I am the Shepherd

“I am.” Over the past six weeks, we have been looking at the various times that Jesus describes himself using the phrase “I am.” 

And so we have examined Jesus words and meaning when he said “I am the way,” “I am the truth,” “I am the life,” “I am the gate,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the vine” and “I am the light of the world.”

And these all lead back to the message we began with, in John 8:58, where, in a debate with the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus simply identifies himself simply as “I AM.” And while for us, that may seem a little vague, the Jews knew exactly what he was saying, which explains their reaction in John 8:59 At that point they picked up stones to throw at him.

Why? Why would they want to throw rocks at Jesus? Because of his superior debating skills?  No. Because he was claiming to be over 1500 years old?  No.   It wasn’t about when Jesus claimed to be but instead, it was all about who Jesus claimed to be.

From childhood, every Jew had been taught the story of how Moses had been called of God to deliver the children of Abraham from the slavery of Egypt. 

They all knew the details, and they knew that when God called Moses while he was in the wilderness that he didn’t want to go, and when Moses finally gave in, he had one final question for God. That question is found in Exodus 3:13 But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?”  

And that is a good question? It’s something that I would want to know. “Why should the people believe me?  Whose authority am I coming in?” And God’s response is found in the next verse Exodus 3:14 God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you.”  

And so when Jesus told the people who had gathered that day John 8:58 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I AM!” They knew exactly what he was saying and exactly who he was claiming to be.  And when someone claimed to be God, for the Jews, that was blasphemy, and the penalty for blasphemy was stoning. 

You might be thinking, “Well, how did Jesus escape?” Well . . . we don’t have all the details. 

The bible tells us in John 8:59 At that point they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was hidden from them and left the Temple.   And we don’t know if Jesus simply disappeared or if his disciples crowded around him and snuck him out or what.  All we know is that the people’s plans to kill Jesus didn’t come to fruition that day. 

In John’s book, Jesus uses the phrase “I am” as a part of seven metaphorical statements.  That is seven instances where Jesus compares himself to something.  And for those who care there are 22 separate instances where Jesus says “I am” in the gospel of John. 

In John 8:58 we see Jesus use “I AM” as a statement of his pre-existence.  The statement lacks an object after the verb.  In the other twenty-one instances when Jesus says “I am” he means he is something, a predicate nominative follows the verb.  Not in this case, he isn’t saying he is something, he is simply stating that he is.

Another ten of those instances are self-identification. Times when Jesus said “I am” to identify himself.  An example of that is found when Jesus is arrested in the garden. Let’s pick up the story in John 18:4-5 Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. “Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied. “I AM he,” Jesus said. (Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.)

In another 11 instances the statements are metaphorical, that is that Jesus describes himself by comparing himself to something else.  And that is where we’ve parked since the first of January. 

In the scripture that was read for us this morning, we hear Jesus say not once but twice, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

So, the question has to be: Why a Shepherd?  Probably a couple of different reasons.  If you read through the gospels you discover that Jesus was a genius at taking the everyday and using it to illustrate the eternal.  The Kingdom of God is like, a man working in a field, a woman making bread, a fisherman casting his net into the water. 

So perhaps, on this day as Jesus and his followers were making their way along the roads of Palestine they were interrupted by a shepherd and his flock of sheep crossing the road. 

Or maybe it wasn’t a spontaneous teaching but something he had planned and crafted.  We don’t think of Jesus’ teaching in that light do we?  We don’t think of him writing a sermon or preparing his thoughts in advance, but we just assume that it was a natural outflow of who he was. 

I can’t speak for other preachers, but I spend hours writing and molding what you hear on Sunday mornings, sometimes that may be hard to believe, but it is the truth. 

So maybe Jesus had stayed up late the night before wondering how he would convey these specific thoughts to those who followed him and decided on the analogy of a shepherd and sheep.  After all, 2000 years ago in Israel everyone knew what a shepherd looked like and what a shepherd did.  

Their greatest king had been a shepherd.  When the birth of Jesus was announced it was to shepherds. 

When David was looking for a description for God that everyone would understand he said, “The Lord is my shepherd’ and that was just one of a number of times that David would refer to God as a shepherd over the people of Israel. 

And that fact that the bible sometimes uses sheep as an analogy for God’s people isn’t always a compliment.  People who don’t know sheep think they are soft, fluffy docile animals but that isn’t always the truth. 2000 years ago the Roman poet Sextus Propertius wrote “The seaman tells stories of winds, the ploughman of bulls; the soldier details his wounds, the shepherd his sheep.”

But what does it mean to us today, February 21, 2021?  After all, sheep and shepherds are not a common sight along our roads.

