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Sermon for April 21, 2024 – Fourth Sunday of Easter

Welcome to this week’s episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

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

This week’s theme is the good shepherd. In our call to worship Psalm, the blessings of having the Lord as our Good Shepherd are displayed by use of the relationship between shepherd and sheep. Acts 4 presents a contrast between some religious rulers who were more concerned with their reputation than for those in need, with that of the Apostles who put themselves at risk by not withholding the healing message of the gospel from someone who was sick. In 1 John love is authenticated by Jesus laying down his life for us, a love that we are called to participate in our relationships with others. The gospel reading in John records Jesus’ own words of disclosure on what it means for him to be the Good Shepherd.

What Good is a Dead Shepherd?

John 10:11-18 ESV

One of the most memorable lines from the movie, Forest Gump, was when Gump says, “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.” As the movie unfolded it did seem that Gump was the smartest man in the room on this one very important point. That movie may challenge us with the question: Do you know what love is? And if so, how are you sure? That is also a good question to ponder within our cultural climate where many claims of love are being paraded around, some in sharp contrast with each other. So, how do we arrive at the point that we, along with Gump, can say “I know what love is?”

For believers, we do not have to come up with our own answer to that question. We trust that Jesus has already revealed to us the deepest knowing of love by showing us the identity of his Father, who is love and the source of love. Jesus doesn’t just tell us or show us what love is, although he does that as well, but he invites us into that love in a very real and abiding way. Jesus extends the love of the Father to us, the very love he has experienced and shared for all eternity, in order that we can know God for who he is and participate in the love he has for us and for others. It’s only from this ground that we can truly say “we know what love is,” or more accurately, “who love is.”

However, just saying we know what love is doesn’t make it so. As we look around our world today, we will find plenty of people, movements, organizations, programs, leaders, and other voices that claim they know what love is, and therefore, you should follow their example or teaching in order to be considered a “loving” person as well. Have you seen this displayed in the media around you, whether it be mainstream news outlets, Hollywood movies, political figures, or other sources that seem to have a stake in virtual signaling? After all, no one is going to follow someone who openly admits that they are not loving or who has no idea what love is. That would not be good for ratings at any level. So, we are bombarded with the message of love from every corner of our world. And we must discern who is trustworthy and who is not.

The only way to tell the difference is to know the real thing. For example, the best way to spot a counterfeit hundred-dollar bill is know what distinguishes a real one. And that is what we are given today in our text in John 10 when it comes to knowing the difference between the love of the Father and the counterfeit “loves” that masquerade around as the real thing. And we can trust what we are being told about love in this text because it is the words of Jesus himself, the one who has come from the Father, the only one who can tell us what the love of the Father really is. And we should be prepared that this subject is too deep to be contained in some rational or logical argument. The reality goes beyond what we can verify by our own reasoning powers. So, Jesus comes to us with an image, a metaphor, as a way to penetrate deeper than mere words can explain. How often does scripture use metaphors, images, and parables when speaking of something that is beyond what can be grasped by direct observation or scientific inquiry? And beyond that, we must begin from a place of faith. In order to receive what the Lord is telling us; we must first trust that he is the one who is in the position to tell us. We must trust that what he is saying is not further propaganda that serves some other means. We must trust that he is not only telling us and giving us a picture of what love is, but that he is in himself the embodiment and living proof of that love. Or as we like to say, we must know that this one doesn’t just talk the talk but has walked the walked.

Let’s begin with the first verse and see the picture the Lord is going to give us.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

Jesus likens himself to a shepherd. This is a metaphor ripe with meaning, especially considering God’s history with Israel. It’s not the first time this image has been invoked. Our call to worship Psalm bears witness to that. God has already declared himself as the shepherd of his people recorded in various scriptures like Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. So, why does Jesus go further in saying that he is the “good” shepherd, instead of just saying he is the “shepherd” as these other scriptures record? Why are we given the descriptor of “good?”

First, this sets up a distinction that must be considered when identifying the true Shepherd of Israel, from other competing or counterfeit shepherds. The adjective “good”, which also can mean right, proper, honorable, and beautiful, alerts us to the fact that there can be “bad” or wrong, improper, dishonorable, and downright ugly “shepherds” that parade around as angels of light. We must discern the difference. And Jesus goes further to help us discern that difference with the actions that will accompany a “good shepherd.” And that action is described as one who “lays down his life for the sheep.” You will notice in these eight verses that a reference to laying down one’s own life appears five times. This clues us in on a major distinction between what constitutes a “good” shepherd and what does not.

