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The Shepherd God
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

APRIL 29, 2012

The Shepherd God
Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

This past Friday morning, Connie and I stopped for breakfast at a restaurant that has been on Nolensville Road since 1950. To walk into this place is like walking back in time. And while a wide variety of ethnic restaurants have popped up along Nolensville Road, reflecting the rich diversity of the neighborhoods along this road, this one is pure 1950's Americana. Hank Williams was singing in the background as we entered, black and white photos from the 1950's filled the walls, from the days when this was a carhop, and the surest sign that we had found good food was the presence of seven or eight metro police officers eating breakfast at a table. (Police officers do not eat at places that have bad food!)

We struck up a conversation with a delightful older gentleman, a recent widower, who told us he eats here everyday, and sometimes takes two meals at this place. In the midst of our conversation, another man broke in to join us, first extolling the virtues of our breakfast place, then offering comments on all manner of subjects, mostly on what is wrong with America. As he was leaving, he even expressed his disapproval of the group of police officers because a number of them had tattoos. "I just don't think they should be allowed to wear them," he said way louder than I would have, "I think there is a Bible verse somewhere that says you should not print any marks upon your skin." This was the first time the Bible had entered this fellow's conversation, and I thought, "Of all the Bible verses this fellow might benefit from, isn't it funny that he is so earnest in his belief in this one?" I could have told him that the verse he mentioned is found in Leviticus 19:28, but I decided he did not need a "Bible bullet" with which to shoot everyone who has a tattoo. I figured, "Let him find it on his own, and maybe in looking for it he will find more helpful scripture."

It reminded me of one of my favorite theologians who said that the greatest sentences in the Bible are not in the imperative mood, but rather in the indicative. There are, of course, many great Bible verses written in the imperative. They are often stirring and important. "Thou shalt not kill." "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." "Honor your father and your mother." "Choose ye this day whom ye shall serve: as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." Or this, from Jesus: "Love one another as I have loved you; by this, all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another." These are all verses found in the imperative, and they challenge us with a clear Biblical ethical standard. They are important.

But the greatest sentences in the Bible are found in the indicative. It is not what God commands us to do, but what God has already done for us that is the basis for Christian faith. Here are just a few:

"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble; therefore, we will not fear…." (Psalm 46:1)

"God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them." (1 John 4:16)

"God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

Not surprisingly, these great indicatives are all about God and the never ceasing love God has for us. And if God's love for us is the first and greatest thing that we can say about Biblical faith, then the primary and healthiest religious emotion is gratitude, not duty. Saint Augustine said, "Gratitude is the mature emotion." Paul asked, "What have you that you have not received?"

So let me offer you two great indicative sentences this morning that you can carry with you all week:

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

"I am the good shepherd."

I wish we raised sheep in this country like they do in Scotland, Ireland and the Middle East. There you see sheep anytime you leave the city for the countryside, so you are reminded of what sheep and shepherds really are, and how they interact. We are more a cattle farming nation, and so sometimes these powerful Biblical images of God as shepherd are lost on us.

You drive cattle. You prod them and you lasso them and you round them up. Remember the movie, City Slickers? It offers a pretty good picture of what is involved in herding cattle. They went on a "cattle drive." Sheep are different. They do not need to be driven or prodded or chased. Sheep need to be led. Shepherds, especially good shepherds, lead, they do not drive. And so the good shepherd, Jesus, leads more than He drives or prods us. Jesus says, "Follow me," and always, everywhere, Jesus goes first, He goes ahead, even so far as to show us how to die. It is an important part of what it means when Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd."

This image is rich and so very beautiful. For in it we see the quintessence of who God really is. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." Are there any words in the English language any more beautiful than those of the 23rd Psalm? And Jesus surely had those words in His mind, and Ezekiel 34 as well, when He said, "I am the good shepherd."

Let's lift up three indicative sentences from this passage this morning, just to remind ourselves of who God really is, and of how good the Good News of the Gospel can be.

First, and most important, Jesus says in John, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Three times in this short passage Jesus tells us that He lays down His life. Jesus offers all that He is as a sacrifice of love. "God so loved the world that He gave…." At heart, Jesus is the good shepherd in order that we will see that God is a generous giver.

