by the Reverend Michael Dunnigton
Reverend Michael delivered this sermon on April 25, 2021.
Often in Scripture, we find the shepherd presented as an ideal figure. It worked well as an image for the Hebrew people, since the keeping of sheep and other livestock was an occupation of their’s from time immemorial. Even in this 21st Century, I’m told, when a young Palestinian child chooses to imitate the sound of an animal, it’s more likely to be that of a sheep, and not a dog or cat or cow.
Let’s review a few of the Scriptural stories which involve shepherds and shepherding.
Abel, the righteous victim of the Bible’s first murder, appears in Genesis as “a keeper of sheep.” The tales of Jacob describe how he served his uncle, Laban, by caring for the flocks in order to win a bride. Moses walks on holy ground and encounters God in the burning bush while tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro. And David is summoned from tending sheep to receive from Samuel the anointing as Israel’s king.
But then, because Israel’s human shepherds had failed, the Prophet Ezekiel’s 34th chapter tells how God Almighty will care for the nation as a shepherd would care for his flock. In verse 23 of that chapter, it’s promised that God will raise up a true shepherd for the people.
John’s Gospel sees this prediction fulfilled in Jesus as the “Good Shepherd.” In this Gospel, this Good Shepherd is shown as the ideal. A true shepherd will value the welfare of the flock above his own desires, and will care about the sheep individually, even risking injury to protect them. Of course, there is only one Shepherd who will deliberately lay down his own life for the flock. No one else will love the sheep as this Shepherd loves them. No one else will have the same awareness of their wants and needs. This is far more than the professional relationship of a hired shepherd to a flock. This is personal, both to Jesus and to those of Jesus’ sheepfold, just as personal as his relationship to the Father.
Jesus loves his sheep with the same love that Abba the Father has for Jesus. The laying down of life is the Gospel’s way of describing Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice. As Jesus has come to earth to do the Father’s will, to reveal the Father’s love, the way to carry out that will, and to manifest that love, will be to totally become the “Man for others”: to lay down his life for the sheep.
This image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd looks back to earlier Scriptural references to God as Shepherd, and in particular to Psalm 23, which we heard recited this morning.
Not only is the Lord God a Shepherd to the nation of Israel. God is Shepherd also to the individual who can trust that their every need will be supplied. First, the needs of the believer are compared to those of actual sheep: green pastures, still water (because as Phillip KelLer explains in his book, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Reflections from a Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, sheep are afraid to drink from a rapidly-flowing stream.
Shepherding in Palestine has been somewhat different from caring for sheep in western Europe. Even the equipment used is different. The shepherd in Palestine doesn’t rely on dogs to drive the sheep. Rather the shepherd walks ahead of them. He can count on the sheep to follow the tune he plays on his pipes or the song he sings as he leads them.
.The shepherd’s task is to keep the sheep safe and to make sure that they don’t stray from the right paths as they are being led from one pasture area to another. Sometimes the paths will take the sheep through a desolate or dangerous area; but still the sheep can be safe when the shepherd’s rod turns them away from peril; The shepherd’s staff can be used also to drive off predators. The Prophet Amos speaks of having to cope with lions and bears. During the time of Jesus’ ministry, only the wolf remained as a predator possibly dangerous to the shepherd himself. Now the wolf is also gone from Palestine, although the fox is still around, and is capable of cutting one sheep out of the flock from time to time. We humans, too, need protection from our foes.
And yet, comparison of our human situation with that of sheep can’t express every aspect of God’s care for the individual.
The table prepared and the overflowing cup are privileges for human beings, as is the oil with which people then anointed their heads. Goodness and mercy, likewise, are qualities understood by people and not by livestock. And to dwell in the house of the Lord forever can be a goal only for the person who has developed a relationship with God of conscious worship.
In the end, Jesus really is the ideal shepherd, the shepherd of Psalm 23, but with an added dimension. Jesus was and is the shepherd who provides and protects. The shepherd who leads. The shepherd who, when danger approaches, doesn’t flee, but who stands fast in the defense of the sheep. The shepherd whose tenderness is exceeded only by faithfulness. The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek out the stray until he finds it. The shepherd who lifts the kicking, bleating, smelly critter onto his back and brings it home safely. The shepherd, finally, who lays down his own life so that his flock might live.
In the end, we might sometimes wonder about God and about Jesus. We might sometimes wonder where God is, and if there really is a Good Shepherd, in these times when evil and pain and horror seem to be winning the battle more and more.
No explanation will work. Jesus doesn’t explain. Jesus simply gives himself. And in this self-giving lies the ultimate truth of the Gospel: that is, there is no tragedy there is no act of evil -- not even the cross -- that, when yielded to God, can’t be resurrected with this Risen Jesus. The Good Shepherd is the final answer to the fact that God cares, and God can. Amen
The Reverend Michael Dunnington is interim pastor at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org
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