I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
As I understand it, one difference between sheep and cows is that cows get moving by being herded from behind. Someone has to stand behind the cows and prod them along.
Sheep, however, must be led. They move only when the shepherd is ahead of them or beside them. Sheep follow the Voice of the one they know and trust.
In many places in the Bible God is called the Shepherd, and God’s people are the sheep of God’s fold. Genesis 49, Psalm 23, and Psalm 78 are familiar texts that speak of God this way. For those of us who live in urban/suburban areas, we might have a harder time understanding or connecting with the power of the image; But for many, many people around the world, sheep are part of the landscape of their daily lives.
The first time I saw an actual flock of sheep with their shepherd was when I was 25 years old, eating lunch with Tim on a hillside outside the city of walls of Toledo, Spain. I was mesmerized with the young shepherd with his staff gently leading the flock across the hot, open fields. I remember well the sound of the bells around their necks. Sheep are skittish animals and are easily made anxious so the shepherd boy didn’t smack the sheep on their behinds or shout at them.
Why would the image of a shepherd bring comfort to Jesus’ first century followers, and why should it to us today?
Well, what do shepherds do?
Shepherds pay attention; they don’t sleep on the job. They have watchful, loving eyes.
Shepherds fight any enemy who threatens to harm the sheep.
Shepherds lead their sheep to good things for the health and well-being of the flock—clean water, greener pastures, safety, and rest.
Shepherds round up their lost sheep when one wanders away. A Good Shepherd doesn’t just stand around and let the sheep graze wherever or for however long they want. She drives them on to greener pastures; pastures that the sheep don’t even realize are nearby. Sheep can be very near-sighted.
Shepherds lead their sheep home.
Above all, Shepherds lay down their lives—the cold, the threat, the hunger—for the sheep. The shepherd is not a hired hand. The hired hand runs away from his flock when danger comes near. The hired hand is just doing a job.
To the shepherd, the sheep are everything.
Frederick Buechner spoke about shepherds and sheep like this:
“When I think of shepherds, I think of one man in particular I know who used to keep sheep near my home in VT a few years back. Some of them he gave names to, and some of them he didn’t, but he knew them equally well either way.
If one of them got lost, he didn’t have a moment’s peace till he found it again. If one of them got sick or hurt, he would move Heaven and earth to get it well again. He would feed them out of a bottle when they were new-born lambs if for some reason the mother wasn’t around or wouldn’t “own” them, as he put it.
He always called them in at the end of the day so the wild dogs wouldn’t get them. I’ve seen him wade through snow up to his knees with a bale of hay in each hand to feed them on bitter cold winter evenings, shaking it out and putting it in the manger. I’ve stood with him in their shed with a forty watt bulb hanging down from the low ceiling to light up their timid, greedy, foolish, half holy faces as they pushed and butted each other to get at the food . . .
if God is like a shepherd, there are more than just a few ways, needless to say, that people like you and me are like sheep. Being timid, greedy, foolish, and half holy is only part of it.”
Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
The illustration of the shepherd and sheep is about a relationship of mutuality and trust. The spiritual path is a journey of seeking after God, just as we trust that God is already and always seeking after us.
I have a refrigerator magnet given to me by a great friend that says “A friend is someone who knows all about you, and still thinks you’re great.” It’s kind of cheesy. But doesn’t each of us want to believe that God knows everything about us, and still thinks we’re great?
The shepherd knows his sheep completely. The timid, greedy, foolish, easily distracted, and foolhardy followers that we can be.
God also knows that within each of us is a deep hunger that we are driven to fill which makes us tremendously susceptible to being distracted by competing voices.
The false voice tells us that we are “less than enough.” But God’s voice says we are “more than enough.”
The false voice is our inner critic—the one inside our heads that shouts critique and judgment all the time.
The voice of God is compassionate and tells us, “Go easy on yourself–and on others while you’re at it.”
We all have a place inside of us that craves acceptance.
John’s favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, knew it when he sang
Everybody’s got a hungry heart.
Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone.
Everybody’s got a hungry heart.
But how do we attune the “ears of our hearts” to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice over the many voices that compete for our attention?
We learn to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd by becoming still. By hushing the anxious voices inside our heads. By going deeper than the surface voices. By journeying beside still waters resting in God’s presence; resisting the temptation to run around like anxious sheep.
We learn to hear God’s voice by reading scripture and other spiritual writers who have more experience at listening. We learn to pray. Most importantly, we must hang around others who are also seeking to hear the voice of the shepherd. We have to do it together.
Sheep can’t survive alone or in isolation and neither can we.
In our hearts, we want to be known— at least by one other person–just as we are.
We want to share our stories. If you were here last week you heard one of our church members, Kemp Jaycox, share his story of his life with Multiple Sclerosis. His was an honest and vulnerable account of walking through a shadowy valley– but not alone. It wasn’t only God leading Kemp through this valley; he had and has other shepherds who are offering him rest and nourishment along the way.
Authenticity is what creates trust within a community of faith. Kemp’s sharing allows each of us to risk sharing our own shadowy valleys. Honesty begets honesty. Vulnerability creates safety.
Jesus has tasked each of us to be a faithful shepherd, to call and to lead others with our gentle care.
For we are not the hired hands. We are the ones who have been loved by the Good Shepherd and cared for all the day long. We have been watched over, provided for, carried through rough times. We are the beloved, those for whom Jesus laid down his life. And Jesus invites those who have been so loved to shepherd others, to love as we have been loved, to know as we are known.
We are called to those who are vulnerable, those who do stupid things, those who are stragglers, those who are hurt, any who need help. We are called to stay with them, to carry them, to encourage them on their way. We are called to be their shepherd and not to be in their face shouting directions to them. Doubtless, if that is what we did, they would turn and run the other way.
“I am the good shepherd, Jesus said. I know my own and my own know me. I call them by name.”
Our challenge is to recognize the shepherd’s voice so that when he calls us to come– the timid, foolish, and half holy sheep that we are– we will trust him enough to follow.
May the word be true for us today.