The Relationship Grid
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and John 10:22-30
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church
8 May 2022
Chaplain David G. Lura
Our readings from Revelation and Acts can remind us of Holy Week with references to palm branches in the former and a “resurrection” story from the latter. Actually, the bringing back to life of Tabitha or Dorcas if you prefer reminds me of Mother’s Day observances because she was a woman “abounding with deeds of charity and mercy.”
Like many who preach on this Mother’s Day with these other two texts I feel compelled to reflect on the “shepherd” texts from the 23rd Psalm and John 10 readings. You have probably heard the story of . . .
A couple retired to a small Arizona ranch and acquired a few sheep. At lambing time, it was necessary to bring two newborns into the house for care and bottle-feeding. As the lambs grew, they began to follow the rancher’s wife around the farm. She was telling a friend about this strange development. “What did you name them?” the friend asked her. “Goodness and Mercy,” she replied with a sigh. She was referring of course the 23rd Psalm where: “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (KJV).
Our two lessons for today refer to sheep or shepherds. It is probably the most familiar image in Scripture. God is a shepherd. We are God’s sheep. Sheep were important to the agricultural lives of the ancient Hebrews. That is perhaps why they are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible, more than any other animal.
When we read the descriptions of a “good” shepherd, both in the Hebrew scriptures and in the gospels, we must realize, this is not a job description. It’s a spirit description. It’s a relationship grid. God is describing a relationship of a shepherd to a flock that goes way beyond a position that we are assigned or take on for wages. Shepherding, at least the kind God imagines, requires a parental kind of bond, a loving engagement that dreams of the very best for every one of those sheep, a life of nourishment, contentment, joy, and abundance.
Shepherding [like parenting and especially mothering] was and is a dangerous profession. You had to be alert nearly 24/7, and never took a day off, even for sabbath. Not only will sheep easily get distracted and wander away, but the hillsides and forests, even the valleys in Jesus’ day and still today, were filled with predators, each one eagerly waiting for a lamb to wander off alone. Some waited until nightfall to come and steal them away. Still others came in packs and preyed upon the entire flock at once, raiding and carrying them off, bleating and screaming.
To be a shepherd required the utmost attentiveness and attunement to everything going on around you. To be a shepherd meant to guard the gates of the sheepfold, to watch every sheep and lamb as you traveled from here to there as they grazed in the grass, and to be ready to fight to the death if a predator so much as came near.
For King David the metaphor of the sheep and the shepherd was an obvious way to think of our relationship with God. He had vivid memories of life as a young shepherd before he became a warrior and a king. Thus he begins his popular and beloved Psalm 23 with, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
But David wasn’t the only Old Testament writer to use this imagery. The Prophet Isaiah used sheep to illustrate the waywardness of God’s people. Isaiah writes, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.” Now many of us are probably thinking, how did he know about us? He sure got us right.
And, of course, this descriptive language is carried over into the New Testament, concerning Jesus. He is the ultimate Shepherd of God’s people as well as the unblemished, sacrificial Lamb of God. BANNER BEHIND CHOIR
Now, unless we’ve grown up on a sheep ranch or spent a lot of time at a petting zoo, we’re probably not all that familiar with them. In any case being described as a sheep is not very flattering although, the truth is, sheep have more right to be offended by the comparison than we do.
Most of us probably prefer to think of ourselves as mavericks, too smart, too free-spirited and individual to go along with any herd. It’s natural, perhaps for Americans in particular, to celebrate qualities that are more characteristic of mules than of sheep.
When most of us think of these woolly creatures, we suppose them to be feeble-minded animals too stupid to think for themselves, and therefore apt to follow along with the rest of the herd, sometimes into dangerous or deadly situations. However, this image of the life of a sheep is based on a lack of understanding. When we get to know a little bit more about them, we can begin to realize that being a good sheep [that is, one that sticks with its flock and tries to remain close to the shepherd] requires some basic qualities that are also essential to being a disciple or true follower of Jesus the Christ. And, like the disciple of Christ, the sheep benefits greatly from belonging to the flock, gaining safety, guidance, nourishment, correction [to be sure] and care, as well as the opportunity to be useful and productive. Being part of the flock is the sheep’s equivalent of that American Express motto where membership has its privileges.
But membership also has its responsibilities. And in our more mule-like character, we are sometimes resistant to those responsibilities. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit to make us into the right kind of sheep to follow Jesus especially those of us who, if you don’t mind a bad pun, are seriously “hard-of-herding.”
We need to ask ourselves, what does being a good sheep require? How can we make sure we’re in the right flock, obeying the Good Shepherd instead of wandering off on our own or following a stray herd? What do we need to know and do as members of Christ’s flock?
Our lesson from John’s Gospel is set during the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem and is what we know these days as Hanukkah or the Feast of Lights. It’s celebrated for eight days in December.
Jesus is in the temple courts. As he walked, some inquiring Jews came up to him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Notice what Jesus says about his flock.
- He says that he knows them individually.This is a beautiful picture of our relationship with God, each of us is known by God.
Story shared earlier with children: The Lord is MY Shepherd
- Secondly – Jesus says the sheep listen to his voice.This relationship between sheep and shepherd is not one-sided.
A man in Australia was arrested sometime back and charged with stealing a sheep. But he protested that he owned the sheep and that it had been missing for many days.
When the case went to court, the judge didn’t know how to decide the matter. Finally he asked that the sheep be brought into the courtroom and directed the accuser to step outside and call the animal. As you might guess the sheep made no response except to raise its head and look frightened.
The judge then instructed the defendant to go to the courtyard and do the same. The sheep responded immediately having recognized the familiar voice of his master. “His sheep knows him,” said the judge. “Case dismissed!”
So let’s ponder this question: is this imagery descriptive of our relationship with Christ? Do we listen to his voice?
I believe most of us can agree that we are great talkers when it comes to our devotional life but are not very good listeners. We give God our orders for the day, but we are not committed to reverently listening to the orders God has for us. Christ says he knows his sheep, but then he adds, “and they listen to my voice.”
- Then he says his sheep follow him.
Author Neal Andersen contends that those of us who live in the western world don’t have a correct picture of what it means to be led like sheep. Western shepherds tend to drive their sheep from behind the flock, often using dogs to bark at their heels. Eastern shepherds, like those in Bible times, lead their sheep from in front.
Andersen tells about watching a shepherd on a hillside outside Bethlehem. The shepherd sat on a rock while the sheep grazed. After a time he stood up, said a few words to the sheep and walked away. The sheep followed him. It was fascinating! Andersen says the words of Jesus in this passage suddenly took on new meaning for him, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
We can judge whether a person is a disciple of Christ by how well he or she follows. Many of us want the benefits of belonging to Christ’s flock to be known completely and intimately by God without the responsibility of listening to Christ and following him daily. We want to know him as our Savior without having him as our Master.
Jesus is well aware of our weakness and our waywardness, so he adds this final word of Grace: Christ says that no one can snatch his sheep from him.
You and I know what it meant. “The Lord is My shepherd.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows us by name. We are to listen for his voice and follow him, knowing that he will provide for every need.
The Apostle Paul says it best in his letter to the Romans chapter 8 . . .
31b If God is for us, who can ever be against us? 39b nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is his promise to his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Pastor David Lura