Our Good Shepherd - John 10:22-30
There’s a funny video of a boy who helps a sheep stuck in a ditch. Maybe you’ve seen it on YouTube. The boy struggles to free the sheep, while somebody records a video. The boy pulls its leg and eventually yanks the sheep out. The sheep shakes it off and runs away, galloping along the side of the ditch. It seems to immediately forget about the ditch, takes a big hop into the air, and falls right back in. I’m pretty sure the sheep ended up being fine, but people online found this sheep pretty hilarious. One blogger posted the video and wrote “This is me: when God bails me out, I run away and fall right back in.” The video is a humorous metaphor for human life. And in it we also see an excellent metaphor for God: that of good shepherd.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s always the fourth Sunday of Easter and the lectionary always presents us with Psalm 23 and one of three sections from John 10, Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is teaching at the Temple during the Festival of Dedication, also known as Hannukah. He’s talking to some Jewish leaders, who apparently do not believe his message. Jesus makes the declaration in the verses just before this section that he is the Good Shepherd, and here proclaims “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.”
The image of divine shepherd is one of the most common and beloved metaphors for God throughout the Bible. We see it in Psalm 23 when the psalmist, traditionally understood to be David, declares “the LORD is my shepherd.” This psalm is treasured in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and is often considered the world’s most famous poem. It reflects beautiful images of the divine shepherd guiding us along gentle waters and right pathways. And even when the going gets tough and we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us and we fear no evil. And through it all, the goodness and mercy of this divine shepherd will guide us all the days of our life. And when the end of life comes we will dwell in the house of the good shepherd forever. It’s good, it’s true, and it’s beautiful. It’s easy to see why this is so many people’s favorite image for God.
There are a lot of metaphors for God throughout scripture and the history of Christian theology. And I think it’s helpful for people of faith to occasionally explore these images and how others have understood God throughout the centuries. Doing so may help us grow in our own understanding of, and trust in, the divine reality to which these images point.
The earliest metaphors for God we have in scripture seem to be images like God as warrior. In parts of the Old Testament God is sometimes called “God of the angel armies.” This image may be comforting to some, especially if you live in a world where war is constant and you understand God as protecting you and fighting by your side. Such an image reveals the truth that God is strong and courageous and powerful. It probably meant a lot to ancient Israelites. But in today’s world, and even by the time of the Hebrew prophets, this image of God was seen as problematic. It can suggest that God is inherently violent, aggressive, and chooses one side over another. We can take what’s good about the metaphor, like the courage and heroism it implies, but at the same time understand the need for expanding our metaphors for God.
Another early image for God was God as king. This metaphor revealed God as almighty and all powerful. It was comforting to ancient Israelites and early Christians, people who were often oppressed, to see their God as king of kings. The image reveals that God is in control and is wise and rich in glory and honor. But this image of God as king also had cause for concern, especially in an ancient world where monarchs were often corrupt and cared little about the people they ruled. And in today’s world, kings remind people of patriarchy, dictators, and exploitative leaders.
Another image was God as judge, with Jesus as the defense attorney, and Satan as the prosecuting attorney. That metaphor probably spoke more truth about Jesus than it did about God, but it really complicated things by the middle ages, something Martin Luther helped clear up.
If we’re looking for the most appropriate metaphors of God, we of course have Jesus’ own favorite image for God, that of Father, or Abba—the informal word for father which means daddy or papa. God as a loving parent is very appropriate and meaningful. We could also say God is our Mother. The Old Testament, particularly, the Book of Proverbs uses feminine imagery to describe God as Wisdom Herself. Many ancient peoples understood God as Divine Mother, and in Christian history the need for an image of the divine feminine became manifest in the adoration of Mary, mother of Jesus. Protestants recognized that as bad theology, but the worship of Mary met a real human need. More recently God has been understood as encompassing both the divine masculine and the divine feminine. So it’s safe to call God Father or Mother if those images are meaningful to you. And on this Mother’s Day it's an especially good thing to be remember.
And then there’s the image we heard in our reading from Revelation this morning. The lion and the lamb. In Revelation, John of Patmos witnessed an incredible vision full of symbolic imagery. Just before the passage we read John heard a voice proclaiming the lion of Judah was coming. The powerful lion was a traditional image for the Messiah. But when John turns to see this lion, he instead saw a slaughtered, bloody lamb. And this lamb, we’re told, will shepherd his people.
Which brings us full circle back to what Jesus calls himself: the Good Shepherd. Amidst all of these images—some helpful, some not so helpful—probably the most common and meaningful for people of the ancient world was God the Divine Shepherd. And the early church saw Jesus as both the slaughtered lamb and the Good Shepherd.
All of the images we mentioned were obviously meaningful to at least some biblical authors. And like all metaphors, they reveal certain divine truths and at the same time can fall short of the reality they seek to describe. But God as Divine Shepherd was recognized early on as a very appropriate image for God. The Hebrew prophets and psalmists had experienced violent generals and corrupt kings, and understood the care and skill necessary to be a good shepherd. This image reveals God’s provision for us. It demonstrates how God guides us through life and is with us even in the darkest nights of the soul. When we’re experiencing peaceful, still waters, God is there. And when we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there. Our divine shepherd carries us, walks with us, and comforts us when all is well and when we are enduring life’s greatest trials.
In the midst of all the pain and suffering of this world, the covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, natural disasters and climate change, refugee crises and racism, diseases like cancer and dementia that take our loved ones away, widespread depression and anxiety and addiction. The list goes on and on. In the midst of all this suffering, we have the promise of our Good Shepherd who walks with us through it all. Jesus says that even if wolves try to take his sheep, even if robbers and bandits try to steal them, even if one of his sheep wanders off and is lost, even if he helps us escape from a ditch and we jump right back in—he promises that no one will snatch us from his hands. Jesus knows his sheep. And his sheep know him. He calls us by name and we trust and follow.
And so I invite you this week to reflect on the image of God as Good Shepherd. This is an image of God we can count on. We know it to be true. Even in all the crises of life, our divine shepherd invites us to trust, to hope, to experience the love of God in this life and forever. Our Good Shepherd is always with us. He is present in your life in times of still waters and in times of the valley of the shadow of death. Our Good Shepherd pervades the universe and transcends time and space. Our Good Shepherd sustains us and gives us life. Our Good Shepherd gives us joy and peace beyond understanding. We know the Good Shepherd and we trust his voice. He calls us by name and nothing will ever snatch us from his hands.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 5/8/22