The imagery of the 23rd Psalm and Jesus’s teaching in John 10 have captured the imagination of Christians for centuries. I’ll be talking about four pictures of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Each captures different aspects of our relationship to Jesus and each calls for a different emotional response.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. The imagery of the 23rd Psalm and Jesus teaching in John 10 have captured the imagination of Christians for centuries. In the course of our service, you have had the opportunity to see several representations of Jesus as the good shepherd. Each has a different take on the relevant passages. Each captures different aspects of our relationship to Jesus and each would need different music to convey the emotions that it conveys.
Let’s begin with the picture currently on the screen. You’ve all seen this picture or another one very similar to it. Jesus is leading his flock along a path. In his arms he carries a lamb, and the ewes and rams follow behind.
They are staying close and looking to him. He is their shepherd and they are his flock. They trust him and follow him. He takes them from pasture to pasture. He leads them to ponds, lakes, and streams where they can safely drink. Because the country is often dry, he will draw water for them as Jacob did for the flocks of Laban. He knows their needs and provides for them.
Jesus, in this picture, is the one who gathers and leads his flock. One of the principal thoughts behind the painting is that we are to trust and follow Jesus like the sheep in the picture. We recall Jesus’ words that he calls his sheep by name and that they will follow only him.
Now put yourself into the picture. Which of the sheep are you? One of the ones who follows closely? One of those toward the rear? The black sheep? All are known and loved and cared for, and so are you!
Your Lord, Jesus, knows you. He knows your history, the strength of your trust, your place in the flock, and your tendency to get into trouble. And he accepts you as you are. He cares for you.
You are person and not a sheep, so you don’t eat grass, but he feeds you with those things that will sustain you on your journey.
Psalm 23, near the end of Psalm 23 David has to abandon the imagery of the shepherd. He writes
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow mePsalm 23:5-6 ESV
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Jesus has brought you here, to this house, this morning and is present in your midst. Here he feeds you with his Word and on other Sundays he sets his table before you offering you the sacrament as well. As you feed on these, the life you have been given in Christ Jesus is strengthened so that you may be filled with life and have it in abundance.
It is a peaceful scene. The sheep are safe and they live well while their shepherd is with them. From looking at the picture you would think they would never leave him. But sheep tend to wander, and so do we.
In Luke 15, Jesus likens himself to a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, but goes out to search for the one that has strayed from the flock and gotten lost. This next picture depicts Jesus carrying the lost sheep across his shoulders.
What you see is a detail of an Eastern Orthodox icon. The words ho Poimeen, ho Kalos are Greek for the Good Shepherd. The circles in the upper corners contain abbreviations for Yesous Xristos, Jesus Christ. The wood behind him is the cross and in the halo around his head are the Greek words, ho own, meaning the one who is.
The icon invites us to think of Jesus as the one who came to seek and to save the lost and if we were to put ourselves into this painting, there is only one place to go: we are the one that Jesus found.
This picture therefore should remind us that we are his by grace. We did not find him, he found us and has every intention of keeping us in his grace until we inherit eternal life.
But life for the sheep is not always as peaceful and uneventful as the scenes in these pictures. While we would gladly live in the human equivalent of green pastures and still waters, we must all pass through frightful places like dark and dangerous valleys. There are thieves, wolves, lions, and bears, who would gladly snatch the sheep. Likewise, there are those who would try to snatch or entice you away from Jesus and the life and salvation you have received from him.
This next picture illustrates our gospel lesson. In the lesson Jesus distinguishes himself from a hired hand saying that as the one who cares for the sheep he will take on the wolves to defend his flock.
That’s the kind of shepherd David was, and part of what he was referring to when he said to God, “Your rod and staff, they comfort me.”
When David said to Saul, “Let me take care of that giant” Saul said to David,
“You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.”
But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.“1 Samuel 17:34-37 ESV
In our picture, the shepherd is going after the wolves with his rod to protect the sheep. This is the kind of shepherd we have, one who will go to war on our behalf, risking and even giving his life to defend us.
Jesus did give his life for us. In our Gospel lesson he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” And
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 10:17b-18
To conquer our greatest enemies, sin, condemnation, and death, Jesus died. Had he not done so they would have devoured us a pack of wolves devours a sheep. But he willingly gave himself for us so that we might have eternal life.
He did so in the knowledge and hope that by his death many would be saved. He did this for his flock—those who place their trust in him and follow him in life and in death.
In our lesson, Jesus foretells his death but also promises that he will rise from the dead. We’ve been celebrating that resurrection for the last four weeks. He died and rose again in accord with the will of God the Father in order to save and redeem us.
The last picture now comes into focus. In this detail of a German mosaic, Jesus is pictured in the glory he has received from the Father because he gave himself for us. He is no longer wearing the clothing of a humble shepherd but royal robes. There is a cross in his halo. There are 24 jewels for the patriarchs and apostles. The background is gold punctuated by stars, a symbol of heaven. In his arms, there is the lamb that he has carried, through the valley of the shadow of death, into the glories of eternal life. and the words “Ich bin der gute Hirte” declare “I am the Good Shepherd.”
This is our shepherd, the one who was, and is, and ever will be, who died and lives forevermore, and who reigns over all things. He will call us from our graves as a shepherd calls his sheep from their pen. And in his care and protection we shall abide in peace forever. Amen.