On April 6, the folks at Crafton Heights continued to think about what it means to hear Jesus say “I Am…” This morning, we considered his claim to be the Good Shepherd, as found in John 10. The Old Testament reading came from Ezekiel 34
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” You know, a lot of times, Jesus says stuff that makes total sense to us. But sometimes, he says things that seem to be totally removed from our experience. How much do you know about shepherding?
As it turns out, I have some history in the field of livestock management. While I have never listed “shepherd” on my resume, it turns out that for a week about fifteen years ago, I was “the Goat Guy” at a Bible school that our youth group facilitated in Western New York.
The reason I do not list this on my resume, though, is that I am not a very good shepherd. I was given some rope, one sheep and two very willful goats and I spent the better part of five days chasing these loud and smelly creatures through the little village they’d set up. It was not my finest moment. I didn’t know what I was doing.
And that’s what sort of gets me about our scripture this morning. We’re walking through the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John, and we’re looking at the times and places where he says, “I am…” And mostly, when he says that, we have an image that we can deal with , don’t we? I am the bread of life… OK, I know bread, I’ve seen bread. I am the light, I am the door – we know about light and doors. But I am the good shepherd? What’s that about? How do we know if that’s a good thing?
Let’s talk for a few moments about shepherds. Actually, since I’m pretty sure we don’t know that much about shepherds, I’ll start someplace where we’re on a little firmer ground. Jesus did not say, “I am the good cowboy”, did he? Think back to your Zane Grey novels or your John Wayne movies. What do cowboys do? Well, they get out there on their horses, and they drive the herd, right? They are hired to ride along beside and behind the herd of cows – someone else’s cows – pushing that herd where they want it to go. If the herd moves to slowly, then out comes the whip, right? One of the cows starts to stray, and what happens? The rugged cowboy chases off after it, ropes it, ties it up, and brings it back to the herd. The goal of the cowboy is to chase someone else’s cows from one place to another, and at the end of the journey, the herd is slaughtered and the cowboy starts all over again. The cows are a means to an end, a job, a necessary evil, if you will.
Shepherds, on the other hand, are different. In the Middle East, when the shepherd wants to move his flock of sheep, he gets out in front of them and calls to them. They follow him. Since they belong to him, they know him, and he knows them. He protects them from predators, and if one goes astray, he leaves the flock where it is, collects the one that’s missing, and then they move on together. Whereas the herd of cows is a job for the cowboy, the flock of sheep is a way of life for the shepherd. The sheep provide wool to clothe his family and milk and meat to nourish his children. If a sheep wanders off, then that means that there are fewer lambs next year, less milk and meat and wool. It’s not an inconvenience, it’s a tragedy for a family to lose a sheep.
Do you remember in the movies what happens when two groups of cowboys get to the watering hole at the same time? The herds of cattle both rush to the water. They mix together, there’s a lot of confusion, and days, or maybe weeks are lost trying to separate one herd from the other. Two groups of sheep can approach the same waterhole, and this is what happens – it’s a true story. Each shepherd brings his flock down close to the water, and then has them wait. The shepherds go and drink themselves, and maybe wash up. Then each shepherd calls his flock over and waters them. When they are finished, the shepherd simply calls his flock and they follow him, knowing that he will lead them to good pasture.
Although we in the USA have glorified the image of the cowboy in many ways, and celebrate the independence and the ruggedness that cowboys typify, the scriptures refer to the Lord as being a shepherd. Ezekiel 34 describes in detail God’s promise to be the shepherd for his people. He talks about the fact that those he has sent to take care of the flocks have failed – that they’ve looked after their own needs, and sought their own gain at the expense of the flock. Because the leadership failed, the flocks scattered, and many of the sheep became lost, ill, or disoriented. But there is a time coming, says the Lord, when he himself will lead, care for, and protect the flock that has become weak and lost.
And that’s what Jesus was talking about in John, when he said, “That’s me. I am the good shepherd. I am not another religious leader who’s come to take you all for a ride and enrich myself at your expense. I have come to know you, to call you together, to care for you, to protect you, and to offer you security. That’s my mission. That’s why I’m here.”
In the last few weeks, friends, we’ve heard challenges from the Word. If Jesus is the bread of life, then we are called to receive the nourishment from that bread and go out and tell our story – to invite our friends to know that there is a place where they can receive that which has sustained us. If Jesus is the light, then we are to walk into that light and let it expose us so that we can correct what is wrong and move further into what is right. If Jesus is the door, then we are to walk through that door into lives of mission and service. The “I am” statements of Jesus can be significant challenges to us, as we not only listen to their truth, but act on that truth in our world. This week, as I studied Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd, it occurred to me that this is the “I am” statement that may release us to live into the other statements more fully.
Because here’s the deal, beloved: if Jesus is truly the good shepherd, then there are at least three things that are true in your life and in mine.
First, there is a shepherd who knows your name. And remember, in this culture, knowing your name means knowing you. The fact that Jesus is my shepherd means more than the fact that he will never, ever, call me Dave Carter. Or Don Caver. Or … well, you get the idea. Jesus knows my name. He knows who I am. In so many ways, he knows me better than I know myself. Jesus knows your name. He knows what you’re capable of. He knows what you can do. When Jesus calls your name, he’s not some cowboy cracking the whip, wondering why in the world you aren’t moving any faster and angry that you’re somehow slowing up the rest of the group. No, when the Good Shepherd calls your name, he is speaking to the full reality and totality of your existence. Someone knows your name.
