Back when I was about ten, my whole family went, as we did every year of my childhood, to the annual picnic of a lodge to which my grandfather belonged. It was an all-day event and was held at a country club that also had picnic shelters, horseshoe pits, softball fields, a playground, and a dance hall.
After dinner, when everyone was getting ready to head for the dance hall, I asked my parents if I could stay on the grounds and hang out with one of the kids I’d met there. They said, “Yes”; so, off I went. Several hours later, with the sun down and the lightning bugs flashing all around, my new friend was long gone, back with his parents in the dance hall. But I was still on the playground with a handful of other kids, unwilling to give up on the day.
I'd just incited five or six other kids to rev up one of those push-and-board merry-go-rounds one more time and we'd all jumped on board, the thing whirring around at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour, when suddenly, without warning, a big arm yanked me off. It was my father's arm. “Your mother and I have been worried sick!” Dad told me. “When that other kid came back to the dance hall, we had no idea where you were. Your name was announced over the PA system three times.” I went back to the hall with Dad, apologizing all over myself.
Now, I suppose that once I'd turned up missing, my parents could have taken an entirely different attitude. “Well,” they could have told each other, “we’ve got the other two kids. We can afford to lose one.” But that wasn’t their attitude because every child is important.
In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd.”
In the history of God’s people, of course, some of the biggest heroes from the Bible were shepherds. And in the Hellenistic culture in which everyone around the Meditarranean would have been conversant, kings were often seen as leaders who shepherded their people.
But, as I’ve explained before, in first-century Judea, where Jesus lived, shepherds had unsavory reputations. They were people from the wrong-side of the tracks and often seen as dishonest and low-brow.
Maybe this is why Jesus adds a modifier, calling Himself “the Good Shepherd.” He explains that, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Jesus Christ laid down His life and then took it back up again for the express purpose of giving everlasting life to all who will renounce their sin and ask Him to take control of their lives.
The Good Shepherd is there for us no matter what.
He will chase away and warn us against the wolves in this life--the devil and the people and the temptations and the habits and addictions that might tear us away from God.
And He will keep us close to the heart of the Father.
But why does Jesus do all of this? For the same reason that my father yanked me off of that merry-go-round: Every single one of us is important in the eyes of God.
And if we will let Him, the Good Shepherd will lead us, as Psalm 23 says, even through the valley of the shadow of death.
This past week, while driving to a meeting, I heard a radio interview with a man named Gilbert Tuhabonye. He recounted how, some thirteen years ago, as an eighteen year old student at a boarding school in his native Burundi, in central Africa, he awoke early one day, intent on doing well on tests he had in Chemistry and Biology.
What he didn’t know was that the night before, the President of Burundi had been assassinated. The President was a member of one of two major tribes in Burundi, the Hutu. Hutus were sure that a Tutsi had murdered the President and they were out for revenge.
Hutu students on Tuhabonye's high school campus were soon joined by large numbers of their parents and townspeople to undertake a murderous rampage against all the Tutsi students, including Gilbert. Some of the Tutsi students were bludgeoned to death. Some were hacked with machetes. Many others were set on fire, burned alive.
Although horribly burned himself, Gilbert was the only student to survive. As any of you who have ever known a burn victim can attest, recovery is excruciatingly painful. This was the case for Gilbert. Once an award-winning track star, he had to learn to walk again.
There were times when he wanted to die. He even tried to take his life once. But, deep in his soul, he sensed the Good Shepherd tell him, that he had to live to tell his story and to tell others about how the God we know in Christ can lead us and take care of us through even the most horrific circumstances.
Three years later, Gilbert Tuhabonye was an alternate middle-distance runner for his country in the 1996 Olympics. Later, he was offered a track scholarship to Abilene Christian College in Texas. Today, he’s a track coach in Austin who tells others about the Good Shepherd.
There’s nothing more comforting in the world than knowing that Jesus Christ is our good shepherd. But Jesus tells us in our lesson today that He isn’t there just for those of us already in His "sheepfold." Jesus says: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
When my kids were small, I prayed, as I suppose all parents pray, “Lord, please let me live long enough to raise my children. I don’t want my wife to have to raise them by herself and I don’t want them to go through the trauma.” Now, tragically, we all know parents who prayed that prayer and for reasons known only to God, the answer was, “No.” But, after my kids were raised, I sometimes wondered, “What am I still around for? What do you want me to do, God?”
When Gilbert Tuhabonye struggled with such questions, he sensed God telling him to simply share his story, to tell others about how the God he knew through Jesus Christ, had reached out to him in a scene of indescribable pain to lead him to a faith that is now impacting thousands of people.
Thank God, most of us have never gone through and never will go through what that young man endured. But each of us has a story to tell.
We can tell the world about how, when we surrendered our lives to Jesus Christ, He began to lead us and stand with us and give us comfort and hope in every circumstance.
We all can tell the story of a God Who, unwilling to lose us to sin and death, died and rose to give us life with Him forever.
Jesus once said that when He was lifted up--when people like you and me shared the story of His grace and power and promises of new life with others--He would draw people to Himself.
Through you and me, people can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling Him to follow.
There are thousands of people in our community who need the Good Shepherd just as much as you and I do. When we lift Him up among our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, and others, telling them His story and the story of our love affair with Him, they too will be drawn to Him.
Who have you told about the Good Shepherd lately? To whom have you lifted Jesus up so that He could draw them to Himself?
Jesus calls everybody who believes in Him to be a witness.
You may think you don’t know enough or you’re not holy enough. But that’s not true.
On Friday, my son and I spent the day on Lower Manhattan in New York City. One of our stops was Trinity Church, an important place in the early history of our country.
In the middle of the churchyard is a statue that rises like a pillar with a crucifix at the top. On each of its four sides are stacked, one on top of the other, small sculptures depicting three different Biblical figures.
On one side, there are statues of David, Jacob, and Moses. My son laughed, commenting on what a fine bunch that was:
- David was an adulterer and murderer;
- Jacob was a dishonest schemer; and
- Moses was a murderer who questioned God.
So can anybody today who turns from sin and trusts in God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ.
Listen: God has no perfect witnesses and never has. Our call is to let others experience Jesus through our imperfect lives. Our call is to live the simple truth that Jesus’ death and resurrection show us that everyone is eternally significant to God.
To belong to the Good Shepherd, Jesus, means two things for sure:
- It means, first of all, that we're comforted with the assurance of God's presence in our lives throughout the uncertainties of this world and the certainties of eternity.
- It means secondly, that we're called to reach out to others with the Good News of this God Who wants all people to come to Him.