We can learn a lot from sheep.

 Easter 4 (Good Shepherd Sunday)
John 10:1-18

We can learn a lot from sheep.

Sheep were the most common domesticated animal of the biblical world. Sheep and shepherds were everywhere. The most famous king of Israel, Kind David, started out as a shepherd. And one famous text that about the coming Messiah, Ezekiel 34, which we read this morning, says that the Messiah would be our shepherd, and also that God himself would be our shepherd. And David, the shepherd king, wrote a famous song about God as his shepherd. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The tune has long been forgotten, but not the lyrics. It begins with the famous line: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall want for nothing.’

So at Jesus’ time, illustrations involving sheep and shepherds would be understood by everyone.

In Jesus’ last public talk as recorded in John’s gospel he is addressing the crowds after the healing of the blind man on the Sabbath. The context suggest an implicit criticism of the Jewish leaders for not being very good shepherds, and perhaps also a reminder of the importance of a single lost sheep (the man born blind).

What we find in this text is not a simple illustration about sheep and shepherds, but three inter-connected illustrations.

First, there is the illustration of the Sheepfold and the importance of recognising the shepherd’s voice (vv 1-6).

Second, there is the illustration of the gate to the sheepfold (vv 7-10).

And third, there is the illustration of the good shepherd (vv 11-18), for which this Sunday is named.

In order for us to understand that Jesus is the good shepherd, he first wants to explain a couple of things about sheep and shepherds.

First, he tells us about the importance of the shepherd’s voice. In some parts of the world still today, shepherds take their flocks out into open pasture, and then return with them at night to their village where the sheep are kept in a common sheepfold, or sheep pen. As was the custom also in Jesus’ time, these pens are simple enclosures formed of stone walls. Some of them are quite large and can hold hundreds of sheep. Each night the shepherd brings his sheep into the common fold, where someone guards the gate, and each morning, he comes to take his sheep out and lead them to pasture.

But how does the gatekeeper know which sheep are to go with each shepherd? And how does the shepherd know which sheep are his? While a good shepherd will indeed know his sheep, it would take quite a while to find each one when perhaps a dozen other shepherds also have led their sheep into the common sheepfold for the night. This system works because the sheep also know their shepherd. Each shepherd has a distinctive call, or sometimes a whistle. When his sheep hear this they perk up their ears and hurry for the shepherd, who leads them out of the sheepfold. The sheep who do not belong to the shepherd simply ignore the voice and wait for the call of their own shepherd. The sheep not only know the voice of the shepherd, but they trust it and are quite excited to hear it. They want to follow their shepherd.

For many years our neighbour in Hahndorf kept sheep. He used to work during the week part-time at a local potato farm. Two or three times a week he would drive his old six cylinder Ford ute (which only every ran on five cylinders) to the back of his property, which bordered our own, and would throw out box fulls of potato seconds.

Fun fact: Sheep love potatoes.

What we noticed is that we knew when our neighbour was coming before we could see him because forty or fifty sheep would suddenly come running over the hill and toward the gravel road that lead past his back paddock and to our home. They came running because they recognized the distinctive sound of his ute. And they knew that when he drove the ute in from that direction, it meant they were getting potatoes! They didn’t react that way for anyone else.

The engine of an old ute is not quite the same as the shepherd’s voice, but you can see the point. Sheep are quite good at knowing who cares for them and who provides for them. They will come when they hear the voice of their shepherd because they have learned to trust the shepherd. If someone comes to try to steal the sheep and calls them to come, they will not come. With this first illustration Jesus wanted his listeners to know that he knows and cares for his sheep, and that his sheep know his voice and trust him.  When he calls, we will follow. Jesus comes back to this illustration later in this same chapter when he says: ‘My sheep know my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life (which is even better than potatoes!), and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand’ (27 and 28).

Jesus’ second illustration takes the listener away from the larger, common sheepfold in the town or village to one of the many smaller sheepfolds build in more distance pastures. These were used when a shepherd has travelled too far from home in search of good pasture to return to the large, common sheepfold. In these, he could keep his sheep safely overnight. These structures were simple small stone enclosures built by generations of local shepherds. They did not have a wooden gate or a gatekeeper like the larger sheepfolds in town. They had a single opening into the sheepfold. And the shepherd would lay out his bedroll across the opening, becoming the gate of the sheepfold through the night. Any thief or wild animal that wanted to get at the sheep would have to come through the shepherd. In such a situation a good shepherd would never simply put some limbs across the entrance and go somewhere more safe and comfortable. He would stay with the sheep.

