Jesus, the Good Shepherd, seeks you
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, April 25, 2021
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B, Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; John 10:11-16
Acts 4:5-12 The rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is `the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
John 10:11-16 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 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. 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.
Today is the fourth Sunday in Easter season. On this day, the lectionary has scheduled readings that share the theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. For this reason, this Sunday is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We read Psalm 23, we read in the Gospel according to John about Jesus the Good Shepherd. We think of images in our minds of peaceful fields and gentle sheep and Jesus, reclining in the sun with us.
There is a lot about this quaint picture that is true about Jesus and about us. Jesus leads us to green pastures and beside still waters and restores our souls. Jesus has life-giving love for us, and we can trust in our eternal safety in his presence. However, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd also brings with it a far greater and richer picture of our Lord, one that calls us to respond to the great love and trustworthiness of God. The Good Shepherd is not just one who reclines in the sun while the sheep graze. Shepherds, and indeed Jesus, are figures of great power and great love in action.
We sometimes skim over the line in Psalm 23: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd does not wield the rod and staff in vain. The shepherd is a guide to the sheep, even the unruly sheep who go astray and tumble into thickets. The crook on a shepherd’s staff can grab a sheep or a lamb by the neck to redirect it back to the safety of the flock. The shepherd is also a force to be reckoned with if you are a wolf or thief or other predator. The shepherd’s staff also has a pointy end to it. David, author of many of the psalms, told King Saul of his fighting abilities learned as a shepherd keeping the sheep safe from danger. The Good Shepherd is a figure of great love and of great power. And Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls us to follow him.
On the surface, and read in church with all the warm images we think of, Jesus as the Good Shepherd sounds appealing. So why don’t we always follow him? Think about it, many people don’t follow Jesus because they simply don’t believe or don’t care. But even Christians fail to follow the Good Shepherd. We chase after hired hands, wander where wolves prowl, and just generally chafe at the idea of submitting to Jesus.
The hired hands in Jesus’ metaphor make me think of counterfeits of Jesus. Some of them are intentional cheats, seeking to take us in. But most of the time, we run after counterfeits of our own making. We chase after things that seem more appealing to us, thinking with the values of the world first, rather than looking through God’s eyes. So, what feels like good guidance or more attractive philosophy of living turns out to be empty.
Certainly, other religions and other religious ideas compete heavily with Jesus these days. But as Peter says in today’s first reading: “There is salvation in no one else [than Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among [people] by which we must be saved.” The Good Shepherd who loves us is also the Good Shepherd we avoid and run away from when it suits us. Sometimes we find the hired hand more appealing. Sometimes the hired hand promises us more freedom, especially in pursuit of our own desires. But the reckless pursuit of our desires leads us to a deeper enslavement, with an empty reward instead of the pleasures we sought.
So, we should be wary of these hired hands that compete with Jesus for our loyalty. But there is also something in the human heart that always resists humility and submission, even to God, or especially to God. We certainly have experienced the abuse of authority by other people, and in our culture, we are quick to assert our freedom against tyranny of the state. But there is a deeper resistance, a deeper desire to put ourselves on the thrones of our lives and follow our own ways. “Follow your heart!” is the theme song for our culture these days; “be true to yourself” becomes our value. But we are sheep chasing our tails when we make ourselves king, and we miss out on all that God has to give us.
And, of course, some of our resistance to Jesus is just plain apathy. From what I know of sheep, sometimes they just disregard the shepherd. Apathy can come from despair, and apathy can come from distraction. Without learning to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd, we may find ourselves asleep when he calls us. So we miss out on his blessing, and when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, we might feel so alone.
But there is good news, even for wayward sheep, as we often can be.
Back in Pennsylvania, in one of the churches I served there, I met a man named Charlie. Charlie had a career as a stock broker or a similar kind of profession, pursuing wealth with the wealthy. He chased after the good life as he knew it, with all the toys and luxuries he had come to value. But these were empty paths, chasing counterfeits to true value. He found his family life and his marriage slipping away from him. He lashed out in anger and frustration when he could not control the situation. And in his desperation, he even got in trouble with the law. He lost his job, lost his marriage, and lost the trust of other family and friends. The good life he had pursued was empty, and the self he had glorified had failed. He lost what he valued and even the good things that he didn’t have eyes to see.
In his desperation, he had a chance conversation with someone he didn’t know well. The man saw Charlie’s deep pain, and sat with him to hear his story and respond. Charlie poured his heart out to him. And the man gave Charlie both a hard word and a hope. He told him the only way out of this despair was surrender—surrender to the Good Shepherd.
This began Charlie’s slow start and slow growth as a disciple of Jesus. At first, he felt that he had nothing to lose, so why not try. Then, Charlie discovered something real and durable and life-giving in Jesus. Charlie gave himself fully to Jesus, confessing how much he had wandered, and asking for forgiveness and new life.
Charlie had a lot to sort through. He began to take responsibility for his mistakes. This was a painful process, perhaps. He felt the tug of the shepherd’s crook at his neck, I’m sure. However, Charlie engaged in this process of accountability because he was submitted to the Good Shepherd and because he came to trust that this hard path was the path of life for him. Not everyone trusted him at first. But over time, he sought to repair the damage he had done, and he sought to reshape his life and his career, trusting in the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd.
He was able to begin again, and in time he regained some of that trust, and let go of his losses. He began a similar career, but with different values and a different purpose, shaped by the guidance of the Good Shepherd. He planned his life around God’s priorities, and offered his business in thanksgiving for God’s grace. When I met Charlie, he had become a humble man who blessed his family and others in the church and in the world, still seeking humility and submission before God, trusting in the Good Shepherd to lead him and to love him.
The amazing thing about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is that even when we wander, he still pursues us and calls us back to him! Notice what Jesus says about the Good Shepherd: he knows his own and his own know him, and he even will call other sheep who do not yet know him. Charlie was off the rails on a self-destructive path, but God went after him. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, and (to mix parables a bit) the Good shepherd runs after the sheep astray in the wilderness.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, seeks you. Wherever you are in life, whatever mistakes or wandering or whether or not you’ve noticed, Jesus, the Good Shepherd pursues you. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows you and loves you. Jesus calls you to hear his voice, to follow after him. He wants to guide you to green pastures and still waters, he wants to restore your soul, to walk with
you through the valley of the shadow of death, and to bring you to the feast he has prepared for you.
Notice the last verse of Psalm 23 (and I’ll use a more explicit translation): “Surely goodness and steadfast love will follow me all the days of my life.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, follows us, pursues us, and calls us to know him, and to love him. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, guides us to follow him to the blessing he has prepared for us.
Let us pray.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.