July 11, 2021
Good Morning. Thank you to Anne for the beautiful music to help prepare our hearts for the message, and to Marie for reading the scriptures we will study today.
"This morning we're beginning a new sermon series on the "I am" statements of Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus shared who he was and what he was like. Jesus said, "I am the bread of life, light of the world, resurrection and the life." Today we'll be studying another of the classic I am statements ... I am the good shepherd. Let me be clear, I am NOT the Good Shepherd, but I am a shepherd.
I confess as I begin this sermon today that I know more about the characteristics of a being a sheep than that of being a shepherd. My background is that of an Athletic Trainer and college professor. I have found that I have been challenged immensely by the scriptures that Marie shared with us earlier in the service. I have learned a great deal about the process of being a shepherd and the entire sheep industry. In fact, after a Sunday service several months ago, my good friends John and Mary Ellen Wilkerson came up to me and stated that they didn’t recognize me. Mary Ellen went on to say that I looked line an old sheepherder with this grey, scraggly stuff on my face! So, at least I am trying to look the part.
A great deal of my understanding of these scriptures comes from the work of Phillip Keller and his book: A Shepherd Looks at The Good Shepherd. His companion book: A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 is also a rich manuscript to help us understand the concept of the Good Shepherd. These 2 books could provide a great foundation for an upcoming Bible study series if anyone is interested. Keller is amazing in his ability to ask great questions about what it means to be a Christian in today’s ever so complex world. His imagery and comparisons of sheep and people portray a meaningful understanding to help us understand these complex scriptures. And complex they are! So complex, as the scriptures tell us, that the hearers of God’s word caused a split in the Jewish ranks. As Eugene Peterson says in the Message (Chapter 10:19-21): Some said, “He’s crazy, a maniac-out of his head completely. Why bother listening to him? But others weren’t so sure: These aren’t the words of a crazy man. Can a maniac open blind eyes?”
My first objective today is to see if we can’t sort this out and attempt to make some sense of the parables. In order to do so, we need to know more about the characteristics and attributes of sheep. At a recent meeting with the elders of the church, I asked those in attendance how many of them have ever raised sheep and to describe sheep for me. I was surprised that many of them had raised sheep (even if just for a month or two – Graham Smith). Here are some of their responses to those questions: Sheep are dumb. They need to be moved from place to place. If not moved, they graze the grass to the roots until the ground becomes barren and the sheep become sick. Sheep are wanderers. Sheep are relational. Sheep won’t follow a stranger’s voice. Sheep are timid, helpless and possess a mob mentality. Keller tells a story of how a jack rabbit suddenly popping out of a hole, scattered hundreds of head of sheep because they became frenzied out of fear when startled – a jack rabbit. Sheep need protection. They are haughty and stubborn and turn to their own ways. Most if not all sheep have gone astray, yet typically follow blindly, habitually and even stupidly, wandering the same path or trail thus eroding the ground into deep gullies. This erosion causes significant damage.
Let me try to make the connection of sheep to people. Do the attributes I previously listed describe who we are? I don’t mean to offend anyone but, I have sure done some dumb things in my life. I know many who wander aimlessly. We as humans are quick to scatter when faced with fear. Do you know any haughty, stubborn people? More importantly, are you one of them? Have we wandered, aimlessly following something or someone that has led to ultimate ruin and erosion of our hearts and life’s? I would bet that all of us would admit that we have followed our own ways even in the face of disastrous results out of foolish pride and selfishness. You see, we need the protection of a Good Shepherd. There are many shepherds among us, but only one Good Shepherd. Hold on to this statement and I will provide further insight later in the message.
Now that we know something about sheep and people, we need to explore the role of the Good Shepherd. How many of you are familiar with the term a “sheepfold” or maybe more commonly called a “sheep pen?” Some context might help us understand this term. In some parts of the world, sheep are under constant attack from predators – lions, leopards, hyenas, cougars, wolves, and even rustlers. The sheepfold is an area designed to provide protection for the sheep. It is an enclosure, although not covered. If it was covered, the shepherd could not see his sheep. Sheepfolds are usually made of high walls or fencing to guard the sheep from attack. It would be typical for the sheep to be “called in” to the sheepfold at night in order to provide protection. What I found interesting is that the sheep would respond and come in (or go out) based on the hearing of the shepherds’ voice. As Eugene Peterson in the Message tells us in John 10: 1-5 The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.”
Notice the imagery in those passages. They reference the shepherd and the gatekeeper. As we understand those passages in the context of our life today, Jesus is both the shepherd and the gatekeeper. The Good Shepherd calls us by name and the Gate Keeper invites in those he knows. The implications of those first few verses are so peace giving and profound that we need to pause for a moment and reflect…… How awesome is it that we have a God that calls us to Him and knows us by name? He desires for us an intimate relationship in which He loves us and we love Him. Imagine a relationship with the Lord that parallels that of the shepherd with his sheep. A relationship that when called by name, we respond to the Good Shepherds voice. We run towards that voice, and are greeted, hugged, loved and caressed, providing peace and contentment with our Lord. As I was preparing for today, I remember back to a time in my life when things were pretty hard. I had just moved away from home to go to graduate school in California. My monthly paycheck was $2.50 less than my monthly rent. I was lonely, afraid, anxious, and suffering with some health issues. My studio apartment was a block away from Millbrook Presbyterian Church in Fresno. I made it to church one Sunday morning, and like most good Presbyterians, I snuck in late and sat in the back pew. After church I was welcomed by the Interim Pastor. He went by the name Pastor Ernie. I went back to the same church the next week and was again greeted by Pastor Ernie. He called me by my name and welcomed me back. It is hard to explain the impact that someone in such a distant, and what felt like a foreign place, knew/remembered my name. For me, that simple act from my pastor changed the entire path of my life, and through the leading and prodding of the Good Shepherd is what has brought me here today. Ernie was a shepherd, modeling a life that reflected the Good Shepherd.