Second, by including the adjective “good,” Jesus is building our trust in him and in the Father who sent him. We do not want to put our trust in any ole shepherd. We need to know that he is trustworthy, that he is indeed good. And we don’t want to follow a shepherd who is good in name only. Self-proclaimed labels are worthless. The label must match the reality that it indicates. So, the authenticating and parallel action of a good shepherd is boldly proclaimed by the Lord as one who “lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s a measurement that will flush out any “bad” shepherds who are only in it for self-gain. It’s a high bar to reach.

Jesus will now go further to describe in more detail what we can expect from a counterfeit shepherd. He is helping us discern where we are to place our trust.

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. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (John 10:12-13)

Jesus is not stretching the metaphor further than the Old Testament scriptures have already done. Throughout the biblical witness, we find many images of shepherds that did not live up to the description of “good.” In Isaiah 56, for example, the rulers of God’s people are described as shepherds who only care for themselves. They prefer getting drunk when they should be watching over the flock. In Jeremiah 10, Judah’s leadership is referred to as “stupid” shepherds who allowed the scattering of God’s sheep. And in Ezekiel 34, a severe denunciation is given to the shepherds of Israel as they are accused of gorging themselves when they should have been feeding the sheep. They are not concerned for the health and safety of the sheep. In short, they do not love the sheep, rather they love their own power and control over the sheep that gets expressed with harshness and even violence. Jesus is not saying something new here. Perhaps Jesus knows we need the reminder that not all shepherds are good. Not all those who come proclaiming to protect and save us are trustworthy. Not all claims to “love” are in fact love at all. Perhaps, Jesus knows our tendency to become naïve and then be deceived. Even in his metaphor, he is serving as the Good Shepherd by giving a warning as a means of protecting the sheep.

Jesus uses a contrast twice that designates a true shepherd from a fake by comparing a “hired hand” to a “shepherd” that the sheep actually belong to. That comparison brings to mind that hired hands are only in it for their livelihood. As soon as their lively-hood is in jeopardy, not to mention their very lives, they can be counted on to head for the hills. The contrast zeroes in on the fact that a “good” shepherd cares more for the sheep than he does himself. He is willing to lay down his life for the good of the sheep. We can also see a contrast here between a “shepherd” and a hired hand who sees his relationship with the sheep as a contract that can be made null and void once the conditions change. On the other hand, the good shepherd who will lay his life down for the sheep is a clear presentation of the covenant God who has committed himself for the good of his people, even at great cost to himself. Further, the contrast between a “hired hand” and a good shepherd hints towards the distinction between a relationship of works verses a relationship of grace.

It may be a good reminder at this point to say that Jesus is using a metaphor. Otherwise, logic would say that the “hired hand” should by all accounts save his own life and let the wolf snatch a sheep or two. At least the hired hand will live to tend sheep another day. After all, what “good” is a dead shepherd? Ah, now that’s an interesting question. Let’s look a little further and see what direction Jesus takes us in his metaphor.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16)

It appears that Jesus is more concerned to use the metaphor to tell us who he is than who the “hired hands” are. He again states that he is the “good shepherd.” And that statement is followed up with the claim that the shepherd knows his sheep and that those sheep know him. Moreover, the manner of this knowing between shepherd and sheep is comparable to the way the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father. That’s a startling claim. Especially, when we take into account Jesus’ words later in verse 38 of this same chapter when he says, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” That’s some pretty serious intimate knowing. What do we make of this?

