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May 7, 2017

The Qualities of a Good Shepherd & Good Sheep

John 10:1-14


I haven’t met a lot of shepherds in my life, although there apparently is one in Ashland, who hangs out with some sheep by the Jackson Fuel wood pile on the road which leads to I-5. I have seen him a couple of times, guiding his flock, wearing clothing made out of sheep. I was told by someone at the Jackson County Fuel office he has a rather colorful past, and used to have a heard of goats before getting the sheep. I’m not sure what kind of a shepherd he really is, if he has the qualities needed to be a good shepherd or not. I haven’t seen him in action to see how he tends his flock. But I have had one experience where I got to watch a shepherd in action for an extended period of time.



In 1988, just after Paula and I were married, we took a group on a mission trip to Indian Wells, Arizona to work among the Dineh, or the Navajo people. We led a VBS out in the poorest area of the reservation at Indian Wells Presbyterian church. It was here that I had the chance to view a shepherd working for an extended period. There was a young Navajo boy who had a flock near the church, and I remember seeing him walking with his flock a few times. One late afternoon, I noticed a sheep all by itself, near the sanctuary. It was bleating, obviously lost and looking for the flock. We were worried about the sheep, as it wandered off into the desert. I assumed coyotes would pick it off sometime that night. But the next morning the sheep came back, still looking for its flock and shepherd. We went and drove out to several different places along the reservation and piled kids into a pickup truck for VBS, and when we got back, the sheep was still there. Finally, late that afternoon, as it was turning dusk, I saw the young shepherd boy with his flock rather nonchalantly gather in the stray and then head off. Unfortunately, my only experience of seeing a shepherd in action was not the greatest example, to say the least. I don’t think that young Navajo teen had all the needed qualities to be a good shepherd.


Today’s passage has to do in part with describing the qualities that make for a good shepherd, and divides into three sections. In the first part (vv. 1–5), Jesus describes the proper way that a leader enters the sheepfold and addresses the sheep. The sheep ignore the stranger because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice. The bandits and thieves mentioned are directed towards Jesus’ audience, in this case some Pharisees who had confronted him in chapter 9:40-41. These Pharisees had been poor shepherds to the man whom Jesus healed from blindness, and so he characterized them as thieves and robbers who were unable to recognize a healing act of God right in front of them. With proper shepherds, there is a mutual recognition between sheep and shepherd. The shepherd knows the sheep by name (v. 3b), and the sheep recognize the voice of their master (4b). The sheep, however, will not follow a stranger because they do not know the stranger’s voice (v. 5).


After the Pharisees do not understand the meaning of this metaphor (v. 6) he elaborates on the initial analogy with an "I am" statement in the second section (vv. 7–10). In these last verses Jesus emphasizes the point that he is the door or gate through which the sheep will be saved. What does this mean? It was common practice in those days for shepherds to lay across the gate of the sheepfold at night to protect sheep from intruders, or to keep them safe from wild animals. They literally laid down their lives for the sheep. Jesus as messiah is there to protect the sheep, the people of God from the poor shepherds. In one sense, we can think of Jesus in this way as our protector. In a different sense, this image of Jesus as the door or gate hearkens forward to John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” The other religious leaders are characterized as "thieves and bandits" who will destroy those who follow them (v. 10). Jesus, by contrast, seeks to give abundant life. This brings us to our third section, verse 11-14.



Today’s third section of the passage gives us a much better image of a shepherd-this wonderful image of Jesus, our Shepherd. Jesus’ image as the Good Shepherd is one of comfort. I have seen several stained glass images of him portrayed in this way- Jesus, shepherd’s crook in one hand, and a sheep in the other, looking down at the congregation. Whenever I see this image, I am comforted, as echoes of the 23rd psalm speak to me.


This third section gives us three qualities the make for a good shepherd. Jesus as the Good Shepherd is our model for shepherding. First, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who does not abandon the flock, versus the hired hand, (The group of Pharisees) (and verses the young Navajo shepherd) who run away or abandon the sheep. Jesus does not abandon us in time of need, in time of distress or peril. The hired hand is in it just for the paycheck. As he speaks to the Pharisees, Jesus hearkens back to their history- From Old Testament times, Ezekiel 34 talks about the faithless shepherds of Israel, some of the priests who fed themselves instead of the flock, who neglected the weak, the sick, the lost-Due to their lack of leadership, the flock of Israel was scattered.  For centuries, some of the leaders of the temple, the shepherds of the flock were acting as nothing more than hired hands, and at great cost to the people. Fast forward to this scene between Jesus and the leaders of the temple, and the people of God were experiencing their leaders in a similar fashion.


