Sunday, April 25, 2010

the good shepherd

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one.

A few years ago I went to the island of Iona, the birthplace of Celtic Christianity. Iona’s beauty and history make it a “thin” place – a place where heaven invades earth in a way that’s too tangible to deny. And if you’ve never been, Iona is chock-full of biblical metaphors – it’s full of raging winds and narrow paths and foaming seas and solid rocks and flowing hills and drooping valleys, and of course sheep. Iona has tons of sheep. And I remember seeing one lamb in particular that wandered outside her pen, but upon realizing that she was outside the pen she started to panic – bleeping or bahhing or whatever it is that scared sheep do. Well, the gate was just ten feet away, but she wasn’t smart enough to walk back through it. And so she tried running through the barbed wire fence. Well, that didn’t work. Either time. And so she turned to plan B – running in circles – and of course she was baffled when that didn’t work. Meanwhile the sheep inside the pen started to freak out because apparently a sheep’s fear is contagious. What followed was the most painful sound you can imagine – 50 sheep frantically bleeping and bahhing all at once. It was loud and off rhythm and obnoxious. It kind of sounded like a Nickleback song. Anyway, I had an epiphany – those sheep needed a shepherd. Sheep need a shepherd, because, well for sheep having a shepherd is a matter of life and death. When left alone they get lost and they panic and they wander outside the pen and spin around in circles simply because they don’t know what else to do. Sheep need a shepherd.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. My sheep will never parish.” To describe to us what it means to be his disciple Jesus tells us that He is the shepherd and that we are his sheep.

Now I did some research on sheep. Sheep are skittish and aloof. They lack initiative and they smell. It’s not uncommon for a sheep to wander off a cliff or to get tangled up in brush. They also have what’s called a strong “lead-follow” tendency. One sheep moves and the others follow suit – even it’s right off a cliff. Their IQ is just below that of a pig – an animal whose joy derives from wallowing in the mud. My point is this – the relationship of shepherd and sheep is not a sentimental one – it’s an essential one. For the sheep, it’s a matter of life and death. Sheep don’t have what it takes to make it on their own. Sheep need a shepherd.

And so here’s the question we’re going to wrestle with tonight. What does it mean to say that we are Jesus’ sheep? Or to flip it around, what does it mean to say that Jesus is our shepherd? Well, there are three things that all shepherds do. A shepherd speaks. A shepherd leads. A shepherd protects. A shepherd speaks to his sheep. A shepherd leads his sheep. A shepherd protects his sheep.

First, a shepherd speaks to his sheep. I read somewhere that sheep can remember human faces for years. I imagine they can distinguish between voices, too. At least, Jesus assumes they can. “My sheep,” He says, “hear my voice.” In other words, “I’ve trained my sheep to be able to tell when I’m the One speaking, when the words they’re hearing are coming from Me and not from some imposter.” To say that Jesus is our shepherd is to assume that Jesus speaks to us and that we can actually learn to hear Jesus’ voice and to trust Jesus’ voice. And this is a skill we must learn. We’re not born with it. A couple years ago I got a call from a telemarketer who wouldn’t stop rambling and so I had to interrupt. “Listen sir, you seem like a nice guy. But I’m just not interested.” The telemarketer then informed me she was a woman. My point is that we learn to distinguish between voices. A day comes when an infant learns he can trust the voice of his mother but before that day she’s just another woman. Hearing Jesus’ voice is a learned skill – a skill we acquire by soaking ourselves in scripture, sitting before God in silence, and by spending time with people who have learned to hear Jesus’ voice. But to say that Jesus is our shepherd is to say that He speaks to us. Our shepherd speaks to his sheep.

Second, a shepherd leads his sheep. As tonight’s psalm puts, “He leads me beside still waters. He guides me along right paths for his Name’s sake.” Or as Jesus puts it, “my sheep follow me.” In other words, I lead them and not the other way around. Now, if you think about it, that’s a scary idea and it may even go against what we’ve grown up believing. We tend to think that faith is about making our own plans, about charting our own course, and then getting Jesus to help us out. “I want to go to this grad school. Lord, help me get in. I want to marry this person. Lord, open their eyes to see how freaking stupid they are for not feeling the same way.” Now, these are fine prayers – but they’re lousy, faith-crushing attitudes to have imbedded in our heart. All frustration with God comes from the illusion that we’re the ones leading, that we’re the ones in control. But as the author of Proverbs noted long ago, “the human mind may plan the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” And sometimes God directs us away from the very thing we’ve set our heart on, especially when what we want is not what we need. That is why we need a shepherd – to lead us away from the idols we’re pursuing and towards the greener pastures of the Kingdom of God. Our shepherd leads his sheep.

Third, a shepherd protects his sheep. As tonight’s psalm suggests, sheep live their lives in the valley of the shadow of death but they’re led safely through. Or as Jesus says tonight, “No one can ever snatch my sheep out of my hand.” Jesus wants us to feel secure. He wants us to know that every hair on our head is accounted for and that nothing can happen to us apart from the will of God. In his letter to the Romans Paul writes “for we know that all things work for the good of those who love God, … for I am convinced that neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that’s in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, I am convinced – Paul says – that my life is held firmly in Jesus’ hands and that nothing and no one will ever snatch me out of them. Because Jesus won’t let them - Jesus is my shepherd. Our shepherd protects his sheep.

There are three things that all shepherds do. Shepherds speak. Shepherds lead. Shepherds protect. That being said, the good news of the Christian Gospel isn’t that Jesus is just some shepherd – one of many you might think about following. It’s that He’s the good shepherd; that he’s the only shepherd worth trusting because He knows His sheep better than they know themselves. And so what we celebrate tonight is not that Jesus is just a shepherd – it’s that He’s the Good Shepherd, that He’s done something for us that no other shepherd would ever think about doing for his sheep even if they could – die for them.

What’s so amazing about our faith is that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is also the Lamb – the Lamb who left His Father’s pen to seek and save a wayward flock, the Lamb who gave Himself to the wolves so that sheep like us could walk back through the gate we wandered out of in the first place. To quote the Gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd and I lay down my life for the sheep.” In other words, all shepherds speak and lead and protect their sheep. But only Jesus loves his sheep. Only Jesus saves his sheep. Only Jesus died for his sheep.

I love the way tonight’s reading from Revelation ends. “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life.” In other words, the sheep-shepherd relationship we have with Jesus isn’t a temporary relationship – it’s an eternal one. Jesus will always speak to us. Jesus will always lead us. Jesus will always protect us. Jesus will always love us. He’s the Good Shepherd. He laid down his life for the sheep. “Surely his goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

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