I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that we should somehow fear God, that we are in danger of losing God’s love—or worse, inviting God’s wrath—if we mess up or make bad choices or struggle to find the good in our lives. King Solomon, the wise son of David, wrote in Proverbs 1:7 that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” But the “fear” part bothered me. The God I met as a child, and the God I knew from my own daily experience—was safe and trustworthy; not a presence I would fear or feel I needed to hide from. I felt God present in any place that was lovely and loving and good: in the beauty and order I found in the woods, in the kindness of people I met, in the tenderness and comfort I felt in silent worship, in the divine guidance that always showed up just when I needed it.
One day I was talking with a pastor friend about this, and he had an interesting idea about the “fear of God.” He said, “I always read that not as we need to be afraid of God himself, but that we need to be afraid to live our lives without God.” He went on to give an example of a child walking a steep path that has a sharp dropoff on one side. For the child’s own safety, he needs to hold his parent’s hand. And he’s glad to do it. If we have an over-inflated sense of ourselves, we might feel we don’t need that helping hand, or that guiding light, and we might stumble and fall off the path into some serious trouble. That’s what we should be afraid of, my friend suggested. And that made sense to me.
He was saying, in effect, we need a shepherd. Or to use Solomon’s phrasing, we could say, “Accepting that we need a shepherd is the beginning of all knowledge.”
In our modern, Western society it may feel a little jarring to admit we need a shepherd. We’re adults, aren’t we? We can figure things out on our own by now. We’re expected to be independent, competent, whole. We know basically how life works. We know good from bad and right from wrong. Except when we don’t. And those times when we don’t know that we don’t know. And that’s when we really need a good shepherd.
Our New Testament reading today is the story of Jesus speaking to the people after he’s done several significant healings. His fame has spread; the crowds are growing. Pharisees seem to be attending all his public teachings now; it’s fair to think they have been looking for a way to trap him for some time. In this passage, Jesus makes a very tender promise directly to the people he’s addressing. He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
It’s not a political move designed to anger the Pharisees; it’s not a code statement to the disciples about how to carry on after his death. It is a promise of care, a statement of devotion, an invitation to intimacy. And he extends it beyond the limits of time and space, promising he will gather into one flock all believers–across ages, across continents, right into this sanctuary here this morning. “Here, take my hand,” Jesus says to the hopeful people who hear his voice. “This path is steep. I don’t want you to fall.”
I was curious about what more Jesus might have been saying here so I did a little research about shepherding back in biblical times. As you might expect, shepherding was big business back in that day. We know that Job had 14,000 sheep of his own, and there’s a reference to 120,000 sheep at the dedication of King Solomon’s Temple.
Shepherds were completely responsible for the care and well-being of their sheep. They not only protected them from wild animals that came to hunt the herd, but they tended to sick or hurting animals, and carried a ram’s horn filled with olive oil to treat cuts and scratches.
Shepherds also were responsible for birthing new baby lambs and had a special kind of sling inside their tunics where they could carry newborns that were too weak yet to make the journey with the larger animals. In the sling, close to the shepherd’s heart, they were safe and warm, protected against the harsh weather until they were strong enough to join the flock.
In both the New Testament and Old Testament readings today, we hear the promise that we are known to God. The Old Testament reading says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine.” And Jesus told those listening, “I know my own and my own know me.” That’s an important part of being a good shepherd, knowing each sheep individually, calling her name, seeing and responding to her needs and personality. In holding our hand along the steep path, God knows how tight a grip we need, how much we like to look over the edge, how scared we are, how hard it is to hang on. We can trust that intimate knowledge. We are safe with God.
Perhaps the most touching thing I learned about what it means to be a good shepherd was the story I found about crossing streams. This is something that happened often as shepherds led their flocks into fresh pastures. A shepherd who has established trust with his sheep will go into the water first himself—showing them what to do—and his sheep will stay close around him through the difficult water, emerging safe on the other side. Those sheep who have not come to fully trust the shepherd do not stay as close and may miss the best crossing place and be carried down the river a little. If one gets swept down the river and cannot get across, the shepherd will quickly leap back into the stream and rescue it, holding it close and carrying it to shore. When all the sheep are safely across, the lambs will jump about with joy and the flock will gather around the shepherd as though to say “thank you.”
That picture takes us back to the one painted for us in verse 2 from Isaiah 43, where God says, through Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” We’re holding that hand; we’re safe; there’s nothing to fear.
I love the idea that the sheep who know and trust the shepherd stay as close as they can by his side, and then they emerge safe and sound from whatever troubles they face. We do learn, holding that hand, that God’s help and peace and love is always there for us if we but remember to look in that direction. And what about the lambs who jump for joy and the grown sheep who press up against the shepherd to say thanks? My Newfoundland Pearl will walk up with a big happy look on her face and then lean her 120-pound self against you. We call that a hug. You can’t miss it. In the same way, I can just imagine Jesus, our good shepherd, being hugged by us after he’s lead us safely through yet another trial.
It occurred to me that another way we can thank our good shepherd for caring so much and leading so well is to become shepherds of the good ourselves. We can notice more good in our days—the color, the smiles, the peace, the hope. We have eyes that see, ears that hear, senses that feel and receive the good. Our thoughts can be about goodness. We can use words to share the good. Our fingers can type good things. Our hearts can believe in the good God has promised.
So here’s where we come to the audience participation portion of this message. You’ll notice that at the end of your pews, toward the aisle, there are cups with candies in them. Please take the cup, choose the candy you want, and pass the cup to the person beside you. Don’t eat the candy yet. Let’s wait til everybody has a piece.
While we’re waiting, I invite you to take in some of the good things you notice about the candy you’ve selected. Are the colors pleasing to your eye? Is the surface of the wrapping smooth or bumpy? How much does it weigh in your hand? Does it bring to mind pleasant memories of other times you’ve had this candy—maybe a happy memory from childhood, or a fun afternoon with your grandkids?
Okay so now that everyone has their candy, let’s go ahead and unwrap it. Listen to the sound of the paper. It is a high crackling sound? Can you hear differences—highs and lows—as you listen? What did you do with your hands to unwrap it? Did you pull the ends of the wrapping on the peppermint or the caramel, strip the foil off the Hershey’s kisses, or peel open the Reese’s cups?
Before you eat the treat, take a moment to smell it. How is that? Sweet? Chocolatey? Fruity? Minty?
Okay, enough waiting. Go ahead and eat your piece of candy. Notice, as you place it in your mouth, the texture, the flavor, and what it asks of you. Do you chew it or let it melt? Can you savor that taste, with all its subtle flavors, for as long as possible?
What I’m hoping you’re experiencing here—besides a fun little snack—is a sense of how multi-dimensional and rich our experience of good can be. If we’re awake and really paying attention, each moment of goodness, each experience of care and guidance, has this kind of richness in it. If we will take the time to notice, we’ll find layers and layers of thoughtful tenderness, designed and poured out for us by the God who knows us each by name.
May we all crowd around God with our thanks: “Thanks for leading, thanks for caring, thanks for offering us real safety as we hold firmly to Your hand each day.”
- OT: Isaiah 43: 1-2
- NT: John 10: 11-16