Letting the metaphor take us beyond some literal relationship between sheep and shepherd, we are able to take Jesus’ words about “knowing” as belonging to his claim of being the “good shepherd.” And this may shed some light on our previous question of “what good is a dead shepherd?” If Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, wouldn’t that open the flock up for attacks from the wolf? Or is Jesus speaking of something deeper that he does for the sheep in laying down his life? Is it possible that what Jesus wants us to see is that what qualifies him as the Good Shepherd is that he is the one who has enabled us to know the Father with the same knowing the Son has of his Father? Jesus is also the Good Shepherd in that he knows us as one of the sheep, not just as a hired hand. After all, it is a shepherd who lays his life down that can identify with a sheep who has been snatched by a wolf. Jesus is speaking way deeper about what “good” he brings to the sheep in his laying down of his life than some literal protection from death. It is the death of the Good Shepherd that has brought the sheep into the fold of the life and love of Father, Son, and Spirit. And as Jesus indicates, he is bringing other sheep into that fold as well. And this is where we come full circle with our discussion about knowing what love is. Let’s wrap up with the last two verses.

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)

Notice how interrelated Jesus and his Father are in Jesus’ laying down his life for the sheep. They are both operating out of the same love. Jesus is showing us the love of the Father. We are to see that the Father loves us in the same way he loves his own Son, and the Son is loving us by the “authority” of the Father’s love. There is no difference between the Father’s love for us and the love we see in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down for us. And that love seeks to bring us into an intimate relationship of knowing the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. This is what gives Jesus the distinction of being the “Good” Shepherd. Our greatest good is to be brought into a relationship with the Father, where we know him and where we are known by him. John later will write this as a description of eternal life:

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

We must not end there. Jesus also mentions in this closing verse that he not only lays his life down, but that he also “may take it up again.” And with that statement we are reminded of what we are celebrating during this season of Easter. Our Good Shepherd is a risen Shepherd. He is still shepherding you and me, even in this text, to know him and his Father more. He is continuing to love us with the very love the Father has for him so we too can come to rest in the assurance of knowing what love is. The Good Shepherd is still warning us and guarding us against the “hired hands” who do not have our best interest in mind but would sell us out to the “wolf” at the first sight of cost to themselves. We have a Good Shepherd indeed. Through his death and resurrection, he has brought us into the one-fold of belonging to the one truly Good Shepherd. So, what good is a dead shepherd? His goodness lies in the truth of who he is. He is the one who knows us as one of the sheep, all the way from birth to death. When John writes of the crucifixion of Jesus, he portrays Jesus as the Passover Lamb. This “dead” Shepherd however, lives and reigns, as John would later pen in the book of Revelation, as a Lamb, “standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6 ESV). This reigning Shepherd is also our King, risen and reigning in the goodness of who he is as the Son of the Father who knows what love is. And he lives to bring us into a knowing relationship with himself and his Father, to participate in that covenant love that will never leave or forsake us.

As we continue in our celebration of the Risen Lord, may we grow to know him more and more, learning to trust him as our Good Shepherd who leads us to know the Father in the same way he does.

The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W3

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April 21—Fourth Sunday in Easter
John 10:11-18, “The Lord is my Shepherd”

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Program Transcript

The Weight of Glory w/ Jon Ritner W3

Anthony: Well, moving on to our next passage, it is John 10:11- 18. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the Fourth Sunday in Easter, which falls on April 21, and it reads,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. 17 “This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

Jon, if you were preaching this text, what’s your sermon going to be?

Jon: It’s one of the first Bible studies I ever led as a summer camp counselor, maybe eight, nine months after I had given my life to Jesus. And it was this. It was on, I am the good shepherd. We were teaching through the “I am” [statements].

And I was reflecting this week on whether I would have the courage to teach it today the way I did then, because what I did on that day was I took everyone outside and I scattered the high school kids around this field. And I gave them all blindfolds and from the point where they started in this scattered dispersed area, I told them to put on the blindfolds.

And then I stood at one spot in the field, and I read this text, and I told them to follow me as I read. And I wandered around the field reading through John 10, while these blindfolded people tried to follow me. And then eventually I invited everyone to sit down, take off their blindfolds and look around the field.

And some were amazed at how far away they were from me. Some were very close. And then we gathered around, and we just had a debrief conversation of what was it like to try to follow someone simply by their voice. And some of the kids said it was scary. I bumped into a tree, and I quit. I just sat down. I was like, I’m not doing this.

Others said, I found your voice pretty quickly. And the closer I got to you, the more confident I felt. And when I realized I was right near you because your voice was so clear, I knew I was safe. I remember others who said, along the way I bumped into somebody else. And we started holding hands and I had great comfort knowing that I wasn’t alone trying to follow this voice.

