I have often led Bible studies on Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down for his sheep. In these increasingly insecure times I’m noticing that people are more in touch with their need for protection. Mass shootings in Texas, ICE raids in Mississippi, hurricanes in the Caribbean…
“Jesus describes himself as the door of the sheep pen (John 10:7), and all who came before him as thieves and robbers,” I summarize in a recent Bible study.
“Who or what are some of these thieves and robbers today?” I ask.
People mention politicians, drug dealers, addictions, prosecutors, judges, temptations, law-enforcement and other forces they experience as predatory.
Jesus says something that either shows he’s naïve, talking about something else, or believes that the sheep can in fact discern. He says “but the sheep didn’t listen to them.”
Yet we see that people do listen and fall prey!
But the inmates on Sunday afternoon and our Tierra Nueva faith community members later that same day feel seen by Jesus when they hear this. Many of them are really tired of their lives. They know and readily admit that people and forces they’ve listened to must be resisted if they’re to experience newness of life. They recognize their need to pay attention to someone who really is out for their best interests. But do we? If so, who might this be?
As we read what Jesus says about himself in John 10:9-11 I can see that these words alone seem to sooth the people’s tired spirits.
“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, s/he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
People are moved that those who enter into safety through Jesus are free to come and go out. Jesus is not about control.
We also talk about how hired hands will flee when they see the wolf coming. They don’t care about the sheep. But who are these hired hands?
I think of myself in my inability and sometimes unwillingness to respond to all the needs I see around me and in the larger world. Are “hired hands” anyone other than Jesus himself? I wonder. I know that I do not want to be considered a hired hand!
It does seem true that when we put our trust in people they will eventually disappoint us. Yet Jesus is recruiting others to join him in his shepherding ministry, embodying his compassion, love and care to a needy world.
I think about the growing numbers of people here in the Skagit Valley who are being ravaged by addictions to meth and heroin. When someone is ready for treatment it is rare to find room in the local detox facility or an available bed in a drug and alcohol treatment center. It is easy for the public to shrug and blame the addict—ignoring these sheep. In the face of increasing overdose deaths, who will pursue the addicted, announcing and showing God’s kindness, healing and protection?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in Mississippi chicken processing plants have created a lot of anxiety amongst immigrants across the country. People without papers imagine being arrested, deported, leaving their US citizen children stranded.
In our community the grueling work in meat-packing, fish-processing and poultry-processing plants is largely done by immigrant workers. They’re some of the only people willing to put in the long hours and hard work for low pay. Yet they are being scapegoated, blamed for taking jobs at a time when unemployment is at an all-time low. As ICE steps up workplace enforcement raids, who will offer relief and protection?
Jesus critiques shepherds that are mere hired hands- unwilling to follow his lead in laying down his life for his sheep.
But who are Jesus’ sheep, and what might this salvation he describes look like?
Jesus says of his sheep: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”
This appears to mean that no one else can judge who belongs to Jesus. The relationship is sacred and personal. Jesus goes on to add:
“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
My take on this is that followers of Jesus, whomever they are, are representatives of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Everything we do must be in alignment with his protective, abundant life-giving, life-laying-down action (and not with predatory powers!). Making visible the love of Christ will “bring them also” (these “other sheep”- whomever they are). And Jesus is confident that “they will listen” to his voice.
I get a sudden inspiration as I am preaching at Tierra Nueva to place chairs in a semi circle against the front wall of our sanctuary. I leave an opening in the circle and tell how shepherds in ancient Palestine would sometimes sleep at the door to protect their sheep at night.
“So Jesus describes himself as the door,” I summarize, and Jesus says, “if anyone enters by me they will be saved.” He even says that he lays down his life for his sheep. Let’s read John 10:28-29 to see what else he offers.
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
“Maybe some of us are not sure we know Jesus or that he knows us. Or we are feeling a special need for his protection and salvation,” I say.
I invite people who want to affirm their desire to know and be known by Jesus to come up through the entry into the circle of chairs representing the sheep pen. I invite anyone who wants to know God’s salvation and protection more fully, to come forward.
People stream into the circle—and we open up an exit space at the back. But most want to take a seat. I call for help from our other Tierra Nueva pastors and faith community veterans and we pray for everyone while our worship team plays a final song before communion.
We tasted the abundant life that Sunday and I feel compelled to keep announcing it. May we work to more fully embody the shepherding ministry of Jesus in these turbulent times—not shying away from complex issues like immigration, mass-incarceration and addiction.
To hear this sermon “Finding Security in Jesus, the Good Shepherd,” click here.