1 John 3:16–24
10:11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:11–18, NRSV)
Let us pray: Shepherd of all, by laying down your life for your flock you reveal your love for all. Lead us from the place of death to the place of abundant life, that guided by your care for us, we may offer our lives in love for you and our neighbors. Amen.
I have a good friend who is a pastor of a Presbyterian Church in small town in Middle Tennessee. He grew up on a farm. What makes his story interesting is not that he grew up on a farm but that his father was a shepherd. On the farm they grew crops, they had a few cattle but mostly they raised sheep. My friend tells stories all the time about his life growing up on his family’s farm but he doesn’t talk very much about his father being a shepherd. He loves to talk about the sheep, how needy they are, how stupid they are and how much work they are. But I have only heard him talk about shepherds once.
He says that he can’t think of a single good reason for anyone to ever be around sheep. He says, Shepherds have a lot of bad days—bad weeks, months, even years. Odds are, Shepherds can have more bad days with sheep than good ones. At least it would be close, he says.
He states, if your sheep don’t tie you down, sheep at least tie you to them. There is rarely a moment a Shepherd isn’t aware of what is going on with the flock and each member of it.
Sheep get sick very easily — and mysteriously. Sheep don’t like other animals like dogs or horses. Foxes, Coyotes, even buzzards, are predators of sheep.
Sheep are extremely susceptible to parasites, especially intestinal worms. They also can pick up foot rot in the blink of an eye.
Sheep are also prone to death during lambing, both mother ewe and lamb. They also have a mysterious disease called lambing paralysis that is as fatal as it is mysterious. There is a whole host of diseases that affect sheep. That is why veterinarians are rarely much help. One would have to specialize in sheep—and who would do that, if just having sheep is so much trouble.
My friend tells that he and his father sawed off a lot of horns that were in danger of growing into a sheep’s eye or head.
He told of many bad times with sheep but one in particular stands out. There was a time when virtually every sheep in his father’s flock developed a strange eye problem, and they treated them with medicine from the local vet, the whole flock went completely blind.
My friend says that as a Shepherd you’re up and down with sheep all night long. You sleep with your ears awake as you can keep them. On top of that, even at their best, a sheep’s life is less than 10 years, probably a lot less. It’s a lot of work for not much return, or fun or satisfaction. And when you get right down to it, there is no money in sheep either. Wool or meat, either way. And he adds, you can’t even give sheep rides, either.
So, why would anyone want sheep? Apparently, people would come by the farm to ask about sheep. They are so cute and soft and they look they would make a great pet. Not so much.
My friend’s father met with every person who came by the farm and he even had a little speech to people who thought they would like to get a few sheep the way someone gets a few chickens or a few cows or a few pear trees. My friend realized that there were two levels to his father’s speech.
The first level of his father’s speech was looking out for the poor misguided souls who wanted to try their hand at becoming a shepherd so his father was always up front and honest about the difficulties of being a shepherd recalling the many times he was called to “come and get these things” within a few weeks—or days. Even hours.
The deeper and more profound level his father was looking out for the sheep themselves. He might hate to see someone taken in by the cute and cuddly look of the sheep and end up having all of those problems. But mostly, he didn’t want to put his sheep – or any other sheep – in the hands of a bad shepherd because as you can tell being a good shepherd is not accidental. It’s true that it is not rocket science. It’s probably a lot more frustrating than that.
So, hearing his story of growing up on a farm with a shepherd as a father it is not hard to imagine why Jesus’ says that the hired hand ran off when he saw the wolf coming. We don’t know if the hired hand ran off because of the wolf or of being left with all of those sheep. Maybe the wolf offered the perfect opportunity to leave all his troubles behind.
But why then in the world would Jesus ever compare himself to a shepherd? Not only that he calls himself the Good Shepherd. The Good rancher, maybe. The Good manager? I can see that. But the Good Shepherd? It is right up there with the Good Dairy-farmer, or the Good ER doctor.
So, why would Jesus ever want to take all of us?
There are days, as we are all so well aware, when we can barely stand ourselves. There are days we can barely stand some of the people closest to us. There are days when we can barely stand people in our own families. There are times it “flies all over us” just to see someone’s face or to hear their voice. There are people we never want to see or hear ever again.
Yet, Jesus takes on the role of being the Good Shepherd. It makes no sense. Why anyone would lay his or her life down for a bunch or sheep? Or for a group of people? Or for us?
Just like my friend’s story about his father the Shepherd. It’s not the sheep. And it’s not the people. It’s the heart of the shepherd.
What is in the heart of a shepherd that causes one, not simply to put up with sheep but to give one’s heart and one’s life to them? What is in the heart of the Good Shepherd that causes him to lay down his life for us?
Jesus says, “I know my sheep…”
Apparently, if we were to look at a flock of sheep, we would probably see a sea of identical faces. But not so with a good shepherd. My friend said that if you were to walk out in the field with his father, you could point to any sheep in the flock and he could tell you the number, their mother and father and probably what day they were born.
It was simply because his father knew his sheep—and he knew they counted on him. Occasionally his father actually managed to make some money on sheep, enough to break even at least. But the real reason he hung in there with his sheep for 60 plus years was because he came to love them. He knew them, and he knew that they depended on him. Sheep live and die by the trust they place in their shepherd— and the quality of their shepherd.
Why Jesus should love us in all of our needs and all of our heartaches, I can’t possible explain. But the Good News is that Jesus takes it upon himself to be the Good Shepherd to us all. The truth that makes that even better “Good News” is that he is the only one who can be. Jesus is willing and able to do what we all need but what none of us can do: he can love us and guide our lives into life that leads into eternal life. He can lead us to be a flock bound together by love and following in the ways of love, compassion and justice. We can really live – because the Good Shepherd has laid down his life for us so that we might live the life for which we were created.
I can’t tell you why shepherds are willing to be with their sheep. I certainly can’t tell you why God the creator of the universe is willing to take on the likes of us human beings. But I can tell you it is the best Good News any sheep can ever hear that they are in the hands of the Good Shepherd. There is One who loves us, and always will.
Let us pray: