SCRIPTURE – John 10:11-18
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father —and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life —only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.
April 29, 2012
The Wilcoxson household will soon be expanding. No, we’re not expecting another child; believe me, our two are plenty! On May 12, we will welcome into our home Jack, our Goldendoodle puppy. To say we’re excited doesn’t even come close! Leigh and I both grew up having dogs around the house, but until now Molly’s allergies kept us from being dog owners. Now after all kinds of begging and pleading and whining and bargaining – and that was just Leigh and me, you should have heard the girls! – we are ready to add a new member to our family.
Some people might think that sounds a bit strange. A new family member? C’mon! It’s just a dog, an animal. You feed it, you walk it, you clean up after it. It’s not a human. It’s a pack animal, a canis lupus familiaris, descended from the wolf family. But pet owners know that our furry family members are more than just domesticated animals; they are a part of us.
If that makes any sense to you at all, then you may be able to understand where Jesus is coming from in our passage today. There’s a difference between a hired hand and a shepherd. A hired hand is brought on to do a job, but the shepherd is the animal’s owner, the one who bred and raised and nurtured the animal. It’s like the joke that asks, “What’s the difference between being involved and being committed? In a bacon and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.” In our passage, a hired hand is involved, but a shepherd is committed to the sheep, to the point that he would lay down his life for them.
All of this shepherd imagery probably doesn’t mean much to us. There aren’t a lot of shepherds roaming around anymore. But the image of God and Jesus as shepherds is pervasive throughout the Bible, Think of the 23rd Psalm and how it employs this imagery. Moses and David, two of the most prominent figures in the Hebrew scriptures, were shepherds. The prophets regularly used shepherd metaphors, and Psalm 100 says, “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
Jesus picks up on this shepherd language as well in the gospels. In both Matthew and Luke’s gospel, he describes himself as the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the lost one. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus looked with pity upon the people because they were “as sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus told his disciples that when he was struck down, the sheep would be scattered. And when he appeared to them after the resurrection, the last words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel to Peter are, “Feed my sheep.”
So let me get this straight. Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” Does that mean we’re the sheep? I’m not sure I like that very much. What do you think of when you picture a sheep? I think of the 4-H Fairs back in southern Indiana, walking along the straw-covered barn floor and looking at pen after pen of slobbering, smelly, animals who were only good for making two things: wool and a lot of noise. That’s not how I like to think of myself. But the Bible’s pretty clear on this one: we’re sheep. And that means if we’re the sheep, we are not the shepherd. We don’t tend the flock; we are the flock. We aren’t the ones leading the sheep; we’re the ones following the shepherd.
That idea doesn’t sit too well in our world today. Being a follower isn’t a sought-after, glamorous position. You know the saying about a dog sled team: If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes. In our world there is an overwhelming focus on the art of leadership and an underwhelming focus on the practice of followership. Everyone wants to be a shepherd; no one wants to be a sheep. How many times have you been offered the opportunity to participate in a seminar on how to be a good follower? How many good books have you read lately on how to follow an effective leader? Nobody dreams big dreams about being a follower. Nobody wants to grow up to be a sheep. One of the churches I served in seminary was embroiled in conflict for this specific reason: everybody wanted to lead and no one wanted to follow.
It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to simply be part of the flock, does it? Who wants to be just go along with the crowd? This country was built on the foundation of rugged individualism and not doing what the King told us to do, and that mindset is still prevalent today. Just about every TV commercial we see tells us that if we want to be unique, we should join the millions of other people who use this product. A remember seeing a bumper sticker that said, “Be a non-conformist – just like everyone else.” Someone has tried to sell us on the supremacy of individuality, and we’ve bought it. But as we’ve seen, scripture is clear: we are all followers of the Good Shepherd.
What does that involve? As I read this passage from Jesus, he seems to boil down the responsibilities of a sheep to two things: stay with the flock, and listen for the shepherd’s voice. That’s it, really. Reminds me a bit of the Great Commandment: Love your shepherd with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love the other sheep in your flock. If sheep do those two things, then the shepherd can guarantee them protection. The good shepherd is even willing to lay down his life for the sheep, but he can only do that if we stay in the flock and follow his lead.
We need the other sheep in our flock. No matter how smelly they might be, no matter how much noise they sometimes make, community is essential to our survival. If a sheep became isolated, it was vulnerable to attack because it wasn’t protected by the flock. There’s no such thing as a solitary sheep, and there’s no such thing as an individual Christian. We are not religious individuals who happen to be members of a particular community; we are a community first, made up of individuals. The community is the means and the embodiment of grace for each of us. This is where we hear God’s voice and learn to follow. Would this place hold the same meaning for us if we each had our own individual worship services? As sheep, we must be part of the flock, which means putting ourselves with our fellow sheep on a regular basis by worshipping together and serving together and just being together.
Being with the flock makes it easier to hear the shepherd’s voice, because more ears are tuned to that frequency. Being able to recognize the shepherd’s voice was crucial to the survival of the flock. In Jesus’ time, several shepherds would use the same watering hole, and often they would all arrive with their flocks at the same time. The gathering became one big flock of thirsty sheep. But they were never worried about getting their sheep mixed up. When one shepherd was ready to leave, he’d make distinctive sound – a whistle, a cluck of the tongue – and his sheep would begin to separate themselves from the larger group, because they recognized their master’s voice.
We hear a lot of voices in our lives. Pastor David Shirey asked this question: “Of all the voices which call out to you to pay attention, can you discern from among them the voice of the Good Shepherd? Think of all the voices: some attractive and alluring like advertisers, some loud and boisterous like radio and TV personalities; some rational and persuasive like authors and editorial writers. Add to those the voices of friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, and you end up with a cacophony of different voices vying for your attention, wanting to lead you along. Can you distinguish the voice of the Good Shepherd?”
There’s one more thing about being a sheep that I need to mention. Jesus says in verse 14, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own.” Think about that: he knows us. He knows us. How many people can you say really know you? How many people can look at you and call you by your name? This is a big deal in today’s anonymous world where we are more often referred to by our social security number or driver’s license number or our credit card number. Half my mail is either addressed to Cary Wilkerson or “Resident.” We live in an age where we have increasingly sophisticated communication devices but so little actual, substantial communication. The church – the flock – is called to follow the lead of our shepherd and be a place where people are known and called by name. Remember the Cheers television theme? “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name; and they’re always glad you came.” Shame on us if those words are a better description of a bar than a church.
We are called to know each other, because we are all a part of the same flock, under the care of the same shepherd. More sheep are coming through the gates; Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them in also.” And when he does, we must welcome them by name and make space for them in our pen. We must help them hear the voice of the shepherd and show them what it means to follow.
We are the sheep, called to be part of the flock and follow the master’s voice. We are sheep. Can I get a “B-a-a?” The Lord is our shepherd, and he is a good shepherd, someone who cares enough to protect us when we are in need and loving enough to find us when we are lost. Thank you God, for that! May we strive every day to be God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture.