Sermon for April 25, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3022 | The Green in Rugged Pastures

In Psalm 23, we hear the promise that God gives us rest in green pastures. The “green pastures” the Psalmist referred to are nothing like the bountiful tall green grass landscape that others might think of. In reality, the landscape where the Psalmist lived is actually a desert. Just as the Psalmist could see God’s provision beyond his desert circumstances, we too can rest in the truth that God will lead and care for us, even in the desert.

Program Transcript


Speaking Of Life 3022 | The Green in Rugged Pastures
Greg Williams

One of the most famously quoted Psalms is Psalm 23, and if you don’t understand the countryside in Israel, you can miss part of the meaning of the Psalm.

You know the Psalm, which begins like this:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.

Psalm 26:1-2 (NRSV)

If you go to the countryside in Israel, you can see what the psalmist looked at as he penned the words “green pastures.” Even today there are teenagers from shepherd families out walking their charges on grazing trails carved into the land since the time of Abraham. But the “green pastures” the Psalmist referred to are nothing like the luscious midwestern landscape this may bring to mind for a westerner.

The landscape is rugged semi-desert, not the waist-high grasses that we may think of. The first time one biblical scholar saw the sheep out grazing here, he thought they were eating rocks! But yet this is the place that David calls “green pastures.” Look closer, and there is just enough moisture in the air and scarce rainfall to grow the smallest shoots of vegetation around the rocks.

There’s just enough for a few mouthfuls every few steps, and the sheep have to keep moving, they must keep following the shepherd to find sustenance. There’s no lush green pastures to sit and get fat in, but there’s enough to make it through and keep going, and when the grass runs out, the sheep trust the shepherd will bring them to more.

This changes our understanding of Christ. While the pictures of a very Caucasian Jesus walking his sheep through waving pastures are nice and comforting for many, they are wholly inaccurate. What David saw was the much more true-to-life picture of a rugged landscape in which the sheep’s only chance of survival is the shepherd’s guidance and love.

One of the greatest questions of our Christian life is: Do we trust the shepherd to give us enough?

Most of the time in life, we’re not flooded with spiritual, physical, or relational bounty, but if we keep moving, we find that Jesus guides us. A mouthful here, a mouthful there. A kind word from a stranger, an unexpected gift from a friend, a favorite meal made by your spouse.

This is how our Lord Jesus leads us to green pastures. Our shepherd gives us all we need, and the point is to trust him and keep following.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 23:1-6 • Acts 4:5-12 • 1 John 3:16-24 • John 10:11-18

The theme this week is the strength of the shepherd. Throughout our Scriptures, we see people following the good shepherd and sharing his strength. Our call to worship Psalm contains the well-known words of comfort that we are walking in the leadership and guidance of the strong shepherd. In Acts 4, Peter, the roughneck fisherman, is given strength to speak boldly before a collection of powerful, sophisticated leaders. In 1 John 3, the community of Jesus, who often called himself the “good shepherd,” is encouraging each other in the strength of their faith. John 10, on which our sermon is based, gives us the “good shepherd” dialogue of Jesus, rich with Old Testament imagery and huge implications for Jesus’ identity.

The Shepherd’s True Measure

John 10:11-18 ESV

Read John 10:11-18 ESV

“The true measure of a person is how they treat someone who can do them absolutely no good.” This quote, from Samuel Johnson, is basically the definition of kindness—being kind and caring to the person who can do you “no good.” The only thing they bring to the table is their helplessness, their innocence. How you take on that enormous responsibility tells much about who you are.

We meet plenty of people we “don’t need” to be kind to. That demanding panhandler who is conning people out of money. That thankless relative who ruined yet another family dinner. Even those who are relatively innocent: a disabled person who depends on the system without putting anything in, an elderly dementia patient, a psych patient who will never “get better.”

How we treat these people, as individuals and as a society, tells more about us than them. They can give nothing back. Helping them won’t advance our career and certainly won’t give us a “return on investment.” Many of these folks may never get better, may never change their ways and/or are permanently disabled (physically or mentally).

We show kindness to them, when we do, because of kindness itself, and because of who we are in Jesus.

Jesus seems to be describing the same thing in his analogy about the “good shepherd.” He’s talking about what it means to be not just the person who leads—the “hired hand”—but the person who loves.

He gives an example from the universal world of work. Shepherding then was about as dull and common as fast food or “cubicle work” might be today. And in that profession, there was no need to be “kind” to the sheep. They were a product to be exploited, and that was an acceptable perspective.

It is in that atmosphere that Jesus speaks this metaphor of the “good” shepherd. He is good to those who can do him no good. In this case sheep, but it’s a thinly veiled metaphor for people. He defends and cares for the sheep not because of what they can do in return but because of who he is. He acts kindly because he is kind, he does good because he is good.

Let’s look at the characters in this micro-parable Jesus tells. Though first-century shepherding may seem miles away from our modern, digital world, there is truth for our age here, as there is with everything Jesus said.

We’ll look at:

  • The Shepherd
  • The hired hands
  • The sheep

The Shepherd

We come to this passage in the middle of tense conversations with the Jerusalem rulers about who Jesus is. The physical and spiritual violence of Jesus’ torture and execution will follow here in a few pages, but at the moment we’re in the middle of controversial words.

He’s making shocking statements left and right here. He’s declared himself:

  • I am the bread of life (and you have to eat me!)
  • I am the resurrection (the Jewish view of the future)
  • I am the Light of the world (like the pillar of fire that led Israel)
  • And, most point blank, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

These are among what is loosely called the “I am” statements of Jesus, and the phrase itself is particularly potent. When Moses was confronted with the burning bush in Exodus 3, he asked God his name, and the definitively mysterious statement rang out: “I AM.” God said “I AM” is his name – he is who he is, the self-existent One; there is no one and nothing like him, we can’t imagine his depths and we can never comprehend him other than what he chooses to show us.

He is the great I AM, “Yahweh,” the One from which everything comes. This name isn’t even spoken by faithful Jews to this day because it is considered too holy and sacred to cross human lips.

“I am the good shepherd” is one of the “I am” statements of Jesus. Our English word “good” is a little flat. The original word means something more like “beautiful” or “attractive” or “faithful”—all of those realities in one.

At the time, a shepherd like any other job, could be done to the bare minimum. Sheep were food and clothing—the relationship was entirely practical. The shepherd never needed to be kind or particularly conscious of any of the animals, just turn them into whatever product was needed. But a “good” shepherd, like a “good” nurse or craftworker, had a special relationship with the sheep. He saw worth in each of the animals, and he tried his best to care for them all.

Again, this told you more about him than it did about the sheep. He’s a good shepherd because he is good, not because the sheep are worthy, or because the work is glorious. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

Jesus is drawing on imagery from thousands of years before, in Ezekiel 34.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:1-4 ESV)

It goes on to say…

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (Ezekiel 34:15-16 ESV)

There’s a lot going on here, but the main thing is Jesus’ astounding claim. God says in Ezekiel that the human shepherds have failed and that he himself will be their shepherd. Then Jesus echoes that passage and says, “I am the shepherd!” “I am living out the role that God has.”

Hired Hands

The description of the human shepherds isn’t flattering in Ezekiel:

Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:2-3 ESV)

Nor in John:

He who is a 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. (John 10:12 ESV)

Jesus has established himself as the shepherd—who cares for the sheep even when he doesn’t have to. He’s contrasted here with the hired hands, the human shepherds who care the most for themselves.

The tension between Jesus and the religious authorities is not theological news—it’s everywhere. But Jesus’ word here and everywhere is that their time is up. The paradigms are shifting.

God’s purpose for the old covenant was completed in Jesus. He has no patience for clinging to the old ways, to the point that he exposes their negative motivations and lack of character. He says their motivations are self-protective, self-promoting, more worried about their own skin than the people’s spiritual health.

