By the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
The passion predictions are past and the betrayals are behind us. Today Jesus is the simply the Good Shepherd, and we are his flock, the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. As we sang:
The King of love of my shepherd is,
whose goodneth faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his,
and he is mine for ever.
Jesus has proven his love for us by giving his life for us, and we show our love for him today by coming to observe the Sabbath, listen to his voice and re-enact his sacrifice. That is what we do in worship and the Eucharist. We produce a Passion play in miniature.
We gather in the presence of the Good Shepherd, who leads us in green pastures and makes us lie down beside still waters, so that we might have life and have it abundantly. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday.
It is not about something that we must do or not do. This morning is about why we are here. For you and me, this Scripture is not an exhortation to do more, but a confirmation of what we are doing and more importantly what has been done for us.
Our lesson today focuses on a favorite designation for Jesus in the Gospel of John. Jesus is a shepherd. He is not only a shepherd; but he is the Good Shepherd. He is not only the Good Shepherd, but he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
The Good Shepherd is a strange image for many of us, who may work in the city and who live in the suburbs. St. Thomas is the only church that I have served that has actually had a few shepherds among its members. My family will tell you that I drive out of my way to pass a stunning nearby sheep farm that belongs to members of our church.
I drive slowly past the sheep barn, roll down my window and make sheep noises. Baaah! Baaah! My children think that I am absolutely crazy, and they are probably right. I’ve told them that 30 years ago I was hitch-hiking in Scotland, and a shepherd gave me a ride and took me to an animal fair where I learned about shepherds and sheep, and I have loved sheep ever since.
Yet, for most of us sheep are uncommon to our daily comings and going. They were not uncommon, however, in Jesus’ day. Many of his followers might have worked as shepherds when they were younger, and they knew that shepherds and sheep were important for the economy.
Foreign as sheep are to our lives, the images of sheep and shepherds has come down in history to us through the Bible and in worship, in hymns and stained glass, and even in the carving of the Paschal Lamb on our altar. There is something deeply moving and comforting about the image of the Good Shepherd.
Yet, the Bible says that not all is easy. Jesus promises that his little flock will be frequently assaulted by thieves and misled by hirelings. He even warned that there would be a few goats scattered among the sheep. We are told that the disciples did not understand what Jesus said. They merely scratched their heads and wondered, “Has he lost his mind? Does he have a demon? Why listen to him?”
To comprehend this passage from John’s Gospel we need to go back to where this story begins in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, when Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Some who witness this event are visibly upset. So Jesus speaks about the healing in the context of caring for God’s people like a shepherd cares for his flock.
“There is,” he tells them, “a good shepherd and a hireling. The good shepherd naturally cares for the sheep, whereas the hired hand runs away when the going gets tough or a thief comes. Then Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You are the hirelings – the persons who because of social prestige or power or economic gain are the shepherds here, but you are just hired hands. You don’t do what you are supposed to do. You really don’t care for the sheep.” You can imagine that they did not like what they heard.
Let’s go back in history for a moment. David was the greatest king that Israel ever produced, yet he began as a lowly shepherd, watching over his flock by night and composed psalms as he watched them. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures….”
That same David, when he was still a shepherd, left his flock to defend Israel when the Philistines threatened the nation. He volunteered to fight that giant Goliath, when no one else dared. Everyone mocked him. He was small. Goliath was huge. King Saul offered to let him wear his armor, but it was too heavy. So, David entered battle armed with only a slingshot and a handful of smooth stones to defend the nation. It is an imaginative and wonderful story, and we know the outcome.
Samuel later came to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the king of Israel. Jesse said, “I have lots of wonderful, handsome sons.” He introduced them to Samuel one at a time. Samuel kept saying, “No. No. No. No, again. Not this one either. Do you have any other sons?” “Yes,” said Jesse. “I have one more, but he is just a shepherd.” “Bring him to me,” said Samuel. And seeing the shepherd David, Samuel said, “This is one, who is meant to be king. He is a shepherd. He will know how to care for his people for he cares for and loves sheep.”
And so this animal – the sheep – is a vital image for the Jewish people, and it has become one of the great symbols of the Christian faith, because it is a sacrificial animal. Jews sacrificed countless sheep on the altar in the Temple. They also recall to this day how their ancestors smeared the blood of lambs across the lintel of their doors in Egypt so that the angel of death might pass over their houses and spare their family from death.