If you think about the Children’s message earlier in the service, the children are “called in,” they are given instruction and care, and then they are “sent out.” They entered a sheepfold. It is really no different for us in this sanctuary. We came in. We are being fed, loved, and cared for. Then we go out into His kingdom to honor and reflect who He is in our lives. Thankfully, we have a Good Shepherd that has brought us in, knows us by name, and protects us as we go out. John 10:10 tells us that Jesus came so that we can have a real, meaningful and eternal life and that His desire for us it to live abundantly.
Herein lies the problem, we need protection. Our lives are under attack in this out of control world. There are thieves and robbers that try to steal our peace. We also need protection from ourselves. Our pride, arrogance, ignorance, haughtiness, and self-centered ways rob us of that intimate peace that comes from knowing Christ. That brings us to my third point for today. We have a choice to make. We can choose to follow or to stray. This seems like it is so counterintuitive and hard to understand that I just don’t get it. Who in their own right mind would not want an intimate relationship with someone that knows us, loves us, cares for us, and gave his entire life for us? I bet there is not one person in this sanctuary today when asked, would disagree, that is what we want in our lives.
Yet, our behavior patterns and life habits when we go out of this place are so much like sheep that it is embarrassing. We don’t live as if we want to be led in paths of righteousness. Our proud, stubborn, self-centered ways take us down old paths into polluted ground and we graze until we become nothing more than a bag of bones. Ruined people, in a ruined land of broken hearts, broken homes and broken lives. My wife Debi, found a post on Facebook earlier this week that illustrates this conundrum in our lives. There was a shepherd walking along the edge of one of his pastures. Workers had dug a trench to put in power lines. The trench looked to be about 18 inches wide and the shepherd noticed one of his sheep wedged in the trench. He went to the sheep and pulled it out, releasing it from entrapment. What did the sheep do, but he ran forward a few steps and then jumped right back into the trench only to be trapped again? Sound like something we might have done a time or two?
Now that I have given you all of that bad news, let me share with you some good news. There are shepherds among us. Remember the parable of the “lost sheep?” It goes something like this. In Mathew 18 and Luke 15, Jesus was talking to an audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and teachers of the law, and asked them to imagine what a shepherd would do if he had a flock of 100 sheep and one of them went missing? He informed them that the Good Shepherd would leave the 99 to find the one. So, what does this mean? It means that each of us is precious to Him, so precious that he will search for us when we are lost and not give up until we have been found. One of the things I learned about the sheep industry is the value of community. Let me explain. When sheep go astray (as we sometimes do), the Good Shepherd sends out those sheep that he is closest to in order to bring the lost sheep back home. He doesn’t send out dogs, or hired men, or helicopters. He sends those he intimately loves to bring us back home. As followers of Christ we are members of a new community – the Family of God. We are called to love and care for one another – even when some of us are lost. In this family we are so intimately loved and cared for that we are always welcome home! As we are repeatedly called to Him, he equips us with a new set of attitudes that strengthen our walk with Him. They include:
Being obedient to Him
Doing what He asks us to do
Going where He asks us to go
Saying what he instructs us to say, and
Acting and reacting in ways honoring to Him
Sometimes he has to use His staff to remind us of these attitudes. Remember the rod and the staff from the recent sermon series about King David? The rod is actually a club that a shepherd uses to fight off attackers. The staff is a tool to guide, direct, and lead us in the ways He desires for us. We get hooked when we go astray, prodded when needed, and disciplined when we fail to live out those new attitudes. Two questions that I would challenge you to think about his week. Do you recognize the voice of the Lord in your life? And secondly, are you responding to God’s call for your life? Remember, we can choose to follow or we can choose to stray! The choice is yours.
Finally, I would like to provide us with one last bit of imagery to consider. The hallmark of the Good Shepherd is his willingness to lay down His life for His sheep. His love is selfless love! There is a term called a “cast” sheep in the ranching industry. A cast sheep is one who has fallen, usually on their side or back and because of the weight distribution of sheep, they are often unable to get up on their own. It is a pathetic sight to see a cast sheep. They are lying on their back, feet in the air, flailing, and frantically trying to get up. They bleat out in fear and frustration. As time goes on, their bodies fill up with gas and they dehydrate. If not turned upright, they die. Has there ever been a time in your life, where that describes you? I can think of a handful of times where that could have very well described me.
When the shepherd sees the cast sheep, they run towards it with both fear and joy. Fear that they might be to late and the life would be lost; Joy because they have found one of the lost sheep. Here is the part that hits home for me as an athletic trainer and healthcare professional is how to treat the cast sheep. In order to care for this sheep, the shepherd has to turn it over in order to relieve the gas. They then straddle the sheep and gently lift them to their feet. Because the cast sheep was upside down, there is diminished circulation to their legs. The shepherd rubs their legs to restore circulation. The sheep will start to walk under the guidance of the shepherd, often stumbling, staggering, and collapsing again. All this time, the shepherd is gently talking to the sheep expressing his love, care and concern. Eventually the sheep regains its strength and runs to rejoin the flock, free from fear and frustration.
This image is parallel to our life’s as Christians. We often fall, flail around in fear, frustration, and helplessness. It isn’t until we feel the touch of the Good Shepherd that we start to experience His perfect peace. It takes time, we fall and fall again, but we are so loved by our Good Shepherd as he demonstrates the same concern, compassion for us as a shepherd does for his cast sheep. That’s the good news. We are in the ever-loving hands of a Good Shepherd. Thanks be to God!