FIRST READING Acts 9:36–43
3 6Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
PSALM Psalm 23
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. 2 The LORD makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. 3 You restore my soul, O LORD, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake. 4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
SECOND READING Revelation 7:9–17
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
GOSPEL John 10:22–30
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”
Who Needs a Shepherd
As I was preparing for today I ran across an interesting story that I found thought provoking. It seems that one Sunday morning, after the church service, one of the members accosted the pastor and said, “Tom, this church has been insulting me for years, and I didn’t know it until this week.” The stunned pastor replied, “What on earth do you mean?” “Well, every Sunday morning the call to worship in this church ends with the words, ‘We are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.’ And I’ve heard ministers over the years call the congregation, God’s flock.’ I know this comes from Psalm 95:7, but it troubles me.
I never really thought about it until this past week when I visited the Chicago stockyards. There I discovered that sheep are just about the dumbest animals God ever created. Why, they’re so stupid, they even follow one another docilely into the slaughterhouse. Even pigs are smarter than sheep, and I would certainly be angry if my church called me a pig every Sunday morning. So I’m not at all sure I want to come to church and be called a sheep’ any longer…even God’s sheep’.”
If you take this troubled member’s statement on face value, the man has a point. Sheep are relatively unintelligent and docile. But, whether we like it or not, that is the language of the Bible: This metaphor is used many times in both the Old and New Testaments. We are called “God’s sheep.” And when asked, most people will tell you that their favorite psalm is the 23rd Psalm which begins by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd…” And, if “the Lord is my shepherd,” then like the statement or not, we are one of the Lord’s sheep.
Centuries before Christ, the prophet Isaiah said to his people: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6) From these passages, we’ve taken this pastoral imagery over into the Church. One of the symbols of the office of bishop, across the centuries, has been the shepherd’s crook, and ministers are often called “pastors.” In the dictionary, one of the meanings of “pastor” is “shepherd,” coming from a Latin word which means “feeder.” Again this shepherd metaphor is grounded in scripture. Recall if you will last week’s gospel lesson from chapter 21 where we read about the final resurrection appearance of the Lord by the Sea of Galilee. After He had fed the disciples breakfast, Jesus asked Peter three times whether he loved Him, and Peter answered three times that he did. And Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”
The word “pastor” is a common one used to refer to an ordained person who’s called to a congregation. Sometimes I wonder whether the pastoral metaphor isn’t a bit old-fashioned, considering our busy, urban, industrialized society. On the other hand, it does beat the colloquial “reverend.” For many years those who have been ordained have used “reverend” as a title, when in reality it’s an adjective modifying a noun. Thus it’s not grammatically, Biblically, or theologically correct to use it as a title. As an adjective it means “worthy of reverence,” and I personally don’t feel any more worthy of reverence than anyone else. The word is used in the Bible only once (in the King James Version) and there it refers to God who alone is “worthy of reverence.” It doesn’t appear in the newer translations at all. I guess it’s like saying Kleenex, for a facial tissue. It’s been in use so long it’s now proper to use. So I guess the word pastor is a good a term as any.
My point is that Biblical terminology regarding sheep and shepherds has been employed by the Church down through the centuries, and perhaps we’re stuck with it. We call pastors and bishops “shepherds,” and it all stems from the fact that Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” The thing we need to remember is that when Jesus spoke those words, he was making a Messianic claim.
Every Jew of His time knew the opening verse of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” They were also familiar with the opening verse of Psalm 80: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!” For the people of Jesus’ time, the image of God as a shepherd was a common part of their worship services and daily prayers. It reflected their culture and even now, in the Holy Land, shepherds and sheep can be seen on almost every hill. But one of the problems with such pastoral terminology is that most people in the U.S. don’t live in a rural culture. Not many have actually ever seen sheep let alone shepherds doing their thing. Therefore, if few have ever been exposed to a sheep or a shepherd, how then do we translate the imagery from a first-century pastoral society to that of a twenty first-century technological society? How would you explain Jesus’ words, “I am the good shepherd” to inner-city youth who’ve never seen sheep?
The problem was addressed some years ago when a jail chaplain named Carl Burke wrote a little paperback book titled “God is for Real, Man.” At a Baptist summer camp he was asked the question, “What is God like?” and in good preacher-like fashion he replied, “Well, God is like a father.” “Hah!” said the boy who had asked the question, “If he’s like my father, I sure would hate him!” Right away he saw the problem: how do you translate Biblical language, which comes out of a bygone age, into a more modern language which meets the needs of persons in a completely different cultural context? He tried to explain as best he could the meaning of certain familiar Biblical passages, and then he asked the inner-city young people to put them into their own idiom. Do you know how the 23rd Psalm came out? Like this: The Lord is my Probation Officer, He will help me, He tries to help me make it every day….
When Jesus called Himself the “Good Shepherd,” there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that He was making a Messianic claim. He was making a comparison between Himself and God. Those who heard His words would recall the prophecy of Isaiah 40:11, where there’s an even more apparent parallel between Jesus and the promised Messiah: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” How familiar are those words, for we hear them every Advent and Christmas season, when joyful voices are raised in Handel’s magnificent Messiah. “I am the Good Shepherd,” said Jesus.
