The Shepherd and the Wolf
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 1, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-18
“I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus says, echoing Yahweh’s response to Moses at the burning bush. God’s name will be the calling card Moses uses to enter enemy territory and rescue God’s people from oppression. Tell Pharaoh, “I AM” sent you. In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers seven sets of names to help would-be followers to understand just whom they’re following. I AM the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life, the vine, and, I AM the good shepherd. Each of these metaphors helps us understand the nature of God’s grace in a deeper way. “The triune grace,” writes Marva Dawn, “that rescues, restores, establishes, nourishes, indwells, enlightens, guides, protects, saves and raises us.”[i]
I AM the Good Shepherd! For those of us who have never tended sheep (and I do not think I am going out on a limb here to say that’s most of us)—we have a hard time wrapping our minds around what it means to be a shepherd. Most people, on this side of the globe, have a romantic notion of the whole thing. We may imagine young David, sitting with his sheep, pulling out his mini-harp and singing lullabies to his fluffy flock. Perhaps when we think of a shepherd, what comes to mind is Jesus with a helpless lamb draped around his shoulders, caring so tenderly for it—and thereby, for us. However, the truth is being a shepherd in the 1st Century was not a warm and fuzzy affair. It was dangerous, risky, hard work. Also, keep in mind, by referring to himself as a shepherd, Jesus aligned himself with the least socialized, least educated, and least polished of society. Most assuredly, the Pharisees and scribes are not lining up at the Temple University registrar office dying to take a class in “The Wonders of Wool.” One commentator claims that a modern-day equivalent of Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd,” might be, “I am the good migrant worker.”[ii] Yet, this is the image Jesus offers, for the Son of God has always been and will always be concerned about the most vulnerable in society.
If Jesus is the good shepherd, what does that make us? If we are living as we should, that makes us the dutiful sheep. Although sheep are not known for their intelligence, we need not take offense at being referred to as sheep. Truly, there are aspects of their nature that we would be wise to imitate. For example, when Barbara Brown Taylor compares the behavior of cattle to sheep, she notes that cows are herded from behind with shouts and prods from the cowboys. On the other hand, sheep prefer to be led. In fact, if you stand behind sheep making noises, they’ll just run around behind you. Taylor writes, “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”[iii] And what are the tools of the shepherd? The shepherd uses a rod to ward off evil and a staff to snatch the sheep from danger. This is the care that the sheep depend upon so, have no doubt, they know the voice of their trusted shepherd.
Another character in this story is the hired hand; the hireling. This is someone, who is not emotionally connected to the sheep, so when danger comes, he darts off in a flash. In the historical context, it is likely that he represents the religious leaders of the day who are not caring for God’s people as they should.
And then, there is the wolf —the big, bad wolf. It’s easy to overlook him in the story, but he bears a second glance. Listen once again to Jesus’ words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd, and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” The wolf snatches. The wolf scatters. Who is the wolf? The wolf represents anything that intentionally seeks to harm the sheep—think Satan—think the Devil—think Evil—its names are legion.
If we spend much time at all considering Satan—the Devil—Evil—we may end up at the final battle fought between good and evil as it is played out in Revelation. Let me just say, with a background in a conservative, evangelical tradition, I have heard some dreadful sermons preached from Revelation. But a dynamic Presbyterian preacher renewed my faith that good preaching from Revelation is possible. The sermon, preached by Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, focused on Revelation 12. In the text, the woman gives birth and the dragon comes after her, with tail sweeping; seeking to devour the baby. But the child is snatched away and taken to God, and the woman is protected. But the angry dragon goes off to make war on the rest of her children, the rest of the children of God. With our modern-day sensibilities (being so smart and all) we have trouble taking this dragon stuff seriously. After all, Dr. Blount admitted, “There’s no such thing as a dragon…not in Rwanda, not in Baghdad…not in Somalia, not in North Korea, not in Iran…[not in Syria], NOT in the United States, not in the real world…There is no such thing as a dragon.”[iv]
And if there is no dragon threatening the world, surely there is nothing to worry about in the church. But look at the church! Dr. Blount shared that with all the gasping and heaving going on in the church, it reminded him of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. At one point in the movie, the sunlight betrays the ghostly figure of the villain Captain Hector Barbossa and he says to the lovely Miss Elizabeth Swan, whom he has kidnapped: “You best be believin’ in ghost stories, Missy. Cause you’re in one.”[v]
Essentially, John is saying to those of us who read his Revelation: “You best be believing in dragon stories, Christian. Cause you’re in one.” It reminds me of the dangerous character alluded to in our text from the Gospel of John. Now, you might say that wolves are real, and dragons aren’t. Point taken! But they both represent evil; they both represent the powers that are eager to harm anyone who follows the Good Shepherd. So as your pastor, let me offer a word of warning, “You best be believing there are wolves, Christian, cause they are lurking about.”
With an increase in secularism, with many churches too small to even afford pastors, with a world that seems to be spinning out of control—yes, you best be believing there are wolves, Christian. Now, lest you think your pastor has had some mysterious religious experience that has left her a card-carrying Holy-Roller, take heart. It isn’t so! But I concur with C.S. Lewis who wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”[vi]
We are foolish if we think there is nothing rushing about to and fro threatening the church of Jesus Christ. But we are even more foolish if we do not recognize who has ultimate power. Five times in our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to laying down his life. Furthermore, he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep…I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
While there are many things in the world and in our culture that threaten to undo us, there is danger inside the church, too. There is danger when we fight with one another and lose our witness to the world. There is danger when we rest on our laurels because we are convinced change is unnecessary—we have always done it this way—and this way is fine, thank you very much! There is danger when we pretend everything is okay and refuse to speak the truth in love—instead of dealing with issues that are sure to arise wherever fallen, forgiven people (aka Christians) gather.
If the church—if we—are under spiritual attack, what should we do? Well, we could start by acting like sheep, staying as close to the shepherd as we can get. We need to hear his voice, and I know of no better way to do that than to be people of fervent prayer—calling out to the shepherd and listening for the response. Now here’s where the preacher goes from preaching to meddling. Let’s stop for a moment and examine our prayer life. Are we praying for one another? When I was installed here as your pastor, you promised you would pray for me and I promised I would pray for you. How are we doing in this regard? Consistently, are we praying for the life and health of First Presbyterian Church? Are we praying that when challenges come our way, we will speak the truth in love? Are we praying to be a witness to God’s mercy and grace in this community and beyond?
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will speak. He will guide. He will protect. He has the power. At the cross, Jesus did not have his life stolen from him. He offered it freely. And for what? For a bunch of clueless, helpless sheep in need of a Good Shepherd! O, that we may hear his voice and follow! In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Marva J. Dawn, Gospel of John Commentary in the Life-With-God Bible, NRSV, 154.
[ii] Nancy R. Blakely, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 450.
[iii]Blakely, Feasting on the Word, quoting Barbara Brown Taylor, 450.
[iv] Dr. Brian Blount, “Call of Duty” preached at Seminary Sunday, Richmond VA, 4/22/12
[vi] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
*Cover Art Stained Glass Window at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, GA;
“Easter Affirmation” written by John Birch, and posted at www.faithandworship.com/