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“I AM…the Good Shepherd — February 12, 2017”
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I AM…the Good Shepherd

Ezekiel 34:11-16 and John 10:1-19
February 12, 2017
Laurel Neal

Download the PDF document format of this sermon: I AM the Good Shepherd.

Ezekiel 34:11-16 (NIV)

 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.  I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land.  I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.  I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord.  I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

John 10:1-19 (NIV)

The Good Shepherd and His Sheep

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.  But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”  Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.  The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to 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 authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

 The Jews who heard these words were again divided.

I

We’re back in the same passage as last week — because Jesus makes two I AM declarations in John 10. Jesus has been making these declarations during the annual celebrations of Jewish life. First he declared, “I AM the bread of life.” That was springtime, near the festival of Passover. Then he declared, “I AM the light of the world.” That was in the fall, during the festival of Tabernacles. Bread was an important feature of Passover, and light was an important feature of Tabernacles. So Jesus used 5 small barley loaves — and then 16 huge, lighted bowls of oil in the temple court — to talk about his identity and purpose. Just as God is true nourishment, and true light, so is Jesus. For Jesus comes from God — and bears God into the world in his own life.

Then last week, Jesus declared, “I AM the gate for the sheep” — and today he declares, “I AM the good shepherd.” He may have made these declarations near the festival of Hanukkah, which follows Tabernacles — or at least with Hanukkah in mind. Both Passover and Tabernacles are Old Testament celebrations — but Hanukkah was more recent. It commemorates something that happened in 165 B. C. The rededication of the temple in Jerusalem — after Greek soldiers had attacked it, and desecrated it with the blood of pigs, and burned scrolls of scripture, and erected a pagan statue, and outlawed Jewish worship. For most Jews, this desecration was an awful event — an event that happened largely because of the weakness and corruption of Jewish priests and other leaders. But a Jew named Judas Maccabeus fought back. He and his “band of brothers” recaptured the temple. They cleaned it up and rededicated it. Hanukkah celebrates these events — and was also an occasion to think about leadership. “To ask,” as one commentator puts it, “hard questions about failed leadership and false shepherds.”1

II

Which is what Jesus is doing in John 10. The failed leaders Jesus is thinking of are the Pharisees — and he’s talking right to them. The Pharisees have been calling Jesus’ leadership and authority into question — and now he questions theirs. Things have been brought to a head like this by Jesus healing the blind man in John 9. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for performing that healing and for doing it on the Sabbath. They’ve also criticized the man for deciding to follow Jesus as a disciple instead of them.

As I told you last week, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day think they’re Israel’s true and rightful leaders — the ones authorized to lead the people of God. Ever since Judas Maccabeus recaptured the temple, the Pharisees have been accumulating religious and political power in Israel. Like our political parties, the Pharisees have an agenda — and it’s to keep the nation of Israel pure. They do this by emphasizing Old Testament laws — by expecting every Jew, above all else, to observe those laws with exactness.

As I also said last week, the Pharisees aren’t just being picky here. If the nation can become sufficiently pure, they believe God will finally send his Messiah. A king to lead Israel to another military victory, this time over the Romans.

Until then, the Pharisees believe they have the authority to oversee, and lead, and care for God’s people, God’s flock. They think they’re doing a great job at that — and keeping Jesus in line is an example of their own excellent leadership.

III

There’s just one problem: this parable about sheepherding that Jesus tells in John 10. He tells this story as a way of accusing the Pharisees — accusing them of being failed leaders and false shepherds to the people of Israel — and, by inference, to the whole world. Jesus’ language here, you may have noticed, is rather harsh. But in light of their treatment of the blind man in chapter 9, the Pharisees are guilty of stealing, and killing, and destroying. Almost certainly that’s not what the Pharisees have set out to do or have intended to do. But, as one commentator observes,

…where life and death are stark opposites, as they are in John, whatever does not lead to life leads to death, and those who lead others away from following Jesus, the light of life, inadvertently lead them to their death.2