So it is with Christ. His blood was shed for us so that death’s final stroke might pass over us and that we might enter heaven. That’s why we say in our liturgy, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast.” Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. That’s the background of this story.
Jesus says three things that are vital for us and which are at the heart of Christian spirituality. The first thing that he says is, “I know my own.” Every shepherd knew every sheep. They actually named them as we would name a dog. The shepherd knew their mannerisms and the ones that would wander off.
Jesus was like that. He knew everything there was to know about a person. He could see an individual and understand his or her motivations, hopes and fears. John said, “[Jesus] knew what was in man.” He knows what drives us. When Judas was preparing to betray Jesus, not one disciple had a clue, but the Bible says that Jesus knew from the beginning that Judas would betray him. Jesus knew what was in man.
Likewise, when Peter said, “No matter what others do, I will never leave you,” Jesus replied, “Before the cock crows twice, you will betray me three times.” Jesus knew what was in man. In our opening collect, we say, “Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid….,” because God truly knows all that is to be know about each one of us. That can be frightening, if we do not know and trust God.
I remember sitting at our family dinner table as a boy and sometimes thinking, “I’m so glad that my parents have no idea of what trouble I have gotten into today or about all the ice cream that I ate before dinner that has taken away my appetite.” It was a comfort to know that they could not read my mind.
Most of us, however, really want to be known. Ask any physician, teacher or priest. We all want to be known, cared for and trusted. It is one of the deepest longings of our life. And that is what Jesus is saying here, “I know my own and my own know me.” If several shepherds were working together, they could call their sheep from amidst the combined flocks and each sheep would go to its own shepherd. They sheep knew their shepherd’s voice.
You may recall the story of the two persons who were asked to recite the 23rd Psalm. One was a great orator and the other was a simple country parson. The great orator read the 23rd Psalm and the people were impressed. But when the country parson read that same psalm, people were silent. Some were even moved to tears.
Later when someone asked the orator, “Why is it that when you read the psalm people were pleased, but when the parson read the psalm, there was stillness and tears?” The orator replied, “I know the psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.” That is the difference. The parson knew the Lord.
When I was at seminary, I studied the Old Testament with a teacher, who taught us what all the famous German scholars wrote about the Bible. He never spoke about the desires, the fears or the faith of the people in it. I thought to myself, “This is terribly dull. Something is deeply wrong. I am supposed to be getting so much out of this class, but I am not.”
The following year, I studied the New Testament with one of the best professors I have known. He would pause in the middle of a lecture and say with conviction, “One day, when you are preaching in the pulpit about this passage, this is what you must tell your people,” and we would listen intently. The first teacher knew about the Bible, but the second knew the Shepherd, and his words nourished us.
When we say or do something wrong, there is a voice within us that has been educated by the Holy Spirit that tells us what we have done is not right. It is the voice of Jesus speaking within us, and we are wise to heed it. “I know my own, and my own know me.”
The last thing to point out is that Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” That is the ultimate mark of the Good Shepherd. It is Jesus’ ultimate gift to us. Archbishop William Temple said that “The universality of Jesus’ appeal is in his death. Through his death all persons shall be lifted up to him.”
His death tells us two things. First, it tells us about the gift of love. That is what the cross says to us, “I love you. I love you so much that I will give my life on the cross for you. I have gone as far as anyone can go to tell you how much I love you.”
Second, the cross is not only the message to us that God loves us, but it is also the sign of a vicarious sacrifice that has been made for us. We must never forget this. When Jesus was dying on the cross others mocked him and said, ‘Come down from the cross and save yourself.’” That is the one thing that Jesus would not do.
Instead he suffered and died for you and for me to save from eternal torment or a life of meaninglessness. This is the one big thing that we cannot do for ourselves. We cannot atone for all that we have done that we should not have done or make up for what we failed to do. Only Christ can make up for our failings as he laid down his life for our sake – a sacrifice to God and to all creation. And the rest of our life is to be lived as a gift of gratitude for what has already been done for us.
That is the reason for Jesus Christ. “I know my own and my own know me.” “They hear my voice, and they follow me.” “I have laid down my life for them.” These three thoughts are at the heart of the Christian spiritual message. Think on it. Believe on it. Trust in it, and you will live – eternally. Amen.