William Barclay, in his commentary on these words, reminded us that in Greek there are two words for “good.” There’s the word agathos, which describes the moral quality of a thing; then there’s the Greek word kalos, which means not only that a thing, or a person, is good, but, in that goodness is also a quality of attractiveness, winsomeness, and loveliness. Kalos is the word Jesus was using when he said He is the good Shepherd. From his Scots background, William Barclay said that in many villages or towns in Scotland, people speak of someone as the “good doctor.” When using that phrase, they’re not necessarily praising the doctor’s efficiency or skill as a physician, but are thinking more of the kindness and sympathy and graciousness which the doctor brings in addition to his skills.
In the picture of Jesus that St. John paints, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He’s the kalsos One who’s innately winsome and immensely attractive. How many have seen billboards along the highway which shout out the warning: “Prepare to meet thy God!” as though meeting God would be a terrible calamity, something to be avoided at all costs. As Christians we know we have nothing to fear from God. Jesus tells us that when we see Jesus, we see the Father, which means that God is a Good Shepherd as well. One who loves us even more than we love ourselves, and desires to care for us in kind and gentle ways.
With all this in mind, it’s good for us to consider the other statements Jesus made, as well, that help us get a clearer picture of God as our shepherd. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,” said Jesus in John 10:14. Jesus clearly says that He knows all of His sheep by name. It’s a wonderful thought for those of us who live in such an impersonal age. Sometimes we begin to feel as though we’re merely numbers on somebody’s gigantic computer. But Jesus says we’re not some faceless number, we have a name and Jesus knows each of us personally.
There’s an old story of a census taker who was making his rounds in the lower East side of New York, who interviewed an Irish woman bending over her washtub. “Lady, I am taking the census. What’s your name? How many children have you?” She replied, “Well, let me see. My name is Mary. And then there’s Marcia, and Duggie, and Amy, and Patrick, and…” “Never mind the names,” he broke in, “just give me the numbers.” The Irish mother straightened up, hands on hips, and with a twinkle in her eye, said, “I’ll have ye know, sir, we ain’t got into numberin’ them yet. We ain’t run out of names!”
The image of God as the Good Shepherd tells us that’s the way it is with God. He knows us by name. I read a story the other day about a custom that Nigerian Christians have. It seems that many of their names begin with the three-letters “olu.” In the native language, olu’ means God. This means that every child carries the name of God!’ I kinda like that! Another comforting thought is that the Good Shepherd cares for all of His sheep, and not just some of them.
Remember that Jesus was talking to a people who had come to think of themselves as “God’s pets.” So He said to them these shocking words: “I 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.” (John 10:6) In context, He was referring to the Gentiles who hadn’t yet heard the good news of the Gospel. At the time of the writing of the Fourth Gospel, the good news was just beginning to spread out into the Greco-Roman world. However, many Jews, including most of the disciples, would never even think of entering the home of a Gentile (like Peter in Acts 10) and were beginning to realize that the good news, was for “every kindred, every tribe, on this terrestrial ball.”
Down through the centuries, one of the hardest things that God has had to deal with in us, is the sin of “exclusivity.” God enters into a relationship with persons, and then almost immediately those persons try to put a fence around God and say, “Private property, off limits to outsiders.” Or they may pray something like this: God bless me and my wife, My son John and his wife, us four, and no more. Or, God bless only me,
that’s as far as I can see. Or worse yet, people get into their head the notion that we alone are privileged by God. Think about it a moment, don’t our coins say “In God we trust”? It’s strange that we put that inscription on our money! It does beg the question at times, which god are we talking about?
Once we come to believe that God is the personal property of our people, or our country, then it becomes very difficult for God to get it into our heads that God cares for those folks “over there” just as much as God cares for us folks “over here.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is precisely the opposite of exclusivity. Jesus taught us to pray “our Father,” not “my Father.” That “our” includes not just one race or nation, one religion or denomination, but all, everywhere. The Good Shepherd cares for His sheep, and for all of His sheep, equally. He cares for all who hear His voice and respond to His call. Furthermore, the Good Shepherd promises to keep His sheep.
That doesn’t mean that we’ll never encounter problems. It does, however, mean that because God’s care for us we’ll never face our problems alone. The 23rd Psalm doesn’t promise us that we’ll never have to go through “the valley of the shadow” but it does promise that none of us need to make that journey alone. “Thou art with me.” Faith is not a means of evading or avoiding the difficult times of life; they come to all people. Faith is rather a means of facing them head-on and winning victory over them because we don’t face them alone. The power behind us is greater than the problems before us.