A few years ago, Angela and I visited St. Kitts and Nevus and while we were there, we noticed all the livestock wandering on the roads, donkeys, sheep, and goats.  And at one point I commented on a goat that had wandered in front of our taxi, and our driver told me that it wasn’t a goat, it was a sheep.  He said the easiest way to tell the difference is that a goat’s tail goes up, and a sheep’s tail goes down.

There’s that and that fact that goats have hair and sheep have wool, not to mention the entire, a sheep is a sheep, and a goat is a goat thing.

And while you might have some limited experience with sheep and goats, very few if any of us know a shepherd or have even met a shepherd.  It would be like speaking to someone in Israel and using a snowplough operator as an illustration. 

It is interesting to note that this is one of only two times where Jesus used an analogy to describe himself and then expects others to emulate that analogy. 

A few weeks ago, I spoke from John 8:12 “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” And perhaps you will recall Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount when he told his followers Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.” But nowhere do you see Jesus commanding those who would follow him to be a vine, or a gate or bread or the Way.

And so in John 10 Jesus says “I am the good Shepherd” and in one of Jesus’ last interactions with his disciples we read this account in John 21:15-17 After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.” “Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him. Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.” “Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said. A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.”

When Paul was giving direction to the elders of the church in Ephesus he tells them Acts 20:28 “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders.”

And when we read in Ephesians 4:11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 

The word that is used for Pastor is the Greek word ποιμήν (poimēn) which is used 18 times in the New Testament.  This time it’s translated as pastor and the other 17 times is translated shepherd.

And so I don’t think I’m being presumptuous when I say that the characteristics that apply to Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” should also apply to those to whom he entrusts his flock  today.

 So what are those characteristics?  I would suspect when Jesus said “I am your Shepherd” that many of those listening would have immediately thought of David’s psalm, which we now call the 23rd Psalm and would have thought about how the Great Shepherd was described there.

So firstly, this morning let’s look at what a Shepherd is supposed to do.

Psalm 23:1-2 The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.  

A Shepherd Leads the Sheep to Food In the arid Palestinian countryside good grazing was a moving target, if sheep were allowed to graze too long at one spot, they would destroy the grass and so the shepherd had to move them from area to area, firstly so they would have enough to eat and secondly so they wouldn’t overgraze and render that spot barren. 

If you grew up watching westerns or reading Louise Lamour novels, you are probably familiar with the term Cattle drive and you can almost picture in your minds the whooping cowboys driving the herd of cattle from point “A” to point “B”.  But here it says the shepherd leads the sheep. 

From all I’ve read sheep aren’t the brightest of animals, but they do trust their shepherd.  Jesus tells us in John 10:3-4 The sheep recognize his (the shepherd’s) voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice.

The sheep know the shepherd’s voice because they hear it all the time, they understand that if they follow that voice that good things will happen, they will be led to food and water.

In our daily life as Christ followers, we are supposed to follow Christ. That should be a no-brainer.  The Sheep trust that the shepherd is concerned about their well-being and that he will take them to where they can find both food and water. 

If we follow Christ, his words, his teaching, and his example then we will be provided for spiritually.  And like sheep if we are familiar with his voice, we will find it easier to follow his voice. That’s why we read the gospels, to become familiar with Jesus so we will know his voice.

In the same way Jesus continues in John 10:5 “They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.” So, when you are familiar with the voice of Jesus, when you hear something that just doesn’t jive with that voice you know better.  Even if that voice comes from a pulpit.

It’s when we decide that as sheep, we know better than the shepherd and we go our own way that we get into trouble. 

At different times in the gospels Jesus talks about sheep that get lost, those are sheep who came to the conclusion that they knew more than the shepherd and stopped following the one who was leading them and decided to go their own way.  The scriptures warn us, Proverbs 14:12 There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.

As your Pastor, your shepherd, my responsibility is to lead you where God would have you to go, to direct you to where you can be fed spiritually. 

Psalm 23:4 Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. Some scriptures are just best in the King James version Psalm 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

The Shepherd Protects the Sheep  How many people here were fans of the Bugs Bunny show?

Truly the cream of the intellectual crop aren’t we?  Out of all my favourites the one cartoon I enjoy most is the one with the Ralph the wolf and Sam the sheep dog.  You remember, they clock into work together each morning, “Morning Ralph, morning Sam”, spend the day doing what they do best.  The wolf trying his hardest to steal a sheep and the sheepdog preventing him from stealing said sheep. 

Remember sheep weren’t raised in town, they were roamed the hills where the wild animals also roamed.  And there were times as they were looking for something to eat and the predators in the same area were looking for something to eat as well.

