Summary: Jesus says he is the good shepherd, the one who’s come to lay his life down for the sheep.
Sermon by the Rev George Hemmings
I wonder how close you’ve ever come to a sheep? Is it only the lamb chops that you ate yesterday on Australia day? Or have you seen one in a painting or on TV? Maybe you’ve touched one at a petting zoo, or a children’s farm? What kind of picture do you have of sheep? I grew up on a small sheep farm in Queensland. If you’ve been up close and personal with sheep you’ll know their fleece isn’t ‘white as snow’, but more grey from all the dirt, burrs and ticks. They’re often messy, smelly, and not particularly smart! In today’s passage Jesus calls us sheep. It’s not quite the compliment! But it’s a good illustration, because sheep are utterly dependent on their shepherd.
Being an agricultural society, sheep and shepherds were common figures in Jesus’ day. Everyone listening would’ve been familiar with the images that Jesus describes in this chapter. What’s more they would’ve grasped the deeper significance. Moses & David shepherds. The language of sheep and shepherds runs deep in the Old Testament.
Jesus begins, not by describing the sheep or the shepherds, but by warning of another figure. It’s the thief or the bandit. They have to sneak in because the sheep, and the watchmen don’t know them. In ancient Israel, shepherds would bring their flocks into a pen at night. That way you only needed one person to guard them from predators or thieves. If you weren’t the shepherd, the gatekeeper wouldn’t let you in! So the only option you had would be to try and climb over the walls. Even if you managed to do that, I’m not sure what the plan would be next!
The contrast is with the shepherd. The gatekeeper knows him and opens the gate for him. And not just the gatekeeper, the sheep know the shepherd too! I said before sheep aren’t the smartest of animals. But they’re smart enough to know their master. Even if someone else dressed in the shepherd’s clothes, the sheep wouldn’t come. And the certainly wouldn’t come for a stranger! They only respond to the voice of the shepherd. It’s because they know the shepherd. And he knows them. In verse 3, the shepherd calls them out by name. It’s not that he stands there saying, ‘Come on Sheep,’ or ‘Here sheepy, sheepy.’ No! He knows all their names. So he calls out, ‘Here Fluffy, here Blacky, here Spotty.’ The shepherd knows each sheep individually. And he knows them intimately. So when he calls, they hear, they know and they respond. The sheep only follow their shepherd.
So this morning I want to ask you, do you know the shepherd? Have you heard him call? Have you heard Jesus speaking? This is more than just knowing our Bibles. It’s more than just knowing Sunday school stories, or being able to remember some of Jesus words. In the second half of chapter 10, the Jews, the religious leaders, come to Jesus and ask, ‘How long will you keep jerking us around? Tell us plainly are you the Messiah?’ What does Jesus say to them? He says, ‘I’ve already told you.’ They’d heard Jesus’ teaching, they’d heard him say he was the bread of life, the water of life, the light of life. They’d heard this, but they hadn’t believed. Not only had they heard Jesus words, they’d seen the signs that he’d done. If actions speak louder than words, these signs were giant shout-outs to God’s kingdom, to Jesus glory. Jesus performed these signs so that we might hear, and know, that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. That is, they’re so that we will know that Jesus is equal with the Father, that he’s united with the Father in purpose and will. The signs are so that we’ll know that Jesus is God’s Son. But if we’re to know Jesus the way the sheep know the shepherd, we’ve got to go further than this. We get an idea of the depth of the relationship we’re to have with him in verse 14; ‘I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ It’s more than an intellectual knowledge, it’s a deep, intimate knowledge. It’s not just about hearing his words. It’s receiving, accepting, and obeying his word. It’s about responding to his voice. It would be no good if the sheep in the pen heard their master’s voice but then just stood there and didn’t come running!
And if we understand what he calls us to why wouldn’t we run? Why wouldn’t we flock at the sound of his voice? Why would we listen to any other, why would we follow anyone else? For as Jesus said, those who came before were thieves and bandits. They’ve got no real concern for the sheep’s well being. In a way they’re like the hired hands in verse 12. They don’t really care for the sheep. They’re more interested in their own skin, their own profit, their own wellbeing. The those who came before refers at least to the religious leaders of Jesus day. Those who we saw in chapter nine were quick to question, even quicker to condemn, the man who had been blind. But the warning and rebuke goes beyond this. It covers any, at any time, who’ve exploited God’s people. There’s a strong echo of Ezekiel 34 in this passage. God chastises those who were meant to be shepherds of his people. Those who failed to care for the flock and instead stole their wool and feasted on their flesh. God judges those who abuse their power, who take advantage of the flock, who allow them to wander from God.