The Good Shepherd Warner Sallman (1892-1968)
In Bible times there were lots of shepherds. Now, where I live, there aren’t any. Around here there are fences. Farmers harvest and store large amounts of feed so that the animals can be kept within the fences and fed there. In Bible times shepherds were needed to watch over their flocks at all times, leading them all over the countryside to green pastures so they could eat and to still waters so they could drink. Shepherds led the flocks on the right paths and protected them from all evil, even death, so the sheep did not need to be afraid. The ignorant and vulnerable sheep were completely dependent on the shepherd for their every need. They had to trust the shepherd for their safety and survival, just as we have to depend on and trust in God for everything. In Bible times people understood this all very well. Everyone would see shepherds at work. Shepherds then were as common then as telemarketers are now.
Today, however, we do not see shepherds every day and we have to be told about them– in our earliest Sunday School lessons, by Scripture readings and sermons, and by pictures. One of my earliest memories of church is that familiar painting of Jesus the Good Shepherd (see above). It hung on the wall in my first Sunday School room. Jesus is standing in a beautiful and peaceful green valley. He is surrounded by sheep and he is holding in his arms one little lamb.
Even as a 4 year old I knew what that picture meant. It meant that Jesus holds and protects me, just like he was holding and protecting that little lamb, and it told me that in those strong arms I would always be safe. The painting illustrates the message of Psalm 23, and other passages, such as Isaiah 40:11, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” Even as a child I knew that I needed such protection and care. Already as a child I knew about death and how that could end everything, everything except this love and care and protection of Jesus. I learned in Sunday School that not even death could change that. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…” And in the meantime, “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and then, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I did not know any shepherds back then, but from memorized Bible verses and from that picture I knew that I belonged to the Good Shepherd, and I was in good hands.
The words of Psalm 23 and Isaiah 40 were written hundreds of years before the earthly life of Jesus. For centuries the Jews had in their minds this image of God as their shepherd. Then Jesus made a startling claim. He said in John 10, “I am the good shepherd,” and then later on in that same chapter he said, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.” We have heard that voice. We hear it in John 10 and in Psalm 23 and in all the words of the Bible, and what a blessing it is to know such care and such love. The sheep were always within sight and sound of the Good Shepherd, and they knew that in him was their safety and security. They knew that in all times of stress or danger or storm, if the sheep could just hear the shepherd’s voice they would be comforted. God’s Word works for us like the voice of the shepherd. As we keep ourselves within hearing distance of that Word, we will find hope, comfort, and security.
“Even to your old age and gray hairs, I will be with you,” that voice says. “Even when troubled waters threaten to sweep you away, I will be with you,” says that voice. “Whether you live or die, you belong to me,” it says. “Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest,” says that voice of the Good Shepherd. “Cast all your cares on me, for I care about you, and I will uplift, strengthen, and restore you,” says that saving voice.
The Good Shepherd said, “I will lay down my life for my sheep and they will hear my voice.” This is the only solid ground we have. All else can be taken from us at any time, except for the one who says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Someday, of course, we will be taken from everything that we know and love in this life; but even then, Jesus has another place prepared for us. Until then, as James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father.” The Good Shepherd provides for our every need now; blessing upon blessing in the good times, and a strong and certain comfort and hope for the bad times. And when death comes, we have a promise that the end of our time here is not the end of everything, but that we will live again. Only a foolish lamb would ever want to wander away from the security and protection of that voice and the presence of that Good Shepherd. Even then, says the parable, the Good Shepherd goes looking for the lost. Best of all, of course, is to stay close to where that voice can be heard. Why would any little lamb want to wander away from that?
The Lost Sheep by Alfred Soord (1868-1915)
Psalm 23 — The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Isaiah 40:11 — He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
John 10:11 — Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
My Lord Jesus Christ, you are indeed the only Good Shepherd, and I, alas, am a lost and straying sheep. I have fear and anxiety. I would gladly belong to your flock and be with you and have peace in my heart. I hear from your Word that you are as anxious for me as I am for you. I am eager to know how I can come to you to be helped. Come to me, O Lord. Seek me and find me. Help me also to come to you and I will praise you and honor you forever. Amen.