The Good Shepherd
We have a small sheep farm Swallowbrae in Torbeg. We are just coming to the end of the lambing season. Today most folk, even in this rural setting are not familiar with the work of a shepherd. It is lovely to see the wee lambs in the fields, happy and healthy and playing gang games together, but very few folk appreciate what the shepherd must do so that they get there.
Just now, John is out at 5.30 a.m., firstly he feeds the ewes in each field. He buys the feed by the tonne and he carries the equivalent of a bag of coal in weight out to the ewes in each field. He knows how many ewes and lambs he should have in each field and so he counts the sheep at the trough and if one or more is missing he goes to find them since it is likely that they are lambing or have just lambed. The remainder of his day is spent re-visiting the fields every 2-3 hours to ensure that all is well and if not to sort any problems.
And then there are pet lambs – orphan lambs for one reason or another. These have to be tended – milk every 6 hours (the last one at midnight), hay, water and lamb nuts supplied.
And this goes on for weeks, day in and day out.
And that’s just lambing. For the rest of the year, John is kept very busy – moving the sheep around to fresh grass; ensuring that they have water. Did you ever see an old bath in a field and wonder if it had been dumped there? Well, the shepherds find old baths very useful for when the ditches dry up – they fill them with water for the sheep. I have to say that it’s not something John has had to do very often in the recent past – in fact the problem has been too much rain.
And then the sheep have to be dosed regularly against disease and have a pour-on protection given against the flies in the summer.
They are clipped (or shorn) – again for their health. My job at clipping time is to roll and pack the fleeces and I can tell you that it is a very, very itchy job although I do have lovely soft hands at the end because of the lanolin in the fleeces.
And that’s still not the end of the shepherd’s job. Sheep are very good at getting to places they are not supposed to be – sometimes putting themselves in danger. So John regularly checks his fences and keeps them in good repair.
It is true that a shepherd knows each of his sheep individually. However, contrary to what some people think they are not given names, except for the pet lambs which are named by the children. Occasionally however, a ewe is named – to describe it kindly, “A Character” otherwise known as “A Troublemaker”. One such sheep on Swallowbrae was Coco – she really did have a clown-like face and she certainly had a sense of humour. Every lambing Coco would produce but, however many lambs she had she would reject all but one until she and the lambs were brought in to the shed to be kept together. Where, incidentally, it was warm, dry and there was unlimited food
What I have just described is how shepherds work today but it equally well describes the job of a shepherd in biblical times. Shepherding was a common occupation then and so the analogy would be understood by the listeners.
The readings today are just a sample of many references in both Old and New testaments likening our Lord to a shepherd – the Good Shepherd.
Take Psalm 23 first. It is undoubtedly one of the best-known passages in the Bible. Most of us learned it as children and it continues to be a comfort to those who are dying, or those who have lost loved ones. Maybe it’s so well-loved because it is so personal and individual.
As you know, David was himself a shepherd. He was known as the “Shepherd King” of Israel. But he saw Jehovah, the Lord God of Israel, as his shepherd. He speaks in this psalm as if he was one of the flock, one of the sheep. And it is as though he literally boasted aloud, “Look who my shepherd is — my owner — my manager! The Lord is!”
It is with pride that he says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” He chose us, he bought us, he calls us by name, he makes us his own and he delights in taking care of us.
This psalm is all about how the Lord takes care of us. So David continues by saying, “I shall not want.” The idea here is that the Lord supplies our every need. The NIV says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack anything.”
The second reading from 1 Peter 2, urges us to follow Jesus’ example.
“No pain, no gain.” That saying is true isn’t it? If you want to get your muscles into shape, you’ll need to work them to the point of exhaustion. That will cause some pain in the manner of sore muscles the day after your workout. Wouldn’t it be great if someone else’s pain could be your gain? What if instead having to spend an hour at the gym straining to lift weights and pounding the treadmill to get in shape, you could send someone else to the gym to sweat on your behalf and for your benefit? Their pain would become your gain: bigger muscles and a stronger heart without any effort on your part. Of course it doesn’t work that way. If you want to get stronger, then you and no one else will have to hit the weights. No pain, no gain.
When it comes to spiritual matters, however, the Apostle Peter says that gain is possible without pain. How – because of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Today Peter encourages us to stick with the Good Shepherd because his pain is our gain. And even though that gain will paradoxically bring pain in this life, we still have good reasons to stick with the Good Shepherd and not wander off on our own when the going gets tough.
