“Our Shepherd” Hanmok Church in Suwon, South Korea (CFC Partner Church), April 22, 2018, (Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18) Fourth Sunday of Easter

Psalm 23 is one of the most famous passages in the Bible with the compelling image of God as our Shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”   Christians also have an image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the Gospel according to John when Jesus declared: “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”[1]  We can often find Jesus depicted in churches throughout the world walking through a field with a sheep around his shoulders or a lamb in his arms.

Though thinking of Jesus as our Good Shepherd may not be that appealing at first.  Because in this Biblical image, we are the sheep as followers of Jesus.  And sheep are not known for being very smart.  Sheep have a herd mentality and sometimes wander off and get into trouble.  Who really wants to be called sheep?

But after learning more about sheep to contemplate Jesus as our Good Shepherd, there’s actually some redeeming qualities about this whole sheep/shepherd image we have in the Bible.  For instance, researchers in the United Kingdom have discovered that sheep have a good sense of individuality.  Sheep can recognize the faces of at least 10 people and 50 other sheep for at least 2 years!  And sheep react to facial expressions—like humans, they prefer a smile to a frown.  Sheep even mourn, knowing when part of the flock goes missing.  Honestly these findings from scientists are challenging the stereotype of unintelligent farmyard animals that have no sense of self.[2]

Sheep do have good instincts.  Sheep are grazers and instinctively run from what scares them.  Their only means of survival is to band together to protect the flock.  Herding dogs are good at their jobs because sheep see the dogs as predators.  So they come together for protection and move away from the perceived danger.  As Jesus once said, “I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.”[3]  Sheep instinctively know and trust their shepherd to protect them from the wolves.[4]  There are actually many redeeming qualities about sheep which are helpful to know as we meet our Good Shepherd in today’s scriptures.  Because maybe as a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s not so bad being compared to sheep after all.

The Psalmist reminds us in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.  He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”[5]  This is all about the relationship between the sheep and shepherd giving us insight into the nature of God.  For a sheep to lie down in green pastures, be led to still waters, and be led on right paths is all about the shepherd taking good care of their sheep.  This is about having food and water, avoiding danger, and then attaining good shelter.  The best translation of these verses may be that God keeps us alive.  The sheep doesn’t lack anything because the shepherd is providing the basic necessities for life.  So what we have here is the realization that our lives depend on God and that God keeps us alive.

It’s fascinating that we often hear the 23rd Psalm at funerals or when someone is dying.  That’s a perfectly good time to hear these comforting words, particularly “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”[6]  But this Psalm is also about living because it puts daily activities that we all experience—eating, drinking, and seeking shelter and security—into the very arms of God.  It ends up that God cares about the seemingly mundane aspects of our very existence.  All of life is a gift from God, and we can’t forget that.  Psalm 23 challenges how we think about how we are living every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year!  Do we give God credit that our lives depend on God and that God keeps us alive?

This belief seems counter-cultural to our consumer-based increasingly non-religious society in the United States anyway.  Psalm 23 is actually radical in declaring that God is a necessity of a life well-lived.  We know that as Christians, but not everybody else does.  It forces us to contemplate what we see as necessities.  Because the Psalmist would say that we need only God, food, drink, and safe shelter.  All that other stuff we may accumulate pales in comparison.  And when we put God at the center of our lives, other things will fall into place.  The Psalmist would ask, what do you need all that extra stuff for if you have God and the basics for survival?  This is what the 23rd Psalm can help us think about here and now—what truly matters to us?  What’s a luxury and what’s a necessity?  And what does it say about who God is that according to one of the most famous passages in the Bible, our Shepherd focuses so much on the necessities of our lives and cares?

These days it could seem like we’re encouraged to trust ourselves first, to rely on ourselves.  The attitude could become that we got to where we are today through hard work and sacrifice alone.  The Christian response to this attitude might be asking where God was in all of that.  Not to discredit how far people come or how hard people work.  But do we honestly think that we accomplish things in our lives all alone?  The Psalmist would say no, not on your life.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  God makes me lie down in green pastures; God leads me beside still waters; God restores my soul.  God leads me in right paths for God’s name’s sake.”

We know what God wants us to do with our lives because Jesus taught that to his followers—love God with everything we’ve got, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.  We can use our time, talents, and treasures to make a difference in our communities and in the world whether we live in Korea or the United States or anywhere else for that matter.  We can see Jesus as our Shepherd who keeps us alive to wonder, alive to hope, alive to compassion, alive to transformation, alive to love.

In the end, we hear that God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.  The Hebrew word used in that verse actually means “pursue.”  God pursues us all the days of our lives.  Even if we sometimes feel like something is all up to us—God knows better.  God is in active pursuit of us, running after us to keep our hearts and spirits alive and paying attention so that we can love God, love others, and love ourselves.

Remember that story Jesus tells in the Gospel according to Luke about the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go find the 1 that got lost?  Jesus tells us that there’s 100 sheep and 1 is lost.  So the shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness and goes after the 1 that is lost until he finds it.  The shepherd goes off in pursuit!  When the shepherd finds the lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices!  And when the shepherd comes home, he calls together his neighbors and friends and tells them to rejoice with him because he has found his sheep that was lost.[7]

Remember my friends, that God does pursue us all the days of our lives.  God wants to have a relationship with us and for us to be able to recognize God at work and moving in our lives.  God wants us to respond when God calls and for us to really know God—our Shepherd who already knows us.  That’s why Jesus reminded us in the Gospel: “I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.”

Though we have to ask ourselves on a regular basis if we really know our Good Shepherd as well as we would like.  Are we putting in the time in prayer, worship, mission work, Bible study, fellowship, and doing other spiritual practices that are important to develop a deep and fulfilling relationship with Jesus?  Spiritual practices that can sustain us in those moments when it feels like we’re the 1 sheep who got lost wandering in the wilderness?  Relationships cannot be one-sided if they are going to be healthy and thrive.  That’s true in families and friendships, and that’s true with God and us.  In some ways, we spend our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ getting to know and glorify our Good Shepherd—and that is a gift!

Because the Good News is that Jesus is going to pursue us like the Good Shepherd that he is.  And God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect—we know that we’re not and can never be.  God loves us because God is love.  And there’s nothing that we can do to earn that love or separate from the love of God who names us and claims us as God’s own.  Like the sheep who know their shepherd, we can always allow ourselves to be found when we may get a little lost and brought back home so that there can be rejoicing!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Psalm 23:1 and John 10:11, NRSV.
[2] Mark Townsend, “Sheep might be dumb. . . but they’re not stupid,” The Guardian, 6 March, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/mar/06/science.animalwelfare
[3] John 10:14.
[4] Richard Cobb, “An Introduction to Sheep Behavior,” Illinois Livestock Trail, University of Illinois Extension, January 22, 1999, http://livestocktrail.illinois.edu/sheepnet/paperDisplay.cfm?ContentID=1
[5] Psalm 23:1-3.
[6] Psalm 23:6.
[7] Luke 15:4-6.