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Series:I am
Duration:26 mins 20 secs

Today is the third week in a preaching series that we will follow through the end of May. In a pivotal text in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do the people say that I am?” They respond that some believe he is John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets. Jesus continues, pressing them directly with the question, “But who do you say that I am?” It is still the question that all disciples of Jesus, that you and I, must answer for ourselves.

This series of sermons seeks to answer that question by first turning it around. Before we can truly declare who we say Jesus is, I want to suggest that we need to hear Jesus tell us who he is in his own words.

In the Gospel of John, seven times, we find Jesus say; “I am …” It is language reminiscent of God’s name given to Moses, YHWH: “I am who I am.” Yes, in these texts we find a glimpse of who Jesus really is in his own words. So far we have heard Jesus say, “I am the bread of life” and “I am the light of the world.” Today we turn to the third and fourth sayings as they come in the same text from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verses 7-18.

7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

There was once a pastor taking a group of parishioners on a tour of the Holy Land. As often happens on such trips, the pastor attempted to make connections between the scriptures and actual places they would see and people the group might encounter.

On this particular day, as the bus departed the hotel the pastor read the parable of the good shepherd and was explaining to them that, as they continued their tour, they would see shepherds on the hillsides just as in Jesus' day.

He wanted to impress the group, so he told them what every good pastor tells his people about shepherds. He described how, in the Holy Land, shepherds always lead their sheep, always walking in front to face dangers, always protecting the sheep by going ahead of them.

He barely got the last word out when, sure enough, the bus rounded a corner and they saw a man and his sheep on the hillside.

There was only one problem: the man wasn't leading the sheep as the good pastor had said. No, he was behind the sheep and seemed to be chasing them. The pastor’s face turned a bright red.

Flabbergasted, he made the bus stop. He jumped out and ran over to the field and said, "I always thought shepherds in this region led their sheep — out in front. And I told my people that a good shepherd never chases his sheep."

The man chasing the sheep stopped and replied, "That's absolutely true ... you're absolutely right ... but I'm not a shepherd, I'm the butcher!"

Yes, my friends, it is important to be able to recognize the good shepherd because there are multiple other options out there.
I believe that our scripture today is about Jesus and leadership and the kind of leader who can take the sheep to a life that really is life. Think with me just for a minute about leaders and leadership in today’s world. There are a variety of models which are held up as examples for leadership. On the one hand there is the corporate CEO who works in an office. Today they either wear a suit or if they are in the technology industry jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. Either way, they spend most of their time in meetings, rarely getting their hands dirty or involved in the actual production or operations of the company. They are accountable to shareholders and a corporate board. And how do we know if a particular CEO is an outstanding leader? If the business makes money, of course; especially if it makes more money every quarter than is expected.

There are other models of leadership too. In the political realm we tend to lift up those who are steadfast to the party and its principles. No flip flopping, right? They must not compromise with the other side of the aisle. If their greatest accomplishment is not letting the other side win, they must be a good leader, right?

In the athletic arena, coaches and players are often lifted up as good leaders. What criteria do we use here? Winning games, developing players who win at the current level and the next. Nice guys finish last and don’t write best-selling books about leadership.

Now perhaps there are other models for leadership which you appreciate. And I am sure there are those in the corporate, political, and sports worlds which do not fit the description I just provided. However, it does seem true to me that the majority of leaders we tend to celebrate look very little like the shepherd we find in the scriptures.

And that is a problem because “shepherd” is the dominant metaphor used in the both the Old and the New Testaments to talk about the ideal leader. Moses was keeping his father-in-law’s sheep when he encountered God on Mt. Sinai. King David, a king after God’s own heart, was a shepherd. The psalms are full of references to shepherds, as in Psalm 23 which we read this morning. And perhaps most important for our text today, the prophets critique the kings of Israel for not being good shepherds. For example, in Ezekiel 34 we hear:

Prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them … Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? … You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Yes, the shepherd is the model for good leadership in scripture, and even more than just any leader, the king should be a good shepherd.

All of this is in the background of our text for today when Jesus declares first that he is the gate and then that he is the good shepherd. Both images are related to the king’s task of keeping sheep.

For it was not unusual for shepherds to lead their flocks to a pen or sheep fold for the night. Such places had low walls and a single open entry way. As opposed to having a gate that swings back and forth like we might have in our yards today, the shepherd would often lay across the entryway at night. He was the gate - the one who kept the thieves and wolves out, the one who kept the sheep safely in. When Jesus says, “I am the gate,” he declares that he is the means by which the sheep enter the safety of the sheep fold. He is the means by which the sheep exit for the abundant life promised in the pastures.

So, Jesus is already talking about being a shepherd when he says that he is the gate. However, you can almost see people scratching their heads, so Jesus continues, spelling it out for them: “I am the good shepherd.” The word we translate as “good” is the Greek word kalos. We often tell children they are supposed to be good and by that we mean they are to act appropriately and morally. But kalos means more than just something or someone who follows the rules. No, kalos is often translated as noble or beautiful or proper or even praise worthy. So, if one is the kalos shepherd, then he or she is the role model, the archetype, the one whose picture is in the dictionary beside the word. Yes, this shepherd is something special indeed. This is the shepherd God wanted the kings of Israel to be. This is the shepherd that God said he himself would be because the kings of Israel keep failing so miserably.

The contrast is with the hired hand, the one who watches the sheep for money. When the wolf comes, the hired hand leaves the sheep and runs away. But the good shepherd, the kalos shepherd, fights off the wolves with a great show of strength, right? No … the noble shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He is the king who truly cares for the people. To paraphrase the words from Ezekiel, when the wolves come the good shepherd strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds up the injured, brings back the strayed, and seeks the lost. Yes, this shepherd will unite and care for his sheep by laying down his life for them.

Now, we know this story ends with crucifixion and resurrection; but just imagine hearing that for the first time. The shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep? What good would that do? A dead shepherd is no better than a hired hand that runs off. In either case the sheep are left alone and defenseless.

Is that not exactly where the disciples and the followers of Jesus must have been on the days following Good Friday. Jesus, their good shepherd, who they had followed into the mouth of danger itself, Jerusalem, had laid down his life. But what good was that? They were now without a shepherd, they had scattered in fear, and those that put Jesus to death sought his followers to make sure they did not cause any trouble on their own. It would have been just the same as if they had a hired hand that had fled at the first sight of danger. The outcome was the same. They were scattered, scared, and alone. What sense does it make for a shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep?

It only makes sense if the shepherd who lays down his life, also takes it up again. As Jesus says, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Jesus is the kalos shepherd, the good shepherd not only because he lays down his life for the sheep, but also because he picks his life back up again. He does not leave the sheep without a shepherd, scattered and snatched in fear. The hired hand flees, never to return. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, conquers the enemy of death, and then picks his life back up again to lead the sheep through green pastures and beside still waters.

And that, my friends, brings us back to our essential question: Who do you say that Jesus is? Because Jesus is calling to you and to me. Do you recognize his voice? He is the kalos shepherd, the good shepherd who guards us against the threats of night and leads us forth into the pastures of abundant life. When the wolves of life appear, threatening to scatter and snatch us, Jesus lays down his life for us – gives his life so that we might live, knowing that we cannot fight off the wolves on our own. And yet in laying down his life, he does not abandon us, but takes his life up again so that we will always know this good shepherd. Do you believe this?

Thanks be to God.
Let us pray:

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