But Jesus doesn’t tell this sheepherding parable just to rebuke the Pharisees. He tells it in order to claim something about himself: that he’s the one with the authority and qualifications to lead the people of God. The Pharisees think of themselves as good shepherds — but Jesus claims to be THE good shepherd. And then he gives three reasons why:

Reason #1. Jesus says, “I’m the good shepherd because the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”

This is one of the ways you can tell a good shepherd from a bad shepherd, or a false shepherd, or — as Jesus puts it — a hired hand. Jesus has in mind a very real occurrence: wild animals attacking the sheep. When things get bad like that — when sheep will get killed unless someone deals with the wolf, and dealing with the wolf is itself a life-threatening situation — well, “let’s be honest,” Jesus says. In a situation like that, we all know what a hired hand will do. He’ll run away. A hired hand is glad to guide the sheep and rescue them out of minor scrapes. But the hired hand doesn’t love the sheep. They don’t belong to him. This is just a job for him. If real danger arises, the hired hand’s gonna look after himself first, not the sheep.

Most of us have been this kind of hired hand at some point. For me, it was during Fitz’s first year of seminary. I was working for a temp agency and got hired by a family-owned business in Princeton. The job didn’t pay very well and wasn’t particularly interesting. I arrived promptly at 8:00 and left just as promptly at 5:00. I didn’t do anything extra. I didn’t have any kind of stake in the business. I didn’t think about it when I wasn’t there. And I quit as soon as I got a better offer.

But Jesus? He does have a stake in the sheep. He’ll put himself at risk for their sake. He’ll even lay down his own life to protect them.

Now this phrase — lay down his life — is important. It refers to the voluntary giving up of one’s self, for the sake of another — and it’s a reference to the death Jesus will eventually die. His crucifixion will be a voluntary giving up, or handing over, of himself — for our sakes. So we might not die, but live. This power Jesus has to lay down his life — and also the power to take it up again — is proof, Jesus says, that he’s the good shepherd. The one who’s authorized, and qualified, to lead the people of God.

IV

Reason #2 that Jesus is the good shepherd: he knows the sheep and the sheep know him.

This word know is another interesting Greek word. Jesus doesn’t just know about the sheep. He’s not merely aware of them. He knows them. He has a relationship with them, and it’s a relationship of mutual trust and intimacy. We saw this last week in the way shepherds name their sheep and tenderly care for them. We saw it in the way sheep recognize the voice of their own shepherd — and run away from anyone else. This deep personal knowledge of the sheep, Jesus says, is another proof that he’s the good shepherd. The one who’s authorized, and qualified, to lead the people of God.

Reason #3 that Jesus is the good shepherd: Jesus says there are other sheep that also belong to him.

Some non-Jewish sheep — sheep in some other flock, some other sheep pen. Jesus says he’s got to go and call those sheep, too — and they’re also going to recognize his voice, and come to him. So far, Jesus has been talking about the sheep who are the people of Israel — and he’s been calling mostly to Jewish sheep: like the blind man in John 9, and Nicodemus — a Pharisee! — in John 3. But Jesus interacts with a surprising number of Gentiles in the gospels — and sometimes with Samaritans, who are sort of half Jewish and half Gentile. Like that woman of Samaria in John 4. Every time this is a demonstration that God’s never-ever been interested only in Israel — that God’s always been concerned for the whole world. God’s call to Israel — going all the way back to Abraham in Genesis 12 — has always been for the sake of a lot of other sheep besides Israel. But the Pharisees have forgotten this — and this is a huge part of what makes them false shepherds in God’s eyes.

Jesus, on the other hand, is completely in line with God the Father on this point. He knows and loves Israel, and he’ll lay down his life for Israel. But there are others he knows and loves, too — and for whom he’s also going to lay down his life. First-century Israel needed to hear this. It made the Pharisees mad, but they shouldn’t have been. We probably can’t hear it often enough, either. Because the natural tendency of almost every church is to grow insular and cozy — to forget that we exist for the sake of other sheep Jesus loves. That Jesus knows these other sheep, and has a sense of urgency to bring them in — plus the ability to bring them in, and to create one flock out of so many sheep — well, that’s just another proof that Jesus is the good shepherd. That he’s authorized, and qualified, to lead ALL the people of God.

