SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT, THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, MAY 11, 2014
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
More than just Mother’s Day, every Fourth Sunday of Easter is “Good Shepherd Sunday” — we read about shepherds and sheep, the propers and anthems and hymns are all “ovine” (Did you know that’s a word? Dogs are canine, cows are bovine, horses are equine, and “ovine” means “of or pertaining to sheep.” I looked it up.). This year we read the first 10 verses of John 10, and I’m adding one more — verse 11: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
“I am the good shepherd.”
“I am . . .”
A common construction on Jesus’ lips in John’s gospel — there are actually seven “I am” statements (bread of life; light of the world; the way, the truth and the life), but this one is unique. All seven tell us things about Jesus/God, to be sure, but the others are kind of impersonal (I am the light of the world; I am the true vine); this one is distinctly relational. Shepherd and sheep have a relationship, so we can read back from that relationship for insight about our own relationship to God. Let’s do that under two main headings: (1) The shepherd knows his sheep; and (2) the sheep follow the shepherd.
First — The shepherd knows his sheep
Verse 2-3: He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
Of all the animal metaphors available to him, Jesus chose this one. Why not “I am the good cowboy; I know my cattle and my cattle know me”? All the commentaries say it’s because of the particular relationship shepherds have with sheep. There’s nothing else quite like it. For one thing, shepherds know their sheep with a particularity other animal owners don’t, but Jesus even ratchets that up a little — The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his owns sheep by name. Nobody in earshot of Jesus would’ve expected to hear that a shepherd had named each of his sheep.
What Jesus is trying to get across is that the Lord, who is our shepherd, knows us — intimately, fully, personally, completely, like no one else knows us. And that makes us nervous — God can see me? He knows everything about me? That’s scary because shepherds know two things about their sheep, and the first one isn’t good: Sheep aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. I heard a pastor say once that every other animal — dog, cat, horse, chicken, every one — if you release them into the wild, will do one of two things: Some will say “At last! Back where I belong!” and they’ll relish their newfound freedom. Others, like Blu the macaw in Rio, aren’t comfortable out there at all and just want to go home. Sheep don’t do either. Douglas MacMillan was a Scottish pastor who wrote a little book about the bible and sheep and shepherds — and what makes it great is that MacMillan actually was a shepherd for 12 years before becoming a pastor. He says this:
A sheep is a stupid animal. It loses its direction continually in a way that a cat or a dog never does. Even when you find a lost sheep, [it] rushes to and fro [in a panic] and will not follow you home. When you find it, you must seize it, throw it to the ground, tie its forelegs and hind legs together, throw it over your shoulders, and carry it home.
If a cowhand’s not around, horses go wild; but if the shepherd’s not there, sheep die. The shepherd knows his sheep are absolutely helpless.
But he knows a second thing, too. Now, I should acknowledge that Deacon Daphne and I are preaching dueling sermons about sheep. I’ve heard her say before that sheep get a bad rap. They’re actually highly prized animals, and she’s right. I’m not trying to diss sheep. It’s just that sheep are both highly stupid and highly valued. Why do you think a shepherd would ever leave 99 sheep to go find one who was lost? Shepherds didn’t use banks — the sheep were their banks because they were so valuable for their:
So what does all this say about us? First it tells us God knows us to our core. He knows how helpless we are, how stupid we are, how broken we are. Everybody in this place is broken, but we try to cover it up, hide it from the world. We cover our brokenness by pushing our financial success or career achievement to the front of our lives, by living for pleasure, conspicuous consumption, accruing material things — but God knows. He sees straight through to all we’re trying to cover up, conceal, compensate for.
And yet, though he knows what we are, he loves us to the skies. We are infinitely valuable to him. We are his treasure. That’s why he gave up everything to have us — the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for his sheep,” Jesus said. So this story tells us God knows us — he knows our brokenness, all the stupid things we do, and he knows how valuable we are. We are both helpless and priceless.
Point two (this one’s shorter): The sheep follow the shepherd
Like the shepherd knows the sheep, the sheep also know the shepherd intimately. Verse 4-5: When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. H. V. Morton was a travel writer and journalist who wrote a bunch of books about the Holy Land. In one of them, he wrote:
Early one morning I saw an extraordinary sight not far from Bethlehem. Two shepherds had evidently spent the night with their flocks in a cave. The sheep were all mixed together and the time had come for the shepherds to go in different directions. One of the shepherds stood some distance from the sheep and began to call. First one, then another, then four or five animals ran towards him; and so on until he had counted his whole flock.
Sheep know their shepherd’s voice, his whistle, his call — they can pick it out from all the other shepherds’. And they will only follow their shepherd. Even if a stranger puts on the shepherd’s clothes and imitates his call, the sheep will just run away from him.
So read back to us — Our survival depends on how well we know our shepherd. We have to be able to recognize his voice, pick it out of a crowd, distinguish between it and every other voice out there clamoring for us to invest here, buy this, champion that. And when we hear it, we have to follow it — not just some of the time, not just with part of our selves, not just when it calls us to do something we like.
Which raises one last point — Why follow the voice of this shepherd? The way home for us may lead through some rough terrain; our sanctification is often painful and difficult. We sang a hymn this morning, #646, and the third verse read:
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me,
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.
Apologies to Henry Williams Baker who wrote those lyrics — But what a crock! It’s like that famous picture of a smiling Jesus walking with a sheep on his shoulders, and the sheep is all calm and collected and going along for the ride. That’s not at all what a sheep does when you catch it and put it on your shoulder! Remember Douglas MacMillan said “When you find [a lost sheep], you must seize it, throw it to the ground, tie its forelegs and hind legs together, throw it over your shoulders, and carry it home.” What makes me want to trust a God who has to stun me, tie me up, throw me on his shoulders while I struggle and fight, all to get me home? Just this: Isaiah 53 said that someday a messiah would come, and Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. In John 1, when the Baptist sees Jesus coming by the Jordan River, he said: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. No other religion says that our God, our shepherd, became a sheep. He became like us to save us. That’s why we trust him. That’s why we follow his voice.
Your shepherd knows you to your core; and he loves you to the skies. Listen for his voice. And follow him home.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.