Jesus the Good Shepherd, and his flock
Posted On April 26, 2021
(I preached this sermon on Sunday in response to the readings – Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, and John 10:11-18. You can find the full sermon and service on our website – www.ststephenlc.org.)
If you saw a person carrying a hose and running towards a fire, while wearing protective gear, it’s pretty safe to assume that they are a firefighter. All you have to do is observe them. You could probably also guess that they more than likely arrived in some kind of a red vehicle, were looking for people or animals in a building, and would do everything they could to pull someone out of danger. Their actions would be congruent with what they pledged to do – fight fires and help people.
If you saw a person wearing a stethoscope and going into a hospital, it’s pretty safe to assume that they are some kind of medical professional. All you have to do is observe them. You could probably also guess that they would be working with people who are not well, would provide care of patients, and offer recommendations and take actions that would improve health. Their actions would be congruent with what they pledged to do also – save lives.
Our readings today work in the same way.
Psalm 23, one of the most beloved psalms, is all about shepherding. It describes how God cares for God’s flock like a shepherd. It offers beautiful imagery. It calls to mind the image of a rod and staff – items that a shepherd uses to protect and help steer the sheep. You can almost see the shepherd directing the sheep to the still waters where they are resting. The sheep don’t fear or worry, because they know the shepherd is there, protecting them and guiding them.
This is what we expect shepherds to do. It’s what we know good shepherds do. Shepherds, by definition herd, guard, and tend sheep. If they aren’t doing that, then are they really shepherds?
In the Gospel we encounter Jesus, the Good Shepherd, telling us about what it means to be a good shepherd. He describes exactly what he does as a shepherd – lays down his life for his sheep. It’s what we expect Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Good Shepherd, would do – complete observable self-emptying and self-giving love.
But this isn’t just about shepherding in the traditional sense. No, it’s much more. Jesus isn’t just another shepherd out with his flock wandering. Not even close.
This ties to Jesus as the shepherd king. According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, “The ideal of the good “Shepherd king” is a very ancient Near Eastern concept, dating back to even before biblical times. As Jack Vancil writes, ‘throughout Mesopotamian history, the shepherd image was commonly used to designated gods and kings; and…the king as shepherd and as a representative of the gods was expected to rule with justice and to show kindness in counseling, protecting, and guiding the people through every difficulty.’”
In other words, a king would be called a shepherd king based on what God expected and what the people observed in how the king carried out their ruling over God’s people.
The Old Testament picks up this idea of the shepherd king, something Jesus would have been very familiar with as a rabbi. The entirety of Ezekiel 34 is all about shepherd kings. The first half is about what the prophet calls the false shepherds of Israel – the self-serving kings of Israel. Beginning at verse 1 it states, “The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, and say to them – to the shepherd: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”
And by verse 10, God brings judgement on the kings of Israel who have been self-serving at the expense of the people, with the Lord saying, “No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.”
Throughout Israel’s history, we hear about the king as a shepherd. God uses this language – partly as the ideal God has for a king of Israel, and partly in response to what God observes in the king, or what God sees the king not doing. In 2 Samuel 5:2 we hear the people turning to David, instead of Saul saying, “It is you who led out Israel and brought it back in.” and then saying the same thing to David that is quoted in 1 Chronicles 11:2, “The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”
We hear similar themes around the idea of the king of Israel being a shepherd over the people in 1 Chronicles 17, and judgement against kings of Israel for their self-serving behaviors in 1 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 18, among other passages of Scripture.
Wilma Bailey, Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic Scripture at Christian Theological Seminary said this about the idea of seeing kings as shepherds: “Shepherds very often cared for sheep that were not their own. So the kings of Israel were to care for people who were not their own; they belonged to God.”
Listen again to what Jesus says in our Gospel and see if you hear the connection: Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”
Jesus is referencing 1 Chronicles 11 in laying claim to being the good shepherd. And he’s referencing 1 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 18 in laying judgement against the current king of Israel – Herod, who was self-serving. Up to this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has been observed doing things that the people see as shepherding the people. Things that people would expect from their shepherd – He cleansed the temple, which was about ending the self-serving exploitation of the poor by the religious authorities, he breaks boundaries by going into Samaria and people come to believe in him, he heals people, even on the Sabbath, he feeds the five thousand plus, and even walks on water to be with his disciples, among so much else. He can say he is the good shepherd because it’s observable.
So what does this mean for us? All week long I’ve been drawn to our second reading – 1 John 3:16-24. The very beginning of this reading just speaks to my heart. “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
In other words, if we are followers of Jesus – the Good Shepherd – then it should be pretty obvious. It should be observable to others. It should be authentic, not putting on a show, but rather no different than why a fireman runs into a burning building or a nurse goes to care for patients while putting their own health and safety at risk – because that’s what you expect from a firefighter or a nurse. It’s what we should expect a follower of Jesus to do.