V

So let me tell you a parable.

When I first heard of Benjamin Bolger, he was 20 years old. He’d just graduated #1 in his class from the University of Michigan and was a first-year student at Yale Law School. You’d think law school would be a breeze for someone like Benjamin Bolger, but it wasn’t. Because Benjamin could only read, write, and spell at a 3rd grade level — and always will. Here’s what happened. Benjamin started out in a preschool for gifted children, but couldn’t get the hang of reading. When he was 7, his mom — Loretta Bolger — had him tested. The diagnosis was a severe form of dyslexia. Special tutoring helped, but not much. When Benjamin was 10, Roberta began teaching him at home. They went to the theatre, and museums, and university lectures. But, mostly, Loretta read to him. At 13, Benjamin started taking college courses. He taped his classes, used a notetaker, took all his exams orally. And Loretta kept reading to him. At 17, Benjamin transferred to the University of Michigan. Two years later, he graduated first in his class and moved on to Yale. At Yale, there wasn’t time to review tapes or lecture notes — which was okay because Benjamin had gotten pretty good at remembering what he heard. So he simply sat in his classes and listened. Meanwhile, Loretta kept on reading to him. For six hours a day, she read Benjamin’s law books aloud to him. When there were papers to write, Loretta sat in front of the computer, with Benjamin, by the hour, spell checking the spell checker. This is what Benjamin was doing when I first heard about him. He now holds something like 27 academic degrees from places like Oxford, and Columbia, and the Harvard School of Design. And he runs some kind of consulting business. But he still can’t read his way out of a paper bag. So here’s the question I have about Benjamin Bolger: Where exactly would he be without his mom, Loretta — who was such a good shepherd to him? She accompanied him through a challenging and dangerous life. She knew him — in a deeply personal, and trustworthy, and faithful way. She laid down her life for him. Without Loretta, who knows what would have become of Benjamin? Who, whatever he’s doing right now, still needs someone to read for him — and check his spelling.

And where exactly would the flock of Israel be without Jesus? Where exactly would we be? Since we’re some of those “other sheep” Jesus is talking about in John 10? And what’s going to become of the other “other sheep” of this world? The sheep besides us that Jesus knows, and loves, and for whom he has also laid down his life?

VI

When we lived in Oklahoma City, our next door neighbor — Mike Mahon — was a pilot for American Airlines and also an Air Force reservist. In his Air Force job, he flies aerial tankers — the kind that refuel fighter jets and long-range bombers in mid-air — and he got deployed a couple of times in the wake of 9/11. Eventually, Mike got promoted to commander of his tanker squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, and he invited everyone on our street to the Change of Command ceremony. As near as I could tell, here’s what constituted the exact moment of the change of command: the transfer of the squadron’s flag — which is a symbol of the commander’s authority and responsibility for the unit.

The whole thing was very choreographed.

      • First, a soldier presented the staff bearing the squadron flag to the outgoing commander.

      • The outgoing commander grasped it, relinquished it, and stepped back.

      • Just then, the incoming commander — our friend Mike — stepped forward to the spot just vacated by the outgoing commander.

      • The soldier presented Mike with the staff bearing the squadron flag — and Mike grasped it and held onto it.

In the military, Change of Command ceremonies are filled with all kinds of symbolism — including symbolism about the continuity of leadership and the passing on of authority. Near the festival of Hanukkah, Jesus criticizes the leadership of the Pharisees — and proclaims that his own leadership is in continuity with the leadership of God himself. “I AM,” he declares, “the good shepherd: I lay down my life for my sheep. I know my own and my own know me. But you need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen — and I need to gather and bring them, also. For they, too, will recognize my voice when they hear it.”

1 Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 288.

2 Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, 224.