The second quality of the Good Shepherd has to do with relationship- Jesus says, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” There is an intimate relationship available between us and Jesus-one that is similar to how Jesus and God are rooted together. This means that Jesus knows each one of us by name. Jesus knows every intimate detail about us- our faults, our misguided motivations, our failures- and yet he doesn’t show us the exit to the sheep pen, saying “Don’t let the gate hit you on the way out”.  There are no strangers for Jesus in God’s flock. Each one knows and is known by the shepherd.


The third quality for a Good Shepherd is mentioned twice in this passage. Jesus tells us that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep-The sheep are so important, that the shepherd’s life is secondary. The shepherd’s life is given in defense of the helpless sheep as he kills the wolf, lion of bear that attacks them. The correlation for us- Jesus’ life is given upon the cross in defending us from of sin and death, to save the human flock from destruction. By laying down his own life, the wall of sin, separating us from the Creator was shattered. Yet this action is not only an act of incredible saving sacrifice for us. It is also an example.



Let us look more at this action to see what it means for our lives this day. Jesus laid down his life as a free action of his own accord, in obedience to God’s desire. He could’ve walked away, but did not. Jesus was not a reluctant victim of some scheming opposition. He gave his life to God in an act of obedience, to use it for God’s own divine purposes. The result of his obedience is God’s love, according to John 10:17.


Author Micahella Bruzessi says, 1 John 3:16 tells us, “The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters" (1 John 3:16). It is our turn, as the body of Christ, to follow Jesus and be good sheep to the world. Like all that is mystery, it is impossible to objectively define what this means. Surely there are a thousand different ways to "love not in word or speech but in deed and truth" (1 John 3:18).


We have learned some good qualities of shepherding. Hopefully the Good Shepherd’s example rubs off on us sheep so that we may be good sheep, so that we can love not in word or speech but also in deed and truth.


So here we are in the sheep pen. According to verse 3, Jesus calls us by name and leads us out. We aren’t supposed to remain in the pen, to hunker down and be a nice little Christian club. We are called to follow the Good Shepherd out into the pasture, out into the world.


I came across the post of a blogger who raises sheep. She wrote:

"With our new fencing done, and Holden (our Pyrenees dog) there for protection, I started letting the sheep out into the big pasture again about a month ago.  However, it's a bit more involved than just 'letting them out.'  Our big pasture with all that good grass is across the creek that runs through the middle of our farm.  The sheep don't like to go out there too early in the morning or by themselves; after all, coyotes may be out there.  (And we've been hearing them again the past few nights.)  So letting them out means calling and calling the sheep until one of them takes the lead and starts heading out from their small, safe paddock next to the barn.  They all then follow the leader." Sheep need a leader and protection before they venture out.


Presbyterian Outlook editor Rev. Jill Duffield writes, Seems Jesus knew something about sheep. They are fearful, not keen on change, in need of protection and a leader. They must be called repeatedly, assured it is safe to move. Thankfully, that is exactly what Jesus provides. The beauty and abundance of the pasture is available to us and to whoever hears Jesus' voice, but we must be willing to trust the leader and follow if we are ever to experience it. The temptation for us in the church is to make Jesus a wall instead of a gate, a barrier instead of a place that offers access, a stern guard instead of the Good Shepherd. We do that when we act out of fear rather than trusting the One who knows us, calls us by name and leads us out.”



So then, may we be good sheep and listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd through his teachings in scriptures and his guidance in our hearts. There are a lot of lost sheep outside those doors- people looking for meaning, for hope, for mercy and justice. So look for the strays outside the flock. Tell others the Good News of Jesus Christ; spread the Shepherd’s hope and justice and mercy and invite them into the fold of never ending hope. We sheep know the Shepherd’s voice. May we listen and follow out into the world, loving not just in word or speech, but in deed and in truth. Alleluia! Amen.

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