(Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24)
“The Love of a Shepherd”
(watch here: https://youtu.be/yXwV1tsxTGM)
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Today we are celebrating the fourth Sunday of Easter, a day commonly referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” All throughout our readings we are reminded of Jesus forever being our good shepherd. This is an important reminder because it is easy to believe that Jesus was a bad shepherd who abandoned us on the cross. Jesus led us and fed us throughout his ministry, a ministry that came to a sudden and tragic end in the hands of his Roman persecutors. Jesus willingly and graciously went to that cross and died for us and our sin but he also left us. For three long days, the world sat in stunned amazement for being abandoned by our Lord and Savior. How could he have left us? A good shepherd would never leave his flock! Yet Jesus left us! How good of a shepherd was Jesus?!
The fact that he came back from the dead, came back from sitting at the right hand of the Father, came back to our world of pain and suffering and death suggests that he was a pretty good shepherd after all! Yes, Jesus left us for three days but he also came back to us and remains with us to this day. His return can’t be minimized or overlooked. Jesus loves us so much that he was willing to endure pain and agony, die for us, and yet come back for MORE of US! Not too many people willingly endure torturing only to come back and ask for more of it. The love Jesus has for us is almost unfathomable! And I realize that love can make us do some pretty stupid things. We tell ourselves that we’d die for the people and things in our lives that we love but when it comes down to it…when we must choose to die for the person or thing we love…our survival instinct kicks in and we choose our own lives. It takes a powerful love to overcome instinctual needs to survive. Jesus has this love for us. He went through with it; he DIED for us! What a shepherd indeed!
Of course, Jesus had said he’d come back to us all along. He had repeatedly told his disciples and the people he encountered that the temple would be destroyed and raised three days later. People were confused and didn’t realize he was speaking about himself. Jesus warned them and us of his 3-day absence. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave behind a substitute shepherd willing to lead and guide in his absence. His own disciples were befuddled by his absence! No, the truly good shepherd leaves us unattended if only for 3 days. The truly good shepherd knew no one could fill his shoes anyways. Nonetheless, the world survived those 3 days without the Good Shepherd. And the world GAINED a resurrected Christ; a Christ that transcends time and space. Christ walks with us and continues to walk with us to the end. Christ is in a new form, a form that ate and drank with the disciples the week after the crucifixion and continues to eat and drink with us today. Christ is very much alive and shepherding his sheep to this day. Christ is very much with us this morning.
To help us realize this, perhaps it would be helpful to better understand sheep and shepherds. Over the years, both sheep and shepherds have received somewhat bad reputations. Sheep are considered some of the stupidest animals and the profession of shepherding isn’t one the kids are stumbling over themselves to get trained in. No, sheep and shepherds have earned bad raps over the years. We’ve come to overlook all the good qualities of sheep and shepherds that we should consider especially this Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday.
But before we delve into those qualities, I must share an anecdote from my college days. The psalm we lift up today, Psalm 23, is one of the most popular psalms, if not THE most popular psalm. We invariably lift it up in times personal struggle and heartache. We long to hear about our Good Shepherd leading us safely to still waters amidst our struggling times. There is no greater time of struggle for a college student than when he/she must prepare a paper or take a test. With slight alteration, even Psalm 23 can provide comfort for a student in just such a time. I recall the version of the psalm I used as a student:
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not flunk; He keepeth me from lying down when I should be studying. He leadeth me beside the water cooler for a study break; He restoreth my faith in study guides. He leads me to better study habits For my grades sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of borderline grades, I will not have a nervous breakdown; For thou art with me. My prayers and my friends, they comfort me. Thou givest me answers in moments of blankness; Thou anointest my head with understanding. My test paper runneth over with questions I recognize. Surely passing grades and flying colors shall follow me All the days of my examinations, And I shall not have to dwell in this university forever, Amen!
Just a slight variation here and there and even the 23rd psalm can come in handy for a wayward, panicked student!
Jesus IS the Good Shepherd and we are called to be good sheep. Believe it or not, sheep and shepherds CAN be good. Sheep are much more than simply dumb animals. Yes, they are below pigs and cattle on the IQ scale but they have excellent hearing and can perceive the slightest noise from long distances. In addition to their keen hearing, sheep have unusually sharp eyesight. Their horizontally shaped pupils enhance their peripheral vision by enabling them to see 260° instead of the typical 180°. They can literally see behind their heads! Sheep have the tendency to move out of dark areas and into more well-lit areas. They are uncomfortable in dark areas and will seek out the safety of better lit areas. As if the acute hearing and vision weren’t enough, sheep are blessed with an excellent sense of smell and even have scent glands on their feet. All these heightened senses give sheep a special awareness of their surroundings. Few things catch them unaware!
Behaviorally sheep also have a number of advantages. They realize their need for a leader and are naturally inclined to follow. When lolling about the fields, sheep will gravitate towards other members of their own flock. They tend to want to stay with the flock despite their absent-mindedness leading them astray. They become agitated and stressed when separated from the flock. Sheep recognize individual humans and other sheep faces, and will remember them for years. In fact, they know our faces so well that they can tell our emotions by our facial expressions. Like dogs and cats, sheep can even learn the names we give them. Clearly sheep are more than the dumb animals they’re made out to be.
Despite how aware they are of their surroundings and their longing to stay with the flock, sheep often find themselves in dangerous situations. They get easily distracted and need someone to save them from these situations. A shepherd plays a vital role in protecting the sheep; both keeping them from getting into dangerous situations and saving them from those situations they find themselves in. A shepherd knows the sheep are easily distracted. A shepherd knows the sheep will wander off if left alone. A shepherd knows his responsibility of keeping the sheep gathered and safe. A good shepherd doesn’t get angry with the sheep for their absent-mindedness. A good shepherd doesn’t regard the sheep as less capable than other animals. A good shepherd focuses more on the good qualities of the sheep. A good shepherd wants to protect the sheep, not because it’s required with the job but because the sheep have great value. Jesus, the greatest shepherd of all, knows the priceless value of each of us. Jesus wants to gather us and protect us and save us. Jesus focuses more on our good qualities than our bad ones. Jesus knows our sin and how we become enslaved to it. Sin distracts us from loving God with all our hearts and minds. Jesus doesn’t get angry with us for easily being distracted by our sin. Jesus lovingly gathers us and protects us and saves us. Jesus DIED for us so that we might be freed from our bondage to sin! Only a truly GOOD shepherd would give up his life for his sheep and this is exactly what Jesus did.
Our readings assigned for today remind us the qualities of a good shepherd. When we place our faith in Christ, we come to realize he IS the good shepherd. Through faith in Christ, we realize we are without want and lying in green pastures beside still waters. Through faith in Christ, our souls are restored and we are without fear. His rod and staff, they comfort us. Faith in Christ is an endless source of goodness and mercy. When we abide in the love of Jesus Christ, we are abiding in God’s house. All we need to do is have FAITH! God loves us and wants us to know His love. We just need to have faith.
I’m reminded of the Sunday School teacher who decided to have her young class memorize Psalm 23. She gave the youngsters a month to learn the verse. Little Bobby was excited about the task, but he just couldn’t remember the Psalm. After much practice, he could barely get past the first line. On the day that the kids were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Bobby was so nervous. When it was his turn, he stepped up to the microphone and said proudly, “The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know.”
That’s all WE need to know! The Lord is our shepherd. The Lord is our GOOD shepherd! Like sheep, we get easily distracted by sin in our lives. We’re not dumb, just distracted! Jesus loves us so much that he continously comes into our lives and focuses us. Let us work at staying focused and rejoice in…the love of a shepherd.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.