The shepherd not only knows your name, but knows your needs. As you move from one day after another, one task to the next, the one who has called you knows what you need to move forward. A good shepherd knows where to find nourishment for his flock. He knows where the clean water is. He knows when the flock needs to rest, and when they must move further to escape harm’s way. There is not a hole in your life that Jesus doesn’t know about. There is not a need that you have of which the Good Shepherd is ignorant. He knows what you need.
And this Shepherd who knows your name and who knows your needs is where? Ahead of you. The good shepherd is leading his flock. Which means that there is no place that you will ever be – no place that you can ever be – where Jesus hasn’t been there ahead of you. Think about the gift that that is for us – there is nowhere we can be that is apart from his care and presence.
So far, so good, right? Who wouldn’t want to be known, cared for, and accompanied by the Good Shepherd? But then comes the part that had me confused for the better part of the week. Jesus says that the Good Shepherd lays down his life on behalf of his sheep. Now, I don’t know everything there is to know about shepherding, but it seems to me that there’s a flaw in this logic. If the shepherd is protecting the sheep, that’s great. But if the shepherd puts himself in a position to get killed by whoever or whatever is attacking the sheep, then what’s to keep the sheep safe after the shepherd dies? I mean, wouldn’t it be better for the flock to lose a few sheep to whatever marauder is out there than for the shepherd to die and leave the whole flock exposed?
Think about it: in what circumstance would it be a good idea for the shepherd to sacrifice himself on behalf of the sheep? If a shepherd were to get himself killed AND lose the flock besides, there’s no good in it, is there?
It seems to me that the only way that it would make sense for the shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep is if the threat to the sheep becomes neutralized by the shepherd’s death. If somehow in the act of dying, he is able to secure the flock and get them to safety, then the shepherd’s sacrifice makes sense.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I will protect you from ultimate harm at the cost of my own life. I will ensure that you will never be devoured by evil. I will protect you.”
That is the promise of today’s scripture, my friends. That is the good news of the gospel.
What do you think of when you think of San Francisco? I know you’ve seen pictures on TV or in the movies of the Golden Gate Bridge. Isn’t that the symbol of that city? It is huge, isn’t it? It’s –1.7 miles long, and 746 feet high. It was begun in 1933 and completed in 1937- but did you know that it was done in two stages? The first stage got off to a good start, but then the work moved slower and slower. Eventually, the project came to a standstill. Do you know why? Because when they first started working on the bridge, the rule of thumb was that there would be one worker fatality for every million dollars of construction – and it was a $35 million project.
As those men were high above the earth, working on cables or iron or whatever, they would look down and see the Bay, and they would think about the expectation – that many of them would die during construction. Some men became paralyzed with fear. Nothing was getting accomplished. It looked as though it might never get finished. Then someone got a bright idea: maybe there should be a net. So they put together, for the cost of $130,000, the largest net ever made. And when that net was hung below the bridge, work started again. And when the second stage of construction began, men fell off the bridge. 19 men were saved because of that net. Was it scary when they fell? I imagine that it was. Did they lose their tools when they fell? Sure they did. Did they lose their glasses, or their watches, or their lunches? Of course. But they did not lose their lives. And the work on stage two went 25% faster than it had on stage one – because workmen were not in fear for their lives, and so were free to work on the bridge. In fact, a couple of men were so enthralled with the netting that they had to be disciplined for jumping into it voluntarily!
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s saying something about him, to be sure. But it is also saying something about us. Because we have a shepherd, we can be sure that God knows our names, knows our needs, and walks ahead of us. But more than that, we can be sure that our ultimate safety is assured. Because Jesus laid down his life for us, we who follow his call can be sure that our hope is eternal – that there is no power on earth that can separate us from God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ.
Because we have a shepherd, we are free to do what God calls us to do. Just as the workmen on the Golden Gate bridge were free to do their jobs after the net was installed, so are we free to hear and follow through on the challenges of the gospel – we can tell our friends about the bread of life that will sustain them in times of spiritual famine; we can move into the light and examine our lives; and we can invite the world to know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Because this is true, we can act on all of the imperatives that Jesus puts before us – because he’s guaranteeing that we will be able to do what he asks us to do. Jim Eliot, missionary to South America in the middle of the 1900’s, put it this way in his journal: “I am convinced that I am immortal until God’s has accomplished his purpose in me.”
Our world is full of cowboys – loners who don’t take any guff from anyone else, who do a job and bring the herd into town on time, and are willing to live a rough and solitary existence cracking the whip over those around them. And our world is full of posers – folks who, like the “goat guy” that I was twenty years ago, willing to dress up and wander around pretending to know more than they really do, but not getting anything of substance done.
But today, I’m glad to say that I’ve found the shepherd – or, to be more accurate – I’m glad the shepherd found me. And I’m not leaving, because he has what I need – and in the strength of his presence and protection, I can do anything he wants me to do. Amen.
 See http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2006/february/5060213.html, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/goldengate/, or http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/goldengate-safety/ for more information.