[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio on Sunday, May 3.]
The first time I prepared to preach on this Gospel lesson back when I was a young pastor, I felt pretty confident about what Jesus meant in calling Himself "the good shepherd." In ancient Near Eastern culture, the image of the shepherd was often used of kings. The tradition in that region had long been that kings would make covenants with their own people, as well as those peoples they may have conquered, in which they pledged to be the protector of their subjects. In calling Himself "the good shepherd," Jesus was claiming kingship and promising to lovingly lead and guide those who follow Him.
I thought that I had a good handle on Jesus as our shepherd, then. But I realized that I was clueless when it came to understanding what it meant for us to be Jesus' sheep. I was a city slicker and I knew nothing about sheep.
So, I called a man in our congregation who, I knew, once kept sheep. "Vic," I asked, "tell me about sheep." "The first thing you have to know about sheep," he told me, "is that sheep are dumb...I mean really, really dumb." He went on to tell me about how completely helpless and dependent sheep are, how much they need shepherds to care for them.
I wondered: Is that how Jesus sees us? Are we so helpless that we need Jesus as our good shepherd?
Last night, as you know, we had a middle-of-the-night breakfast for Logan High School students who attended the Prom. As I watched them--these sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year old young people--walk into our fellowship hall, they all seemed to feel the way I did when I was their age, like they had the world on a string. Only a few of them may have realized how vulnerable we all are, how much we need a shepherd to guide us through life and death, how clueless they are about what may be ahead of them in life.
Ann and I have a friend who we'll call Nick. Nick is a year younger than I am. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force and went to Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. Before he shipped out, his grandmother asked for him to stop by her place. "I know you don't have anything to do with God or the Church, Nick. But I want you to know that I'm praying that God will help you through and that no matter what happens, you'll know that God loves you." Several years after Nick returned home, he--like me--met his wife-to-be and she was a Lutheran. I'll never forget the day that Nick was baptized. This strapping man of 25, a jet mechanic who had gone through service in Vietnam, cried like a baby because he knew just what it meant to have Jesus, the good shepherd, leading him through life. He knew that he needed the good shepherd.
Of course, our good shepherd doesn't promise that the horrors of this life will go away. Like him, we will endure crosses. We will go through what our psalm calls "the valley of the shadow of death." But even then Jesus will lead us.
Years ago, I heard Dr. James Dobson* tell the story of a six year old terminal patient at the UCLA Medical Center where he then worked. The child was on morphine. But occasionally, he would cry out, "The bells! The bells!" Someone asked the duty nurse whether she could explain that. It seems that the day before, with his death clearly impending, a relative had told the child to keep looking for Jesus and when he got to heaven's gates to listen for the bells. "He's been talking about the bells all day long," the nurse said. That child was being led by the good shepherd.
Jesus says we are sheep in need of a shepherd.
Thankfully, Jesus is the good shepherd who wants all who dare to follow Him to know that He will lead them through this life and into eternity with Him.
May we all follow our good shepherd every day! Amen
*Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been critical of Dr. Dobson's forays into the political arena. But I think that in earlier years, he provided sound psychological and spiritual advice on family relationships. Even in that, I don't agree with him on every subject. But I still harbor a deep respect for his early work. ALSO: I may have some details of this anecdote wrong. But the basic story is true and is remembered from a video made in the 1970s, which I haven't seen in about twenty years.