The Excellent Shepherd

In the Summer of 2010 I took a few dozen high schoolers plus a handful of adults to NYC to work with a summer program for kids. While there we took one day to go be tourists in The City. We split up into groups (each with their own pair of leaders), and I was the Chinatown leader. So the kids that wanted to roam the streets of Chinatown, eat great food and buy cheap knockoff sunglasses came with me. Seemed like a good idea at the time, until we got down there. Let me assure you, it is an amazing and terrifying adventure to shepherd a handful of teenagers up and down strange and busy city streets. In order to keep reasonably safe we had a rule that if one person wanted to go into a store, we all went into the store. Nobody could go off by themselves. We had a leader in front (me) plus another leader in the back to wrangle the stragglers. Everything went fine at first. Kids buying street food (which we were warned to not do, but we did anyway), and giant gaudy watches that would end up breaking within the week. Then it happened. As we were walking past a small dingy side street one of our high school girls heard the siren’s call: “Gucci purses. $20!” She looked down the alley and saw a guy about 50 feet away, waving her over to see his selection. It was just too much for this young lady to handle. She broke from the group and started walking into the abyss. When she was about 1/2 way down one of our giant high school guys (that would end up playing college football) noticed that she had broken away and started to run after her. The purse-peddler saw this giant young man running, so he took off. Catastrophe Averted.

Why did she go down that alley? What voices to you hear (maybe not literally) that call you into something that is too good to be true; offering hope while producing death.

John 10
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

We aren’t much of a shepherding community anymore, but we can still (partly) understand what Jesus was talking about when he made these agricultural parallels. In John 10 Jesus self-describes with TWO of his seven “I AM” statements. These statements are meant to reveal one of his powerful unique characteristics, but also to describe how He (and he alone) is able to heal one of our powerful and unique needs. In this chapter we get “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the door” — But in reality, we aren’t getting two identities but two sides of the same one.

But to get there we need to first understand sheep. It’s not that they are super dumb like us pastors have made them out to be. It’s just that they are really limited. They are very valuable, but also very vulnerable. They need to be led, fed and protected. Constantly. They have pretty bad eyesight and need a leader to keep them from the dangers that surround them: predators, thief and the environment. But, probably even worse, they are prone to blindly follow whoever is in front of them. If the sheep in front of them is walking down a fatal path, he’ll most likely just keep following without looking up, stepping right into whatever danger lies ahead in true leming-style.

Which means that these sheep really need a Shepherd to Provide and Protect. A Shepherd who knows the terrain, the dangers and the places for food. But also have the grit to fight off wolves, lions and thieves. Purge from your mind the pictures of the introvert and goofy sheep-keeper and picture instead Rooster Cogburn from True Grit. Rugged and Determined.

So when Jesus claims the identity of the Good Shepherd, he is taking on a multi-faceted and strong role (minus the debaucherous traits of Rooster). He is standing atop the three great leaders of Israel: Abraham, Moses and David, who were all Shepherds. But Jesus is THE Shepherd who leads His People through the Sea and through the Wilderness and into THE Promised Land as he protects and provides not just here and now but forevermore. He protects us from the horrendous predators and thieves that seek to steal, kill and destroy. He even took on the brunt of these murderers, throwing himself in front of their arrows on the cross in order to keep us save and lead us Home. And this is where the other I AM comes in: The Door. 

The Door is actually one of the essential and glorious roles of The Shepherd. In Jesus’ time they didn’t usually use a “corral” like we think of from the western movies. When they were out in the hills they would stack up rocks in a circle, making a make-shift fence. He would then stand in the entrance as “the door” keeping the sheep in and danger out. But him doing this the sheep (turn the corner in your mind to yourself) could actually breath freely without the anxiety of being carried off by a thief. They can actually rest and have peace because the Shepherd is on his watch. And OUR SHEPHERD never sleeps. When evil tries to come in or climb the walls, he is there with his staff in hand.

Go back to NYC with me for a second. We are so susceptible to dangers, many of which actually come from within us, our own vulnerability. We are prone to wander after the shiny objects and $20 Guccis. While Jesus as Shepherd and Door is perfectly providing and protecting, our calling is to listen and follow. We need to stick together as a flock rather than run off on our own. We need to hone our ears so that we can actually recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit, which takes practice and repetition. To be in The Word (which we know is his voice) so that when the Spirit speaks into our hearts we can ask “does this sound like Jesus?”

At the end of the day, what we can take away from these two I AMs is that we are loved, valued, protected, provided for and led. Jesus himself has come to give us “Abundant Life” — not steal our joy and give us oppressive rules but give us green pastures and secure fences, with him standing guard. So we are able to breath, have peace, and be assured that our Shepherd is at his watch.

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