March 18, 2012
“I Know My Own”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
Who knew there would be so many available images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd? I have this memory of a picture of Jesus as a shepherd carrying a lamb. It must have been in a Sunday School classroom, maybe multiple classrooms when I was growing up. Jesus with a smile, looking remarkably like Brad Pritt, with a cuddly lamb tossed over his shoulders, legs draped over each shoulder like a stole. Jesus the Good Shepherd. This week I tried to track down the picture just to see if I could match the one I could see in the distant past of my imagination. I’m pretty sure I found it. But can I tell you, there is no shortage of images on line of Jesus holding a lamb. Website after website, some having 20, 30, 40 different pictures; all with Jesus holding and that lamb. Bad posters, high quality historic art, stained glass windows in impressive buildings. Over and over again, Jesus as the Good Shepherd carrying the one that got away.
I have a confession to make. Those pictures, the bad ones, the really good ones, the memorable ones, the unremarkable ones, the pictures of Jesus as the shepherd, they do absolutely nothing for me. As piece of art, in terms of my faith, when it comes to how I perceive Jesus. Nothing. Just nothing.
One of my occupational hazards produces a darker side that’s a bit embarrassing. When I watch commentators on television (news reports, sports, political commentators), I find myself listening for the really silly things they say. Or I mercilessly point out to someone in the room a mistake or a verbal crutch or someone stating the obvious…..like “they really need to score here”, or “this putt is all about the speed” or “this primary is going to come down to the delegate count.” I once gave some preaching students an assignment to watch a particular local newscaster and count how many times a sentence started with the word “well.” I say it is an occupational hazard because I listen with the ears of someone who speaks in front of people. The truth is I just arrogantly think I could do those jobs better.
To be fair, however, I have never heard a political commentator describe an election as a horserace and then rehearse all the relevant details of horseracing. I don’t remember hearing a sports announcer describe a particular player as a magician and then unpack that metaphor allegorically by continuing to describe how every movement and skill matched the pulling the rabbit out of hat, cut the woman in half, do a card trick act of a magician. I never remember hearing some play by play guy on television proclaim that the game was a real barn burner only to have the partner in the booth go on to describe how a barn actually burns.
It’s just a bit odd when Jesus describes himself in the Gospel of John as the Good Shepherd that he then goes into such detail about the shepherd and the hired hand and the wolf, and the sheep. No one ever argues that Jesus was actually a shepherd; like Moses, or like those in Luke who were out tending their flocks by night. But here in John, Jesus continues the description of the shepherd’s role: laying down his life of the sheep, knowing each one, each one knowing the shepherd and the shepherd’s voice; unpacking the metaphor in sort of the same way he draws out and explains the parable of the sower; the seed that falls on the path, the seed that falls on the rocky ground, the seed that falls on good soil. Jesus explained how the hired hand doesn’t own the sheep and thus runs away when the wolf comes. Jesus explains sheep calling and the power of the voice.
But I have a confession to make. The shepherd’s actions, understanding the shepherd’s role, understanding how a shepherd works and how sheep act, I’m not sure all that shepherd knowledge has ever helped me much in my perception of Jesus; or to be more specific, how I perceive myself in relationship to my Lord. All the details and the metaphor itself; it only goes so far. As one of my mentors in preaching, the late Peter Gomes from Memorial Church at Harvard University pointed out the Lord’s whole approach ought to makes us think more about us a s sheep, and certainly not us as shepherds. But even then, Gomes pointed out “We have to remember that the purpose of gathering sheep together was to protect them for a purpose, and that that purpose was to fatten them up for the slaughter. Those sheep were gathered together because their purpose was to be sold and eaten, and that's it; it's not much fun being a sheep.” A metaphor has limits Professor Gomes concluded, even a metaphor from Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty in this teaching from Jesus, in this text from John, there is plenty to chew on. In John’s Gospel, almost every detail of interest points to more profound theological possibilities in the life, witness, and teaching of Jesus. The shepherd laying down his life….and the crucifixion of Jesus. The wolf snatching and scattering the sheep…. and the threat of the world’s persecution of the church. I have other sheep not of this fold---there’s a long conversation. One flock, one shepherd…that must say something about the church. Laying down life in order to take it up again; there’s resurrection. His reference to laying down his life on his own accord points to the self-emptying sacrificial love of Jesus. Oh, we could spend a whole lot of time with this teaching of Jesus. But when I ponder Jesus as the Good Shepherd and what that means for my life in him, when I try to reflect devotionally on Jesus as the Shepherd, when I turn to the image in an existential, beyond words, all in kind of way, I don’t know about you, but it’s not the complex, think-think-think, theological hard work that immediately kicks into gear.
When I read of Jesus saying “I am the Good Shepherd” the whole witness of scripture sort of rises up; all at the same time. I hear Jesus say it, and all these other tunes start to play. It’s not a poster that sparks in my imagination, it’s like this massive tableau, this huge screen saver that clicks on from deep within me somewhere. Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd. And it all starts to play. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Ps 23) “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (Isaiah 40) “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” (Jer 23). “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down says the Lord God” (Ezek 34). “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, for they were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt 9) “Jesus said, If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does the shepherd not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one.” (Mt 18) “Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will” (Heb 13). “for the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7)
Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd” and this incredible symphony of scripture starts to play. Not the profound theological possibilities for important yet abstract conversations. Not the abundance of art in every from. Not even the primer on shepherding from Jesus himself. But when I hear Jesus say “I am the Good Shepherd” something profound wells up very deep inside the soul of my faith.
Hugh Smith served this presbytery as a pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Trenton for pretty much his whole ministry. In his retirement Hugh became a spiritual director talking with folks one on one about their God questions, the spiritual life, discipleship. He was my spiritual director for the last 7 or 8 years. Hugh died in December after a brief illness. When I try to describe to someone what that relationship, what that time spent, what those conversations meant, I find myself sharing the question that Hugh most often asked me. “So tell me about the Dave of God today.”
It took me a while to learn what he meant by that, the Dave of God. He was asking about my life as a child of God. Not the Dave who is father, or a husband, or a pastor. But he was asking about me and how I was resting on the shoulders of my Savior. He was asking about nothing else and nothing other than my experience of the love and forgiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was asking about my sense of belonging to the God who created me, the Savior who never stops searching for me, and the Spirit that marks me now and forever. He was asking me about my life in God, the God who surely walks with me through the valley of the shadow of death, the God whose compassion cradles me when I am harassed and helpless, the God who will today, and tomorrow, and forever, wipe away every tear from eye.
It was like Hugh was asking me about my life as one of the sheep. Thank goodness he never said that. He never used that language because I would have rolled my eyes, looked at my watch, and shut it all down. All the shepherd the sheep stuff, it doesn’t do much for me. But when he asked me about the Dave of God, it was the only hour in a month of life when I had the privilege of thinking about, praying about, talking about nothing other than my belonging to Christ Jesus and him alone. That’s what Jesus as the Good Shepherd means to me. That you and I, that we belong, body and soul, in life and death, not to ourselves, but to our faithful Savior, Jesus the Christ.
Peter Gomes is more poetic about it. We ought to live our lives, he concludes, right where the metaphor ends and the good news begins. “That we are gathered and guarded not for the slaughter, and not to be eaten, but for love and redemption. That is where we take leave of the metaphor and embrace this reality…..We love one another because we believe in Jesus and we believe in Jesus because he is the shepherd and guardian of our souls”
Take leave of the metaphor and ponder the promise of your life in God.|
Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own.”
© 2012, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.