Jesus comes to the sheep not as some new improved hired hand, but because they are his own.

It can be easy for us to judge the Jewish authorities sometimes, to separate ourselves from them. But as sure as the followers of Jesus are an example for us in the modern day, so are his opponents.

Do we ever hold onto old paradigms of doing church just because it’s “how it’s always been”? Do we miss the ways God is moving because we want to stay with what’s comfortable? Do we have power structures and social status in church that are sometimes threatened by the One the church is worshipping?

Would we be those hired hands?

Sheep

Have you ever had much experience with sheep? They are decidedly not the fluffy clean puffballs you might see in a Sunday school mural. Domestic sheep are often covered with mud (and worse!) and wander about aimlessly. They are self-focused (if they have a focus at all), of limited intelligence—animals who inspire pretty much nothing but pity.

Like many dialogues in John, this discussion is framed and set up by a story. Just before this, Jesus heals a blind man, and the Pharisees threw the man out of the synagogue for his association with Jesus.

John includes an odd detail here:

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him… (John 9:35 ESV)

The formerly blind man has been cast out from the center of cultural life in his community. He is wandering and helpless. He and his family have already been under scrutiny because of his disability, because the religious authorities think he or they must have sinned to bring on his blindness.

Now he’s fully cast out. Fully exiled from his culture, disconnected from his community. Until the good shepherd, the merciful shepherd comes and finds him. The text implies that Jesus was seeking him, looking specifically for him. There is no advantage, no return on investment for Jesus seeking out this man. He’s not a good networking connection. And yet Jesus seeks him out.

The sheep. Lost, helpless, unimportant. And this is who Jesus looks for.

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18 ESV)

This is the shepherd who cares, even for sheep who aren’t “useful.” The true measure of a person is how they treat someone who can do them absolutely no good—Jesus saves us not because of who we are but because of who he is.

The hour in which he lays down his life will come soon enough. Jesus knows this. He knows that he will soon die for a world that will be, for the most part, ungrateful, confused and stuck in their ways. He will seek out those who aren’t seeking him. Always.

What do we take home from each of the actors in this very short play?

The Shepherd—Jesus draws on a powerful passage in Scripture to get his point across. I am God and this is who God is. Do we live in the reality that at the center of it all is a merciful shepherd? Do we believe that the ultimate reality is mercy, kindness and love?

The hired hands—The human shepherds are described as exploitative and uncaring, holding old paradigms so they can hold onto power. Do we do this in the church today? Do we miss out on what God is doing because we want church to look the way we want it to?

The sheep—Jesus sought out the (recently) blind man. He will seek you out to. You don’t have to offer him some great works or a perfect life—all he wants is you. In our lives, do we seek out those Jesus seeks out? Do we only make time for “important” or “connected” people?

Jesus is showing us not a new world, but the real world. He’s showing us that the center is mercy, the center is unconditional love. Let’s live in that center today.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life

  • Have you ever been to Israel? Does it surprise you that much of the landscape is rugged and dry when you read Psalm 23?
  • Is it a paradigm shift to think of God sustaining us along the path rather than plopping us down into knee-deep grasses? What does that mean to us as Christ-followers?

Questions for Sermon

{Start by re-reading John 10:11-18}

  • Have you ever interacted with sheep? Have you seen them at the zoo or on a farm or worked with them? What was your impression?
  • Jesus’ dialogue here is part of the famous “I am” statements of Jesus, which scandalized his original audience. Why do you think he used this phrase?
  • What do you make of the sacred name “I AM”—why did God give himself this name?
  • We talked about how Jesus sought out the blind man in the proceeding chapter, showing that he’s the good shepherd who seeks out the lost and rejected. Do you feel like Jesus sought you out? What does that mean in your life?

Quote to ponder:

“God is the comic shepherd who gets more of a kick out of that one lost sheep once he finds it again than out of the ninety and nine who had the good sense not to get lost in the first place.” ~~Frederick Buechner, author and Presbyterian minister

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