Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, May 20, 2018
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The Good Shepherd

John 10:1-18

These verses contain one of the best known, and I think most beloved, pictures of Jesus: the Good Shepherd. Somewhere I saw a painting of Jesus, as a shepherd, carrying a lamb on his shoulders, and it’s one of the images that comes to my mind when I think about what Jesus looked like. The irony, of course, is that most of us probably don’t have a clue what it means to be a shepherd.

I think there are a few things we need to know about shepherding in order to grasp the fullness and richness of this text.

The first is that this passage is steeped in the Old Testament. Shepherding had been a way of life for the Hebrew people and the region of Judea for millennia. Numerous Old Testament texts speak of matters of faith in the terms of sheep and shepherding. God is often described as a shepherd, as were human leaders. God’s people were often described as a flock of sheep. Earlier we recited the 23rd Psalm, which of course was written by David, who started out as a shepherd, and talked about his experience of God in the terms of a sheep and shepherd. Jeremiah 23 talks about the wicked leaders of Israel who were like evil shepherds who took advantage of the flock and deserted them to save their own skins. Ezekiel 34 also speaks of Israel’s leadership as bad shepherds, but then it adds a note of encouragement: God himself would come to his people as a good shepherd, and he would seek out those who had been scattered and reunite them under his own leadership, a picture fulfilled in Jesus.

The second thing that I think we should see about this passage is that it continues directly from chapter 9. Chapter 9 is the story of Jesus healing a man born blind that we heard a couple months ago. In the original writing of the Gospel, there were no chapter breaks. This chapter continues the same themes from chapter 9, including how the Pharisees had failed to shepherd God’s people. And there were others before Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah, but they were like thieves or robbers who used deceit or violence for personal gain, taking advantage of the flock along the way.

And third, if we really want to understand the full meaning of this passage, then we need to know some things about how shepherding was done in 1st century Judea. This imagery would have been very familiar to Jesus’ first audience. Sheep were the most commonly raised livestock in that region. And the practice of how shepherding is done has not changed very much to this day. I had an Old Testament professor in

seminary who lived for several years in modern day Israel, and he told us stories of how the local people raise sheep to this day, and it’s pretty much the same thing that David did 3000 years ago.

In that region, sheep were taken out to graze in the wilderness over the summer months. Israel has a Mediterranean climate, meaning that they have cool, wet winters, and hot, dry summers. Over the summer months, there just isn’t enough grass in any one place to keep the sheep there, so they would have to be moved every few weeks to find good grazing. But over the winter, they would be kept close to the village, since everything would turn green for about five months in the wet season.

Regardless of whether it was summer or winter, the sheep would be corralled at night into a sheepfold for protection. In the winter, it would often be a community sheepfold for an entire village. It would have stone walls and a wooden gate. But in the summer, they would not use a permanent fold. If one was available, they would take the sheep into a cave for the night. But if not, they would build a fold using thorny bushes. There would be no gate. Instead, the shepherds would sit or sleep in the entrance to the fold so that nothing could get in or out without their knowledge.

There were many dangers for sheep. There were thieves and robbers. Sheep were valuable animals. Thieves were to those who would sneak in to steal sheep. Robbers referred to “highwaymen” who would use force to take them from the shepherd. And there were natural dangers as well. There are wolves in Israel to this day. And while they are wiped out now, there were lions and bears as well in biblical times.

Even in the summer, shepherds would travel in groups for safety, so each night there would be several flocks of sheep in each fold. But shepherds would name their sheep. And sheep learned to recognize their own shepherd and each would have his own unique call for his own sheep.

When the sheep were brought into the fold at night, the shepherds would inspect them for signs of injury or illness. If a sheep was injured, the wounds would be salved with olive oil, hence David’s words in Psalm 23: “You anoint my head with oil.” In the morning, each shepherd would lead out his own sheep, and they would follow him. These Palestinian sheep were led, not driven by the shepherds.

The difference between a good shepherd and a hired hand is that the good shepherd owned the sheep himself. He was personally invested in their well-being. He would risk his own life to protect them. But a hired hand was only “doing a job.” If a sheep was killed on his watch, he lost nothing personally. He might get fired, but even still, he would be unlikely to risk his own life to save a sheep.

All of this helps us to understand the depth and richness of Jesus’ words.

For starters, when Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep,” it helps us to know that often the shepherd would be the gate. He would sleep in the entrance to the fold to function as the gate, to keep the sheep in and the thieves and wolves out.

Of course, there’s a deeper meaning to Jesus’ words: He is the only way in to the flock, to the people of God. As Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And Acts 4:12 says, “There is salvation in no one else. There is no other name in all of heaven by which people can be saved.” Jesus is making an exclusive claim to be the only source of salvation.

Today we live in a world where such exclusive claims are no longer popular. Our society by-and-large now believes in multi-culturalism, which says that there is no such thing as universal truth. What is true for one group, one culture, is not necessarily true for another culture. Of course, the irony is that when the multi-culturalist says “There is no universal truth,” they are, of course, making a statement of universal truth!

Nonetheless, we live in a society that says, “We can each find our own way.” And it’s wrong to push your way on someone else. But if the Bible is correct that we are all sinners. And if the wages of sin is death. And if we cannot save ourselves from our own sins, then we need a Savior. And Jesus is uniquely qualified to be that Savior. He is truly God and truly man. He is without sin, and yet he willingly died on behalf of sinners, to pay the price for their salvation.

This is what makes Christianity unique. All other religious systems are based on attaining certain knowledge and/or achieving certain acts of righteousness. Our faith is based on knowing Jesus and receiving the righteousness that he has already achieved and which he offers to us as a gift.

Jesus offers us abundant life. The meaning of the word “abundant” in the original Greek is something along the lines of “more than necessary.” Jesus doesn’t just offer us any old life. He offers us more than we could ever need.

He offers us eternal life. Eternal life is not just a future life; it’s what we have in Christ right now. And he offers us “green pastures.” He offers us joy and peace and satisfaction. In verse 9, he says that in him we will “go in and come out.” That’s a Hebrew phrase that was used to refer to living in peace and security. Jesus will watch over us. He will lead us like a shepherd. He will give us guidance. And he offers us healing, just as a shepherd would tend to the wounds of his flock. Whatever brokenness or pain we have, we can bring it to Jesus, and in time, he can make us whole.

And we can trust that he will do all this for us because he loves us so much that he laid down his life for us. It was a voluntary act of self-sacrifice. Nobody “killed” Jesus. Jesus laid down his life, for his disciples and for us and for all those who hear his voice. The whole language of Jesus talking about “other sheep, not of this sheepfold,” is a reference to the universal offer of the Gospel message. It is a message for all who will hear his voice and follow him. Our unity as God’s people is based on that: We all follow the same shepherd.

This passage is full of wonderful possibilities. There are so many good things we can experience in Jesus. But only if we know the shepherd and heard his voice and follow him.

This is a very relational passage. We might not think of sheep and shepherds having “relationship,” but in Jesus’ world they did. The shepherd named his sheep, knew each of them, and they knew him and his voice.

To know the shepherd is to hear and recognize his voice, and to obey him, and follow where he leads. Jesus is calling us to have an intimate and obedient relationship with him. And without that relationship, all the possibilities that Jesus holds out are just possibilities, not realities. Abundant life is only real for those who acknowledge Jesus as their shepherd.

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