The Good Shepherd

(Psalm 23 & John 10:11-18)

Jesus, when teaching, often spoke in images that reflected the rural landscape of the area he was in. He communicated his message in a very visual way to the people whom he addressed. Even though some of the images Jesus used aren't as vivid or meaningful to us today, they still can say a great deal to us, even in our modern, urban, industrialized world.

One image Jesus used often was that of a shepherd. Now this was a common image that people in his day could easily relate to, much like we could relate to a cowboy in the old west, or a customer service person at a local store. You could find shepherds everywhere.

Although ancient in origin, the image of the Good Shepherd isn't totally strange to us. Many of us are reminded of the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd as it's found in written word, artwork, stain glass and the like. The large window to my left here in our sanctuary illustrates Jesus as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock, even the one who tried to get away. In Jesus time Palestine was largely a pastoral region, more so than an agricultural region. So shepherds were very commonplace. You could see them all over the countryside.

And to assist them in their work Shepherds had two tools they used. The 23rd Psalm mentions them: a rod and a staff. What in the world are they? In general the rod was used for protecting the sheep, and the staff was used for guiding wayward sheep back to the right path.

The rod was often times a straight stick, like a walking stick we would use today, and was used for beating away wolves and other predatory animals that saw sheep as their next meal.

The staff was a long stick with a crook in it, or hook, so that a sheep's head could be grab and led back to the right path. Good shepherds were very good at using both of these tools to protect and guide the flock they were tending to.

But when Jesus says' "good shepherd" in our Gospel reading he's referring to more than merely skill in the shepherding task, or skill of using the rod and staff. He was using the word in much the same way we would refer to a good doctor. It means one that is not only competent in skill but one known for his or her sympathy and graciousness. The word "good" describes the quality of the person, which makes them principled and respectable.

So what are the outstanding characteristics of the good shepherd we call Jesus Christ?

The first characteristic of Jesus the good shepherd is that he cares for us. And one of the most outstanding characteristics of Jesus was his love and compassion.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is concerned and interested in people, they matter to him. You and I matter to him. Even when we try to run away, when we stray intentionally or unintentionally, Jesus is there with his rod and staff to guide us back to the right path.

He's there to beat away temptation and hook us, gently moving us back to following him.

You know that "little voice" you hear or "feeling" you get when you're about to do something you know you probably shouldn't, or your not sure about? I suggest it's Jesus' rod and staff.

On one occasion Jesus and his disciples traveled to the other side of the Sea of Galilee by boat. Jesus went to sleep in the back of the boat. After a while a furious squall came up; the waves came into the boat, and the boat was about to sink.

The disciples rushed to Jesus, "Don't you care if we drown?" they shouted. Jesus got up rebuked the wind and calmed the waves.

Jesus clearly cared for those men traveling with him. He didn't want to see them drown. He didn't want them to suffer. Jesus cares, he really does.

When we stray from the path the Good Shepherd would have us go, it's by our choice not his. Jesus strives to lead us down the right path, but it's ultimately up to us to listen and follow.

The second characteristic of Jesus the good shepherd is that he knows us. The eastern shepherds were known for raising sheep for their wool rather than for food. Therefore, sheep were usually with a shepherd for years and were often known by descriptive names like "Black-spot" or "Brown-eye." The shepherd knew each sheep, every last one of them. They knew the uniqueness of each sheep and could point them out with relative ease. And in turn the sheep knew the shepherds well, especially their voice.

Have you ever gone to a gathering of some kind and as you looked around you realized you didn't know a soul there? You felt so alone, so isolated, so distant, and so out-of-touch with what was going on.

Then all of a sudden someone from the other side of the room calls your name. Immediately you're recognized, you're known. And then all of a sudden a flood of acceptance comes over you and you feel as if you belong.

Well the Good Shepherd knows each of his sheep by name; he knows each of us by our name.

The Indian theologian D.T. Niles once noticed a young Indian shepherd boy keeping watch over a huge flock of sheep. He stopped and asked, "How many sheep do you have?" "I don't know," answered the boy, "I can't count."

Niles asked him, "How do you know if some of the sheep haven't wandered off when you get to the place you're going to camp for the night?" To his astonishment, the boy, answered, "I don't know how many wander off, but I know each one. I can't count, but each sheep has a name, and I know their names." Well like the Indian shepherd Jesus knows each of our names as well.

The third characteristic of Jesus the good shepherd is that he died for us. To protect his sheep the good shepherd places his body between the sheep and vicious animals. He will die protecting the sheep if necessary.

This is true of Jesus as well. Jesus died protecting each of us from eternal separation from God. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, actually gave his life for each of us.

Has anyone else ever sacrificed their life for you, that you're aware of? Can you imagine if they did what that would feel like? I mean how would you feel if someone stepped in front of a bullet or knife meant for you? How would you feel if someone gave up something, costing them their life, so you could live? Think about those feelings for just for a moment.

I wonder why we don't seem to have the same feelings about Jesus sacrificing his life for us.

You'll notice several times in our Gospel reading Jesus clearly affirmed the sacrificial nature of his death. " In verse 18 his sacrifice was a voluntary sacrifice. No one took Jesus life; he willingly and voluntarily gave it up for us. " In verse 15 his sacrifice was a vicarious sacrifice. Jesus didn't simply die as a martyr, killed by men; he died as a substitute for us, willingly laying his life down for us. " And in verse 17 his sacrifice was a victorious sacrifice. Jesus did die, but he also rose again. The cross is empty, the tomb is empty. Jesus was raised from the dead; therefore we serve a risen, victorious savior. Death didn't have the final say, God did.

Jesus sacrificed his life in order that we might be saved. He willingly gave his life for our lives. And he became the sacrificial shepherd for us. He placed himself between us and the predator of our world, sin. And when I think of these characteristics of the Good Shepherd and what Jesus did, I can't help but simply shout, "Wow, what a savior!"

Even when we walk through the valley of torment, suffering, agony, uncertainty, and death, we need not fear evil, for our Good Shepherd is with us, his rod and his staff will guide us and will comfort us.

And as we follow our Good Shepherd, goodness and love will most certainly follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Jesus is a caring Shepherd, an understanding Shepherd, a sacrificial Shepherd. Jesus Christ is Our Good Shepherd!


Read other messages by Pastor Wade