Phillip Keller, in his lovely book, A Shepherd Looks at the Twenty-Third Psalm, talks a great deal about how shepherds do their work. A huge part of being a shepherd is protecting the sheep from danger and harm. "He leadeth me beside the still waters, He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake." Jesus said, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Shepherds would lead their flocks at night to huge sheepfolds in the wilderness. These were walled circles where the sheep would be safe at night from predators. Keller says that these never had gates or doors but only an opening where the sheep could enter and exit. So at night, the good shepherd would lie down to sleep right across the opening, to guard the door against wolves or other predators while the sheep slept. The shepherd would literally lay down his life for his sheep. So Jesus makes it so very clear in John's Gospel: "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life…. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord."

Jesus gives His life because He wants to, because of the love He has for us. It is why we can say, "God is love," and why we say, "For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him." This is God's heart.

Secondly, Jesus is the good shepherd because He knows His sheep, and He makes Himself known to them. Here is the second indicative sentence: "I know my own and my own know me." In the words of Jonathan Edwards, "God is infinitely personal." In What a Friend We Have in Jesus, we sing, "Jesus knows our every weakness." Jesus knows us, and knowing us, still loves us, still lays down His life for us. And Jesus wills to make Himself known to us. This is the great power of the Gospels in the New Testament. We learn in them to hear the voice of Jesus. "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." "Do not be anxious for tomorrow. Let the day's own cares be sufficient for the day." "Judge not, and you will not be judged. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Give, and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, running over your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back." "Be wise as serpents, be harmless as doves." Over time, we come to know Jesus by hearing what He says, by living with His Word.

Phillip Keller says that the sheepfolds were often huge, and many flocks would crowd into them at night, all of them soon mixed up with each other. But in the morning, the shepherds would call their sheep, often by name. And the sheep would recognize the voice of the shepherd. Not a sheep would be lost or confused, because sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and good shepherds know their sheep.

Don't you get what Jesus is saying? To be in Jesus' flock, you soon learn to recognize the voice of the shepherd. Calvin used to say that "Christ comes to us clothed in His Gospel." To know Jesus, you must come to learn His word, to hear His voice. And the One who knows you better than you know yourself wants to be known. "I know my own and my own know me." It is a lifelong, life-giving call to come to know Jesus. How well do you know Him?

Finally, one last indicative sentence from the good shepherd: "So there will be one flock, one shepherd." This is the same promise made in Ezekiel 34. And it is the great promise of the Gospel. God's redeeming, reconciling love is no small thing. And one day, the Bible teaches, "…there will be one flock, one shepherd." This is the great hope of the world, and the great work of the Church. We do not do this so well. We are great at going our own way. We are quick to take our stand, to condemn those who see things differently, or those who cause us fear. But Jesus' prayer in John 17 is so very clear, and so much like this last promise of the good shepherd. Jesus prays to the Father, "I ask that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." Or it is what Jesus said in His new commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you; by this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another." This call to be one is not peripheral to the Gospel. It is the very heart of the Gospel!

Paul said, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our sins against us, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation." Either we are working toward reconciliation, or we are working against the very purposes of God. I don't know about you, but I want to spend the rest of my life building community. I want to grow up into being a better peacemaker. I want to live into Jesus' words.

"So there will be one flock, one shepherd." I love this about the Bible! It is so sure of the future, so full of hope! When you are confident of the end, it makes a difference in how you live in the middle of things. The Bible is not at all ambivalent or ambiguous about the end of things. It is clear. Ezekiel saw this as well. Hear what the Lord, who was also his shepherd, said, "I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged…. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…. I will feed them with justice." "So there will be one flock, one shepherd." Jesus promised it, and I believe it with all my heart. And I want that end to shape the rest of my life.

So listen to His voice. Jesus is always trying to make human beings more humane.

So what will your guiding scripture be this week? "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh, nor print any marks upon yourself" or, "I am the good shepherd"?

Give me the "good shepherd" any day of the week, and twice on Sunday!


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