Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 04/22/2018

Of all the metaphors and images used for Jesus, Jesus as the Good Shepherd is maybe the best known and probably the most loved and that has been the case for a long time. In the catacombs of Rome which were underground chambers used for burial in the earliest years of the church, many wall paintings have been found including images of the Good Shepherd, a youth in shepherd’s clothing carrying a lamb or a goat on his shoulders. Some of these images are thought to date as far back as the second century when Christianity was still very much in its infancy, an underground and sometimes persecuted religion.

Those were the earliest depictions of the Good Shepherd and the love for the image has persisted in many forms over the years, including paintings like this one (Sallman) but there are lots of others as well, the one on the cover of your bulletin is another example. When it was decided to do a mural in the fellowship hall ten or twelve years ago, Jesus as the shepherd along with little children was the choice. Then, of course, besides the visual images, shepherd imagery also shows up in various parts of the Bible.

It’s especially prominent in John with verses like those from today’s reading but the other gospels also have Jesus as the shepherd who has concern for the sheep, the shepherd who seeks out the lost. In the Old Testament there’s a lot about shepherds including David as the shepherd boy who becomes king, another well known image. Then, most famous of all, there’s the 23rd Psalm, easily the best known of the psalms and for Christians, you know when you hear, “The Lord is my shepherd,” Jesus is the Lord, the shepherd.

We’re in the middle of the season of Easter though. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter we’re done with empty tomb and resurrection appearance stories, moving on to other ways of thinking about the Risen Christ. So this week we get Jesus as the Good Shepherd, next week Jesus as the vine. One way to think about such metaphorical images is that they represent ways of imagining Jesus that enable us to draw closer to him; the images work on our consciousness and invite us to new and deeper meaning.

As I mentioned last week, (in a sermon that not many heard because of the weather. Remember Eleanor Rigby’s Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear? I thought of that as I kept hearing last Sunday’s weather forecast. It wasn’t quite no one, but anyway), as I mentioned last week, we’re not likely to have a direct encounter with the Risen Christ like some of the disciples did, but through images, especially that of the Good Shepherd, for many of us a connection is made, a spiritual connection. Through the image, Jesus becomes more real, the relationship becomes more real as we engage the more imaginative side our brain. As we do so, the Good Shepherd becomes part of our experience of the Risen Christ.

Another thing a text like this does is to provide some insight into how the apostles and evangelists “searched the scriptures” as they told the story of Jesus and interpreted who they believed him to be. One of the earliest decisions made concerning the post-resurrection Jesus was that while he represented something new, a new revelation of God, the God he revealed was the one God of the Old Testament. There was continuity and those early evangelists believed that as they searched the scriptures in light of what they knew about Jesus, they would find prophetic stories and images that pointed to him.

As I have often said, while containing biographical information about Jesus, even more the gospels are interpretations of the person and work of Jesus, interpretations made from the perspective of his death and resurrection and filled with reference to the Old Testament. In other words, the gospels themselves are works of interpretation.

John doesn’t directly quote the Old Testament as frequently as the other gospels, but Old Testament imagery, like that of the shepherd, is central to John. Now for us, when we think about Old Testament shepherd imagery what probably first comes to mind is the 23rd Psalm, but John seems to have the strange book of Ezekiel in mind, drawing from verses like this: “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; I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. I will feed them with justice.” That’s all from Ezekiel, chapter 34 and as similar as it is to John, one can’t help but think that John had these verses in mind as he crafted his portrayal of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who not only seeks out the lost as Ezekiel says, but the Good Shepherd who goes so far as to lay down his life for the sheep. John takes the image and develops it further as it relates to Jesus.

Whether it’s the Lord as the Good Shepherd in the Old Testament or Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the New, the reason the image is so well loved is the feeling of peace and comfort it conveys. We feel safe at the feet of the shepherd or in the arms of the shepherd. That’s all good, and maybe that’s as far as you want to go with it; the comforting dimension of the image is important. But…in both Ezekiel and in John, there’s more to it than that. There are more radical implications, especially concerning threats faced by the shepherd, threats that highlight the risk involved in caring for the sheep.

Ezekiel makes the claim that Israel, even while in exile in Babylon, belonged to no other shepherd except YHWH, the Lord, which might not seem like a big deal, but at a time when allegiance to the gods of the empire was expected, it was a daring claim, one that other prophets didn’t always make. Ezekiel made a very counter cultural statement concerning the Lord as shepherd, a very risky statement as it challenged those who were in power, those who would claim to be shepherds but who didn’t do what the Good Shepherd does. According to Ezekiel, those other shepherds didn’t search for and care for the sheep and were concerned only for themselves, an accusation they wouldn’t be too pleased to hear. Such false shepherds are still out there so the words of Ezekiel are still worthy of attention.

John, in adapting this image from Ezekiel, contrasts the Good Shepherd who is ready to lay down his life for the sheep, with the hired hand, the hired hand who sees the wolf coming and runs away. But just who is this hired hand? Ezekiel was taking a veiled shot at the religious and political leaders of his time, and these words on the lips of Jesus do the same thing.

In John’s sequence of things, the verses at the end of the chapter that immediately precedes the Good Shepherd discourse have Jesus charging the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, with blindness. What he seems to be saying is they are blind to the needs of the people, more concerned with their own status and position. For Jesus, it was an accusation as risky as the one made by Ezekiel in his day, one that helped lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. In both Ezekiel and John though, there is more to this image than peace and comfort.

It can lead one to ask, “Who are the false shepherds, who are the hired hands in our world?” It’s worth thinking about but it also risks self-righteous finger pointing as we all probably have our ideas about religious leaders or political leaders who we see as false shepherds or hired hands. It is worth thinking about and you can do it on your own if you want to, but I decided not to go there. I decided not to go there because I want this to be about the Good Shepherd, not about the false shepherds. I don’t want to destroy the image of comfort provided by the Good Shepherd.

There have always been false shepherds and hired hands and there always will be. What I need to know, what you need to know is that the Good Shepherd is always there too. Our world is full of images, many that aren’t very helpful, some that are downright destructive, many that just drag us down or take us places we ought not go. What I need is the image of the Good Shepherd who cares about me. In the midst of the messiness and evil and brokenness of this world, I need the green pastures; I need the still waters. Even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I need to know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd walks with me and provides comfort and when I most need it, that he holds me and carries me in his arms.

There are lots of images out there, some of them are good, some of them are bad, but it may be that the image of the Good Shepherd is the one that brings us as close to the Risen Christ as we will ever get.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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