I asked a while back, “If the Lord is my shepherd, why do I find myself in the valley of the shadow of death?”, and we will return to that question today too. For now, however, I want us to think about what it is that Jesus is saying in John 10 when he describes himself as the shepherd of the sheep, and what I’d like to draw your attention to is verse 6, which, as far I can tell, is unique among the Gospels. John says, “This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them” (John 10:6). Now, Jesus uses all kinds of figures of speech when addressing his disciples and the crowds, and most of the time it seems like no one understands him, so why does John pause to point out this particular figure of speech and the fact that no one understood what he meant?
The reason that John pauses here and draws his readers attention back to this figure of speech is because he understands that Jesus is making an incredible claim that the people should have understood. In Israel’s story, the people of Israel are the sheep, and God is the Shepherd. This idea is built into the Exodus in which God leads Israel like a shepherd, and it’s behind the metaphor of the people of Israel sacrificing lambs at Passover because they were the sheep and God was shepherd, and so a lamb, a sheep, had to die in their place. This metaphor makes its way into Israel’s Psalter quite famously as we read today when the Psalmist said, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
In Ezekiel 34, however, things get even more interesting. The chapter begins with an indictment against “the shepherds of Israel,” that is, those tasked with leading the people of God in God’s place. The Lord says through the prophet that the shepherds have failed, and this is why the sheep have been scattered over the face of the earth. The prophet is referring, of course, to the exile. The Lord says, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God” [a direct allusion to Ps 23] (Ezek 34:11-15).
So, the Old Testament describes the relationship between Israel and the Lord using the metaphor of sheep and a shepherd, both at a corporate and an individual level, the prophet says that the those appointed to be shepherds of the people have failed and so the sheep have been scattered, but he promises that a day will come when the Lord will return to his people, and he himself will be the Shepherd of the sheep. And now, throughout John chapter 10, Jesus is claiming to be the Good Shepherd. He is saying, “The Lord promised that he would come and be your shepherd, and I am that shepherd.” He is claiming to be God, and so, to make sure we don’t miss this, John stops, direction our attention again to the figure of speech, because he doesn’t want us to miss this. Jesus is claiming to be God, to be the one who will lead his people out of exile and to be God himself who will rule over his people when he brings them back.
Now, in our readings, Jesus alludes to being the Good Shepherd, but he doesn’t explicitly say it. However, if we go outside our reading, we only have to go to the next verse to hear him say, “I am the good shepherd.” However, he doesn’t stop there. He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). So, if we return again to our original question: “If the Lord is my shepherd, why do I find myself in the valley of the shadow of death?”, the answer becomes more clear. We find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death because that is the path on which the good shepherd is leading us. He walked the way of the cross, and we too must take up our cross and follow our shepherd wherever he leads. And if he leads us to the valley of the shadow of death, why will we fear no evil? Because the good shepherd, who had led us here, had laid down his life for his sheep.
Does that mean that when we’re in the valley of the shadow of death we shouldn’t worry about it because death can’t touch us? Ask Stephen, the first martyr, if that’s the case. Ask Doris Perry. Ask Beth Derbyshire. Ask all the people we’ve lost over the past few years. The New Testament is unambiguous. Death can still touch us. Paul even goes so far as to call death the last enemy of humanity. And this might seem counter intuitive, because Jesus says in our reading, “I came that [the sheep] may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), but again and again the New Testament reminds us that our hope is not in this life but in the next. Our hope is in a world that we cannot see but one that has been hinted at and promised in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
So, should we be scared of death? No, because does not get to write the last words in the story of our lives. But should we be nonchalant about the possibility of death? Also, no, because death is the last enemy of humanity, and one that will come for us all at some point. And somewhere between those two poles, between not fearing death and not being nonchalant about our own mortality is living by faith, is taking up our cross and following our Good Shepherd wherever he might lead, even to the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And if Israel’s story is a to be a warning to us, and St. Paul says it is, we should keep in mind that following our Shepherd is not always easy, not because we don’t want to trust him, but because we still have so much of Egypt in us still.
So, what do we do? We listen for the Shepherd’s voice. The sheep, Jesus says, know the Shepherd’s voice. That’s how we follow him. To do that we have to be familiar with the Shepherd’s voice, so that when we hear him, we recognize his voice and we follow him. The truth is that much of the Christian life is paradoxical if not contradictory. We should not try to hide from this fact nor run from it. The paradox of the cross, the paradox of the God who created life dying at the hands of his creation, stands at the heart of our Christian faith. And what many people who stand in a place like this, or people who speak on tv, or people who write books, want to do is simplify things, and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as we never eliminate that paradox. But don’t mistake my voice or the voice of your favorite author or the voice of your favorite tv or radio preacher for the voice of the Good Shepherd. They’re not the same voice. To be able to recognize his voice, you need daily to have your face in front of a Bible, preferably one that is open to the Gospels, and you need to be reading and listening to the voice of your shepherd. You need daily to be praying and conversing with your Father in heaven. You need to be dwelling daily in that paradox where the way up is the way down and the way of the Lord is the way of the cross so that when the Good Shepherd calls you, you will recognize his voice, and you will follow. And maybe you’ll look up one day and say to your Shepherd, “Lord, why have you lead us here?” That is the question I have been asking myself every day for the past month, and the answer I come back to again and again is this: “the Son of God was crucified, the creator of the world died as part of his creation, and God raised him from the dead.” In that paradox is the answer; in his resurrection is our hope
There are a lot of voices vying for our attention right now: on the tv, in print, on the internet, and behind pulpits. There are a lot of shepherds trying to lead their sheep. I’m not saying we should stop listening to them – far from it. We should be paying very close attention to what our leaders are telling us. What I am saying, however, is that the one voice we need to be hearing most clearly in this cacophony is the voice of our Good Shepherd, and we will only recognize his voice if we continue to study his Word and to pray to him daily. That’s what we need to be focused on right now as a congregation so that when he calls, we will follow, no matter where he leads.