Pastor Sherry’s Message for May 3, 2020
Scriptures: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-11
Recently, I became aware of a Christian blogger named Tim Challies. I was impressed with his writing, his research, and his sense of humor. (You can look him up on the internet and read for yourself.) On August 26, 2013, he posted his thoughts on sheep in an article he titled, “Dumb, Directionless, Defenseless.” This warranted my interest as today’s lessons are on the “Good Shepherd,” the “Great Shepherd,” and the “Chief Shepherd,” our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Challies makes the points that the Bible refers to Israel—and by extension, to those of us who believe in Jesus—as sheep. It also says that God is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. He cares for us, leads us, protects us, and provides for us. The religious and political leaders of ancient Israel were supposed to have been good shepherds as well, but they often enriched themselves at the expense of the sheep. God really takes them to task in Ezekiel 34, and says He will remove them from their positions of power and replace them (vv.23-24) with a much better shepherd. Somewhere between the years 593-571 BC, the prophet Ezekiel, speaking for God the Father, foretells the first coming of Jesus in this chapter. Jesus was meant to be this honest, compassionate, loving, protective shepherd.
Challies goes on to write that sheep need a good, caring shepherd because these animals are essentially defenseless, cannot survive on their own without guidance and protection, and if unguarded, can stumble into deadly calamities. He cites a news event of the week of his post, 8/2013, in which careless shepherds in eastern Turkey failed to keep an eye on their sheep while taking a break to eat a meal. Left to roam, 400 sheep fell to their deaths into a ravine; another 1,100 animals survived the same fall by landing on the soft cushion created by the first fatalities. The economic loss was estimated at $74,000. Apparently, as sheep tend to do, each followed the one in front of him or her, even as it meant going over a cliff! Needless to say, it is no compliment to us that God sees us as sheep!
The 23rd Psalm (probably outside John 3:16, the best known passage in the Bible), was written about 400 years before Ezekiel’s prophecy, but it too can be understood as another early prophesy of Jesus. Composed by an aged King David, also a shepherd both of his father’s sheep and of his people, the king reviews what he has learned about God’s role as shepherd in his own experience: He is clear that God has functioned as the Shepherd King of the shepherd king. God has provided for David (vv.1-2, green pastures, still waters), as well as for us. I know He has always done so for me personally. Even when money has been scarce or “tight,” the Lord has ensured that I have never gone hungry nor have I been unable to pay my bills. I thank Him and praise Him for this. Perhaps you have had the same experience? He has certainly provided rest and restoration when I have been worn out and in need, and He has offered guidance when I have been wise enough to seek it from Him (vv.3-4). We may need to get to heaven to learn of all the times He has protected us from bad relationships, poor investments, unwise actions, and even from death! Maybe you can think back to such times, now recognizing and appreciating God’s protection of you then. I can, I do, and I praise Him. God used His rod and His staff with King David, and may have done so with us as well. The shepherd’s rod, a symbol of his authority, was used to count, guide, rescue, and, as a weapon, to protect his flock from predators. The shepherd’s staff was intended to help support the shepherd when tired or when trudging up a steep path, but also to give direction to the sheep. Verses 5-6 refer to David’s gratitude for times the Lord has redeemed him from harm, defended him, and showered him with blessings, as well as the King’s desire to remain in God’s pocket all the days left to him. Wouldn’t we all do well to think of times God has rescued us, blessed us, and even vindicated us? Shouldn’t we all want to walk alongside Him, tucked up under His protective arm as a child with a loving parent or grandparent? I know that’s where I want to be!
In our lesson from 1 Peter, the apostle is still extolling the great redemptive virtue and value to us of Christ’s death and resurrection. In 2:23-24, he writes, When they [the mob, the Romans, and the religious establishment] hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly [God the Father]. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree [remember, the Hebrew language considered any part of a tree, including a single stick or even a cross composed of two beams, as “a tree”], so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed [a quote from Isaiah 53:3]. In keeping with today’s theme of shepherds and sheep, he goes on to say (v. 25), For you were like sheep going astray [think of those Turkish sheep blithely walking off the cliff], but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. Peter is exhorting us to follow hard after Jesus, instead of adhering to our own wills or the poor examples or seductive encouragement of misguided others. Oh, may that be so for each and every one of us!
In today’s Gospel lesson, John 10:1-11, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd, the one indicated both by King David in Psalm 23 and by the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 34. I have heard people protest that Jesus never identified Himself as God. These critics do not seem to comprehend that whenever Jesus made an “I am” statement—and there are plenty of them in the Gospel of John–He was essentially claiming that He was and is God—after all, God the Father had told Moses that His name was/is I am (Exodus 3:13). He goes on to describe shepherding practices, images widely known to the people of that day, distinguishing what He does for us from what evil doers do–especially the Evil One. The shepherd would go into the sheepfold, where all the village flock would have spent the night, by way of the gate. Only those intent on wrong doing, thieves or robbers, would jump the fence. Since the Shepherd is legit, He enters through the doorway. He would then call his own sheep out, by name, from among those of the other shepherds. He would lead only his own out to the day’s pasture and water, and his particular sheep would respond to his voice and follow him. They would not respond to someone else’s voice. Furthermore, Israelite shepherds led their sheep instead of driving them from behind.
Now, in using these familiar images, Jesus was pointing out how His leadership, His Kingship, His shepherding differs from imposters and from evil doers. He knows us, intimately, by name. He calls us by name. His first “I am” statement in this passage is contained in verse 7àTherefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. And again in verse 9àI am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. In other words, the only way into Jesus’ flock or Jesus’ Kingdom is by believing in Jesus. Cultural wisdom tells us that there are many routes into heaven. But Jesus is here telling us He is the only actual entrance to heaven, our one and only means of salvation. Later, in John 14:6, Jesus clarifies, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.
There is another image here worth understanding: In the Ancient Near East, a shepherd often slept across the gateway at night. There may have been a watchman posted about, but often shepherds took turns being the guy who actually slept in the gateway to the sheepfold. His duty was to protect the several flocks gathered in for the night with his own body. Evil doers could only get in over his dead body (this is probably where that expression originated)! Additionally, no sheep could foolishly escape, unprotected, wandering off into the danger and darkness. Jesus is clearly alluding to His protective shepherding of us. During this Wuhan Coronavirus season, I truly have not worried about contracting it. I have taken social distancing seriously, have washed my hands often, and have worn a protective mask into the grocery store, but I have not really sweated getting it. I believe the Lord desires to protect us and will do so if we trust in Him. In verse 11, He identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd: I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. Jesus Christ has given His life so that you and I might have life and …have it to the full (other translations read, …have it more abundantly) (v.10).
Finally, notice that Jesus condemns His religious predecessors as thieves and robbers (v.8) probably because the Pharisees and Chief Priests of Israel taught a form of religious ritual instead of the importance of having a personal relationship with God—and, most importantly, because they missed the fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah. They saw Him and heard Him preach, they observed the miracles He performed, but they did not rightly perceive that He was their Lord and their God. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear, and minds that rightly perceive the Truth when we are exposed to it.
In this post-Easter Season, I have been writing about how we might live out being an Easter People. How do we demonstrate being folks who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus? We wisely recognize Him as the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, and John 10. We agree with the writer to the Hebrews (13:20) that He is…our Lord Jesus, that Great Shepherd of the sheep. And we believe, with St. Peter, (1 Peter 5:4) that he is…the Chief Shepherd. As Challies writes, we may at times be dumb, directionless, and defenseless; but hopefully, as believers in Jesus, we are more often guided, cared for, protected, defended, loved, healed, and saved! Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Alleluia! Alleluia!
©2020 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams