The sheep of God’s Pasture
A man was boarding an airplane one day. He happened to notice that the pilot was a woman. He found his seat and saw three persons sitting close to him. One was a young boy about seven years of age. A man in his early thirties, and next to him was a woman in her early sixties. Overhearing their conversation, he realized that they were the woman pilot’s family –her son, husband, and mother, and they were there to honor her for just having been promoted to head of the flight crew. This was her first flight at being in command.
The plane taxied down the runway and poised itself for takeoff. The engines began to roar, and the plane gained speed quickly. Within seconds they were airborne. As the plane began to ascend and bank to the south, the seven-year-old boy began to applaud! “Way to go, Mom. Way to go!” 1
This morning we applaud our moms and all those who have nurtured us in this life. When my daughter was young, we once made up a Mother’s Day card for Jane on my computer. It was a nice card but on the inside it had the words, “You are like a mother to me…” Jane read it and said, “What do you mean like a mother? I am your mother.” For us it became a running joke, but there are people who perhaps are mothers to us in our hearts but not in the more traditional sense. Today we honor all, so “Way to go, to all our Moms, way to go!” Truly, today’s mom deserves all the support and applause she can get.
A mother’s love is of great value. In our news today we hear that the Supreme Court is likely to strike down Roe versus Wade and throw the question of reproductive rights back upon the states. Furthermore, it seems likely that many states, Michigan included, will eliminate or greatly restrict access to abortions. How odd is it that this news leaks out just before Mother’s Day? Do you suppose that this was done on purpose? I am not sure what to think about that.
Now I am not going to preach politics to you, but I do have a couple of thoughts that I think are true. One is just the simple truth that life really does begin at conception. Even as the cells that become us are formed the map of who we might become is already written down. Our genetic code is active from the start. A person’s first impressions and adaptations of life are developed before birth. Babies do not develop in a vacuum, but they are nurtured and encounter life while in the womb. This is what makes us individuals and a precious work in God’s sight. I can not really see the life of an unborn child and treat it as inconsequential. I don’t think anyone should.
However, in this imperfect world, there is a great problem with thinking that the solution is to criminalize aspects of women’s health care. I fear that such may simply shift the burden of suffering upon the living, and upon those least able to deal with the demands of having a child. If every child is saved what will become of them or the women who were driven to give birth because they had no choice. Who will deal with the challenges of the living if the mother’s themselves will not care for the baby that is theirs? When my son was born, he entered into the world with three defects associated with his heart and had to have open heart surgery or else he would have died. At least half a million dollars was spent into his health care during the first 1 ½ years of his life, and I would not be surprised if the cost is three times that today. If we did not have health insurance, I would have been paying for his health care the rest of my life. Who will take care of those who need constant and expensive care to live? This takes a wholehearted loving commitment. While people fight over the politics of the land I wonder who will save us? All of us? It makes me think that maybe what we need is less contentious, angry, my way only-ism, and a greater sense of compassion for all, and direction.
Might I ask the question where does a mother’s love come from? From whence, does the heart of compassion and care rise; especially in amidst the selfish grasping that too often defines our human existence? Our text does give us a hint.
In our text today there is the vestige of another ancient political struggle and unrest. Jesus is seen walking in the portico of Solomon during the Feast of Dedication, and people were pressing him to confirm or deny being the Messiah. The Feast of Dedication is what we today call Hanukkah. Hanukkah celebrates the successful Jewish revolt against The Greek Seleucid King Antioch Epiphanes IV which took place between the history of the Old and New Testaments. This man tried to eradicate the Jewish faith. He sacked Jerusalem, raided the Temple, stole the temple’s treasures, set up an altar to Zeus, and sacrificed swine on the altar. The Jews led by the Maccabee family revolted. (168–164 BCE) They defeated the Seleucids and rededicated the temple.
They lit a menorah, but only had enough consecrated oil to last for a single day; however, the candles burnt for eight days, which was enough time for more oil to be properly prepared. Thus Hanukkah, this eight-day feast of dedication remembers this time and continued to be celebrated in Jesus’ time and ours.
Now these details explain the moment in which the people were questioning Jesus. Also, the fact that the question is placed at Solomon’s Portico is important too. This area was revered to have been part of the original temple built by Solomon.
So here Jesus is walking on revered ground that speaks to the sacred beginning of the Jewish religious life in Jerusalem, and during a time that celebrates a great moment of freedom within the life of their faith, and people begin to ask Jesus, “Just tell us plainly. Don’t keep us in suspense. Are you the messiah or not?” Are you like the Maccabees who will free us from the Roman powers that oppress us? Are you like King David’s son who will refresh and establish godly worship within our land? Are you the guy? The narrow expectations of the question are painted within the setting. Jesus are you like a devouring lion who will destroy our enemies and bring us freedom?
