“I know my sheep”
How often are you identified with a number?
At the bank you have account numbers, PIN numbers to access your accounts, and credit card numbers.
The taxation department identifies you by your Tax File Number.
You have a Medicare number.
When you enquire about your power or phone bill the first thing you are asked is, “What is your customer number?”
When you go to the meat section of the supermarket you are required to pick up a number and will be served when your number is called.
If you are in business you need an ABN (an Australian Business Number);
on internet sites and for email you need usernames and passwords, and we could go on.
If you are pulled over by a police officer for speeding, he/she is interested in numbers – your licence number, your registration number, and … the number on the radar gun indicating how fast you were travelling.
Numbers are so impersonal. Isn’t it nice when someone remembers your name, or when you are known by name rather than by a customer account number?
In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus speak words that give us that kind of warm feeling that we have when someone cares for us, is interested in what is happening in our lives, empathises and encourages us. Jesus tells us about the very personal and intimate relationship that he has with us. He says, “I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me” (John 10:14).
Jesus describes his relationship with us using the closeness and intimacy that he and the Father in heaven share as an example of the personal way he knows us and what is happening to us. However, we can only know the close relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a limited way because our knowledge of the Trinity is very incomplete so Jesus also uses the description of the relationships between a shepherd and his sheep. I believe that this kind of description is easier to understand because it is something that comes from everyday life and in Jesus’ time everyone knew about shepherds and sheep. He says, “My sheep know my voice, and I know them. They follow me, and I give them eternal life, so that they will never be lost. No one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father gave them to me, and he is greater than all others. No one can snatch them from his hands, and I am one with the Father” (John 10:27-30 CEV).
Talking about shepherds who know each sheep individually, even calling them by name, is not so familiar to us Aussies. The Australian sheep farmer is not one bit like the shepherds we read about in the Bible. The modern day sheep farmer has his large mob of sheep, let’s say a thousand sheep, in a paddock and he occasionally goes out to check if everything is all right. When he wants to shift them he hops on his motorbike and with the help of his dog he drives them to where he wants them to go. He doesn’t call them by name though he might call them names when they act stupidly and go where he doesn’t want them to go, but you wouldn’t say they are affectionate names. This is nothing like the picture that Jesus gives, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27).
A shepherd in ancient times firstly didn’t have thousands of sheep to look after. He had a small flock and he knew each sheep individually. One of the most meaningful pictures in Christian art depicts Jesus as a shepherd. We don’t know if Jesus ever really shepherded sheep – maybe he might have done something like this if he had a shepherd friend when he was a lad and they spent time out in the fields with sheep. Whatever Jesus’ experience was as a shepherd, he uses an image that everyone could relate to.
Artists have taken up this theme and pictured Jesus holding a lamb, or carrying a lamb across his shoulders, or watching over sheep. Jesus is the one who cares, the one who saves the lost, and rescues from trouble. He is the one who is intimately and individually concerned about each one of his sheep. He provides his sheep with everything they need. He is the one whose staff and rod defend the sheep if any danger should come their way. We are led to think of what would have happened to a lost lamb if Jesus did not rescue it. Even if that lamb was wild and independent of all help, the shepherd doesn’t give up.
A party of tourists was on its way to Palestine and the guide was describing some of the customs of the East. “Now,” he said, “you are accustomed to seeing the shepherd driving his sheep through the English lanes. Out in the East, however, things are different, for the shepherd always leads the way, going on in front of the flock. And the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
They reached Palestine, and, to the amusement of the tourists, almost the first thing they saw was a flock of sheep being driven along by a man. The guide was astonished and immediately made it his business to approach the shepherd. “How is it that you are driving these sheep?” he asked. “I have always been told that the Eastern shepherd leads his sheep.” “You are quite right, sir,” replied the man. “The shepherd does lead his sheep. But you see, I’m not the shepherd, I’m the butcher.”
The sheep depended on the shepherd. They gladly followed him because they knew he could be trusted because he lived among his sheep,
slept among them,
walked with them,
guided, directed and protected them,
knew each sheep by name.
All this builds up a mental image of someone with an intense love for our total well-being at every turn of our life. This is a description of how Jesus feels about each one of us. Big business thinks of us as a number. Jesus knows us by name.
By using this shepherd imagery Jesus is connecting himself to the Old Testament imagery that we read of in Psalm 23. The writer refers to the Lord as my shepherd. There nothing else I need. I will not be afraid be you are close beside me.
It’s obvious that the writer is expressing the personal relationship that God has with him. The real presence of God in his life is not something theoretical or even wishful. It is real. Especially in this Easter season we are reminded that we have a living and all-powerful Saviour who is walking beside us every day through thick and thin.
No doubt there are times when it seems that Jesus is a million miles away.
We have prayed for help in times of sickness and the pain is as intense as ever.
We have asked him to guide us through some difficult decisions but we have blundered on making one mistake after another.
We have wanted him to watch over our loved ones, but they have still been caught up in trouble and accidents.
We may feel as if we are losing our faith in Jesus, stop going to worship and lose touch with the people at church.
But the fact is Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. He is right here with us. He knows what is happening in our lives. He knows what is going through our minds and how restless and anxious we are – he will use his power to help and support us. Jesus’ promise is good even when we are doubting and despairing, “I am the good Shepherd, I know my sheep”.
Even though we are down and almost out, we are assured that we are in the arms of the everlasting shepherd who lovingly supports and strengthens us in our weakest and most painful moments. Like the lamb that is often pictured in Jesus’ arms, we can be at peace and feel safe in the arms of our loving shepherd.
This reminds me of a passage from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament where the people are in trouble and ask, “Has God forgotten us”? God answers, “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for a child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on my hand” Isaiah 49:15-16 NLT).
Those words are just as applicable to us today as they were three thousand years ago. God feels the same way about us as he did back then. He even gave his life for the sheep.
The image of the Good Shepherd is one of love, care, protection, intimacy and closeness. This text about the Good Shepherd has implications for us who are followers of Jesus. We are challenged to share his concern for those who are in trouble, for those who suffer injustice, for the sick and for the poor. It is not good enough for us to say to those suffering “You should trust in Jesus to make things work out for you”. As his followers, we share the same concerns as he has, and show our love in very practical ways, as Jesus did. It may be inconvenient to offer assistance, it may cost us time, effort and money, but love demands that this be done.
What I am saying is that we become shepherds to one another. We are to be shepherds to one another as members of this congregation. We are to be shepherds to one another in our families, to one another at work, amongst our friends.
Just as Jesus guides and protects his sheep, mothers and fathers guide and protect the lambs he has given to us in our families.
Just as Jesus shepherds us with patience and love, we shepherd those lives whom God has entrusted to us.
Just as Jesus comforts and helps us, husbands and wives comfort and help one another.
As I said, we become shepherds to one another.
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we do know that we have a loving shepherd who walks with us through the good and bad. And one day when we must walk through the valley of darkness and death he will walk with us and lead us to the glorious new life beyond the grave. Because we have a loving shepherd, goodness and love will follow us all our lives and we will live in the house of the Lord forever.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy