A Funny Kind of Good Shepherd
This Sunday historically is known as "Good Shepherd Sunday." But if you ask me, He's a funny kind of Good Shepherd.
Sheep do need a shepherd. There is no more helpless animal on earth. In storms, they have been known to pile up in the corner of pastures smothering one another to death. A rancher told me that if sheep don't see you open a gate they're used to you opening for them, they will pile there even if the gate is already open. Psalm 23 describes their helplessness. Sheep depend on their Shepherd to lead them into green pastures. In Palestine, weeds grow that are poisonous to sheep. Shepherds must either lead sheep away from those pastures or go in and pull up the poisonous weeds. It's the same with water; sheep won't drink from a running stream. So the shepherd damns up running water making pools of still or quiet water for his sheep.
Sheep need a shepherd; they are helpless and defenseless. Sheep have no protection from wolves. Sheep lack fangs, claws, or ferociousness to defend themselves. Ever heard of anyone being bitten, clawed, or even frightened by a sheep? Sheep are threats to nothing and threatened by everything not just the wolves of the wilderness but the wilderness itself. If a sheep falls into a ravine ending up on its back, it can't get up again. As the text says, sheep without a shepherd are snatched by the wolf or scattered into the wilderness where the environment will kill them. Ravines, poisonous weeds, and running waters will kill them as surely as wolves.
Sheep need a shepherd, but, the Lord, that is Jehovah as my Shepherd? What an incredible thing for David to write! David knew Jehovah created Adam's world; Jehovah destroyed Noah's world; Jehovah plagued Egypt, and Jehovah thundered at Sinai. David knew that no man could see Jehovah and live, that only the high priest could enter into His presence safely, that the highest heaven's could not contain Him. But David says, Jehovah is my Shepherd! Jehovah leads, feeds, and cares for me. I see, touch, and am in the presence of Jehovah. Jehovah who is far above the earth is as close to me as a shepherd to sheep. Jehovah sleeps across the door of the sheepfold as all shepherds did. Jehovah runs His hands over the backs of sheep pulling out briars and wiping dust from their eyes as every good shepherd did.
Jehovah is my Shepherd? Yes, that's what the Old Testament promised. Ezekiel 34 says, "You don't take care of the sheep. You have ruled them harshly and violently. This is what the Almighty Jehovah says: I am against the shepherds. I will demand that they hand over My sheep. I will search for My sheep Myself, and I will look after them. As a shepherd looks after his flock, so I will look after My sheep. I will take care of My sheep and lead them to rest, declares the Almighty Jehovah."
Jehovah coming to shepherd His sheep is startling enough. Then comes Jesus saying, "I am the Good Shepherd." By using the words "I am" Jesus identifies Himself as Jehovah. When Moses asks Jehovah whom he should tell Israel has sent him to deliver them from Egypt, Jehovah answers, "You must say to Israel: "I Am has sent me to you." What was promised in the Old Testament is worked out in the New. Jehovah takes on flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Jehovah's people were like sheep without a shepherd at the mercy of wolves and wilderness. So Jehovah came and got them. No true shepherd abandons His sheep. Jehovah didn't. He is a Good Shepherd, or is He? He seems to me to be a funny kind of Good Shepherd.
He certainly doesn't shepherd the way I think He should. He says He comes to save us from wolves but in another place He says, "I send you out as lambs among wolves." What's the only thing more defenseless, more helpless than a sheep? A lamb! And yet the Good Shepherd sends us into the wolves of this world as lambs! But there's more. In Psalm 44 He says we are sheep but sheep considered for slaughter! And in Psalm 23 the Good Shepherd leads sheep into, not around, not over, but into the valley of the shadow of death. He doesn't just lead into the valley of depression, disease, or disaster but death.
Isn't this a funny way for a Good shepherd to be leading His sheep? What earthly Shepherd would send lambs into a pack of wolves? What earthly, shepherd raising sheep for wool, says, "You, you and you are going to be slaughtered tomorrow?" What earthly shepherd says, I know this valley with steep sides where you'll be easy prey; lets stroll into it?
Don't become fatalists trying to answer this mystery. It's not that lambs have to go into the wolf pack; a certain number of sheep don't have to be slaughtered; death's valley doesn't have to be walked through. Jehovah our Shepherd is easily able to overcome the wolves, the wilderness and death itself. He isn't at the mercy of wolves, wilderness, or death. He can defang the wolves, make a highway in the wilderness, and fill in death's valley.