An unbeliever once said to the missionary E. Stanley Jones, “You believe in God, for then you have someone to hold your hand.” “No,” replied Jones, “I believe in God because He strengthens my arm.” The Good Shepherd keeps His sheep; He goes after the sheep when they get lost. This is the new and shocking dimension of God’s love which Jesus came to bring and died to prove. When Jesus was criticized for hob-nobbing with the “wrong kinds” of people, He replied to His critics: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)
Years ago, someone suggested that this was really the only “new thing” that Jesus taught, the only thing that had not already been said by the rabbis before Him. It’s an interesting statement; one that points to something important. In Jesus we see a God who doesn’t simply write off His losses, but goes out to seek and to save the least, the last, and the lost.
In the 19th century, a poet named Francis Thompson, whose life had become a shambles until he was finally reduced to living off the income of prostitutes to support his drug habit, wrote a poem called “The Hound of Heaven.” The poem was about God, and God’s unremitting love. Everyone else had written Francis Thompson off; everyone but God. In the depths of his darkness and despair, God met him and touched his life. Out of that experience he wrote this famous poem about the God whose love will never let us go, the God who is out on every highway where people get themselves lost, seeking to bring them back home. God isn’t seeking to inhibit our lives, but to inhabit them, so that we might truly have life, life with a capital “L.” Life abundant, and life eternal.
A mother of eight children was once asked if she had any favorites. “Favorites?” she replied. “Yes, I have favorites. I love the one who is sick until he’s well again. I love the one who’s in trouble until he’s safe again. And I love the one who is farthest away until he comes home.” Jesus showed us that’s what God is like. God is a Divine Parent whose love never stops, a Parent whose love will never give up. We may stop loving God, but God will never stop loving us. We may try to run away from God, but we soon find that our legs are too short. We simply can’t get away from God. And that’s not a threat, it’s a promise! God is out on every road where people, like sheep, get themselves lost, earnestly and tenderly seeking them and calling them back home.
Does that mean that, ultimately, God will get all of us? I have no special inside information on the subject, but it would be nice if that were true. I wouldn’t be the least offended if God did get us all, eventually. I get the impression from some preachers I’ve heard, especially those on television, that a part of what makes heaven “heaven” for them is the idea that some folks are going to hell. To me they seem more concerned about saving hell than saving people from hell. But Jesus says that God is a Good Shepherd, who seeks after the sheep “until he finds them.”
I wonder: “How long is until?’ ” I have a hunch that God never gives up on any of us. I’m sure there are those who will refuse to respond to God’s love, but I believe that God’s love is always an open option for any of us. The older version of the Apostles’ Creed insists that “He (Jesus) descended into hell.” Have you ever stopped to consider the why in this confession? Over the centuries, most Christians believed that Jesus descended into hell to bring back those who had never had the chance to hear the good news and respond to it. It sounds like something that the Good Shepherd would do! Will God ultimately get all of us, I hope so. But I insist on holding in creative tension two ideas: God never gives up on any one of us, and God never takes away from us the freedom to say “No.” How it will all work out ultimately, I leave to God.
So who needs a shepherd? We do. Cows don’t need a keeper in the fields. They can pretty well take care of themselves. Even the pig, who has enjoyed a much less favorable press, is able to take care of himself. But sheep require a shepherd. I’m told that without a shepherd, sheep will sometimes walk right off a cliff while grazing. The symbol of the shepherd is the shepherd’s “crook” which is used to reach out and rescue the sheep from their own stupidity.
When George F. Kennan received the Albert Einstein Peace prize in 1981 he declared, “We have gone on piling weapon upon weapon, missile upon missile, new levels of destructiveness upon old ones. We have done this helplessly, almost involuntarily: like the victims of some sort of hypnotism, like lemmings headed for the sea; like the children of Hamelin marching blindly along behind their Pied Piper.” He might have added, “Like sheep without a shepherd.” But the good news this morning is, we have a shepherd.
Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” And what proof did He offer to justify such an extravagant claim? “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” Can you see how everything gets turned upside-down in the Gospel story? In ancient times shepherds rounded up their sheep and offered them to be sacrificed on altars to appease the wrath of an angry God; but in the Gospels, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, lays down His life to show us the sheer grace of a loving God. That’s awesome…and a little frightening!, to be the object of such fantastic, limitless love. The fact that we so easily take it for granted shows how much we’ve missed the marvel of its meaning. The novels of Graham Greene sometimes mirror the human situation in a way that startles us.
In his gripping story, The Heart of the Matter, he writes of an English police chief in an African colony, a frustrated man whose foolish involvement with corruption, bribery, adultery, and murder brings him to the brink of suicide. Before taking his own life he goes into a church, more in defiance than in penitence, and there at the altar he confronts the crucifix and encounters the One who clings to him even in the midst of his shame and despair, and who simply will not let him go. The love of God bursts upon him with overwhelming force.
Graham writes: “It seemed to him for a moment cruelly unfair of God to have exposed himself in this way, a man…first in the Palestinian villages and now here in the hot port, there, everywhere, allowing man to have his will of Him, but that was an easy rational step compared with this that God had taken, to put Himself at the mercy of men who hardly knew the meaning of the word. How desperately God must love, he thought with shame.” Exactly! “I am the Good Shepherd,” said Jesus. It’s comforting to know that He’s out there on all the roads where people like you and me get ourselves lost…and He comes to us gently calling us by our name.