They say that sheep don’t recognize the physical body of their shepherd, but rather are guided by his voice. Different than other animals it seems, sheep perceive more from the sounds they hear than from the sights they see. Now, being the skeptic that I am this, of course, made me somewhat suspicious until I read that experiments have been carried out proving this very point.
For example, an experiment was made in which two men, one the regular shepherd and the other a complete stranger, changed clothes with one another and attempted to lead the sheep. In order to avoid any possibility of facial recognition both men covered their faces and then called to the sheep. Every time they tried this the sheep refused to follow the stranger dressed in the shepherd’s regular clothes, but they did follow the voice of the true shepherd even though he was dressed in completely different clothes than they were used to.
Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus reminds us that his sheep recognize and trust his voice, and they will never follow any other. But before we go any further, we need to reiterate one fundamental truth: Where is the voice of Jesus heard today? In the Bible. The voice of Jesus our Good Shepherd is heard in his words and promises which are found only in the Bible. To this voice, says Jesus, the true sheep listen at all times.
Here's a question: How well do you trust that voice in your life? How readily do you follow Jesus when he leads you into the unknown? If we think of the duties of a shepherd, we rightly say that one of his chief duties is to lead the sheep—to lead them to green pastures, as Jesus says. So, what about those moments when you find yourself wandering through the dark valleys of life? Does that mean Jesus has failed you? Well, this is why Jesus says what he does in John 10 and reminds us that he is the Good Shepherd.
Think about that title. They are such simple words and yet profound words. In other words, he’s not a bad shepherd. Whatever your circumstances may be Jesus is telling you, “I am not a bad shepherd. I am not going to abandon you. You will find yourself from time to time in a dark valley, but when you do, you can be sure that I will be leading you through it.”
Now, why does Jesus speak in this fashion? What is he doing in John chapter 10?
Jesus is distinguishing himself from the many imposter-like shepherds that Israel had along the way, in particular the Pharisees who were nothing more than blind guides. And so, unlike the Pharisees and other ruling Jews of Israel’s history, Jesus was not a royal caretaker of the people only out of self-interest. He was not self-serving in his relationship with them.
And so, Jesus speaks in this fashion in order to establish himself as someone who has and continues to have vested interest in every one of his sheep because you and I mean something to him. Indeed, he says this so as to contrast himself with the thought that he would turn out like so many of the other leaders who were for God’s people only in so far as it was advantageous to them. No, says Jesus. That would be the hired hand. “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
How different it is when it comes to our Good Shepherd Jesus! You see, if you’ve ever been vested in the well-being of another, if you’ve ever had the default mindset (think a parent): “My happiness is far less important than my child’s happiness,” then perhaps you can begin to understand the relationship between Jesus and his sheep. He’s not the day care employee; he’s the parent, and these are the object of his love. Would you offer your life for the one you love? Jesus answers, “I will, and I did.” “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (v. 11).
Now you will notice that of all the analogies that the Bible uses to describe our relationship to Jesus, there is no more prominent picture than that of sheep together with their shepherd. The Bible could have referred to Jesus primarily as a coach. It could have described him primarily as a CEO, but it doesn’t. It refers to him as one who is characterized by the greatest object of his affection, namely his sheep.
Does that ever strike you as odd? Why not describe him principally as an executive? He leads, right? Why not describe him principally as a coach? He encourages, right? Why not describe him mainly as a teacher, or a mentor, or a friend, for he is and does all those things?
Because you and I wander! That is what we do. We get into trouble. We are slow to foresee the consequences of our actions. We cannot defend nor rescue ourselves from the danger of sin, and so he describes himself as a pastor, for that is what the term shepherd truly means!
Perhaps you’ve even seen sheep and goats in the countryside and the way they go off wandering in search of new and better grass. Do they even think where they are going? No. They eat; they walk; they eat; they walk; and they’re not always conscious of the voice of their shepherd. You can even imagine them saying to themselves: “I wonder why he’s always so protective of us?” “Yes, he seems to be always shouting. I wonder what that’s all about?” Says another sheep, “Well, you should have heard him yesterday. He was so concerned that I didn’t get too far away that he kept following me and calling out to me. I wonder why?” Until the sheep succeeds in going its own way and then realizes it has no clue what to do.
So, unless you really are a literal sheep, you have to be saying to yourself, “You know, that sounds an awful lot like me: prone to wander and not always intelligent.” I mean, think of it this way: you tell me when it’s ever intelligent to sin. Right? I can’t think of any example. Because each time we sin we wander further and further away from our Good Shepherd. And the sad thing is that there are many Christians who are perfectly content to live in this condition. They’re lost and they don’t even realize it! They’re busy chewing grass and they don’t even realize that the rest of the flock (i.e., the church) is over there with Jesus, and they’re way over here!
Does that describe you? Can you think of a time in your life when it has described you? Oh, I can. That’s why Jesus reminds you and me of how fortunate we are that he is the Good Shepherd, for the thrust of what he is saying is that you and I are sheep. That is what we are. We’re sinful sheep. But although you and I routinely wander away from him, Jesus says, “I will never wander away from you.” Why? “Because I am not the hired hand, that’s why.” “On the contrary, I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep now me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Loved ones, he knows your pains and the worries that keep you up at night. He doesn’t just know about them; he knows them. He knows your dreams and your deepest longings. He knows the things you’re passionate about in life—those things for which you seem to have endless energy. He even knows the very number of hairs on your head (Matthew 10:30). Imagine that! So important are you to him that even the smallest detail is something to which your Savior and God gives attention. You’re so much more than one of seven billion people in this world. You’re one of his people. And that’s what makes all the difference. You’re numbered among his sheep!
Isn’t that what the song says: “I am Jesus’ little lamb; Ever glad at heart I am, For my shepherd gently guides me, Knows my needs and well provides me, Loves me every day the same, Even calls me by my name” (CW 432).
Now, ask yourself: why do you think that song is so popular? Because it’s true! …Loves me every day the same, Even calls me by my name.”
Isn’t that the comfort David was speaking of in Psalm 23? [Read Psalm 23]
Those aren’t just pious platitudes. David had a terribly difficult and problematic life, and yet through it all he still can say: “I lack nothing.”
Can you say that today as well? Well, you may be saying to yourself, “I’m not sure. I mean I want to say it, but Pastor you have to understand that there are times when it is so hard.” Oh, I don’t doubt that. But that doesn’t change the fact that you have a Good Shepherd. That’s the reality. You have a Good Shepherd, and the proof of that is in the fact that he laid down his life for the sheep. He gave his life to rescue you from the grip of the devil and he didn’t do it as a hired hand, you see. He did it because he wanted to. He did it because that’s how much he loves you. He did it because his essence is pure goodness to you.
You see, I love this Sunday. Because it reminds me that in today’s world there still is someone who actually wants to be a shepherd, someone who actually wants to be a real pastor, and that from eternity! And he’s never, ever wanted to be anything else. This is the type of shepherd who doesn’t retire after a certain number of years working in the field—you notice that Jesus never retired from his occupation of shepherding once his work of salvation was finished—no! —but rather he continues to take care of his flock even today. Because he lives, you see. Not just on Easter, but each and every day that follows Easter up to the present time. He lives! As our sermon theme says: The Risen Christ is our Good Shepherd, and as such he continues to shepherd us all the way to heaven. Amen.