For the Sheep

“For the Sheep”

John 10:11-18 (10:11) – April 22, 2018

Jesus Good Shepherd_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v

The Bible often talks about sheep. Sheep in a sheep fold. All we like sheep. The sheep and the shepherd. The nation Israel is like sheep. The followers of our Lord Jesus are like sheep. We can follow the repeated illustrations of sheep and a shepherd in many places in the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Just like in today’s scripture readings.

The words of Jesus can be a bit puzzling to both children and adults. We as adults can figure out what Jesus is saying here in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. We have more developed brains and we can figure out what Jesus means by the metaphor “I am the Good Shepherd.“ Jesus is like a Good Shepherd, and we are like sheep.

But, what makes a shepherd “good?”

Jesus gives us further information in His description about what a Good Shepherd is not. A good shepherd is not a hired hand, since a hired hand doesn’t own the sheep. And so, he does not truly care about the sheep. If the hired hand is watching the sheep, a wolf might come and attack and scatter the flock. A hired hand will probably run away and leave the flock unprotected. So, the hired hand is most definitely not a Good Shepherd.

I go back to my initial question: what makes a shepherd “good?” For a more complete answer to that question, we need to take a close look at Psalm 23, our psalm reading for today. Remember, we are still trying to figure out what makes a shepherd “good.”

Our description from King David lets us know more about what makes a shepherd “good.” As sheep, we might be unsure about where we will find grass to eat, especially in a semi-arid region like most of the country of Israel. Yet, our Good Shepherd knows where there are places with grass to eat; we as sheep will feel safe enough to lie down in green pastures.

What else makes a shepherd “good?” When flocks of sheep are wandering around the fields and foothills of many dry places in Israel, sometimes it is difficult finding places to get water. A quickly rushing stream is not a place where sheep like to drink, since they can get hurt or swept away by the swiftly moving water. Yet, the Good Shepherd can lead His sheep to pools of still water, where they can safely drink.

Even today, we can ask similar questions. What makes a Shepherd “Good?” Dangers and problems can crop up today, at any time, among Jesus’s sheep, too. Will I have enough to eat or drink? What about a quiet place to live? Will the place where I live be safe? Or, will there be wolves and other nasty creatures wandering in my general area?

One of the earliest known depictions of Jesus in early church art is found in the Roman catacombs, under the ancient city. One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, tells us that “The catacombs are narrow, twisting underground tunnels.  The walls are filled floor to ceiling with graves that have been dug out of them.  They are dark and spooky.” [1]

Carolyn Brown suggests that we imagine we are walking quietly through the catacombs with a small oil lamp to find Christian friends who are gathering to worship by a designated grave. Can you hear the clank or crunch of Roman soldiers’ armor or boots? Christianity was an illegal religion. Christians were often hiding or on the run from the authorities. Since this was the case, it is easy to imagine why someone painted on the catacomb ceiling a picture of Jesus as a strong young shepherd who would take care of them.

What does a Good Shepherd look like, to you?

Jesus expands on this illustration of the Good Shepherd. The people of His time lived mostly in villages or small towns. Even if they worked doing other things, I suspect almost all of them were familiar with sheep, lambs and shepherds. I bet they had some ideas about what made a “good shepherd,” and what a “bad shepherd” looked like, too.

Even though today we might not be very familiar with the job of a shepherd, we still know how safe we feel when someone truly cares for us and looks out for our best interests. We still understand when someone protective stands guard and watches out for enemies so we can feel secure. We still appreciate when someone loving goes out of his or her way to search for a lost sheep when we wander away or get hurt or are in distress.

Jesus wanted to get across the idea of how much He cared for His sheep—that’s all of us. Jesus not only compares us to sheep (a biblical illustration repeated several times in the Hebrew Scriptures), but He tells us just what a hired hand does with the sheep. Or rather, Jesus tells us that the hired hand just runs away. The sheep would then be deserted and alone, liable to be attacked and perhaps eaten by wild animals.

Except, our Lord Jesus will not run away. Instead, He will care for the sheep, feed and water them, and lead them in good places. Jesus will not allow them to stray, but instead will lovingly protect and guard the flock.

As commentator Lucy Lind Hogan says, “To be [Jesus’s] followers was to enter into his sheepfold. He came to be the one who cared for and fed them.  It was a dangerous job; protecting the sheep from wolves and bandits. As the good shepherd Jesus had not only to be willing to, he did, lay down his life for the sheep that God had given him.” [2]

What does our Good Shepherd look like? How do we know when we have found Him?

And, is it possible that Jesus loves us so much that He gave His life for us? That He laid down His life for the sheep God had given Him? Jesus goes further in this reading from John 10, even further than King David in Psalm 23. Jesus not only cares for the sheep, and loves them, but He even dies for them. Gives up His life for the sheep.

Similarly, we lay down our lives every time we set aside what we want to take care of the needs of others.  We all need to hear Jesus’ insistence that if He lays down his life He can take it up again.  Giving up what you want once does not mean you will never get it or that you will always be called on to give up what you want.  Adults have learned that, but it takes a while for children to learn it, too. [3]

I said earlier that some people, young children especially, have a problem understanding metaphors. When Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd,” that can be one of those hard sayings.

When Dr. Maria Montessori was working in a children’s hospital “she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure [of the Good Shepherd] and held onto it “for keeps.”  So the Good Shepherd made sense to them in some way.” [4] Jesus our Good Shepherd is able to come alongside of all of us, too. We are able to take hold of His hand, “for keeps.”

We know today Jesus loves us so much He gave His life for us. How much did Jesus love us? He loves us this much. [spreads arms wide]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1239

Commentary, John 10:11-18, Lucy Lind Hogan, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

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