And although sheep had a number of natural enemies, they had no natural defences.  They can’t run that fast, they are herbivores so their teeth really aren’t designed to bite in defence, although most pastors have discovered that sheep can bite.  Sheep really are helpless.  And it is up to the shepherd to defend them against wild animals.

Do you remember the story, from the Old Testament, of David the shepherd boy and the giant Goliath?  David volunteers to go up against Goliath and the King says, “Don’t be ridiculous, you are just a boy” and David counters with these words 1 Samuel 17:34-35 But David persisted. “I have been taking care of my father’s sheep and goats,” he said. “When a lion or a bear comes to steal a lamb from the flock, I go after it with a club and rescue the lamb from its mouth. If the animal turns on me, I catch it by the jaw and club it to death.”

If we follow Jesus’ voice, he not only leads us but he protects us.  Time and time again in the New Testament false teachers are portrayed as wolves that want to prey on God’s sheep. 

Part of my responsibility as your pastor, your shepherd is to protect you from those false teachings.  To counter them and point people in the right direction.  And remember the best way to be know what false teaching is, is to be immersed in the truth.

The third thing a Shepherd does may sound a little strange and perhaps cruel.  We read in Ecclesiastes 12:11 The words of the wise are like cattle prods—painful but helpful. Their collected sayings are like a nail-studded stick with which a shepherd drives the sheep.

When Necessary the Shepherd Disciplines the Sheep 

Apparently, there were times that sheep just wouldn’t do what they were supposed to do, they would wander away and not stay with the flock.  So, there were three options, you could let them be eaten by something, you could eat them yourself or you could discipline them. 

I have read accounts that purport to be true although I can’t vouch for it myself.  The story goes that sometimes a shepherd would find himself with a particular young headstrong sheep who seemed to have natural leadership abilities, apparently sheep must be like people in that account, those two characteristics often go together along with youth. 

When the Atlantic district and I were in the courtship phase about starting Cornerstone, I had to take a personality profile test, I forget which one it was.  But the report came back and they told me, “We like the fact that you think outside the box but have some concerns that you might be a bit of a loose cannon.” No really? 

Anyway, back to the story.  We are told that sometimes this individualistic sheep would lead the other sheep away from where they were supposed to be and into danger. 

If the shepherd couldn’t stop this behaviour he would resort to drastic measures.  He would break one of the sheep’s legs and then set it.  He would then carry the sheep with him, and the sheep would become dependent on the shepherd for his food and water and would get used to being around the shepherd so when the leg finally healed, he would no longer be a danger to himself or to the other sheep. 

You ever wonder about the paintings with Jesus and lamb around his neck?  Of course if that didn’t work the shepherd would eat the sheep, but they don’t tell you that.

Now I have a confession to make.   I don’t like discipline. Didn’t like it as a child, didn’t like it as teen don’t like it as an adult. 

But it is part of life and part of accountability.  But listen to the words of Bible in Hebrews 12:5-7 And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the LORD’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father?

There is an interesting scripture in 1 Corinthians.  It is about a man in the church who was involved in sinful behaviour.  And I know in 2021 we are told not to judge, to accept people as they are and love them where they are at.

But this is what Paul tells the Shepherds of the Corinthian Church to do with this individual.  1 Corinthians 5:5 Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan and that sounds really harsh, but let’s keep reading to find the result.  so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.

At some point there needs to be discipline and a clear statement of: this is right and this is wrong and often times the discipline on this side of eternity will make a difference on the other side of eternity.  

Finally there are a couple things that a shepherd can’t do.

A Shepherd Can’t Have Baby Sheep.  This might sound silly but often times in the church if there is no growth and the flock isn’t growing the sheep blame the shepherd.  But the reality is that the shepherd is to provide a safe healthy place for the sheep and in that environment they are supposed to reproduce.

A Shepherd Can’t Eat For His Sheep I’m sure that you have all heard the old adage “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Well you can lead the sheep to food but you can’t make them eat. 

If the sheep are going to grow and stay healthy then they have to eat but the shepherd can’t force them to eat.  If Christ Followers are going to grow and stay healthy then they have to eat but the shepherd can’t force them to eat.  And if you aren’t feeding on the word of God through the week and you are weak spiritually don’t blame me. 

Too many people blame the pastor saying, “Well I’m just not being fed on Sunday” What would happen if you only ate food on Sunday? You’d starve to death, eventually, some of us it would take a while. My prayer when someone tells me that is “Lord teach them to eat.” 

Let me close with the words of Peter, remember this is the Peter that Jesus commanded to feed his sheep.  1 Peter 2:25 Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls.

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