[Jesus said] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may 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 I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18 ESV)
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, with Psalm 23 read and sung reminding us that ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ and all that he does for us – and with today’s Gospel in our ears where Jesus clearly and emphatically says that he is the Good Shepherd – capital G, capital S – where are you in your thoughts? Are you in a field somewhere, green grass, sheep and lambs around and somewhere in your vision a solitary figure – Middle Eastern appearance – standing, watching? Anyone have a sheep dog in the scene? Or are we at a stained glass window or back in Sunday School and the picture is the shepherd – still outdoors and perhaps carrying a sheep or lamb on his shoulders? The facial features combine ruggedness and kindness – and we feel safe – someone is watching over us. The scenes are pastoral – in both senses of the word – but definitely rural. Today I want to take you away from that – and maybe it is a bit of a wrench – away from the pastoral … to the political.
Yes – political. To the words and machinations of people, power and relationships, outcomes and compromises that we all know unless we are hermits. It is part of group dynamics, group organisation and we can immediately think of civics – national or local politics – but it doesn’t take us much thinking to also think about work politics, school politics, church politics, family politics and how one understands and deals with status, cohesion, tasks, and outcomes.
We might hear about shepherds in church and think of an actual shepherd like King David or the shepherds who checked out a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. Pastoral. But what we don’t usually hear or consider is that shepherds were also a description in the ancient Near East for kings and rulers for it expressed the relationship between rulers and ruled in terms of power and responsible leadership. This is the framework behind the use of the term for God – he is the shepherd of his people. God also calls Israel’s leaders – particularly prophets, priests and kings – to be faithful shepherds towards the people – and he does so because they so often weren’t – they fleeced their flocks instead of shepherding them. And when we think of David in the Old Testament, I think we think of ‘King’ or his public sins – long before we remember he is an actual shepherd – and we don’t necessarily think of his kingship in ‘shepherd terms’. The Messiah – heir to David’s throne – is the perfect shepherd and he will gather together and feed his flock who are scattered by the false shepherds, the hirelings, the thieves.
Jesus’ words today are not part of an outdoor address – another Sermon on the Mount so to speak with grass underfoot and blue skies overhead – but are spoken in the temple in the portico of Solomon at the time of the Feast of the Dedication or Hanukkah (John 10:22). This was the time when the temple was rededicated after its desecration in 164BC. This was the time when Ezekiel 34 was read where God attacked the false shepherds who fed themselves and not the flock and instead scattered the flock and so God said that he himself will come and rescue, bring back, feed, and restore his flock.
Make no mistake – what we have here is Jesus challenging his hearers to consider him as the Good Shepherd in terms of these descriptions, associations, types the people knew – to consider Jesus politically because he was talking in terms of power and responsible leadership. And for those with ears to hear, he was making claim after claim as the descendent of David, a new king, a fulfilment of the prophets – the one Moses said would finally come – and also priestly (how so – no one really knew … yet … but we know Jesus as our great high priest). Jesus would also push back at human rules that betrayed God’s words and intentions. And on top of that he would dismember the temple and its components and replace them with himself! Destroy
this temple and I will raise it again in three days (John 2:19). Jesus is the blood used for atonement, the Passover Lamb, and the new source of mercy. In the Holy Place of the temple, the menorah – the seven branched candlestick and the table of shewbread stood and Jesus would speak about himself as the Bread of Life (John 6:35) and the Light of the Word (John 8:12). Jesus would even use the designation of I AM – not insignificant to the Jews (note their reaction) – for himself (John 8:58).
Jesus is presenting the apparently crazy notion – the assumed heretical notion – that he is Immanuel (God with us) – the Word made flesh tabernacling among his people here and now. Today Jesus says that he is the – not ‘a’ – Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He says this three times – notice, he doesn’t say ‘sacrifice’ or ‘die’ and on the third occasion he is quite explicit “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down; this charge I have received from my Father” (v.17,18).
Death takes life. When it comes we can’t stop it. That’s not what Jesus is saying or what John records at the cross. Death doesn’t take Jesus’ life, rather he lays it down having completed – It is finished! – the task of our salvation, of rescuing the sheep.
Of course Jesus, his words, and deeds only make sense if he is God among us. Otherwise he’s a nutter. And we are remembering all this today – part of Jesus’ teaching in the temple – because there are other words to be said and heard.
Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!)
So why is all this political? Because we are the sheep – not an overly flattering image by the way – who discover that in baptism we are part of God’s flock – which transcends family, language, culture, country. In a world where so many voices are calling out – wanting us to follow, to retweet, to obey, to do as told – we listen for the voice of the one who will never fleece us, abuse us, use us for his own ends – but who will wash us, clean us, guide us, confront and challenge us – in love, hear us, answer us, feed us, and bless us. And we listen also to those this Good Shepherd has put around us in our relationships but always with his ears to guide us so that we in turn can speak and behave to bless those around us.
That answer to why is all this political was 135 words but it is a description of a lifetime.
We entered the political as we found Jesus could be trusted. We did when we were confirmed – when we learnt more about what this flock is about but more importantly who this Good Shepherd is, what his voice sounds like, and how to follow him. When we make choices – specific behavioural ones – about this situation with the spouse, this offer at work, this trouble looming in the world, this temptation to cut some corner – many voices come our way and the one we say in Confirmation that we’ll follow is that of the Good Shepherd.
Who gets it right? I don’t. But again and again as we grow older we learn that Jesus can be trusted – that his Words don’t bring ‘easy street’ and beware worldly accolades – but that his Words are good for us – as Jesus is good in himself – and that’s a powerful point of praise to make in this world, ‘My God is good!’.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is with his people. He speaks and comforts and he helps and we learn to respond, to behave, to grow, and to live in our time and place with him each step of the way. Remember that – when he calls us he reminds us, ‘I love you’ and when he sends us, he says, ‘Don’t be afraid!’.
- John 10:11 - 18