11I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.12A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them.13This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.14I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me,15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.17This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”
Acts 4:8-12, 1 John 3:1-2
Jesus was raised in the ridgetop village of Nazareth. There he learned the ways of construction from his adoptive father Joseph and also became familiar with another way people made a living. The hill country around Nazareth is uniquely suited for the pasturing of flocks, both sheep and goats, and Jesus knew and understood the ways of the shepherd. Consider the challenge Jesus has before him in today’s passage. He is teaching his disciples about himself by drawing on shepherding practices from the hill country. But these metaphors would be foreign to many of them who had worked the Sea of Galilee as commercial fishermen.
Jesus proclaims to his disciples that he is a good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He compares this good shepherd to the hired man who runs at the first sight of danger and leaves the flock vulnerable to local predators. How does a shepherd lay down his life for the sheep? He does so, paradoxically, when he leaves the rest of the flock and goes out in search of a lost animal. This is done at great risk to the shepherd because that sheep he is looking for has likely become “cast down” due to the weight of the wool it is carrying. That sheep is unable to turn over and stand up. It cries out in despair. This mournful bleating is the dinner bell for any wolf that might be nearby. The good shepherd is willing to risk his own life to seek out and save a single lost sheep. The shepherd is looking for the same animal that the predators are also seeking to find. Who will arrive on the scene first? In a display of supreme bravery the good shepherd will imperil himself to seek out, find, and return the lost animal to the flock.
Ancient and modern shepherds in the Middle East train the animals in their flocks to respond to specific whistles and sounds. I have witnessed ten sheep called out from a group of hundreds. These animals knew their own shepherd’s voice and responded to his call. There is a depth of intimacy between the sheep and the shepherd. The animals will only respond to their shepherd. Jesus knows that the sheep of his flock know his voice and will follow him where he will lead.
Jesus teaches the disciples that the Father loves him because he lays down his life for the sheep. Our good shepherd will lay down his life when he goes out in search of the lost sheep. Because he is willing to risk his life for the flock the Father will honor him.
Then there are the sheep that do not belong to his fold. Jesus says that he must lead them as well. They will have to learn to listen to the call of a new shepherd and join the one flock that will be led by the one shepherd. I wonder who the sheep are that don’t belong to our flock? How can we be the voice of Jesus that they hear as an invitation to join the one flock of the one shepherd?
Jesus is willing to lay down his life because the Father knows him and he knows the Father. That intimate relationship gives Jesus the confidence he needs to lay down his life in service to others. This is the same relationship that will give us the confidence to follow the example of Jesus as the good shepherd.
King David was a good shepherd too. In Psalm 23 he reflects on the responsibility that a good shepherd has for his flock. At the end of our prayer this week you will see the phrase “he restores my soul.” This is how, as the shepherd finds and rescues a sheep that has become “cast down,” in so doing he saves the life of the lost sheep.
“The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul.”
Am I a good shepherd or a hired man? What is my response to threats to the flock in my pastoral care? I am a husband, a father, a grandfather. I want to be a good shepherd to all of these “flocks” in my life. How about you? Where has God put you in a position of pastoral influence? Do you love the flock in your care? When we find ourselves in positions of leadership and influence, do we take on the character of the good shepherd or flee from challenges we should be willing to face?
There is safety in numbers. It is good to be the member of a large flock. Still we have to be aware of those who need our help to come back to the fold and the care of the good shepherd. Ask the Lord to show you who you should reach out to this week. Invite them back into the blessing of the flock that is our church community today. Take the challenge and reach out to the “other sheep” this week.