Texts: Acts 2:42-27; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
These days the pandemic is giving rise to a whole new genre of entertainment as we cope with the extended stay-at-home directives. There are indoor sports challenges, some of which go hilariously awry. There is competitive house, garage, or garden cleaning. And there’s endless cooking—especially those favorite comfort foods.
Of course there’s more time for spiritual things too. And the Twenty-Third Psalm is perhaps the epitome of comfort food for the soul. There are other great psalms of course but none more universally loved and known than this one. In the form of poetry or song, we know it so well. Jews, Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith know some version of it by heart: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
Jesus certainly knew Psalm 23 as a student well-versed in Scripture. It’s a profound expression of Israel’s trust in God; a song used in worship. Psalm 23 sets God as the gold standard of shepherds, the great protector and provider; the one to whom all other shepherds are accountable.
(but hey, no pressure here!)
The Hebrew Scriptures recount the importance of sheep in the economy, the dangers of negligent shepherds, and the vulnerability of the sheep and lambs. Prophets compared Israel’s worst and best rulers as shepherds. Some of great righteousness, others of monumental unrighteousness.
The gospel of John preserves the greatest number of Jesus’s sayings about sheep and shepherds.
Jesus spoke of sheep and shepherds in a variety of ways and to different audiences. So each saying has its own internal logic. In John 10:7, from our gospel on this Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus calls himself the gate for the sheep. It is, as John’s gospel says, a figure of speech. Jesus spoke of the gate as being a means of separating true shepherds from false shepherds.
John’s community was struggling to sort out which guides to faith they should listen to. There were plenty of self-proclaimed prophets around. There were also Zealots, with messianic claims of their own. Who is the true shepherd?
The community faced many dangers both material and spiritual. The thief is greedy and untrustworthy. The bandit is treacherous, untrue, and deathly dangerous.
These threats came at God’s beloved people from all directions. Within the sheepfold are good, true sheep and also false sheep. The true sheep come to the true shepherd by coming at the sound of the shepherd’s voice. If God is the good shepherd, Jesus is God, calling us by name.
The gospel of John says that Jesus came to call us back to the life God wants for us. God’s desire is to save us from destruction. The forces arrayed against God’s desire are many and they are ravenous. They come from outside us and from within.
Under the circumstances, who could be blamed for wanting to retreat into a safe place? But this is not what Jesus means. Instead, he announces that the shepherd leads the sheep out of the fold to find pasture.
The sheepfold is an image about this life, here, now. Just as Psalm 23 was - though expressed in an ancient context. It isn’t about heaven and the “great by and by, hallelujah!” These are profound stories of the un-interruptible presence of God right here, in confusing, difficult times.
John’s second century CE community was under great pressure to abandon their faith in Jesus. The conditions of their lives were similar to those of earlier Christians to whom the letter of 1 Peter was written. They had committed themselves to the Way of Jesus, to doing the good and serving others. In return they often suffered abuse and rejection.
So John gave his community these words of Jesus amid very stressful times. John encouraged the people to stiffen their resolve to follow the Way of God. He reminded them that they had been saved by Jesus’s love out of broken lives. Jesus had paid it forward for them, restoring them to a right relationship with God, at the cost of his own body.
Jesus is the gate. Yes. But Jesus is not the only way. And following Jesus does have its costs. Choices lie before us, and lots of voices call us to follow. Among all the competing voices to whom will we listen? Whom will we follow and where will they take us?How do we know which is the way of death and which is the way of life?
Perhaps you remember another shepherd of God’s people—Moses. In Genesis 3:19 he gave a solemn charge to the people of Israel. Here it is from the Orthodox Jewish Bible: “I call Shomayim (heavens) and Ha’Aretz (the earth) to record today as witnesses against you, that I have set before you HaChayyim (the life) and HaMavet (the death), HaBerakhah (the blessing) and HaKelalah (the curse); therefore choose Chayyim (life), that both you and you seed may live…”
Let’s say we choose life. (Well, duh!) According to Moses that means we choose to abide by God’s commandments. Loving and serving God is life. Forgetting God and rejecting the commandments is death. Think of this with every voice that calls to you to believe and follow.
Psalm 23 is the song of David; of every faithful believer. It’s a song of obedience, love of life, and the goodness of God. David knew the price of temptation and disobedience, the way of sorrow and confession. He found with God the rod of accountability, and the staff of provision and healing. With this in mind and spirit, David committed himself to God’s sweet abundance.
The community that God forms through the Way has abundance and knows peace. The ones who love God are preserved and protected, guided and comforted no matter what the circumstances may be. Through the darkest valley, under the shadow of Death, in the presence of every enemy.
Jesus came to sing praise to God. With him we follow the Way from the Garden of No Fear to the pastures of plenty. With the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls, fear gives way to songs of profound joy and deep hope. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.