As a child I had a prayer book my mother made for me, and on the front she had put a picture of Jesus as a shepherd with tiny frolicking lambs around him, and I seem to remember other little animals running around in a typical English meadow. I am sure it was a Margaret Tempest picture, the woman who did all the wonderful illustrations for the Little Grey Rabbit books.
We all know how popular pictures of Jesus the Good Shepherd are. In many of the images Jesus is carrying a lamb or a sheep over his shoulders, holding the two front legs of the lamb in his right hand and the two rear legs in his left hand. This image and the one I had on the front of my childhood prayer book, appeal to us because of the tenderness of Jesus, his care for the lambs and the obvious compassion on his face and in his gestures.
The image works for us because it has personal meaning. In our imagination we are that lamb or sheep who is being carried by Jesus on his shoulders. Such an image is reassuring for us; Jesus is our support on our journey through life. When problems come our way, or some personal disaster occurs, this image of Jesus the Good Shepherd reassures us that we are not abandoned, that Jesus is supporting and holding us up. This is portrayed very beautifully in Mary Stevenson’s words in the Footprints poem which begins “One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord”, and concludes:
“I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied,
“The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”
This potent image from John’s gospel, Jesus the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, builds on images from the Old Testament and other parts of the Gospels. In Matthew and Mark’s gospels we are told why Jesus cares for us like a Good Shepherd. Matt 9:36 and Mark 6:34:
“At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”
So, Jesus laid down his life for them. This is a tough call. Not the gentle shepherd of an English meadow, but the tough, hardened shepherd of the mountains. Through his life, death and resurrection Jesus showed them the true way of living. Jesus carried the sick on his shoulder, and the sick of his day were not just those who were physically or mentally sick, but those who were burdened by their religion, which had become a religion of interpreting the law of the Torah into a minutiae of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”. The faith that should have helped them through life had become just another burden.
Right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus sets out his manifesto. In the synagogue in Nazareth he proclaimed a Jubilee, “a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Luke 4:19) Jesus proclaims his own ministry using the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to bring recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.”
The Old Testament prophets were often speaking about Jesus, the expected Messiah. Of course, they talk about many things, especially the injustices of their day, but they do talk about the Messiah, the Saviour who was to come, and they help us to understand what Jesus was about, and to understand much of what we read in the Gospels.
Hold in your minds the image of Jesus, the good, tough, mountain shepherd, as I read from the beautiful prophecy of Ezekiel, chapter 34.
“As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have been given over to pillage, and because my sheep have become food for every wild beast, for lack of a shepherd; because my shepherds did not look after my sheep, but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep…I myself will look after and tend my sheep. (Ezek 34:8-9, 11)
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had stopped looking after their sheep. And so, God comes himself, in human form, to care for his sheep. In our time people are also given over to pillage and are food for every wild beast because they have been exploited by our materialistic culture, and the greed of a society that has said “you can have everything”. Many people have ended up in debt, with destroyed relationships and smashed dreams. Many have forgotten that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We have thought that in material goods and gain we will find fulfillment and abundant life.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd begins at verse 11 of Chapter 10 of John’s gospel. But the image is an explanation of verse 10 and it is a pity that the gospel reading as set in the lectionary does not begin at verse 10 but I will read that verse to you. In Chapter 10 verse 10 Jesus says “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”. And he follows this with the words “I am the Good Shepherd.”
So it reads:
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Abundant life comes not through a big house, a fast car, and holidays in exotic places, it comes through Jesus who laid down his life for us and continues to carry us on his shoulders.
We need to be reminded as Peter reminded his listeners in our reading from Acts that it is in Jesus’ name we are saved,
Peter says, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”(Acts 4:12)
Since Jesus is the Good Shepherd and not a hired hand, he does not run away when the wolf comes, instead he lays down his life for his sheep. In difficult times people find that the hired hand does run away when the wolf comes. When unemployment, say, comes and the mortgage can’t be paid, do the banks help? No, the banks don’t just run away like the hired hand, they actually become the wolves who devour.
Jesus the Good Shepherd, shepherded to the point of giving his life for his sheep, dying on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, rising to new life and sending the Holy Spirit that we might, like Peter in Acts, be filled with that Holy Spirit and have life in all its abundance.
The Good Shepherd loves us and our love for the Good Shepherd will drive us to lay down our lives to bring others to Jesus the Good Shepherd. Peter and John stood before the council to explain themselves because they had raised the crippled man to his feet. So many people today need metaphorically raising to their feet, need to know the love and power of Jesus the Good Shepherd. We, like the first disciples, can take the love that we have known, can take the life, the abundant life, that Jesus has given us, and share it with others.
People are longing for a Saviour, for a good shepherd who can carry them and bring them a different quality of life. We have the privilege of knowing that Saviour and we go from this place, full of that abundant life he gives, able through who we are and what we do, to lead others to the source of this life, to Jesus, the Good Shepherd.