Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 18, 2020
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The Good Shepherd May 3, 2020

2 Peter 2:19-25 and John 10:1-10

The shepherd and sheep are familiar images in the Scriptures. The sheep were a picture of God’s people and the shepherd of a godly leader or of God himself.

The irony of this passage, perhaps, is that in Jesus’ day, shepherds were not well regarded. They were seen as rough, common, uneducated. The religious elites saw them as unclean and impious. The responsibilities of a shepherd made it all but impossible to observe all the requirements of purity or the rituals required by the Law. That was a strange view to have of shepherds, considering what the Old Testament had to say about God as a shepherd. Not to mention the rather obvious fact that you can’t have lambs for all those sacrifices required by the Law without also having shepherds!

This was not the only time Jesus was associated with those who were considered social outsiders. We heard earlier from 1 Peter 2. Those words were actually addressed to Christians who were slaves. Peter’s advice to them was to do their work well and accept the authority of their masters. “If you must suffer, then suffer for doing right. In this way, you imitate Christ. He was obedient and suffered without sin, and in so doing, honored God.” Verses 22-25 of 1 Peter 2 make numerous references and allusions to Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the Suffering Servant. So Peter compares Jesus to slaves, just as Jesus compared himself to shepherds. Both were groups of “social outsiders.” Lest we think Jesus is for the rich and socially acceptable!

We shouldn’t miss that the Pharisees are in mind here as Jesus speaks. John 9 ends with a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. And I think that’s important to know because otherwise it’s hard to get the context.

Jesus begins by talking about “those who sneak over the wall are thieves and robbers.” Well who are they? Who are these thieves and robbers? They are the “false shepherds” the prophet Ezekiel spoke of in chapter 34 of his prophecy: “They feed themselves instead of the sheep. They do not take care of the weak. They do not seek out the lost. Their rule over the sheep is harsh.” These shepherds seek their own good and not the good of the flock. The true Shepherd, the good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. These false shepherds have taken the place of God by replacing his authority with their own traditions, which were so cumbersome and difficult that no one could keep them. They made themselves the gatekeepers, deciding who is in and who is out of God’s Kingdom.

But the true Shepherd enters through the gate. That is, he comes into his place in the appointed way. How does Jesus enter the sheepfold? He enters by the way of the cross. The cross is the gate, in this context. It is how Jesus demonstrates he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

“The sheep hear his voice.” The sheep are God’s people. To hear God’s voice is to obey him. “He calls his sheep by name.” Shepherds typically named their sheep, especially since most shepherds only tended small flocks, maybe a couple dozen sheep. The names were typically descriptive names. You know, you’d call the sheep with two spots “Two Spots,” but names nonetheless. I assume Jesus doesn’t call me “big, bald guy.” But maybe he does. And I’m okay with that.

“And the sheep recognize his voice.” We recognize true leadership when we see it. And all true leadership is leadership by example. Jesus is the example. He demonstrates the character of a shepherd by his loving care and sacrificial service for a greater good.

But the religious elites don’t understand what Jesus is saying, so he continues: “I am the Gate for the sheep.” Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate. He is the one who cares for the flock and he is the way into the flock of God. In the winter in Judea, sheep were kept in rock-walled, permanent sheepfolds near the villages, because grazing land was easy to find in the winter, which was the wet season. But in the summer, the dry season, you had to take the flocks out into the wilderness to find pasture. The “sheepfolds” in the wilderness were caves or narrow ravines, just places you could contain the sheep at night. If nothing else, you’d build a temporary fold out of brush. In many cases, the shepherds would sleep across the entrance to these makeshift folds, so that no predator or thief could sneak in. The shepherds became the gate. Jesus is both the Good Shepherd and the way to the Father.

The true sheep recognize him. They come into eternal life and salvation through him. And in him we find green pastures. Green pastures are an image of abundant life. Jesus comes to bring us life, and not just any life, abundant life. In Jesus we find peace and joy. We find hope and confidence. We find an identity in Jesus: We become children of God. And we find a purpose in Jesus: We are God’s workers in the world. Those things make our life in Christ abundant.

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