I saw a meme this week that sums it up nicely – it read, “I’m not a Christian because I want the reward of heaven. I’m not a Christian because I’m running from hell. I’m a Christian because the character of Jesus Christ is so compelling to me that I want to spend my life chasing it, embodying it, and sharing it.”
But honestly, I didn’t need a meme to convince me. I observe it all the time in this congregation. And so do others across this synod and in our communities, and in parts of the world too. I can’t tell you how blessed I am to serve as pastor here with you all. We don’t just talk about being followers of Jesus, his disciples – I watch you live it out every day. It’s observable. I see the Spirit at work here in this congregation in incredible ways – regardless of whether that means literally here, or wherever you happen to be.
This is a generous congregation in terms of money, time, talent, energy, empathy, and creativity. We have spent literally thousands upon thousands of dollars, invested untold amounts of hours, and given vast amounts of our energy to be with people in need, to accompany people, and to do whatever we can to help – both members of this congregation, and people in the community.
I’m grateful to Sally John for writing our regular report for a Synod Hunger Grant we received. In it she identified the numerous ways we have faithfully walked alongside people when she wrote, “Originally, we set out to provide showers, laundry services, and meals at the truck stop. Now we help people acquire emergency and permanent housing, pay utility bills and connect with low-income utility service, gain medical access, pay rent, obtain diapers, apply for jobs, pay for car repairs, acquire governmental public assistance, utilize free financial planning services, etc. Our name has become well-known within the school district, and the guidance counselors have identified families who have needs that we might be able to provide support to.”
The faith that Jesus gives us is observable to those around us. I see it lived out through the El Salvador ministry. For many years, that ministry has been making a tangible impact on the lives of people there. But don’t take my word for it, or anyone who is involved with that ministry – here’s part of a message that Pastor Christian Chavarria wrote, “I really appreciate your support to our kids. You are giving them a better future, but also to our country’s development. Our country will save your footprints in its history. Thank you and God bless you always.”
The faith that Jesus gives us is observable because it is a lived faith – a faith not just of word or speech, but in truth and action. We live it out in how Jesus calls us to support the larger church through our mission support – money that goes to support the ministries of our synod and the church wide expression of the ELCA – partners that allow us to work together to make a greater impact here and around the world.
And our synod recognizes all this too. It’s why we were asked to host the R3 process when we were doing that in person before the pandemic. It’s why our synod will be highlighting our congregation in the upcoming synod assembly. Our Synod is going to share the story of some of the ministries associated with this congregation like Emmaus Village, the tiny house ministry that is turning into a non-profit and we are exploring ways to partner with further. It’s focused on those experiencing homelessness right here. People we have gotten to know and have become a part of our congregation and our lives.
Arkaios: New Beginnings, a ministry that seeks to help people get out of living in a motel and into better, more permanent housing. The truck stop ministry in which we build relationship and community with those experiencing homelessness.
And our active social ministry which literally impacts people’s lives in incredible and meaningful ways. One person social ministry walked along side had this to say – “An awesome lady named Lynne stared advocating to get me out of my car. I tell you “with God all things are possible” because, in a week, they had located enough money for me to have a place to stay so that I could go back to work, rebuild my credit, and focus on the future with being the whole godly woman God created me to be.” You can read more about this in the latest edition of Anastasis, our quarterly magazine – another incredible ministry that assists us in sharing the Good News to so many people.
And all of that doesn’t even cover everything. I could have just as easily talked about the food drives we have done for Project SHARE and New Hope Ministry, the Giving Tree we do around Christmas for families who need help giving gifts for their children, our support of the farm stand at Project SHARE, and so much more.
1 John 3:17 asks a great question – “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
Good question. I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is what I observe. And what I see is a faithful and faith filled congregation not just loving in word or speech, but in truth and action. But it’s not because we have it all figured out, or because we are perfect, or know more than others. We still have plenty of room to grow in a variety of areas. Thankfully Jesus isn’t expecting us to be perfect. Rather, it’s because of what Jesus has done and is doing here with us and for us.
Jesus is our shepherd – both in the sense of herding, protecting, and guiding us, as well as shepherding us like a ruler who is self-giving. Jesus gives us everything we have and everything we need and sends us out in mission. And we don’t go alone. Jesus is with us as we go, like any good shepherd would be expected to do. As we recently announced, that mission is that we respond to Christ’s love by feeding those who hunger in body, mind, and spirit. That’s what we do, because that’s what it means for us to follow Jesus. It’s observable and it’s obvious. Thanks be to God.