22 April 2018 – What is a Good Shepherd?

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Rev’d Trevor McCracken

In our Gospel from John 10:11-18, Jesus said, “I am the Good shepherd”.  Well, what is a bad shepherd?  In the NZ context, it is a person who mistreats his or her sheep.  It is one who doesn’t get them dagged, dipped, docked, or sheared or doesn’t get them enough feed etc.  Remember Shrek the NZ sheep who missed many a haircut?  Shrek the merino gained international fame in 2004 after he was found in a cave. He had evaded muster for six years and carried 27kg worth of fleece.

You see poor animal husbandry every now and again in the news or in programs like “Animal Rescue”.  The sheep are mistreated due lack of care, or lack of sheep management understanding.  Sometimes when the weather goes against the farmer, due to drought, the good New Zealand shepherds either sell off their stock or buy in feed.  Our shepherds roar around on motorcycles or quad bikes, have their stock in fenced paddocks, with a shearing shed, drenching shed and race near the roadside.

However, the shepherd in the first Century Palestine context was quite different.  In fact, the style of shepherd in that region still continues today.  When we were in Mycenae, Greece, 27 years ago, not quite Palestine, I discovered this same way of shepherding.  The shepherd had around her about a dozen sheep, and the shepherd called her sheep and I watched them follow her over the countryside.  There were no fences or gates that I could see, just open land, and she was with them all the time, talking to them and leading and protecting them.

But what has this got to do with Jesus as the Good Shepherd?  I mean, apart from some iconic paintings of Jesus with sheep, there is no mention in the Scriptures of Jesus actually with sheep, the baa, baa type I mean.

So, if Jesus is claiming to be the good shepherd, or True Shepherd, he is not talking about actual sheep as such, but people.  People whom God the Father has given him to love, care for, protect and cherish, and for them to follow and love him into eternity.  The Good Shepherd isn’t in it for himself, to prove his super capabilities, but for others.  In fact, the supreme test of what he is in it for will come when he’s faced with a choice.  A predator appears – maybe in Palestine when thinking of actual sheep, the predator possibly is a lion, a wolf or a bear.  You can tell the difference between the true shepherd and the false one by what they do.  The false shepherd saves his himself at the cost of his reputation.  The true shepherd shows who he is by preparing to die for the sheep.

Knowing how John’s Gospel pans out, especially with us having not long been through Passion Week and Good Friday and Easter, we know there is a dark note to come for Jesus.  And so now Jesus declares that violent death is not just a dangerous possibility; it’s his vocation.  And the best explanation of why this might be is found in this very parable of the Good Shepherd.  This parable is a very down-to-earth picture of the shepherd and the sheep.  The sheep are facing danger; the shepherd will go out to meet it, and if necessary, he will take upon himself the fate that would otherwise befall the sheep.  In Jesus’ case, it was necessary, and he did.

The strange thing about this is that despite the apparent gloom of this vocation – what use after all, is a dead shepherd? – Jesus speaks of a greater focus that lies before him in another part of the same calling.  He isn’t going to rest content with just delivering the present sheep from the danger they face.  He is going to enlarge the flock considerably by bringing in a whole lot of very different sheep (V.16).  What on earth is Jesus talking about?

The original sheep are the people of Israel.  Jesus is calling them, and those from among his Jewish contemporaries who are ready for the call are hearing his voice, trusting him and coming to him.  But, as Israel’s prophets and wise writers had always hinted, the God of Israel was never interested only in Israel.  His call to Israel was for the sake of the whole world.  The ‘other sheep’ are the great company, from every nation under heaven, that God intends to save, and to save through Jesus.  The Jewish Messiah is to become Lord, the shepherd of the whole world.

This theme, too, will swell in later chapters of John’s Gospel.  When Jesus eventually faces Pontius Pilate, the official representative of the ruling pagan power, he is looking at someone who, though not a Jew, is a potential ‘sheep’, to be challenged with the vision of God’s kingdom and truth.  The Gentiles, the non-Jews, are no longer the enemy.  They are sheep who have not been brought into the sheepfold.  Take a moment to think how this announcement must have sounded in a world – Jesus’ own world – filled with hatred and suspicion of the Gentiles, with violence and counter-violence.

For Jesus, everything is based on, and returns into, that close and intimate relationship which he has with ‘the Father’.  The Father loves the shepherd, especially because he will express the Father’s own love for the world by giving up his life for it.  If he does this in obedience to the Father’s will, he will also receive it back again (V.18).  And the bond of trust and love which ties together the shepherd and the sheep is the same bond that links Father and Son.

All this should make it clear why Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd.  But our word ‘good’ doesn’t quite catch the full meaning of the word John has written here.  For us, ‘good’ can sound a bit cold or hard, merely moralistic, or simplistic, like high-quality or excellent.  The Greek word John uses can also mean ‘beautiful’.  This doesn’t refer to what Jesus looked like.  It’s about the sheer attractiveness of what, as the shepherd, he was doing.  When he calls, people want to come.  When they realise he has died for them, they want to even more.  The point of calling Jesus ‘The Good Shepherd’ is to emphasise the strange, compelling power of his love.

Our Epistle 1 John 3:16-24 by the same author John, again defines what love is, and that is Jesus laying down his life for us.   But that is not the end of it for us, for we need to act in that love.  How?  By laying down our lives for others.

This Wednesday 25 April is ANZAC Day where we remember and acknowledge and give thanks for the many men and women who served our country through past world wars and other conflicts for the sake of freedom.  They laid down their lives for us so that we can have the freedom we have today.  They knew what sacrifice meant and what laying down their lives meant.  And so this Wednesday we and all our nation will remember them.

But how do we today, lay down our lives for others as John writes in his epistle?  The answer is in verses 17-20 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us.  For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

How we act today towards others shows how we lay down our lives for others.

But to conclude, the question for each of us that Jesus the Good Shepherd raises in our gospel reading is this, are you in Jesus’ sheep pen?  The Good Shepherd is calling everyone to come to him, join his flock, and receive the rewards of his shepherding, that is, full life now and eternal life to come.  He has already, as we know from Easter, laid down his life for his sheep, that is, those who are in Christ, who are followers of Jesus.

Jesus is calling those who are yet not in his flock to join him, and if you know you presently are not a follower of Jesus, not in his flock, how are you responding to his call?  Jesus as the Good Shepherd is calling you to come, come to him.

It is a choice, a decision.  You can not become a Christian by osmosis, by just attending church, and hoping that you may become a follower through the ambiance.  You need to choose to follow the calling of the Good Shepherd, or else you are following the world.  You can not sit on a fence on this one.  You can not have a bob each way.  Are you ready to come to the calling of the Good shepherd?