When Jesus says ‘I am the gate for the sheep,’ one of his famous ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel, this is the image he is invoking. He not only protects the sheep with his own life, but no sheep come into the sheepfold except through him.

Now that Jesus has everyone thinking about sheep and shepherds, he moves to his third and final illustration. And remember, when he does this, his listeners will be thinking very much about the famous Messianic passage from Ezekiel in which we are told both that God himself will be our shepherd and that the messianic successor to King David will be our shepherd. It was a famous text. But how can both God and the Messiah be our shepherd when that passage made a point of telling us their would be one shepherd and one flock? A promise from this text is repeated by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, verse 16, ‘They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, one shepherd.’  Jesus explains how both God and the Messiah will be the one shepherd of the people when he says to those listening that he is the good shepherd. And as soon as Jesus finishes his illustration of the good shepherd, he goes on to explain that he and the Father are one. Jesus was telling the people that all those centuries earlier, Ezekiel was talking about one and the same shepherd. The one shepherd of God’s people is both the Messiah and God in human flesh. (But that’s another sermon). For now, we want to look at what Jesus tells us about himself as the good shepherd.

In this passage we have another Jesus’ seven ‘I am’ sayings from John’s Gospel, and the second within this single passage. John liked groups of seven. Like John’s seven signs or miracles of Jesus, he reports seven sayings of Jesus in which he said ‘I am …’ I am the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12), ‘the door’ (10:9) the good shepherd (10:11-14), the resurrection and the life (11:250, the way the truth and life (14:6) and the vine (15:1-5). These sayings are significant because when Moses asked God what his name was, God simply answered ‘I am’. So Jesus’ repetition of ‘I am’ reinforces John’s theme in his Gospel that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but also God the creator come to us in human flesh. So that is part of what is happening in this text.  Jesus is once again telling those who have ears to hear who he is. He is telling them that the solution of the riddle of Ezekiel’s prophecy about the one shepherd for the one flock being on the one had God and the Messiah is that the Messiah is God himself has come among us.

But the other part of what Jesus is telling us is what kind of Messiah he is. And what kind of God he is. He is not just a good shepherd, he is the Good Shepherd. His use of the definite article is deliberate and stands out. There might be many good shepherds, but there is only one who is the Good Shepherd.  Jesus is the one whose voice we follow because we know and trust him and he brings us only good things. He protects us and cares for us. And he gives us life everlasting. We have also been told that he is the gate by which we enter the sheepfold, and that he guards that gate himself, with his own life.

And now he tells us that he really means this. ‘I am the good shepherd,’ he says, ‘and I lay down my life for the sheep.’

People had’ of course’ heard stories of shepherds who had died protecting their flock from thieves or wild animals. Such occurrences were rare, but that is the kind of love and dedication to his sheep a truly good shepherd has. And Jesus is that kind of shepherd.

Jesus is not a God whom we are to fear. We do not cringe or cower when we hear his voice. We do not wonder what he wants from us now. When we hear his voice we are excited, because we know he cares about us. We know that he watches out for us. We know that he brings us everything we need. We know that he even offers us peace with him and eternal life.

And Jesus does this by making the ultimate sacrifice a good shepherd will make for his sheep. When Jesus speaks of the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep, he is pointing to his own death of the cross. It was a death that was fast approaching when he gave this final public sermon. He is telling the people one last time not only who he is, but how much he loves his sheep, how much he loves all of us, both those who were near and those still far off.

Because Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he is willing to go to the cross that we might have life.

So it turns out we can learn a lot from sheep. As Jesus shows us, we can learn everything we really need to know about God and his love for us from sheep.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, gathers us into one flock, and he gives his life to do it. And his one flock continues to grow as more and more hear the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and follow him.

On this Sunday of the Good Shepherd, might we continue to recongise the voice of Jesus as he calls us. And may we have the strength and courage to follow Jesus, to trust him as sheep trust their shepherd, for in Jesus, we have found our Messiah, our God and Creator, our one and only Good Shepherd.


Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.