"...he calls his own sheep by name..."

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Rev. D. K. Schroeder 
John 10:1-10 Sermon 
April 17, 2005

Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
519 "O God Of Bethel By Whose Hand"
522 "The Lord's My Shepherd I'll Not Want"
530 "The King of Love My Shepherd Is"
108 "Alleluia, Alleluia, Hearts to Heaven and Voices Raise"


TEXT (vs. 7-10) “(Jesus said) Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and come out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

We live in a world today that operates on numbers. On the bottom of the checks in my checkbook, there are numbers written in sort of a funny unique style. The first series of numbers is called the “routing number” which uniquely identifies the bank. Following that, is another series of numbers which is my account number, so the bank knows who I am. And finally at the top of the check is another number, so I can keep track of which check I wrote to which person or business. That’s three sets of numbers just to keep everything straight.

There are so many places that reduce us to nothing but numbers. We have a phone number. We have a social security number. We have a drivers’ license number. Every place that sends us a bill has us identified by number. And if we don’t happen to know our particular number when we enquire about an account of ours, they have to first look up our number in order to help us.

Even though we may be used to things being this way, it nevertheless makes things seem so cold and impersonal. When we’re talking to each other, we would never think about addressing somebody by calling out their phone number or their license plate number. That would seem weird, if not rude.

No, we all have names, and we like it when people use them. Dale Carnegie once said (and I’m paraphrasing) “To a man, the sound of his own name is the sweetest sound on earth.” We like it when people remember our name, and we are embarrassed when we sometimes forget a name that we should have remembered.

There is a certain amount of intimacy connected with someone’s name as well. Often when you use someone’s first name, it means that you know them well enough to do it, rather than a more formal “Good morning, Mr. Jones.”

Our text for today is the rather famous “Good Shepherd” chapter in the Bible, from John 10. Our Psalm for today was the “Good Shepherd Psalm” which is Psalm 23.

Jesus describes himself as “The Good Shepherd” and his people as sheep of his flock. Jesus sets up this relationship because of the relationship that shepherds in the Middle East had with their flocks. This is a totally different relationship than people who are in the business of raising sheep have with their flock today.

In verse 3 of our text, Jesus says: “…the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

This is the relationship that the shepherd had with his sheep. Back then, shepherds basically lived with their sheep. He would camp out with them. They knew each other well. The shepherd gave sheep different names, and they would come when called. He would lead them to various grazing areas, and to water. They would come to him when it was time to be sheared.

I know that I’ve talked about this before, but when I lived in Australia, I became acquainted with large sheep operations. Even when I lived in Minnesota, our congregation there had several farmers who had a lot of sheep. Even though these farmers and ranchers cared about their flock, they certainly didn’t know each one individually, nor did they give them all names.

The modern-day Australian sheep farmer has this huge flock of sheep, often numbering in the thousands, out in a pasture; and he occasionally checks on them to be sure that everything is all right. When he wants to move them, he’ll hop on a motorbike; and with the help of his dog, he gets behind them and drives them where he wants them to go. He doesn’t call them, and they don’t follow him at the sound of his voice. He doesn’t have names for them all. He might call them some names sometimes when they act up and don’t do what he wants, but those names usually aren’t repeatable, and they certainly weren’t very affectionate or intimate. This is nothing like the picture Jesus gives in John 10, 27: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.”

A shepherd in Jesus’ time didn’t have thousands and thousands of sheep to look after. He had a small flock, and he knew each one individually. When I think about this, I remember a couple of people who had sheep as pets. This happens for a number of reasons.

Naomi Pfitzner had a couple of pet sheep. They were orphaned lambs that she bottle fed and raised. When Naomi would approach the paddock where they were fenced in, they would come running up to her, and she would at least pet them if it wasn’t feeding time. They knew her, they recognized her, and they came to her.

Sue and Ian Thompson also had a pet ewe. They bought her because at the edge of their property was this huge ravine, which was virtually impossible to mow. The ewe was their four-legged lawn mower; but of course she was a pet as well. Their neighbors would even borrow her when the grass in their ravine got too long. But the sheep would come up to the fence to get a pet or an apple or carrot from someone in the family.

This is the kind of intimacy that Jesus is talking about in our text for today. Jesus knows his sheep, he calls them by name, and he cares for them and protects them.

When I think about this, I think about a pastor friend of mine, Keith Wessel, who was a neighboring pastor in Georgia as well as being a very good friend. He and his wife Liz had a baby girl, Constance, who died shortly after birth. Of course this was a difficult time for them. Anyway, after that happened, someone gave them a drawing of Jesus with a little baby lamb in his arms with the head on his shoulder. Jesus was hugging the lamb, with tears in his eyes (see picture above). There’s no caption—and there doesn’t need to be any. The Wessels knew every time they looked at that picture, that their darling little girl was safe in the arms of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

The picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd gives us a good mental image of someone with an intense love for our total well-being. This is a description of how Jesus feels about each one of us. In a world where we are known only by a number, Jesus knows us by name.

In the Old Testament, King David knew this only too well. He gives a great expression of the relationship the shepherd has with his sheep. In Psalm 23, he continually uses personal pronouns. “The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want. He makes ME lie down in green pastures, he leads ME beside still waters, he restores MY soul…” and so on.