Now in John’s gospel these questions come at the end of Jesus teaching that he was the good shepherd, and now he follows up by saying I have already told you the answer to your question, but you don’t believe, because to understand my answer you have to be like a sheep.
John 10:26-27 (NRSV)
26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
Jesus takes their high charged political question and tells them I am just a shepherd leading his flock to eternal life and if you want to understand and follow me then be a sheep. Then you will have life.
Well, that is problematic. That is not exactly the answer they were seeking. That is not the hope of victory they wanted. Where is the political victory? Where is winning campaign? Where is the fight? Be a sheep? Just what is Jesus talking about? You know the Bible says when Jesus told them these things some said he was a crazy person. At the end of this text some wanted to stone him.
Well what is a sheep like?
Video –Sheep stuck in a ditch. Freed, and then it jumps back into the ditch again.
And worse yet online there was another video showing another sheep doing the same thing.
And yet Jesus uses the image of a sheep and a good shepherd to speak about the relationship between himself and those who would follow him. There is no glory in being a sheep, and yet the image is ever present in the Bible. The Lord is my Shepherd…you know that makes you –a sheep.
But I think Jesus was trying to imply some other understandings into life that are valid and real. When life becomes a highly charged debate what can we learn from sheep?
Well for one thing sheep need a Shepherd. It seems that they are rather dependent creatures. There is another sheep video online https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guEyxTpevFo&ab_channel=CaenhillCountrysideCentre showing a sheep loaded with wool, and it somehow fell and rolled over on its back. The creature was unable to roll back over on to its feet. Such a sheep will soon die lying in such a posture. The shepherd had to pull the sheep back over. We can make fun of sheep, but how many people get themselves into similar fixes. Recently, I heard a story of a couple that drove off road up into the highlands of Nevada with an RV pulling a small car and got stuck. They tried to drive out with the car and that too became mired in the dirt. After a week the husband died, and the wife was finally rescued. It is a sad and tragic story, but somedays but by the grace of God so for you or me. We may not be as self-reliant as we might think. Besides that, the Bible tells us that all have sinned. There is no such thing as saving oneself. We are all the walking dead without Christ in our lives. We need a shepherd. We need a savoir. Jesus knew this. That is why we are sheep.
Secondly, there is a good shepherd and God cares for you. Jesus said, “27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
The very nature of God is to give. He gave us life in the first place. He sustains our lives with His gifts of sunshine and rain and much more. And when our days are finished on this planet, He gives us eternal life. God is a giving God.
A mother took her six-year-old boy into a doctor’s crowded waiting room. As they waited their turn, he began to ask her all kinds of questions. In half an hour he managed to cover almost every subject known to humanity. To the wonder of all the others sitting in the room, his mother answered each question carefully and patiently. Inevitably, he got around to God. As the other people listened to his relentless “how’s” and “why’s,” it was plain to see by the expressions on their faces that they wondered: “How does she stand it?” But when she answered her son’s next question, she answered theirs too. “Why,” he asked, “doesn’t God ever get tired and just stop?” “Because,” she replied after a moment’s thought, “God is love; and love never gets tired.” 2 Whatever ditches we fall in and no matter how many times we fall God still seeks to lift us back out, to set us free, and give us life. Even when all else fails in this mortal realm the love of God never ends. God is eternally there for us.
Finally, sheep are really good followers, even to the point of it being a fault. In 2005 in Turkey, a flock of sheep literally jumped off a cliff, following a single sheep that jumped or fell first. Also, when a shepherd calls out for the sheep, they come running with enthusiasm. Soon the whole flock is in tow. People can sometimes be the same way. How strong is it within our nature to follow along with the crowd? When people stormed the capital on January 6, how many of them were really leading and how many of them were just following along? It is in our nature to often to follow along. The necessity is to make sure we are following the right person. Follow the good shepherd. Through good or bad, thick or thin, right or wrong, keep Christ within your thoughts and within your heart. Then through even the lost trails of this life, you will surely find your way and life.
Let me end by suggesting that this nurturing and guiding love is often well exemplified within the love of a good mother. The love that the world needs is well known to us, it is what has brought us this far, and always available to us. This is the love that God has shown us and is. For all the problems and issues, we face in this life, the best solution is found when we allow God to guide us in the strength of a love that builds up, heals, helps, and never grows tired, and not a power that seeks to shape, control, and maintain. Just be a sheep. People need the Lord, and it is God that gives life and hope. Follow the good shepherd, exercise love for all. In this there is life. Amen.
1. Thanks to Dr. Eric S. Ritz who credits Norman Neaves for this illustration. 2. James Dent in Charleston, W.Va. GAZETTE, 7/2/91
2. Arthur Fay Sueltz, LIFE AT CLOSE QUARTERS (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1982).