John 10:1-10 CEB
I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying
So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.
What did it mean to be a shepherd during the time of the early church? To say their job was difficult is an understatement. Shepherding was one of those jobs that had odd hours, difficult conditions, and, if existed in today's American culture, would have a decent outcry for unfair working wages. Sheep were difficult. Goats were the easy ones. Goats were from the area, and could basically survive on almost anything. Sheep were different. They required so much care and maintenance, always needing to be moved to greener pastures. Always needing protection from the wolves lurking in the dark. While the shepherd was dirty, smelly and worked long hard hours, they were respected as a vital part of society. And, some of our greatest biblical heroes were shepherds. Able. David. Abraham. Just to name some.
So much hard work to keep sheep, it's no wonder we are the sheep in shepherd illustrations. It's no wonder God is the shepherd. Psalm 23 easily comes to mind. “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. His rod, his staff, they comfort me.” My grandfather, grandmother, and Great Aunt all hat it read at their funerals. It's ambiguous enough to could be understood as a lament, praise, or maybe even an evening or morning prayer. I think what draws us so close to this particular Psalm is the image of our God within it. There is something comforting about the shepherd image the way the psalmist draws it out. It's so relational. It's such an important job.
The shepherd to the flock was a leader, but not a disconnected leadership like royalty is. A shepherd is with and knows the flock. A shepherd lives with the flock, not away from it. But, almost conversely, another reason shepherd is a great metaphor is because royalty liked to use shepherds to describe their rule. If you have ever seen pictures of burial chambers for pharaohs, in the many depictions the Pharaoh usually has a shepherd's staff in one hand. Is it an accurate depiction of Pharaoh? I don't know. It is just interesting rulers are drawn to wanting to look like a shepherd watching over the flock. God: the good shepherd.
As a shepherd, God protects. The wilderness time was considered a tough time for the Israelite people. During that time, God did not run away. In actuality, from the Exodus in Egypt to the entry into the Promised Land, God got closer: going from a relationship with one person separate from everyone else (Moses on the mountain) to residing in a tent with the people. Then, among the people, God nourishes, feeding them. Our God, my god, your God, tells us we will not lack, keeps us on the right direction towards our Promised Land, and sets a table for us even when we are not worthy of a place at the table. Hmmm. All this talk about shepherds and God nourishing us even when we don't deserve it remind me of a group of people in society. Moms.
OK guys, and by guys I mean those who are not of the female persuasion. I know you might think we have this natural mommy gene programmed into us from birth. Yes, we were given the dolls that could eat, pee, poop, and tell the local weather if we held it in just the right way. But, once that first child comes out, all bets are off. Our little plastic babies somehow stayed silent when we wanted to go play with friends, or it was time to eat. Now there's this absolutely gorgeous little soul invading our lives and he or she is screaming for our attention at 1am... 4am... in the middle of finally getting a bathroom break. The thing is, we're not prepared, and no one, not even our own mommas can prepare us.
I can remember how scared I was, knowing we were going to be leaving that hospital with our brand new son. I honestly thought I was going to break him the second we left the hospital. I wondered why they were actually letting me leave with a real life. When we got home, we placed him in his bassinet, and I got this real sense. This life, was unique and personal. He was going to have free-will. More importantly, he was going to need me. Need me to feed him. Need me to keep him safe.
No one can prepare us for the sleepless nights and the bleary morning afters. No one can tell us exactly how we are supposed to transition from milk to solids, or how much we will blame ourselves when our child ends up with an orange nose because we gave him/her too many carrots. Many of us have struggled, and pulled our hair out over things no one tells us, and we have to learn by day to day failings and accomplishments. With all that learning and crying, no one can prepare us when we get anxious over the most silliest of things because we fear anything can hurt our child.
Good mothers are like shepherds to the children. Like a shepherd, they can enter a packed daycare and call for their child. While there could be a dozen children with the same name, her child will know her voice and look up excited. Like a shepherd, she protects her child from the dangers of the world. It is not difficult to do an internet search for “Mother's protecting her children,” and come up with story after story of mothers putting their life on the line to protect her child. Just this last April, in Corning, California, a vicious dog got out of his owners yard. The dog enters the neighbors yard where two children were playing outside with their mom. The mom sent the children inside and stood to block the dog from getting to the kids. The woman suffered a significant bite and claw marks. The children were not harmed. Like a shepherd, a mother is dedicated to helping her children live life to the fullest. Any good parent wants to help their children find a fulfilling life outside of the house. We want to prepare our little sheep to leave the gate and find life in greener pastures.
To take a side step for a moment, and tell you a little bit about me. I'm a minister of an online ministry, Fig Tree Christian. Every week I bring a message to a group of people online, then I remain available throughout the day to discuss it. Usually this happens through Reddit.
This past Thursday I discussed a specific phrase that comes up in Acts 2:42-47, “they kept all things in common.” Our financially centered society has taken that to mean all our “stuff” is pooled together. Actually the phrase is much more radical. It's a Greco-Roman phrase meaning a profound friendship that encompasses a shared set of core values, and deep respect for one another's well being. This early church shared their physical “stuff” because the spiritual relationship was so strong. The relationship was worth more than the “stuff.”
There was a subsequent conversations that blossomed from the Acts 2 meditation. A person wanted me to push the idea further. Wanted me to explore what it meant to have such a strong spiritual relationship with the group. He pushed me because in the meditation I had said real church shouldn't hurt. In all honesty, real relationship should not lead to ostracizing and broken pieces of the body of Christ. That type of pain shouldn't exist when all things are shared in common. This person correctly called out real relationship sometimes does hurt. It hurts, because love can often take the road of sacrifice. Real love gives up for ourselves for the sake of someone else. Sometimes, doing the loving thing just hurts. Tell me mother's don't understand that?
So stitching it all together, God is like a shepherd. Mother's are like shepherds. Shepherding is a beautiful illustration for true self-sacrificing, relational love. Today, Mother's Day we can can celebrate how God and Mom are our shepherd, and we are difficult, but lovable sheep. Thank god for such needed and sacrificial love.
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