The fourth Sunday of the Easter season is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, though we don’t always observe it as such. On this Sunday we review two key texts – first, the 23rd Psalm, then the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus declares, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
In our last two sessions we’ve talked about seeing and touching Jesus. The focus today is on hearing Jesus, listening to his voice, and most importantly, obeying, following him.
Let’s begin with Psalm 23. It is King David’s landmark statement of faith in God. It is one of the most beloved passages in scripture. Jews and Christians have revered it for more than 3,000 years. Muslims admire it as well because they also consider the Lord as their shepherd.
Remember, too, that Jesus would have learned this psalm as a boy. To him it would have been a prayer to his Heavenly Father. Every time he recited it would remind him of his vocation to shepherd God’s people as God’s personal representative to Israel and to the world.
To set it in our minds, let’s recite it together. We’ll do that not in the usual King James Version, but in an eclectic version that reflects the insights of several modern translations. So if parts of this sound jarringly unfamiliar, that’s quite intentional. Sometimes the overly familiar becomes just pleasant background noise rather than something in the foreground of our minds, guiding our thoughts and our actions.
The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows. He leads me to restful waters. He renews my life.
He leads me in the right way so I won’t dishonor his name.
Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.
You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil. My cup is so full it runs over.
Surely goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
When we say, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” we are not saying, of course, that we will spend the rest of our days living in this or any other church building. The “house of the Lord” is not so much a place as it is a state of mind. It’s a state of existence, a way of being. It is membership in a great family, a network of relationships centered on God.
The people of Israel were herders before they were farmers, so they naturally thought of their relationship with God as one of sheep and shepherd. “Know that the Lord is God,” says Psalm 100:3. “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”
The human leaders of Israel were supposed to shepherd their flock in God’s name and rule justly and righteously. They rarely did so, however. The prophets dreamed of a day when God would shepherd Israel personally. On that day, Isaiah said, God “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” (Isaiah 40:11).
It’s natural, then, for Jesus to think of himself as Israel’s shepherd. When he sees crowds of people flocking to him, he has compassion on them, Matthew 9:36 says, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Some herd animals, like cattle, have to be driven, but sheep prefer to follow. They want to be led. The difference is significant. Following is a relationship. Followers must trust their leader.
So in John chapter 10, in one of his famous “I AM” statements, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd.” I’m not just a shepherd, he says. I’m the good shepherd. I’m the model shepherd. You want to know what shepherding looks like, model yourself on me.
I’m going to show you one of the earliest known artistic representations of Jesus. It was done perhaps 300 years after Jesus’ death. It was created not long after the Roman Emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Milan in 313 giving Christianity legal status. Before this time you might get into deep trouble making something like this.
It’s a statue about 39 inches tall. It depicts a young Christ, who might well be mistaken for the young shepherd David. His dress and pose are common in Greek art of the time. Notice the intimacy implied in the way the shepherd carries the lamb, and the way their faces are turned toward each other.
For an interesting contrast, here is an advertisement I found not long ago for Loro Piana, an Italian company that specializes in woolen goods. The shepherd has an intense look, perhaps conveying concern, and the lamb appears quite fragile. This is a shepherd who gathers his lambs in his arms, as Isaiah foresaw and Jesus modeled.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep” (John 10:11-15).
There’s a big difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand. The shepherd knows his sheep, and they know him. A special relationship is involved. When the wolf appears, the hired hand heads for the hills. He’s not willing to risk his skin for the sheep. But the shepherd is ready to give his life to protect his sheep.
The sheep recognize the voices of both the good shepherd and the hired hand, but it’s the shepherd’s voice they want to hear because they trust him. They’ll follow that other guy if they have to, because they have to follow someone. But they want to follow the shepherd they trust.
“My sheep listen to my voice,” Jesus says. “I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
I don’t know this personally, but I’ve been told that if you walk up to some sheep and say, “Hey, hey, I’m the new shepherd, and we are going to go to some fun places today,” they’ll either ignore you or look at you funny. But all the shepherd has to do is say, “Heads up,” and he’s got their attention. The sheep know him, and they trust him. They listen for his voice, and they’ll follow him almost anywhere.
In this series of messages on Living the Resurrection, we’ve talked about learning to see and touch the risen Jesus. Today we are concerned with listening for his voice, hearing and obeying.
Hearing and listening aren’t the same, you know. You’re probably familiar with this one-sided dialogue involving a parent and child.
Have you been listening?
Have you heard a word that I said?
Were you paying attention at all?
Are you going to do what I asked you to do?
Hearing is about perceiving a noise. Listening means paying attention to what the noise might be trying to convey. I know there are times when Linda is speaking and I am hearing but only half listening. I’m sure it works the other way, too. My point is that we are called not to hear but to listen – not only when others are speaking but especially when God is speaking.
We likely don’t hear a rumble like thunder, of course. God tends to speak more softly, the way God speaks to the prophet Elijah that day on the mountain. You remember the story. Elijah needs to hear a word from the Lord. A wind comes up so powerful that it shatters rocks, but the Lord is not in the wind. An earthquake shakes the mountain, but the Lord is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake comes fire, but the Lord is not in the fire. After the fire comes the sound of silence, and then perhaps a gentle whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
Sometimes it takes a lot of listening to hear the voice of the shepherd. Most often we turn to scripture, and in the words of the Bible we often hear God speaking to us. Sometimes scripture only primes us for other revelations – for a timely word from a friend; for an answer that appears like a quiet breeze while we’re walking in the woods; for a truth that stands out from all the distracting noise around us.
We need to pay attention. Today it’s often called being mindful. It’s being open to hear and to recognize the voice of the shepherd. First, hearing: We have to keep our ears open, so we will know what’s going on around us. If we keep our heads down in the grass, like grazing sheep, we can easily follow our noses into trouble.
Second, recognizing the voice of the shepherd: How do we learn to do that? It happens through training and experience, sometimes painful experience. We don’t want to accidentally follow the wrong voice, the voice of the hired hand or the voice of the bad shepherd who has sold out to the wolves. Some days it’s not easy being a sheep.
Besides being Good Shepherd Sunday, today is also widely observed as the Festival of God’s Creation. It’s always near Earth Day, which this year was April 22, last Thursday.
There’s a vital link between creation care and good shepherding. The shepherd leads his flock to good grass and plentiful water. He doesn’t overgraze or pollute. He’s careful about his work. Being made in the shepherd’s image, we also are called to be careful, though we tend not to be.
It is past time to recognize poor creation care for the sin it is. Whether it’s illegal or allowed by law, devastating our environment is a sin against God. It’s a sin against our human brothers and sisters. It’s a sin against all animal and plant life as well. We think that as long as we get away with it, it won’t matter. It matters far more than we know. Everything we do in this life matters. Nothing doesn’t matter.
I don’t recall whether I’ve told you this or not, and if I’ve forgotten, probably you have, too. I was present at the creation of the original Earth Day 51 years ago. It began in March of 1970 with a national teach-in in Washington. I covered it as a student journalist. It had the ungainly but prophetic title “What’s the difference if we don’t wake up?”
We’re still half asleep, and we’re seeing some of the consequences of not being awake, of not hearing, of not listening, of not being sensitive to God’s call to us, however it comes to us.
The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. I don’t need anything but my Lord. But if I don’t listen to my shepherd, I’ll be one lost and forlorn sheep. To live in light of the Resurrection of Jesus, I have to learn to see and touch and listen!
This message was delivered April 25, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas..