The Good Shepherd
Sermon for Easter 4 (Good Shepherd); 3 May 2009
Bible reading: John 10:11
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Today our Lord Jesus shows us a most precious illustration of how God relates to his people. He comes to us as a shepherd, to gather us together, to defend us from all harm, to put his life on the line for us. Here at Bethlehem, we have this fabulous stained-glass window portraying Jesus the Good Shepherd – it really is a sermon in visual form.
Many of us remember the parable of the lost sheep from childhood – a passage closely related to our gospel. And after lunch today, go and dig up your old Baptism or Confirmation certificates – I bet many of you will find an illustration of Jesus caring for little lambs and children there.
The bible mentions shepherds in a number of places; way back even in Old Testament times. Adam and Eve had two sons initially, and one was a shepherd.
Many years later Moses saw the vision of the burning bush. What was he doing at that time? He was tending his father-in-law’s sheep. Yes, Moses was a shepherd about to embark on a much more challenging task. With staff in hand he would shepherd the people of Israel out of slavery to the safety of the Promised Land.
David was a shepherd before he became King of Israel. He who wrote that most treasured of Psalms, The Lord is my Shepherd, knew the life of the shepherd: protecting the sheep from predators and thieves; leading them to where the best pasture grew and finding water for them to drink in the arid countryside of Israel. Like Moses, he eventually defended God’s people at a time of great political instability in the region.
Later on Israel had other leaders – priests and kings who were supposed to be shepherds over Israel, seeing to people’s spiritual and physical wellbeing. Sadly they neglected the people’s needs. The corrupt ones frequently took advantage of the weak for their own gain. Through the prophets God condemned these false shepherds and promised to step in himself to shepherd the sheep of Israel.
In time Jesus came to do just that: God born as a human being to gather and save the vulnerable people of Israel – an event, incidentally, announced to shepherds on the first Christmas. And his concern was not just restricted to Israel; he came to save the whole world. That’s why he is indeed the Good Shepherd.
If we are to make one conclusion from today’s reading it is surely how much God loves his people.
We often hear that message: God loves you so much. But it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on people’s lives. People are tired and indifferent to this most basic message of the church. And yet we are still convinced that this little sentence is the best message ever. We do whatever we can to share it effectively through a variety of media. It’s like green grass to a hungry flock, or clear water on a hot day.
Why then, has it come to be so impotent in its effect? Why has something so nourishing for the human soul become so insipid to many?
Basically it’s because people know little about the quality of this love. We can tell the world about the enormity of God’s love until we are blue in the face. Until they understand the human predicament, and the quality of God’s love for the world, the message falls on deaf ears.
In John 10, Jesus shows us the unmatched quality of God’s love in such simple terms even little children can grasp it – “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s God’s love in a nutshell.
You see, the Good Shepherd is not in it for money. In fact it cost him everything – even his very life. Neither did he come down from heaven to the dangerous valley of this world under compulsion. He came willingly.
No-one takes [my life] from me, says Jesus. I lay it down on my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again.
He didn’t follow the lure of popularity or prestige. He lost friends for speaking the truth. He even battled Satan and the forces of evil while in the fragile frame of human flesh. Who else could stand such an array of attacks for the sake of love? Jesus shepherds us not because we deserve it, for we all, like sheep, have gone astray. The world is either hostile or apathetic towards God’s extending arms of love.
Our hostility and apathy is the reason why we become lost, lonely, or tangled in the thorns of our sins, which separates us from the love of God.
When we follow our own impulses we consequently find ourselves in shadowy valleys of trouble: off side with our parents; in trouble with the police or the law; ostracized by those we had hoped would be our friends; caught in the brambles of addiction or self-hate; pestered by doubts – frightened at the uncertain and ever darkening future.
In love, Jesus came to gather a scattered humanity back from such a situation, and return people to God.
The King of Love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.
I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.
So do you ever doubt that you are among God’s elect, one of his dear sheep? Read the words of the Good Shepherd again, and hear with assurance that Jesus has gathered you into his flock. Nothing can his power withstand. None can pluck you from his hand.
Or do you think you are here because of a decision you made for Christ? The readings today dispel the proud delusion that thinks being a Christian is all about our devotion to God. It’s not. It’s clearly about his devotion to us.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
And for those of you who imagine God as distant, aloof, static, silent, watching and waiting to see what you will do, the Good Shepherd shows that he is right here in the thick of things with us. He gets his hands dirty and risks his wellbeing coming after us.
Jesus seeks us out. He wanders with tireless determination over hill and plain, through hazardous terrain to find us, to gather and protect us. He stood in the breach when death closed in like a pack of wolves, and he took the punishment for our wayward folly.
That is the meaning of God’s love friends. And David’s Psalm, which was written long ago, makes so much more sense in the light of Jesus’ words:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Here, we not only acknowledge God’s providence for our daily needs, but we also trust him to lead us in right paths of living as he calls us to follow his voice and no other.
The life-giving water of baptism has become a clear and refreshing pool of goodness and mercy to refresh us all the days of our life.
Even the darkest valley of death cannot harm us. Easter has made sure of that!
Our Lord’s words, his vicarious suffering and death, these are his comforting rod and staff.
So safe are we in his presence, we can feast before our enemies – gathering together as onechurch, one flock under one Shepherd as we share in the one bread and one cup together in the Lord’s Supper. Sweet fellowship divine!
But what has taken place in our hearts to open our ears, to bring us to an appreciation of this good news? Did someone say to us, ‘Hey, you’d better hop to it and get in line, the shepherd’s coming’? No. A harsh shepherd would only drive us further from God. A harsh shepherd would be more in line with the false shepherds who have harassed God’s people from ancient times.
Rather it is the tender nature of this shepherd that wins us. He is strong, but he uses his strength for us, not against us. He has trained our ears by the Holy Spirit to hear and recognise and love his voice.
We want nothing more than to be near this one who is full of grace and truth – like those sheep in Bethlehem’s stained-glass window. We live in an age when people are searching for spirituality. There is no higher spirituality than to believe the Gospel. The gospel makes us want to follow the Good Shepherd all the days of our life – to cherish and emulate his great love for us.
And others will see that: Others who are strays; or those who have never known Jesus Christ but are beginning to hear his voice bit by bit. Today people are searching for love and community. It can’t be found in hours spent glued to cell phones or chat rooms; or in front of the mirror after a gym workout; or fantasizing in cyberspace about power or pleasure; or in any other soul-destroying pass time.
But people will notice God’s unique love at work in your lives and be drawn to the Good Shepherd. They will come to hear with willing ears the gospel through the church, providing the church continues to tell it. They will gladly part company with the pervasive brambles of individualism and consumerism in exchange for the safe arms of the Good Shepherd, and the joyful community of his everlasting flock. Amen.
Pastor Simon Cooper