It’s quite obvious that David is describing his own personal relationship with God. God’s presence in his life is not wishful or theoretical. It is very, very real.

David as you might know wasn’t a man with a great reputation all of the time. He committed adultery, and then committed murder to cover up for it. He definitely had the influence of sin in his life. But yet, he is described as a man after God’s own heart. Does this sound like a paradox?

If we look at our own lives, we can see those times when we have wandered away from the flock, and that we haven’t heeded the voice of our Good Shepherd. The voice of the world wants us to go our own way, and not God’s. And so, that’s what we often do. We sin much, and if left to our own device, we would certainly perish. The sheep that strays from the fold loses the protection of the shepherd, and is ready prey for wolves or other dangers.

No doubt too, that there are times when it seems like Jesus is a million miles away. It can seem like we are so alone when adversity strikes, or hardship happens, or prayers seem to go unnoticed. We pray for help, but we continue to sin. We pray for healing, but people still get sick and die. We ask him to watch over our loved ones, but they still get caught up in trouble or have accidents.

But we know that Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. In Matthew 28, 20 Jesus makes this promise: “…surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The truth of that passage gives us reassurance in those darkest hours. In fact, the Bible tells us that the Good Shepherd would give up his life for his sheep. Describing Jesus as the Good Shepherd fills us with the knowledge of being loved and cared for. Jesus will do anything for us to keep us safe, even to the point of giving up his own life.

Jesus indeed did this. He gave up his life for us. He removed our sins from us, and took them with him to the cross.

When we have faith in our Good Shepherd, then we have the forgiveness and restoration he offers. David knew his sin too; but he experienced forgiveness and restoration through faith in the Lord his Shepherd. We are forgiven because of the undeserved love that our Lord has for us. He doesn’t brow-beat us about every sin we’ve ever committed, but he gently picks us up, and brings us back into the fold once again. We are the sheep in Jesus’ flock through faith in him. We hear his voice and know without a doubt that it is a voice full of love and concern for our well-being.

Even though we sin, and are down and almost out, we are assured that we are in the arms of the loving Shepherd who lovingly forgives, supports, and strengthens us, even in our most weak and painful moments. Even though our grip on him might be weak, his hold on us is still firm and strong. Like the lamb that is pictured in Jesus’ arms, we can be at peace and feel safe in the arms of our loving heavenly Shepherd.

The prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 49 verses 15 and 16 some very comforting and vivid words: “Can a woman forget her own baby and not love the child she bore? Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you….I have carved your name on the palms of my hand.”

Even though we might think that God is so far away from us and has forgotten us, he has our name constantly before him, carved indelibly into his hands, as Isaiah describes it. Even though we might think we don’t deserve such goodness (and we don’t for that matter), yet God gives us what we don’t deserve. He forgives our sins for Jesus’ sake, and deals with us graciously and kindly. Jesus sacrificed his own life to save us; indeed the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, the sheep of his flock.

Our text for today also comes with a caveat, or warning. In verses 8 and 10 of our text, Jesus says: “All who came before me are thieves and robbers….the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

There are many other voices out there that aren’t the voice of the Good Shepherd. The shepherd can stand at the gate of the pen and call his sheep, and they come. But the voice that isn’t the shepherd’s voice comes from elsewhere.

There’s a story about a tour bus that was traveling down a country road in Israel. As they were traveling, they saw a shepherd with his sheep. The tour guide said, “You probably are accustomed to seeing a shepherd driving his sheep from one place to another, down a road, etc. Here however, things are different, for the shepherd always leads the way, going along in front of the flock. The sheep follow him, because they know his voice.”

It wasn’t too long after that, to the amusement of the tourists, that they saw a flock of sheep being driven along by a man from behind. The guide was completely astonished; so they stopped the bus, and the guide approached the man driving the sheep. “I’ve always known that a shepherd in Israel leads his sheep. So what’s going on?”

The man replied, “You are quite right sir, the shepherd does lead his sheep. But you see, I’m not the shepherd, I’m the butcher.”

The voices that aren’t that of the Good Shepherd are voices that will ruin us. They lie to us, and they seek our downfall. Those are the voices of the butcher, and not the shepherd.

We hear those voices all the time too. We hear them, not just from others we have contact with, but the TV, the radio and the internet are filled with them. Even some churches have said and done things which no more resemble the will of God and the words of Jesus, any more than chalk resembles cheese. These are the words of the butcher, and not the shepherd.

The image of the Good Shepherd is one of forgiveness, love, care, protection, intimacy, and closeness. That’s the voice we need to not only hear, but share as well.

In our individual lives as Christians, and as a Christian congregation, we need to be shepherds to one another. Our actions and words need to reflect those of Jesus our Good Shepherd. We need to share the same concerns he has, and show our love in very practical ways, just as Jesus did. It may be inconvenient at times, or it might cost us time, effort, or money. However when we do these things, it is out of love for our Good Shepherd because we heed his voice and seek to do his will. Years ago, Tabitha Nursing Home in Lincoln used the slogan, “Tabitha cares because Christ cares.” I don’t know if they still use it, but it certainly describes Christian service. We care, because Christ cares.

We don’t know what tomorrow may bring, but we do know that we have a loving shepherd who walks with us through the good times and the bad. And one day when we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he will walk with us and lead us to the glorious new life beyond the grave. Because we have a loving Shepherd, goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.