I am the Good Shepherd, says Jesus. I lay down my life tor the sheep.
It wasn’t till about the sixth century, five hundreds AD when paintings of Jesus started to always have the beard and the long hair and the robe. Nowadays, one of our most popular images of Jesus has him standing placidly in a quiet pasture. Beard, long hair and robes. He holds his shepherd’s staff in one hand and with his other, he holds a lamb close to his breast. Calm sheep rest or feed around, and a stream of peaceful water flows by.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters He restores my soul.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus presents an additional image of himself. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand. . .sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—.”
Now we have two more elements to the scene. The hired hand and the wolf. I believe you may have seen the hired hand before.
Many people who sell us things feel that their products have quality and that they are doing us a service by making them available. And often they are.
Many public officials genuinely try to serve the public good. We may not always agree with their policies, but they are seeking to serve.
But everybody knows that some people do not care about us. They care about their wealth. All they want is our money for their bank accounts. Some public officials do not care about us, they care only for power. They only want our votes for their elections. They want our attention for their advertisements, our opinions for their points of view, our bodies for their beds, our adulation for their glory.
But when they find out we are broken, which they will, because we are—all of us, being human, are broken—then they leave.
Here’s a tip. If you think someone might make a good boyfriend or girlfriend, find out whether they still care about you when you’re not pretty, when you’re not smart or funny or strong or handsome or sexy. Do they show care for you when the wolf comes. If they still show care for you then, they might be worthy of your attention. If not, then don’t be wasting your time, honey, you’ve got better things to do.
Hired hand runs away when the wolf comes.
And now this wolf. I believe you may have seen the wolf too. It takes many forms and names. I’ll look at two. One of its names is fear. Have you ever noticed how fear can tear and scatter a flock? Fear of not having enough for ourselves. Fear of being taken advantage of. Fear of appearing to be foolish, fear of not belonging, fear of those people over there that seem kind of threatening, fear of death.
Here’s another name for that wolf Pride. The nursing of hurt feelings rather than the healing of them. The cherishing of resentment rather than finding a solution to the problem that gave rise to it, the right to rage.
The wolf snatches and scatters and tears.
The good shepherd does not run away. The good shepherd faces our fear and pride.
If you had lived in Jesus’ day, you would have seen shepherds regularly. You might have seen a shepherd defending his flock.
Not so placid anymore, the shepherd stands with arms akimbo, legs askew, eyes wide, teeth bare, wielding a staff to drive off the wolf.
Jesus stands up to our fear. In the passages around Christmas and the passages around Easter, angels and he are constantly saying “Do not be afraid.” It feels like dying to lay down that fear, to take those risks.
Jesus stands up to our pride. He says “This is the church. Check your egos at the door. We have much more interesting, beautiful and important things to concern ourselves with than just “me.” Doesn’t just go for church either. In our families, in our city, in our nation and our world, we have much more interesting, beautiful and important things to concern ourselves with that just “me.” Jesus stands up to our pride, even though he knows he is going to be killed. He knows that in the Gospel lesson for today.
This is how Jesus saves us. “Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
So now, Jesus rod has become the cross. His arms are not spread out akimbo, wielding it to drive off wolves. His legs are not splayed wide. His arms are stretched out on the cross. His legs are broken. This is the way, precisely the way Jesus saves us from evil.
Now, here is the challenging part. In our second lesson for today, First John says that, just as Jesus laid down his life for us, so we ought to lay down our lives for each other.
Now we face the wolves together. We stand, arms akimbo, legs splayed out, eyes wide, teeth bared, swinging a staff. Yes, the church is a place where we deal with wolves. It is a place where we say “Yes, I am afraid. I’m scared to death of not having enough. Let’s talk about that. How much really is enough?” It’s a place where we can say, “I’m terrified of those people over there who seem threatening.” Okay. Do you think those people over there might be afraid of us? How did it get into this situation?” We can say “I’m terrified of dying.” Of course we’re terrified of dying. It’s a scary thing. But we don’t have to go through it alone. Jesus will be with us. “Yea, though I walk through the valley.” The church is a place where we can say “how can I let go of my hurt feelings? How can I let go of my rage?”
And believe me, admitting our fear, letting go of our pride, it feels like dying, feels like laying down our lives. In actuality it is the path to new life. It is the way of saving.
This is what we do. This is what we just baptized little Robert Eaton into. Same thing we were baptized into. A life of laying down our lives and then receiving them back again, full of hope and energy and God’s dreams. A life of sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection.
This is why we say, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Thanks be to God.