11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The 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. 13 The 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."
We all know them, these images of Jesus as the good shepherd. One search with google images yielded more pictures of Jesus with sheep than I could reasonably look through and still claim to be doing actual work. It is my guess, in fact, that some of us have an image like this up in our homes. Yes, these images of Jesus out in some field somewhere, shepherd’s crook in hand intently gazing over a flock of sheep. Or one that I was more familiar with, a haloed Jesus with tiny sheep either in his strong arms or with that same sheep strung across his broad shoulders. And why not? There is a great deal of comfort to be taken from this image of Jesus with a shepherd’s staff overlooking his flock. There is an earthy sentimentality that we take from these images, and there is little that we love more than a little sentimentality. So the goal this morning is not to take away this particular comfort, but the question we must ask is whether these popular images in fact tell the whole story. So the question is not whether or not these images afford us some comfort, but do they provide the full comfort of today’s gospel text? Have we, in fact, been robbing ourselves of the full impact of this particular way that Jesus comes to us?
Well, the answers to those questions are pretty complicated, but suffice it to say that there is more going on here than mere sentimentality. Instead, when Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, the one whose love for the flock is true and real, it is actually the exact opposite of sentimentality, meaning that this love Jesus has for his flock is based entirely and exclusively in reality as it actually stands. And here’s what I mean by this. In these images that we typically associate with Jesus the Good Shepherd, there are a few really important details to the story that left out, and these are the details that help connect this saying to our actual lives. The first of these is the presence of the hired hand, of the mercenary shepherd who is just doing the work for a quick buck and will cut and run whenever things get a little dicey. Yes, seldom, if ever, in these pictures of Jesus as a shepherd is there someone in the corner running away from danger as a wolf approaches. That’s a detail that has so of conveniently been left out, but it is essential to what Jesus is saying, because the point here is not that Jesus is the only shepherd, but that he is the only true shepherd, the only good shepherd. And how true it is that all the things we look to to bring us comfort or a measure of security inevitably let us down in times of trial or struggle. Yes, the most extreme example is that there is nothing under heaven or on earth that can possibly save us from the grave, but this is a reality that we encounter on a daily basis and not just in our final days. Yes, we open ourselves up to abandonment every time we look to someone or something other than Jesus to ultimately fulfill or sustain us. And my oh my the various forms these mercenary shepherds can take, be it money or status or always having to be right at the expense of others or mistrust of those who look and think differently than we do, the list goes on and on, but the one element that seem to have in common is the way that they prey on our insecurities, the way that they use our fears against us until we grow cold in love towards God, towards our neighbors and finally towards our own lives. And this is what the false shepherds do. They use these things against us, and the instant that times get tough, that life gets a bit overwhelming, they leave us. We sit alone in our troubles and none of what we believed to be of lasting value, not money or political affiliation or how important we are at our jobs, none of these things can actually save us in our times of trial. For they have left the instant that blood touched the water.
And here is the trouble, we like sheep who wander from shiny thing to shiny thing, we have a hard telling the false shepherds from the true one. We are easily distracted by things that don’t, in the final analysis, mean all that much and we have a tragic tendency to follow any voice that will provide momentary comfort. And so we like sheep, need a shepherd, need protection not just from dangers outside of ourselves but also from dangers within, protection from the alarming human tendency to value those things that actually keep us imprisoned. Yes, so it is into this rather unsentimental reality that Jesus proclaims himself the good shepherd, and by this point, these words have a honey’s sweetness for our ears. Because what Christ is saying to you is this: that he, the good shepherd, he cares for you, he loves you in the ways of the eternal God. In fact, he loves you so entirely, so completely, that the same love he shares with the Father is the love that now names you. Yes, and if we are need of evidence of this truth, look no further than the cross. For where our idols will abandon us in the time of trial, he will not. Instead, this will be the finest enactment of his love for us. For he will not abandon us to suffer fear and death on our own. Rather, in these most terrifying moments, the bright light of his love will blaze all the more perfectly. Yes, when we have long since been left alone by all the things that are valued in this old world, his love will remain and will shepherd through our graves to the greenest pastures of his love. And this is why he is the good shepherd, because he knows you and loves with a completeness that we can scarcely understand, though no doubt we get wondrous glimpses from time to time.
To be sure, this doesn’t take away the presences of wolves and mercenaries. In this life, even under the protection of the good shepherd, there is still much that troubles and threatens. There are still fears of ailing health and fears of being alone. There are still sleepless nights as we think upon an open and unsettled future. Yes, the hungry still cry for bread and the poor still ask for their dignity. There is no way to tell what tomorrow may bring, be it blessing or curse. And there are still false shepherds everywhere in our midst, those dark forces that work on our weaknesses and insecurity and make us believe that we can and must protect ourselves from an ever-changing world. Yes, in this life, there are real threats and real dangers, would that any of us could make it otherwise. But against these forces, hear against these words of Jesus the Christ: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” Even in the midst of the tenuous things of this world, you are known, you are beloved and you are remembered. Jesus, the good shepherd, has made you his own and promises you his love in this world and his eternal bliss in the next. And with that being true, and with you having been brought into knowledge of your savior and lord, then, we are also given the strength to step away from ourselves a bit. To step into the ways that others are struggling and to help those who are being devoured by sadness or poverty or even excess. For you now belong to the good shepherd and he will lead you into the love that he shares for all creation, for the lonely and the beat down. Fear not, though, for even in these realities, he will never abandon nor forsake you. In Jesus’ name, amen.