Revd Philip Webb, October 20th 2013 (service of infant dedication)
When I was a tiny child, long before I could read, I was taught a prayer by my parents which I said every night – it was the first verse of an old hymn.
“Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me – bless thy little lamb tonight. Through the darkness be thou near me – keep me safe till morning light.”
It’s a simple and unsophisticated little verse. We don’t sing hymns like that now, but as an infant it taught me that there is One who hears me and cares for me with the same self-sacrificing love that a shepherd will show to the weakest and smallest of his lambs, whatever threat they may face. That’s not a bad thing to teach any child. And it is a great thing to teach any adult, too! The Psalmist certainly knew it for himself. Listen to what he says in Psalm 100 –
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Metaphorically we are God’s flock, young and old alike. And that makes God our shepherd, or, if you prefer the Latin, our Pastor. Amazingly we have borrowed this term for those mortals who are called to lead God’s people for him, to care for them. I’ve been a Baptist Minister all my working life. In that time I have been addressed by all sorts of titles – Reverend, Padre, even occasionally Father! Happily most people just call me Philip. But perhaps the most precious of titles is that of Pastor, a title beloved of Jesus himself. Of course, there are many pastors, but there is only one truly good Shepherd. Jesus Christ.
This is the fourth of our Lord’s “I AM” statements in John’s Gospel, and the word “good” has a particular significance. It means “intrinsically right and beautiful.” It describes that which is the ideal, the model that others may safely imitate, and the example which all should strive to follow. What a contrast between Jesus and the false shepherds who were then leading Israel!
So what was Jesus like as a shepherd?
(1) He was a servant leader. He sets a completely different model from the world’s model of leadership when he says, “I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27) and from this we have the title of minister – one who ministers to – one who serves others. It used to be said that some ministers were paid little because their churches worked on the principle “Keep them poor – keep them humble!” I don’t know if that was ever true, but it should never have been necessary, for a proper humility should be the mark of every true leader. Those of us who dare to tell others about Jesus and to model his life do well to remember how he said, (Luke_22:27) “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Christian leadership is always a servant leadership.
But that’s not a model the world has used very often, now or then. In the Old Testament religious leaders were sometimes abusive or unfaithful and were portrayed as destroyers of God’s people. In Jn. 10:12 Jesus describes Israel’s shepherds as mere hirelings – casual workers who saw their task as a way of making money, not a calling to serve. The hireling only did his job for money – so when danger came, he was likely to run away and leave the sheep to the mercy of the wolf or the rustler, more concerned for himself than for those in his charge. And Jesus says that’s what those political leaders who opposed him were like, self seeking rather than self-sacrificing.
So what does this say about modern world leaders? Our politicians were badly hit by expenses scandals a few years ago. Most work sacrificially over long hours to serve their constituents, but the actions of a few who seemed intent on making as much out of the system as they could have badly damaged the reputation of all.
As Colonel Kaddafi’s rule over Libya collapsed, those people who had lived under a brutally oppressive regime for decades were not too impressed to find the heights of luxury in which their “brother leader” had lived and travelled. This was the dictator who once proudly boasted in the face of rebellion, “My people would die for me!” What a contrast with the image of the shepherd-leader whom Jesus describes – the one who would die for his own, who daily risks his own life to protect his flock from animals and thieves. Here, while Jesus talks about death, it is his own death he predicts, not that of others. And far from the good Shepherd’s death destroying others, it will be the means by which others are saved! Four times Jesus speaks here about laying down his life for his flock. Just as any good parent would for a beloved child. Just as the Good Shepherd did for us.
(2) Jesus is also one who knows his followers by name! How important that is! Names matter. Remembering them matters. And giving them matters too – that is why we make something special of naming our children in God’s sight as we give thanks for their arrival in our family.
It is said that the Palestinian shepherds customarily knew each of their sheep by name. In the Old Testament God was said to call his special ones, his closest servants, “by name”. And now? Jesus speaks of the very intimate relationship that exists between Himself and His flock. He knows His own, and His own know Him. – And here is something even more special – Jesus says, “I know My sheep, and am known by My own, just as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father.” This is incredible! Jesus is comparing His relationship with us, the sheep he cares for as a pastor, to the relationship that he has with His Father! The same union, the same intimacy, and the same knowledge. All made possible because of the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel we learn that as believers we may hear God directly through His Spirit, a practice that most Jews then did not believe was possible. But Jesus tells us that it is. As he names us, he invites us into his family.
But there is still more – this is not an elitist passage designed just to make us feel more special than anyone else. Quite the reverse.
(3) Jesus is one who reaches out to others. At the heart of this chapter is verse 16 where Jesus talks about having other sheep. Jesus came not only to tend the flock of Israel, but also to rescue foreign nations – the Gentiles who were not part of the Jewish fold. Jesus knew that they would be more ready than the Jewish people to hear His voice, and so in the latter part of the verse there is the very important change of image from the fold of Judaism to the flock of Christianity. Here we catch a glimpse of the day when in Christ, Jew and Gentile would be made one, and all the old distinctions between nations would disappear.
Why? Because Christ, the Good Shepherd, will die, has died, for all! How much we need that news! Throughout my life the world has been divided into groups. West v East, Democracies v Communism, Catholic v Protestant, white v black, and now Muslim v Christian. So many leaders have risen on the back of these divisions, demonising their opponents and threatening – and sometimes calling down destruction upon them. Time after time we have heard messages of hate proclaimed by self-appointed leaders, but here in verses 17 and 18, the Lord Jesus explained what He would do in order to bring all nations together in him. He predicts and outlines the time of His own death, his burial, and his resurrection. These words would be sheer madness were he a mere man. Who could speak of laying down His life and taking it up again by His own power? Only Jesus, because He is one with God the Father. He is God, and therefore greater than all of our murderous plots. His death was not an accident to be recovered from – it was a necessary and voluntary sacrifice, an essential act in fulfilment of the Father’s will. Therefore, “He became obedient unto death, and rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures.” Nowadays in our country sheep lay down their lives for the shepherd. But on that fateful day the Lord Jesus laid down his life for his flock so that his own sheep could live, forever. Isn’t that something worth teaching your children?
You may not want to teach your children the little prayer with which I began, but be sure you teach them this – there is a God in heaven who loves them, and His Son is Jesus Christ, who cares for us, who knows us by name, who reaches out to all people, whatever their label.
The Psalmist puts it best when he said in Psalm 100: 3-5
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.