And I was like, y’all this is incredible. This was such a sermon that they were writing of what the Christian life is like and what it’s like to follow and the discouragement that can come from being all alone and wanting to quit versus the comfort that comes from community, and what it’s like to be close to the voice versus far from the voice.

And I think more modern communicators need that level of experiential learning. I know it’s hard to do on a Sunday, but I think there’s a lot of lessons in there that someone could gather from that experience.

The other thing that came to my mind is really contrasting this text with a lot of the prophetic critiques of the leaders of Israel in the Old Testament. Because this idea of being bad shepherds or false shepherds, even evil shepherds, is used a lot in the Old Testament, prophetic writing that the Jewish leaders did not really care for the people that they were like these hired hands that were in it for their own interest and versus the shepherding impulsive of Jesus as the good shepherd.

So, there’s bad shepherding and good shepherding and understanding those motivations. And then I might actually even then connect it over to Ephesians 4 with this shepherding function that we’re all called as a church to fulfill. So how do we identify the characteristics of a bad shepherd who’s in it for their own glory versus a good shepherd who’s willing to lay down their life. And then how do we embody that as a community as we try to shepherd those in the world around us?

Anthony: It seems to me that verse 16, Jon. gives us a hopeful word to people sometimes deemed as outsiders. We love to do that, don’t we, as human beings? Who’s in? Who’s out? But we sometimes see them as outsiders to God’s care and promises.

So, I wanted to ask you, how would you exegete this scripture for 16? And it says, “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock with one shepherd.”

Jon: It’s funny, that summer camp I had I did this lesson for seven weeks, right? You’d have different campers come through. And somewhere along there, a kid said to me, is Jesus talking about aliens? I said, wait, what?

He goes, he says that there are some who are of my flock who are not here yet. And one day they’ll [inaudible]. Are those aliens?

And I thought, what a valid question a kid would have. What is Jesus talking about?

Anthony: So, what did you say, by the way?

Jon: Yes, of course, there are aliens. And if there are aliens, Jesus is calling them too.

I think the ancient context to this, in the ancient Near East, was that he is trying to prepare his people to understand that there’s going to be a Jew and Gentile mixing. That Jewish community that has thought of themselves as insiders and God’s holy, protected people are soon going to be mixed into a community that involves those who were deemed as outsiders.

And those are Gentiles. And so that begins to happen, of course, in the book of Acts. But Jesus knows that is coming, so he’s trying to prepare them for that. I think today where we don’t think in terms of Jew and Gentile, the natural way to translate this would simply be to say, who around you, what communities around you, do you feel like don’t belong to you?

Because of their lifestyle, because of their socioeconomic reality, because of their race, class, gender, sexuality, who is it that you feel like doesn’t belong in the pen, so to speak, with you? And what would it be like if Jesus called them to join you or Jesus called you to join them to be in a pen with them?

How do you prepare your own heart for that? How do you recognize that you are not unique or special because he’s called you? There are others unlike you.

And I think that opens up us to be better prepared for multiethnic communities and communities that have come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and communities that are open to people with all sorts of different lifestyle choices who want to come investigate Jesus alongside them and recognizing that the sheep don’t get to say who’s in the flock, the shepherd does.

And so, the shepherd might invite some people in here that you’re uncomfortable with and that’s okay.

Anthony: Yeah. And in reality, as the Savior of the world, he has. I think it was Bob Goff I heard say, God drew a circle around the world and said, you’re in. And now let’s go about proclaiming that and inviting people to live into that reality that he has died and been raised to life for them too.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Have you noticed how many different voices invoke the label of love for their cause? Can you think of some examples of messages within our world that claim to love or being loving? Can you also see how some of these claims conflict with the descriptions of love found in the Bible?
  • Why can believers be assured of knowing what love is?
  • Discuss the significance of Jesus claiming to be the “Good” Shepherd, and not just the shepherd.
  • What are some differences you can see between a “hired hand” and a shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep?
  • What are some warnings about shepherds who are only “hired hands” that help us distinguish between those who have our best interests in mind and those who don’t?
  • In what ways does the Good Shepherd “know” his sheep and the sheep know him?
  • In your own words, following the metaphor in today’s text, how would you answer the question, “What good is a dead shepherd?” How does Easter inform your answer?

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