Don't make Fate your God or make God less than all-loving. It's not for a lack of love that the Good Shepherd leads us to wolves, slaughter, or dark valleys. How could that be? Five times in this text Jesus says He lays down His life for the sheep. Now we're on to something. The Good Shepherd says he lays down His life for the sheep and takes it back up again. He doesn't say the Good Shepherd kills all the wolves or stops me or my family from being slaughtered by sickness, sorrow, or suffering. He doesn't say He fills in the valley of death. No, He puts His life down and takes it back up again.
The Greek is picturesque. Jesus says, "I place My life instead of the sheep." It's not just that Jesus died for us as a soldier dies for his country. No, Jesus died instead of us. Someone had to suffer and die for your sins. Someone had to go to hell for what you do wrong. Someone had to have his body broken and his blood shed for your sins. It was either going to be you or Jesus. Jesus put His life down in place of yours. But it's not as the insert says, "I lay down My life - only to take it up again." Jesus says, "I place the life of Myself in order that I might take it again." Good Friday happened so there might be an Easter. Jesus suffering on Good Friday was the end of sin not of His story. Good Friday happened for the purpose of Easter.
Is it getting any clearer now? It surely doesn't make sense for a Good Shepherd to die instead of sheep. That's not how ordinary shepherds work. If they die, the sheep are left shepherdess, so what ordinary shepherds do is make wolves die instead of sheep. But Jesus dies in order to rise again. Jesus dies just so He can take His life back up. Jesus dies in place of sheep, so that He might live with the right to plead for them.
Our sins were in between us and God. No prayers, no pleas, no sighs, no tears could get through. Jesus sacrificed His life for ours, paying for our sins thereby winning the right to intercede for us. Romans 8 says, "Jesus is the very one who died for us and more than that who rose from the dead to be on the right hand of God where He can constantly intercede for us." Jesus died for us on Good Friday to rise on Easter and do even more for us.
My life needs rethinking in this light. Jesus didn't come into this world so that I might never have to face the wolves or the wilderness. He came into it so that He might die for my sins in order to rise and intercede on my behalf. David in Psalm 23 doesn't say Jehovah is His shepherd to restore his house, health, or happiness but to restore his soul. David doesn't say that he has a Good Shepherd so that he would never experience death, loss, or heartache. No he has one so that he might dwell in the Lord's house forever.
Jesus being our Good Shepherd doesn't mean we don't have to face the ferocious wolves or the foreboding wilderness. It does mean that in the midst of whatever trials we are in we are to be certain Jesus is at work restoring our soul even as the wolves are tearing at our body. It does mean that Jesus is at work preparing a room for us in the house of the Lord even as this wilderness howls against our earthly dwelling. But there's another lesson here. As the Shepherd goes, so goes the sheep. Sheep are meant to follow shepherds, not the other way around. As Jesus' Easter was preceded by a Good Friday, so will ours be. As we sing in the Easter hymn, "Made like Him, like Him we rise/ Ours the cross, the grave, the skies."
We're going to have Good Fridays in this world; they can't be avoided. But know two things. First, our Good Fridays, no matter how painful, severe, and long are never to pay for our sins, shortcomings, or unbelief. Only the Good Shepherd's Good Friday did that. Second, our Good Fridays serve the purpose of Easter, not the other way around. Your Good Fridays, your losses, illnesses, afflictions, aren't the point, the goal, the end of the story. Easter, resurrection, and joy are the goal, point, and end your Good Shepherd is leading you towards. Just as the Father didn't leave the Good Shepherd in the grave, so the Good Shepherd will not leave you in the pits or the grave; He doesn't even leave us in the holes we have dug for ourselves.
In the phrase Good Shepherd, good' not the ordinary Greek word for good. This one means something like "ah that hits the spot." Jesus is just the right kind of shepherd for us sheep who love to wander. He hits the spot. He hits our sore spots with His mercy, our sin spots with His forgiveness, our weak spots with His strength. He does whatever it takes to bring us through our Good Fridays to His eternal Easter. And He's very good at what He does though His ways may seem funny at times. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday of Easter (20090503); John 10: 11-18