John 10 11-18
On Being Careful
As I have been reflecting this week on the meaning of these words I have become newly convinced that John has done it again. He has presented us with the words of Jesus in a way that seems simple, even simplistic on the surface but is instead deep and powerful.
The surface is clear: “The Lord is my shepherd” – Jesus is the Good Shepherd who gives up even his own life for the sake of the sheep under his care. It’s beautiful, simple, and comforting.
Who doesn’t need comfort?
Who doesn’t need comfort these days? Who does not need to know that there is a shepherd caring for them? Who does not want to hear a familiar voice, be surrounded by similar people in a protected fold? It would be understandable to want this to be so much about comfort that we overlooked entirely the dark side of this text, the not-made-for children side – but we are not children; we need to hear everything this text is saying, not just the selected parts that serve us. And when we do look at the entire text, we will be rewarded with a comfort it offers at a deep level.
the dark side
The dark side of this text is the presence of impending-death that runs through it from beginning to end. Here is how it works: the Good Shepherd has one characteristic: care, even in the face of death. He cares.
12 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
Hirelings run away from danger; the Good Shepherd, however stays because he cares. From start to finish, the proof of the Good Shepherd’s care is his willingness to put himself between his sheep and that destructive evil, and pays the price of his life for his caring.
The reason to focus for a moment on death is because it raises this this text from the level of cute to the level of crucial. The care that this Shepherd gives is costly care, not sentimental. Care at this level is not a hobby, it is risk-taking, even dangerous.
This text has a Shepherd and sheep, and it also has a wolf in it. There is a predator here who is prowling and salivating, wanting to get at those sheep; as the film title says, “There will be blood” – the only question is, whose blood? Shepherd’s or sheep.
Meeting Mr. Wolf
We do not get to meet Mr. Wolf in this short text. Who is he? Why is he after these sheep? What interest does he have in their demise? The text leaves Mr. Wolf’s face in the shadows; he is never named. This means his identity is open-ended; the wolf can be anything threatening.
Whichever the way they would have identified the wolf back when Jesus first said these words, we have our own wolves to deal with today. We have issues that threaten us, even to the point of destruction.
I wonder how you would identify the wolves in your life? Probably for many of us, fear is that wolf.
- What is going to happen with our future security?
- How long will my health hold up?
- Will I be left alone?
- Where will I go when I can no longer live independently?
- How will my spouse deal with it if I go first?
- Will my kids be OK?
- Will their families hold together in the future?
- Will the world be safe for my grandkids?
I’m sure you could add your own fears to these. Fear itself, anxiety, stress and uncertainty make all of the issues we face all the more dangerous. A swimmer in trouble is in worse danger when he panics; fear is destructive; a dangerous wolf.
This is why the Shepherd’s words are so important:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The Good Shepherd cares about every issue we struggle with; without exception, to the point of his own life.
The 2 way street
The text goes deeper: the Good Shepherd’s care creates a street that runs both ways: a relationship between Shepherd and Sheep.
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
He knows his sheep
This is where it gets amazing. He knows – and yet he still cares. He knows our nature, how quick we are to call out for help and how fickle we are after the crisis passes. He knows our history; he has seen it, heard it, and he does not believe any of our excuses for it. It’s all there, completely known – and yet he still cares.
He also knows things we don’t know about ourselves. He knows how fearfully and wonderfully we are made. He knows our possibilities; he knows what we can be – and how far it is beyond what we allow ourselves to believe that we can be. He knows the kind of faith we are capable of, the amount of love we have to give, our capacity for generosity, for forgiveness and reconciliation; he knows what we can look like when we get in step with the Holy Spirit within us and live in his powerful energy. He knows, and because he knows, he cares.
How deeply does he know us? Listen; it’s as if we were part of the Holy Trinity itself:
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.
We know the Shepherd
This is a two-way street: 14… I know my own and my own know me,
This is where it gets tricky; we do know the Good Shepherd – we know his name, we know his story, we know how he has cared for us in the past – all good. But the question I want us to reflect on his how well do we know the Shepherd? How can we get to know him better?
The point is this: if one of the dangerous and destructive “wolves” we face is fear, how are we going to follow our Shepherd as he leads us through difficult times? The answer is in this text too: we know our Shepherd’s voice.
16 …they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Middle Eastern Sheep fold enclosures
I know you have all heard of the middle-eastern sheep fold; the enclosure in which several different flocks spend the night in safety. You have heard that in the morning the shepherds have no problem sorting them out because they simply go out and give the call that their own sheep recognize and follow. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and follow.
How do we recognize the voice?
It’s a transparent metaphor, but my question is, how does it work in practice today? How do we recognize the Shepherd’s voice? It’s an important issue for us because there are lots of alternative voices claiming shepherd-status out there today; which do we listen to?
The answer is clear: this is what we are doing right now. We learn to recognize the Shepherd’s voice as we hear the scriptures and study their meaning. We look carefully and seriously at these texts and we ask for the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit as we do to help us understand. We spend a lot of time in the gospels, reading about Jesus, learning from his teachings, observing him in action with the disciples, observing how he treated people, who caught his attention, the way he responded to the people around him; all of this is so that we can learn to know him better and better, to recognize his voice.
More exposure to the voice
But let me say something out of pastoral concern. I do not believe hearing his voice for one hour a week is enough; there are simply too many other voices out there constantly sending us messages all day, every day; I do not believe we will be as discerning of the Shepherd’s voice as we need to be to stave off the wolves if we only give him one hour a week.
I believe that almost everyone in this room could manage to get to a Sunday School class and by doing that one small step, double the number of hours per week you hear the Shepherd’s voice. What overwhelming reason could anyone give for saying “no thanks” to that?
A great many of us could come to Thursday Bible Study if we wanted to. I want you to know that I teach that class with exactly one goal in mind: I ask myself what do we need to learn together in order to discern the voice of the shepherd in our context? Right now we are in the book of Acts learning about the ministry of the Holy Spirit – this is hugely significant in the life of every believer. I do not know how you can keep the wolf of fear from devouring you without the Holy Spirit’s work in your life. I believe you need the book of Acts so that you can discern the voice of the Shepherd.
I guess the question is: what are the wolves in your life? How threatening are they to you? How clearly are you hearing the shepherd’s voice? Is that enough? Maybe it’s time for a change.
The essential fact, however, is that even though we may not know know him as well as we might, even though we have a lot to learn in order to discern his voice, nonetheless, he knows us at the deepest possible level, and he cares in the most powerful way.
He is not content to stop with us. He has sheep that do not belong this fold that he is brining also: what does that mean? Come to Bible Study to unpack that one. Anyway, his caring is not only deep, it is wide as well. We are blessed to be included in his fold, and challenged to open our eyes to how extensive his care is.
Wolves are everywhere today; these are anxiety-producing times, but we are known by a Shepherd who has put his very life on the line for us – so great is his care. Believe that, and trust him.