instead of God’s way. You and I have that same stubborn tendency. It manifests itself in our spiritual restlessness, our boredom, our continual flock hopping from one church to another, our itch to hear things that will give us warm fuzzies inside instead of something that will point out our faults and call us to repent. Left on our own, we’d be dead sheep, devoured by the wolves.
Yet, “I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. Jesus tells us what he means. “I know my own, and my own know me” (v. 11). You are Jesus’ own sheep, and he knows you, and likely better than you know yourself. He knows you. Your strengths are known, and your weaknesses are understood. He is aware of your fears. He perceives your sins. He understands you the way an architect understands a house he planned. The way a shepherd knows each one of his sheep and calls them by name. He is the God who created you; that brought you into being inside your mother’s womb. Even now, he sustains your very existence. You are known deeply, down to the depths of your soul.
He is the Good Shepherd, Who Gives His Life for the Sheep
Our texts actually is in the continuation of the dispute between Jesus and the religious authorities in John 9, and it ends by an attempt to stone Jesus (10:31). Jesus draws a contrast between two individuals: the good shepherd and the hired hand. They represent two completely different kinds of leadership. The definition of the good shepherd is that he isn’t in it for profit. The most crucial test of what he is in it for will come when he’s faced with a choice. A predator appears—a lion, a wolf or a bear. You can tell the difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand by what they do. The hired hand will cut his losses because he’s in it for himself. The good shepherd shows who he is by being prepared to die for the sheep.
The violent death of Calvary was not a terrible accident. Jesus says it is his vocation. Why? In this parable, we find that the best answer is this very down-to-earth picture of the shepherd and the sheep. The sheep face danger; the shepherd will go to meet it, and, if necessary, he will take upon himself the fate that would otherwise befall the sheep. In Jesus’ case, it was necessary, and he did.
The good shepherd is the suffering, dying, and rising shepherd. He lays down his life for the sheep. That’s what makes this image so wonderful. Not the hard-working shepherd tending his flock, but the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. When the night came, and the sheep were in their pen, the shepherd would lay down in the doorway, opening the pen. There he would sleep. If anyone wanted to get to the sheep, he would have to get through the shepherd first.
The cross of Jesus is the doorway. He lays down His life for His sheep, for the world. He’s not some hired hand, some flunky who runs off at the first sound of danger. He’s the good shepherd. He’s fully invested in the sheep. God has authorised Jesus to lay down his life and then take it up again and take us along for the ride. Jesus came to give us life through the giving up his own life. He did this not as a victim but as a willing, voluntary sacrifice. “No one takes it from me,” he said, “but I lay it down of my own accord.” This, he said is a command “I have received from my Father” (verse 18).
Where the Shepherd goes, there also go His sheep. Sheep and shepherd always are together. To follow Jesus is not to take a privileged detour around the hardships of life but to go through them together with Jesus. Jesus isn’t the way around suffering and death but the only way through suffering and death that leads to resurrection and life. Our first reading concurred: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no there name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). If you don’t believe that Jesus is the only chance you have for salvation then you have no right calling yourself a Christian. He is the only good shepherd. He said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
You are a sheep, not the good Shepherd. But we don’t know what we’re doing anyway, and the best thing for us is that our life is in the hands of our good Shepherd who laid down His life to save us.
Perhaps it isn’t flattering to think of yourself as a sheep. But the great good news of this Good Shepherd Sunday is that sheep have a shepherd, and you have a good shepherd, who laid down His life so that you might have life in Him and dwell in His house, His flock, His green pastures, forever. The Lord Jesus is your shepherd, you shall not want.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.