Because of the texts for today, this day in the church year is often referred to as “Jesus, the Good Shepherd” Sunday. So, I did what was only logical, I researched sheep. I know nothing about sheep except that I often call them “sweaters waiting to happen.” I had heard that sheep are stupid or less than intelligent. My research shows that perception is wrong and that sheep are just as smart (if not a little smarter) than hogs and cattle. Take that as you will. Sheep can recognize human faces (which is pretty remarkable). They have great hearing and are actually sensitive to sound when being handled.
I also found out that humans and sheep really have a lot in common. Sheep like to congregate in groups. Relationships within the flocks are usually the closest with related sheep. Sheep also get really stressed out when they are separated from their flock or group. One other tid-bit about sheep that I found especially interesting is that they prefer to move out of the dark and into well-lit places. I thought that was not only interesting, but theological as well.
It’s kind of rare to meet someone that is a shepherd anymore. Shepherding has become almost a lost art. If you are a farmer who happens to also have sheep, I highly doubt that you call yourself a “shepherd.” Shepherds were responsible for tends, herds, feeds, and/or guards flocks of sheep. It was a well paying position but involved a lot of long hours and (I’m guessing) a lot of boredom. Interestingly enough, the word “pastor” comes from a Latin word meaning “shepherd.”
For Jesus to claim his followers as his sheep means that he is also claiming to be a shepherd. I’m guessing many (if not all) of you have probably seen a piece of artwork depicting Jesus either carrying a sheep or being surrounded by sheep. He is reinforcing the idea that he is the caretaker of those who believe in him. It is, however, an interesting conversation that gets us to that point. Jesus is in a public place after his resurrection, around the time of Hanukkah or so, and the Jews had gathered around and were kind of putting Jesus on the spot. Basically they said, “hey, we’re tired of all these miracles, all these parables, all this feeding….if you’re really the messiah, just tell us!” And in a typical Jesus answer they hear “I have told you and you aren’t listening.” Sassy Jesus.
Jesus continues by saying “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Let that sink in for just a minute. Jesus was not only talking about the followers that were literally following him at the time, but all of his believers to come. Brothers and sisters, Jesus is talking about us. We belong to Christ, we are the sheep and Jesus is the shepherd. The reminder that I hear in this resurrection promise is this: Jesus knows me. Jesus will not abandon me. Jesus will never let anyone, anything, or any force take me away from him. Jesus promises me eternal life. I don’t know about you, but for me, that is a powerful and humbling reminder.
In many ways it’s a humbling reminder because too often I want to shepherd my own life. I don’t know if that’s how you feel. The other thing that Jesus says that stops me in my tracks all the time is this “my sheep hear my voice.” How often I beg Jesus to hear his voice and everytime he speaks, I fail to listen. This is mainly because when I request Jesus to speak to me, I only want him to say the things I want to hear. I want him to justify how I feel. I want him to validate my hatred, anger, frustration, and lack of faith. Of course, Jesus doesn’t do this. And so I turn to people and things that I think will give me life and validate me and in the long run, I end up being hurt and disappointed. It is only then, only when I find myself in the pit of despair and sin that I realize Christ has been speaking to me all along. Then, I listen.
And if you’re anything like me, maybe this routine sounds too familiar. In fact, the scripture we hear on Good Friday from Isaiah says “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53.6). And yet, yet despite our tendency to go astray, despite our outright refusal to listen and instead fall into sin over and over again, despite our attempt to worship false gods and idols that we think will give life, Jesus claims us as his own. Jesus calls us his sheep. Jesus promises us eternal life. Jesus promises us his watchful eye and protection. I need that reminder on a daily basis. I need reminding of who I am and who I belong to. I need to be shepherded from darkness into light, from hunger into a feast, from death into life. I have shown myself and proven to myself over and over again that if I am left to my own devices, I will most certainly go astray and without a shepherd to herd me back in, I will die.
But because it is Jesus’ job as the shepherd to tend to us, feed us, and protect us, that’s exactly what he does. And yes, sometimes it may not feel like that. It’s hard to remember in the moment that Jesus knows what is best for us. Nonetheless, we’re brought back into the flock over and over. We are fed over and over. We are loved beyond what we deserve and certainly loved more than we can ever imagine. Maybe you need another reminder, like I do. Maybe you need to be reminded that God will never let you go. Maybe you need reminded that despite whatever shortcomings and failings we have, God always brings us back into the flock. Maybe you need reminding that life on this earth is short but we have life eternal promised to us, not because of who we are but because of whose we are. Maybe you just need reminded that you are loved and not forgotten. Jesus gives us all of that. In bread and wine and water, we are loved. In prayer, in thanksgiving, in times of trouble, we are loved. In life we are loved and in death we are loved. Brothers and sisters, my fellow sheep, we are loved.