Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the Christmas gospel, we read that the good news of Jesus’ birth was first proclaimed to the shepherds abiding in their fields. Well, If an “angel of the Lord” were to appear tonight in the sky over Bethlehem, there would scarcely be a shepherd to be found keeping watch over his flocks. Tending sheep has become an almost impossible task for the diminishing community of shepherds in the place of Jesus’ birth. Settlements, army checkpoints, border walls, and closed military zones have reduced the grazing lands so that many of Bethlehem’s shepherds have been forced to give up their traditional livelihoods. Even today, the sheep that are left scour the plots of land known as the Shepherd’s Field desperate for a single blade of grass or two. Not so long ago, shepherds and their flocks once wandered freely 20 miles from Bethlehem down to the Dead Sea, but not any longer. Of course, Jesus could have never imagined such a change in the life of the noble shepherds when he likened himself to the Good Shepherd. There was danger to be sure. Wild animals roamed the land, but the extinction of the life and lifestyle of a shepherd- never.
Only St. John’s gospel records Jesus’ words. “I am the Good Shepherd…who lays down his life for the sheep,” but since the very foundations of the church, John’s image of the shepherd has been one of great comfort and reassurance. In fact, the earliest surviving Christian depictions of Jesus, dating back to the 3rd century to the catacombs of Rome, are those of him, not on the cross or gloriously seated on a throne, but as a shepherd- often seen as beardless youth carrying a sheep over his shoulder. That powerful image of a shepherd who is a defender and protector lasted well into the 17th century, but as the industrial revolution took hold, and shepherding became a part of the sentimental, distant past, the image of the Good Shepherd became softer and gentler as well, so much so, that by the later part of the 19th century, images of the Good Shepherd depicted Jesus cradling the lamb in his arms, rather than over his shoulders. The lamb was now not so much rescued from being lost, as being cuddled for being weak. Yes, the Good Shepherds in the Tiffany stained glass windows in the churches of my childhood were so soft and pretty that it was difficult to imagine the Good Shepherd in white ever defending his sheep and soiling his robes by laying down his life for them. It’s why we need to be reminded of the real shepherds who once gathered in the fields of Bethlehem watching their flocks by night.
So what it is that has moved generations of Christians to embrace Jesus as the Good Shepherd? This morning, I would like us to meditate on a simple phrase drawn from St. John’s gospel. “I know my own, and my own know me.” It is here that you and I can discover the profound and intimate relationship which is shared between the shepherd and the sheep and was once second nature to the Palestinian Shepherds.
In the ancient world shepherds were closely attached to their flocks, and were often together for as long as eight or nine years. The shepherd would give each sheep and lamb in the flock their own particular name, and the sheep actually came to know their names. At times, flocks of different shepherds would intermingle while grazing; so to separate them, the shepherds would simply go to opposite sides of the flocks and call their sheep. Since each shepherd had a peculiar call, which only his sheep knew, the flock would only respond to the call of their particular shepherd.
Every evening, the shepherd would gather his flock into the fold, a corral made from stones or bushes clumped together forming a large circle. Each sheep had to enter the fold through a narrow entrance, and as they entered, the shepherd stretched his long staff across the entrance, close to the ground, making. As each sheep passed through, the shepherd gave it a quick examination to see if it had suffered any injury during the day.
When moving the flock from one location to another, the shepherd would never drive the sheep before him; rather he would walk in front of them, and they would follow along behind. Quite often the shepherd had to lead his flock through the dark, narrow valleys, where thieves, robbers or wild beasts were often waiting. But the shepherd would go ahead first to make certain it was safe for the sheep to follow.
Finally, shepherds were constantly watchful, because some of the sheep were always ready to stray. Some were gentle and obedient, and never strayed very far from the presence of the shepherd. But others would either stray thoughtlessly away, or lingered behind. Since ancient Palestine was filled with desolate hills and valleys, and with high cliffs which plunged into deep ravines, the shepherd’s watchful care over his flock never ceased for a moment. If a sheep strayed from the flock, the shepherd would track it until he found it. Quite often, he would find the sheep in a place where he would have to risk his own life to reach.
It is no wonder that Jesus took the image of the shepherd in St. John’s gospel and made it a portrait of himself. Jesus, like a shepherd had a deep love for the sheep in his flock, and a self-sacrificing spirit. He would willingly risk, and even lay down his own life for the sake of the sheep who had gone astray. That is how dear Jesus’ commitment is to you. Like a shepherd, Jesus has the well-being of his followers at heart, rather than his own well-being. And like a shepherd, he knows your name.
Interestingly, names are rare in the St. John’s Gospel. Indeed, Jesus calls only four people by name in the whole gospel. There was Simon Peter, who Jesus called by a new name, “Peter,” which means the “Rock.” The second was Philip, the first disciple to invite others to come to Jesus, with the words, “Come and see.” The third was Lazarus, the “one whom Jesus loved” who died before he could reach him whom Jesus called back from the dead. Like a shepherd he called out to the lost sheep by name. “Lazarus, come out.” And then there was Mary Magdalene, who was weeping at the empty tomb on Easter morning. When Jesus called her by name, she knew him and she recognized him. Yes, “I know my own, and my own know me.”
Certainly, we have all experienced death in our lives. We have lost friends and teachers. We have lost our way and purpose. We have lost health, relationship, abilities, and dreams. Grief, confusion, and fear are all the enemies that surround us. But my friends, regardless of the dangers, Jesus comes to us like a shepherd, when we are lost and alone and amid our weeping, and stands beside us and calls us by name. Sometimes he speaks to us audibly and literally as he spoke to Mary. And sometimes he uses friends, neighbors, and even strangers to speak a word, ask a question, and to call us back by name. He can be present for us, not simply with a shepherd’s staff, but with a gentle touch, a turn of the face, a word of encouragement. All these means he uses to call out your name, and to remind that you are his beloved follower and child.
You and I need the promise of this Good Shepherd. Life is infinitely, delicately fragile, and the balance is easily shattered. It can be as rocky and as desolate as the Palestinian wilderness. Suddenly, it is a car accident. Suddenly, it is cancer or another debilitating disease that strikes you or a person living in your home. You are told, “Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.” But that’s not how you feel. Everything was going so well last week, and this week it has all changed. Yesterday, was glorious and today is tragic.
So why does Jesus calling out our names change the whole story? Why is this such a pivotal word? It is the Good Shepherd’s way of whispering into your heart and soul, that he has returned just as he promised and that life in the shadow of his care will never end. “I know my own, and my own know me.” This is the good news of the resurrection: Christ rose from the dead to show us that nothing, not even death, has the power to keep him from shepherding you and those he loves. Christ knows each one of by name. They are written in the book of life. They are written on his heart, just as his name is written on yours.
You see, it is because we have in Jesus a Good Shepherd, who has walked this path intimately with his flock, who has laid died his life for you and for me and rose again, that we can dare to act, and trust that the he has the power and desire to make all things well. That is the loving heart of the shepherd. Our Lord doesn’t promise a life without pain or sorrow. He doesn’t promise a world without tears or weeping. He doesn’t promise a fellowship without hatred or enemies. But for those who hear his voice and follow him, and know him, he offers an abundant life with a sense of purpose, protection, perspective and peace. Yes, he has the power lift up life again.
If an “angel of the Lord” were to appear tonight in the sky over Bethlehem, there would scarcely be a shepherd to be found keeping watch over his flocks. But my friends, the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who watches over you and is willing to lay down his life for you, will be there. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.