Shepherd King

Shepherd King

Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Easter
John 10:22-30

This is now the fourth Sunday in Eastertide; a day often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the lectionary has us reading texts dealing with imagery of sheep and shepherds. For the past three Sundays it has been resurrection stories, and now the focus shifts to saying something about the nature and character of the resurrected Lord. He is a shepherding Lord; the good shepherd, as Jesus says a little earlier in John 10, the one who “lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)

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It isn’t new, this language of shepherding, nor is it uniquely Jewish. Throughout the Ancient Near East kings were often described as shepherds of their nations, and in Homer‘s Iliad there are more than a dozen references to a king as being shepherd of the people. It is, though, often a rather idealized image of a decidedly noble shepherd. As kingship in the ancient world became increasingly centered in cities, it is hard to imagine that any of those kings had actually had anything to do with a flock of real sheep, other than to wear clothing made from their wool or to dine on roast leg of lamb. The life of an actual shepherd was hard going, because sheep are not particularly easy or intelligent creatures. It was also a socially marginal role, in that herding was done out on the land, away from the city’s seats of power and privilege.

So it is interesting that part of the story of David—Israel’s greatest and most beloved king—is that he was actually a shepherd boy when Samuel first identified him as the one God was anointing as king. David actually knew something about the real work of tending a flock; he knew, for instance, how to use a sling to drive off predators. He is the shepherd boy who becomes the shepherd of Israel (2 Sam 5:2), and for all that David will later falter and stumble, the people love him for it.

Though they might claim for themselves this shepherd-king identity, those who follow David—including his own son Solomon—are detached from the earthy work of actually tending a flock. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, the imagery is actually used to critique them for their detachment. Ezekiel writes,

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you 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 fatlings; but you do not 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. (Ezek. 34:2-4)

To be truly a shepherd king, in other words, has about it a kind of day in, day out concern for the well-being of the whole flock, especially the weak, the injured, the hungry, the strayed, the lost. And so Ezekiel continues,

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says 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… (Ezek 34:15-16)

Who then is the true shepherd? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” All of the imagery of the 23rd Psalm—green pastures and still waters, but also the valley of the shadow of death and of being kept safe even “in the presence of my enemies”—connects with Ezekiel’s critique. And even David would falter and fail in his calling to be that kind of king.

The setting of Jesus’ words in this evening’s gospel reading is notable. It is the “time the festival of the Dedication,” and he is in the Jerusalem temple, in the portico of Solomon. The festival of the Dedication is also known as Hanukkah, and it is a festival commemorating the rededication of the temple after the Maccabean rebels had thrown off the occupying Seleucid Empire and reclaimed Jerusalem. Now given how familiar was the use of shepherd imagery for kingship, and given that this was a feast celebrating the re-establishment of a royal house in Jerusalem, as soon as Jesus begins to speak in terms of his sheep hearing his voice and following him, all kinds of lights must have begun to go on for those who were listening. As John describes it, “Some of the people gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” If you are the anointed and promised one who has been sent to free us, speak out! Or maybe for at least some of them, if that is the claim you’re trying to make for yourself and for your movement, say it clearly… the Roman authorities will be most interested in such matters. It is in response to that request for clarity that Jesus speaks of his sheep; sheep who “no one will snatch out of my hand.”

Ah, so that is his claim is it? For some listening, that would have sounded like a bit of saber rattling. Another Judas Maccabeus? Or better, a messianic king, here to throw off the Romans and establish the kingdom. A son of David…

Yet as N.T. Wright comments,

[W]hat Jesus says [here and earlier in John’s gospel] about the shepherd’s role and task is so unlike the warlike Maccabean pattern that it becomes almost incomprehensible. Kingdoms without justice, said Augustine, are simply regimes of brigands. Jesus goes further: kingdoms based on anything less than self-giving love are brigandish distortions of the real thing.

“Jesus ‘sheep’” Wright adds, “Jesus ‘sheep’ are therefore those who hear and receive his message of a different kingdom.” Both then and now, to be a part of this shepherd’s flock is to embrace that alternate vision, that alternate way that is rooted in self-giving love and servanthood. Certainly some of those who stood and listened to his words caught at least a glimmer of what he was talking about, though it wasn’t until they stood in the resurrection light and under the Spirit that they’d be able to really grasp the claim and call he was placing upon them. Others didn’t see; not at all. To those who asked that question, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” he answered,  “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep; at first glance that might sound like, “You’re outsiders, and not part of my flock… sorry folks, but you’re lost.” But maybe it means something more like “you’re lost, but only until you’ve been found.” After all, in the resurrection light this flock grew like mad, with all sorts and conditions of sheep—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, merchant, beggar, Pharisee, soldier, jailer, old and young—all bound up, strengthened, fed and found by a shepherd willing to go into depths and muck of death itself for the sake of even the most lost of sheep. Me. You. All of us.

Alleluia… we’ll all be fed and we’ll be found.


“Bound Up”

This flock is groaning something bad;
We’re so good at turning back.
But we’ll be bound up,
We will be strengthened,
We’ll all be fed and we’ll be found.

This flock is hurting something bad;
We’re wandering out in this barren land.
But we’ll be bound up,
We will be strengthened,
We’ll all be fed and we’ll be found.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
We’ll be found.
(Jenny Moore)

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