I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is ha hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:11-16)
The good shepherd lays down his life for the seep. Jesus knew what he was getting into. He compares himself to a shepherd. The image has been ruined by idyllic paintings and poems. The life was hard. You can get glimpses of it in the Psalms David wrote. Even these might be a little idealized. David talks of wolves, and killing bears and lions with his own hands. This wasn’t a job for the week. It meant enduring cold nights, and hot days. It meant living off the land, walking the sheep from one desolate pasture to another in the Judean desert. The pastures of Beshan and Gilead with green grass and plenteous water were distant dreams. Even there the more formidable foe, the bulls of Beshan threatened one’s very life. These were the animals celebrated with a golden calf. Animals every bit as fierce as a cape buffalo, animals more feared than lions in the heart of Africa. We don’t even need to discuss the danger of vipers, asps and basilisks.
Jesus knows who he is, and what is ahead. He will lay down his life for the sheep at the hands of the worthless shepherds who do not come in through the door. His life will be laid down at the hands of wolves in sheep’s clothing. He will lay down his life for the sheep to save them. It is the only way. He speaks of the cross, of his atonement for our sins. And because of this the sheep know him, just as he knows the Father. This isn’t an intellectual knowledge, this is a knowledge that is as intimate as a father’s relationship with his son.
It’s a mystery to a boy, how a father knows him so well. And the love of a son for his Father is a mystery as well. It’s uncanny how much personality is passed on between a father and a son. How much love a son can have for a father, even when the relationship is an uneasy one. And the relationship between Jesus and the Father was anything but uneasy. This was the son with whom the Father was well pleased. And the Son so loved the father that he went to the cross to reconcile to him his children. It is a close relationship of familial love. And it is stronger than the sin that would destroy it.
Christians don’t always have an easy time in their relationship with Jesus. It’s a mess! Paul argues the good that I would I do not. The bad that I would not, that I do! I don’t know a Christian alive who hasn’t beaten himself up with the same words. We fail to meet our own expectations. We fail in our relationships with others. The seventh commandment says we are to improve and protect our neighbor’s property and income, and we begrudge the pastor’s. The eighth commandment says we are to defend our neighbor and speak well of him. Do we do that? We fail. And so the sheep become the very wolves that need to be held at bay. As Paul says the wolves will rise up from amongst you. And just as in his day, it starts with false doctrine, with feeding into ideas that come from the world as to what the church should be and should be doing. And when the wolves have had their way with the pastor, they will turn on the sheep just as fast. Church no longer becomes a place of peace and calm, but of pain and misery, controlling busy bodies laying on law and guilty consciences and not lifting a finger to help. And for all this Jesus lays down his life. For our failures as Christians. For our vindictiveness as wolves. The relationship we have with Jesus is a tough one, it is strong. And it is that because it is not based on us, but on the Cross where Jesus forgave all our sin. It is him laying down his life for the sheep and pardoning the wolves who have nailed him to the cross crying “Father forgive them for they know not what they do!” And that is us. We know not what we do. We sin, and betray when we aren’t looking, and yet through it all, God uses us the sheep, he forms us into his church and despite all our foibles calls all the sheep from all his pastures together in him to be one flock with one Good Shepherd.