It’s hard to look at Jesus saying “I am the good Shepherd” without dealing with the traditional pictures or images that it has inspired. Images that have stuck in our minds from Kids picture books and posters pinned to Sunday school room walls. Iconic representations of Jesus with the lamb draped round his neck. There is nothing wrong with them, but I wonder if they don’t hold our imagination captive. Anyway here is an advert that started life being for an IT company at the Superbowl a few years ago and has taken on a life of its own; I hope it will give us a fresh perspective on “I am the Good Shepherd”…
Roll film ‘Herding cats’
We are working our way through Jesus “I am” sayings in Johns gospel; Sayings which Jesus uses to point us to the mystery and meaning of his divine origins and nature, his “Iam-ness”. I’ve called the series ‘Refracted Glory’ because in the prologue to his gospel John says of Jesus “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The word glory means the weighty reality of who someone is. And just like Light passing through a prism is refracted into its different constituent wavelengths and colours, my hope is that as we look at each of these ‘I am’ Saying we will catch the deep and wondrous dimensions of the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. That we might have a renewed vision of the Glory of God in our midst; the weighty reality of presence of God in Jesus with us, that would fill us and overflow to the world round us.
Jesus saying I am the Good Shepherd comes right after his affirmation that he is the gate for the sheep, both are used in the light of the Pharisees mistreatment of a man born blind that Jesus had healed. As we saw last week behind this is the richness of a biblical motif used in poetry and song, like the psalm with which we opened our service and harsh words of judgement and souring words of hope, as in our reading from Ezekiel 34. At the centre of it all is the amazing reality of a compassionate God who cares for his people, who feeds them, guides them, seeks for them when they are lost, does not desert them in the face of danger and darkness, who binds up their wounds and restores them. Who cares enough to lay down his life for his sheep, the glory of God ultimately revealed in the cross.
Both metaphors are used to contrast Jesus with other would be shepherds. While with the gate Jesus had contrast himself with those who came over the wall being robbers and thieves who did not want the sheep to enjoy the abundant life that Jesus has to give. Now he contrasts himself with hired workers, who when the going gets rough abandon the sheep to the danger of wolves. The sheep are not theirs, it’s only a job, so they bail.
In the Mishnah, which is the collection of the oral traditions round the Mosaic Law there are strict rules about what is expected of hired shepherds. Nowhere does it say a shepherd even the one who owns the sheep, even ‘a’ good shepherd should die in defence of his sheep. But Jesus is “the” Good Shepherd and willingly gives up his life for his sheep. The Pharisees are willing to abandon people who do not keep their strict interpretation of the law, they write them off, and ostracise them, saying they are beyond the sphere of God’s care, but Jesus does not, he lays down his life, to free them from sin and its consequences. He lays down his life so they may have life, in all its abundance.
In verse fourteen Jesus again says “I am the Good Shepherd” and it leads on to a discussion about relationship with his sheep. That he knows his sheep and they know him. When I was studying for the ministry I did a couple of summer’s ministry in Clinton. While I was there one of the farmers showed me that even in our New Zealand farming environment that his sheep knew his name and he could call them and they would come to him. He said I could try it but well they would just keep on munching away. Jesus being the shepherd is not just an image of a distant corporate farmer but rather with his sheep. That Jesus invites us into the most intimate relationship with him, a relationship that he can only describe as being like the one he shares with the father.
This is a picture of Andrei Rublov’s Icon, it is a depiction of the three visitors to Abraham in Genesis 18. In iconography you only paint real life events that like the icons on a computer desktop lead to a greater reality behind them. If you read through the narrative the conversation slowly morphs from Abraham talking with the visitors to talking with the Lord, so the icon is called the trinity. There is a real sense that you and I are being invited to sit down at the table with the trinity, welcomed into that most intimate of friendships. In David’s most well-known of Psalms ‘the Lord is my shepherd’, one of the outworking’s of that is that God prepares a table for him, even in the sight of his enemies and he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The Good shepherd leads us into that relationship.
