The text of today’s sermon is taken from John 10:11-18 & Psalm 23.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The picture of a shepherd tending his sheep is an image used in the Bible to describe relationships. The image has its roots deep in the Old Testament. But while sheep herding was a common job for the Bedouin people of ancient Israel, and the people were aware of all the intricate meaning in the relationship of shepherd to sheep, we live in a time and place where I dare say that none of us have seen this type of shepherding. If we have seen anything about sheep tending, it has been by watching a National Geographic special or the movie Babe.
In Jesus’ day, shepherding was a long, hard, thankless job. It required 24 hour days, most of which were done on foot – leading sheep to good feeding grounds and water. Little time was spent with people apart from the animals. So shepherds were not the neatly dressed, noble-looking rustics who kneel in homage to Jesus in our nativity scenes. Shepherds were generally scruffy, rough and tumble characters who shared a place with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “undesirables” who didn’t observe the law of Moses.
Yet, it is the image of the shepherd tending his sheep which is used to describe our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us. In all of the Old Testament, and perhaps, in the entire Bible, there is no more beautiful a passage about our relationship with God than the 23rd Psalm. So it’s not surprising that one day a pastor planned to speak to the children at their story time on the subject of the Twenty-third Psalm. He told the children about sheep, that they weren’t smart and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd’s job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed.
He pointed to the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance. Then the pastor put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, “If you are the sheep then who the shepherd is?” He was obviously indicating himself, but after few seconds of silence, a young visitor said, “Jesus, Jesus is the shepherd.”
The young pastor, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, “Well, then, who am I?” The little boy frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, “I guess you must be a sheep dog.”
While this answer may make us smile and give a chuckle or two – it’s not far off. A well-trained sheep dog works in partnership with the shepherd and obeys commands to perform its job. Properly trained, the dog is able to move the sheep just about anywhere. Good herding dogs control sheep with calm authority and without excessive “commotion.” So the sheep dog is committed to serving his master.
I guess if we equated our relationship to Jesus to that of a shepherd to its sheep dogs, it might be easier for us to understand Jesus sending his disciples out into the world to love others as he has loved them. Those serving their neighbors in the name of Christ, those joining in the work of salvation, and those going the extra mile in love for the strangers and the needy, are like the sheep dogs to the shepherd. They are servants of Christ, the Good Shepherd. This relationship doesn’t eliminate dependency upon Jesus, for the sheep dog relies upon its master for food, shelter, protection and guidance – and in return, the sheep dog uses its intelligence, its work ethic, its desire to please in the way that serves the Master’s will and so it becomes a representative of the Master at work. This is what is ministry, our ministry as God’s people, is all about.
So “going to the dogs” isn’t all that bad, any more than being a sheep in the Master’s fold a slap in the face. Jesus claims: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In these words Jesus confirms aloud what he will do so that his flock, which includes you and I, may live for him now and with him forever. Jesus will not run in the face of danger like hired hand. Jesus will protect and provide. He will become the meal for the hungry wolves so that the sheep will be saved. The sheep will benefit even though they have done nothing to deserve it. The sheep will benefit even though they may not be aware of the danger. All the sheep need do is listen to the voice known to them and follow the voice which knows them.
There are times in all our lives when are like sheep. Surrounded by danger, we become stymied, frozen by fear, not knowing where to turn or who to turn to. One of my seminary classmates told a story about a camping trip he was on when he was nine years old. Late, on the first night, he had to walk alone from the lodge to his tent. “There was no moon,” he said. “By the time I had walked down the path a few yard into the woods, the light from the lodge window was not visible. It was pitch black, and I was scared to death. I started to sing very softly, ‘Jesus loves me this I know.’ I can laugh now,” he said, “but I remember very well how desperately I was clinging to the hope that maybe this Jesus I had been taught to sing about would save me from the darkness and its perils. I was a ‘shepherdless’ sheep; the wolves of the night were surely about to snatch me away.” That was his first memory of deep-down, paralyzing fear. And while he admits that he is no longer afraid of the darkness, he does fear what it might be hiding!
Each of us faces our own fears and perils, both concrete, physical fears, and threats and dangers which lurk in the shadows of our minds and past experiences. We all need to feel the comfort of a good shepherd who stays close beside us, guides us, protects us, provides for us, and helps us through the perils of darkness. Jesus is that Good Shepherd.
We, as both sheep and sheep dog, are safe in God’s care. We are not left to our own devices to make it through life on our own. The Good Shepherd is there with us, whether we are being served or serving in his name. So then whether we are coming or going, or gathering or staying, sending or being sent, the peace of God goes with us. And may that the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.