We are to be like Jesus in the way we handle those who cut in front of us at the ATM, who are never satisfied with our work, who pick on us at school, or who blame us for their mistakes and sins. Yes, such people are harsh and mean. But how did Jesus handle such people? He didn’t curse those who crucified him – he offered words of forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that Jesus excused the sins committed against him. He simply did not take the matter of vengeance into his own hands. In the same way we are to commend ourselves to God when we are unjustly harassed or punished. We don’t need to demand or try to carry out justice on our own; God will do this for us in his time and in his way.
And finally, the reading from John has yet another point to make. This time Jesus is not only the shepherd but also the gate that is the way into the pen.
Two caretakers are mentioned in this account, the Good Shepherd, and the hired hand.
The hired hand had no connection with the sheep, no relationship with the sheep. He thought of himself first and the sheep last. If a sheep was attacked by a wolf, or lost, oh well, so what.
Then there is the good shepherd. The good shepherd is the owner of the sheep. He has a special relationship with them. In those times most shepherds didn’t own a lot of sheep. So sheep were like valued pets. There was nothing about their sheep that the good shepherd did not know. By day and night the shepherd lived with them. He was always there for them.
So, a shepherd, in order to know his sheep and care for them, has to live among them. He has to be close to them. Jesus came from heaven to earth to be close to His sheep. The Good Shepherd became a sheep, took on our nature, and lived life just like us (except without sin). That’s why He is the good Shepherd.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows the peculiar traits of His flock and watches over us with love and concern.
And then, in this chapter, Jesus describes a sheep pen. It had only one door. When the sheep returned to the fold at night after a day of grazing in the pleasant pastures, the shepherd stood in the doorway and inspected each one with tender care as it entered.
If a sheep was scratched or wounded by thorns, the shepherd would anoint it with oil to facilitate healing. If they were thirsty, he gave them water. After all had been counted and brought into the pen, the shepherd would lay across the doorway so no intruder could enter. The shepherd thus became the door. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who protects and sustains the life of the sheep. Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep.”
The distinguishing mark between the good shepherd and the hired hand is that the good shepherd would lay down his life for the sheep. He was their protector.
When Jesus laid down His life for the sheep He saved us from the destruction of sin and death. He gave His life to take away their power so they couldn’t destroy the flock.
But if the story ended here we’d have a problem. If a flock of sheep lose their shepherd because he laid down his life to save them from a pack of wolves, they are now shepherdless. And even if no more wolves come, soon they’ll wander off and get lost. And the death of the shepherd will have been in vain.
But the story doesn’t end here with the shepherd dead and the sheep scattered. Reading on to verse 18 tells us why: No man takes my life from Me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.
Under the Old Testament law, the sheep died for the shepherd, but now the Good Shepherd dies for the sheep!
Our success as followers of Jesus is based on the love of a shepherd who was willing to lay down his life for us. He will keep us safe in the sheepfold if we’re smart sheep and follow the Good Shepherd.
The Lord wants to be our shepherd. He wants to bless us. He wants to care for us. But Jesus never hesitated to make it clear that when we come under his management and control there would be a new and unique relationship between him and us. There would be something special about belonging to this shepherd. There would be a distinct mark upon the man or woman that would differentiate them from the rest of the crowd.
In order to identify the sheep as his, today’s shepherd has to ear tag every sheep. The tag has the shepherd’s name and a unique reference number on it. In this way, it is easy to determine to whom the sheep belongs. It is not an easy thing to do, for either the sheep or the shepherd. But from that mutual suffering an indelible lifelong mark of ownership is made that can never be erased.
For the man or woman who recognizes the claim of Christ and gives allegiance to his absolute ownership, there comes the question of bearing his mark. The mark of Jesus is the cross. Jesus stated emphatically, “If any man would be my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
The Lord is my shepherd. What a difference that little word “my” makes.
A famous actor was once the guest of honour at a social gathering where he received many requests to recite favourite excerpts from various literary works. An old preacher who happened to be there asked the actor to recite the twenty-third Psalm. The actor agreed on the condition that the preacher would also recite it. The actor’s recitation was beautifully intoned with great dramatic emphasis for which he received lengthy applause. The preacher’s voice was rough and broken from many years of preaching, and his diction was anything but polished. But when he finished there was not a dry eye in the room. When someone asked the actor what made the difference, he replied “I know the psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”
Let us pray.
Father God, in Jesus we have a true shepherd. We come together as the sheep of his fold to worship you and give thanks for this great gift. Help us to draw close to you that by your love and our attentive listening we may become so familiar with Christ’s voice that we will not be deceived or led astray by any other.