In verse 16 Jesus says “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also”, Which reflects on a different dimension of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In a rather cryptic way, Jesus points to the fact that his role as shepherd is larger than Just being the shepherd to Israel. It picks up the idea of Jesus mission being to the whole of humanity, that after the crucifixion and resurrection Jew and gentile would be called to be God’s flock. All the way through the Hebrew Scriptures there is this missional element to God’s calling and guiding of Israel, that through their relationship with God, he would be revealed to all people. Right from genesis twelve where Abraham is called and told a big part of his call is to be a blessing to the nations. Right through the call of the Psalms that all nations would come and worship. God has purposed to bring us back into relationship with him. In Jesus coming, his life, death and resurrection there is the fulfilment of God’s mission and purposes.
Jesus finishes this part of this discourse by once again pointing to the fact that as the Good Shepherd he will lay down his life for his sheep. It’s interesting as we move into Easter, as we move further into John’s gospel there is a subtext of the political and religious authorities plotting against Jesus, but here Jesus affirms that behind the swirl and turmoil of that intrigue and the schemes of man that God’s plans are at work. The crucifixion is not an accident, an ignominious defeat, rather it is God’s plan for our salvation, it is an expression of God’s great love for humanity.
The Christian Ska band OC Supertones sing one of my favourite worship songs, I can’t find the sheet music for it so we haven’t used it in church. But it talks about the forgotten poor in the slums and sweat shops oppressed and exploited , drug addiction in the streets of southern California, abortion, people suffering and it looks for hope and the haunting chorus with the redemptive reggae beat behind it is “the shepherd is the lamb, do you understand God became a man.” The shepherd is the lamb.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd is also a motif in the other gospels. There is the parable of the lost sheep, which again shows Jesus as going beyond the expected behaviour and conventional agrarian wisdom of his day, in the care of his sheep. He leaves the ninety nine to go and search for the lost sheep. The amazing picture of God caring enough for those who are lost… In case you are wondering that is New Zealand’s most famous lost sheep Shrek.
In Matthew chapter 9 we have an insight into Jesus very human response to the people he sees in the villages and towns around him. The crowds he sees flocking to him and simply swirling past in that everyday hustle and shuffle. It says that Jesus is moved to compassion. He says they are like sheep without a shepherd. He continues to heal and teach and preach but it also moves him to turn to his disciples and ask them to pray. In a way that reflects the mixed farming model of his time and place, he says the harvest is ripe, but the labourers are few. The Good Shepherd invites us to share his concern and compassion. It leads to him sending out those whom he asks to pray to go to the lost sheep of Israel. You and I are not only recipients of the compassion of God, in following Christ we are called to be expressions of it as well.
The flip side of Jesus “I am the Good Shepherd” saying of course is that we may not actually like the fact that we end up being seen as rather sheepish. And while some are young and cute and can get away with it…most of us can't. We live in a society where we value our independence and our right to make our own choices and decisions… its perhaps best illustrated by a mug I bought my brother in law for his birthday once that said ‘I’m too busy making my own mistakes to learn from yours.’ But in the midst of that Jesus is able to lead us guide us through life, to life… If we will listen to him… Despite the current draught we are used to lush pasture and plenty, but the metaphor of the good shepherd comes from a desert land, perhaps more like the spiritual landscape we live in. We can trust Jesus to guide us through that.
As I was preparing this message a tweet from Leonard sweet appeared on my face book page it said that sums this reality..’ The Good Shepherd leads His sheep into pastures that are green and good, not desolate and bad. But wolves will stalk, sheep will wander, and the wilderness ambushes.’ Jesus can be trusted because he has given up his life for his sheep.
So let’s finish by being still… and encounter the Good shepherd
Are you here today and you need to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. Calling you in the midst of all that is going on to lead you to good pasture. To guide you through. Jesus says to you “I am the good shepherd I can be trusted.
Are you here this morning and it feels like the words of psalm 23 and you find yourselves in the valley shadow of of death. Do you need to know the comfort of the Good shepherd’s staff and rod, do you need to know God is close. Jesus says I am the Good shepherd I am with you I do not abandon my sheep.
Maybe there is a real sense of lostness in your life. You know you’ve wandered away from God… or you know that He is calling you. Jesus says to you “I am the Good shepherd” I have sort you out. I am the door, to abundant life, I am the one who ill enfold you to be with me and mine. The invitation is to come and know him and be known. The Good shepherd gave up his life for you.
As we are still where are those who are like sheep without a shepherd around you, situations, people on your heart, placed there by the God that cares . Where is the Good shepherd calling you to take his compassion. It may seem as impossible as herding cats but Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd” I have laid down my life for my sheep, will you do the same.