“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”
A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW came out of nowhere toward him. The driver, a young man in an Armani suit, Gucci shoes, and Ray Ban sunglasses leaned out the window and asked the shepherd, “If I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have, will you give me one?” The shepherd looks at the man, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock of sheep and calmly answers, “Sure.”
The young man parks his car, whips out his laptop computer and connects it to the Internet, he then surfs to a NASA website where he connects to a GPS satellite navigation system, scans the area, and opens up a database with an Excel spreadsheet containing complex formulas. He sends an e-mail on his I Phone, and after a few minutes, receives a response.
Finally, he prints out a report on his hi-tech, miniaturized printer, then turns to the shepherd and says, “You have exactly 1,586 sheep.”
“That is correct, take one of the sheep,” says the shepherd. He watches as the young man selects one of his animals and puts it into his car.
Then the shepherd says: “If I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me my sheep back?” “Okay, why not,” answers the young man.
“Clearly, you are a consultant,” says the shepherd. “That’s correct,” says the young man, “but how did you guess that?” “No guessing required,” answers the shepherd.
“You turned up here although nobody called you; you want to be paid for the answer to a question I already knew; and you don’t know anything about my business. Now give me back my dog!”
Our gospel lesson today is from the 10th chapter of John. Here Jesus uses the Good Shepherd metaphor, a metaphor that his audience will understand: He’s the good shepherd, and his followers are the sheep. So to realize what Jesus wants us to understand, we must unpack and translate what this sheep metaphor means.
In his day, sheep were the staple livestock of the culture and were as common around town as dogs are around the family home today. Shepherds clearly understood the communication style of the sheep. Consider these facts about sheep that every shepherd knows:
Sheep are gregarious. In other words, sheep will always band together and pretty much stay together when grazing or moving around. It’s not because they particularly like each other, although they are social animals, but it’s because they find security in numbers. “Get one sheep to go and they’ll all go” that’s the principle all shepherds know and follow.
In the sheep herd, separation from the flock causes extreme stress. Sheep communicate that stress through high-pitched bleating. We humans communicate our stress through cries of loneliness, affliction, and anxiety.
Jesus’ miracles and works of healing were evidence that he was bringing all the lost, lonely, and hurting sheep, both Jews and Gentiles, under his love and care.
Yet, in a culture like ours, where rugged individualism is such a high value, the idea of being a part of “the flock” or being “herded” isn’t appealing. We’d prefer to see ourselves as individuals of worth and not necessarily valued because of our connection to the community. Yet it is closer to the truth to understand that, like sheep, we are social animals who need each other; we need to belong, and we instinctively flock together.
Contrary to popular opinion any true shepherd knows that sheep are intelligent. Yet in some respects, sheep show at times that they are not too bright. They eat too much, right down to the root. They’ll drink contaminated water. When they fall, they often can’t get up without some shepherd’s assistance. And the herding thing, they tend to follow aimlessly and blindly and with no apparent destination in mind.
But sheep do hear very well, which makes it possible for them to discern the voice of their shepherd from among many others, and they will always move toward the person they perceive to be a friend, particularly if that friend is the one who feeds them.
Sheep are not as dumb as we sometimes think, unless, unless they are scared. It may be that sheep’s reputation for not being that bright comes from the fact that they are afraid of just about everything.
It is known that any animal, including humans, once they are scared; they don’t tend to show signs of intelligent behavior. Fear causes a flock to split up, and when sheep are separated from one another, they are most vulnerable to predators.
We have all had times in which panic sets in. It’s that shaky feeling of having no idea where we are or which way is up. We just want everything to make sense, we want the wildly spinning room to just stop, and we long for the sun to rise again.
Jesus’ call for others to follow him was a literal way of leading people out of danger. Jesus understood that it was his voice — God’s voice, God’s authority — to which his “sheep” would come running, no matter how far they had strayed.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (10:27).
Thus it is the Shepherd who understands the language of the flock. It is the sheep who know the voice of the Shepherd. The people who responded to Christ’s message and who witnessed his miracles of healing, love, and grace they knew that it was only through Jesus that they would be spiritually fed and find peace in their lives, both in the present age and in the one to come. It was his voice that promised:
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:28).
Sheep need a shepherd, we too need a shepherd. We not only need a shepherd, we need a good shepherd. Good shepherds take their job seriously. Good shepherds take care of the sheep. They protect and defend the sheep. They lead the sheep to still waters and to green pastures; they lay down their lives for the sheep; and they look for lost sheep.
Who does this Good Shepherd Jesus claim to be? He claims to be:
Someone who works in the “Father’s name;”
Someone whose “sheep” hear his voice;
Someone who knows the sheep;
Someone whose “sheep” follow him;
Someone who gives to his followers eternal life;
Someone who defends his “sheep,” because “no one will snatch them out of my hand;” and
Someone who is one with the “Father.”
The Good Shepherd maintains intimacy and closeness in order to meet the needs of his sheep. He is at least within voice-distance. Jesus is a hands-on, high-touch “Good Shepherd.”
For all sheep, both then and now, a natural question emerges from this text: “How do we hear the Good Shepherd’s voice?”
Will we hear it like Moses who heard the voice of God at Sinai? Or is it like Elijah who heard the sound of sheer silence as God spoke? Or is it like pastor and author Rob Bell who described his call to preaching by saying:
“I heard a voice — not an audible, loud, human kind of voice — but inner words spoken somewhere in my soul that were very clear and very concise. What I heard was ‘Teach this book, and I will take care of everything else.’”
Don’t we all long for a voice like those three experienced?
Notice, though, that Jesus describes voice-hearing in two different ways: “I know them, and they follow me” (v. 27).
When Jesus knows his sheep, he does so eternally (v. 28), and they are offered the Good Shepherd’s protection and security. But this security is not earthly; as sheep we will lose our earthly life, we may lose our financial comfort, and we may lose our social acceptance because of our faith.
Yet those who have heard, and are hearing the saving call of God, and those who have responded, and are responding, can never lose their souls and their relationship with the Good Shepherd. Hearing his voice includes being known by the Shepherd.
The people who responded to Jesus’ message, those who witnessed his miracles of healing, his love and his grace, they knew that it was only through him that they would be spiritually fed and their lives would be at peace, both in the present age and in the one to come. After all, it was his voice that promised:
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (v. 28)
Yet, sometimes the problem is NOT that we, the sheep of his pasture, do NOT recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. Rather, we recognize it and we refuse to listen. Or we choose to listen selectively.
We have no problem listening when the voice of the Good Shepherd is offering comfort and reassurance; that, we can listen to.
But when the Good Shepherd calls us to follow him, sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, or to follow him through self-denial, or obedience, or self-sacrifice, or unconditional love — those are often the times that we don’t hear so well.
We get scared, and when we are scared, like sheep, we can do stupid things. We can take a wrong turn, we can make ill-advised decisions, and we can engage in self-destructive behavior. And sometimes, we will even forsake the Good Shepherd and be lured and be seduced by the evil forces that are all around us.
In the uncertain world that we live in; a world that is distrustful, fearful, and unbelieving, our task as Christ’s Church is to constantly and compassionately translate and transmit the voice of the Good Shepherd to all those who are feeling unloved, lost, hurt, alone, and afraid.
Our task is to follow Jesus’ example and to welcome everyone into the fold of the Good Shepherd. Our task is to understand this and put this understanding into action in our daily lives.
We have just experienced this past week how important our “flock” here at Kenilworth Union Church is to us all. We have shared pain, sorrow and grief; we have worshiped together, we held one another; we have shed tears together; we have realized once again that the only way we can make it through difficult and tragic times of loss is by coming together to provide each other our love, support, and comfort.
As we feel and experience that love, we are feeling and experiencing God’s love for us all; and my dear friends, isn’t that the church’s reason for being – to share and express God’s love, which is the real expression of what it means to be connected to and protected by, the Good Shepherd.
In this season of Eastertide, we dare to proclaim that in the midst of disaster, flooding, violence, terrorism, and tragic accidental deaths – we dare to proclaim that the Good Fridays of life never get the last word. The last word belongs to our Easter God and to our Risen Christ.
May God continue to bring healing and wholeness wherever and whenever there is unspeakable loss and grief.
Let us be like the little girl who begins the 23rd Psalm by saying:
“The Lord is my shepherd, that’s all I want.