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Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

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May 12, 2019

A MEDITATION ON GRACE AND SHEEP

May 12, 2019 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas

 

Psalm 23


A Psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
2   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; 
3   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake. 


4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me. 


5 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows. 
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.

 

John 10:22-30


22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’25Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.’  

God of comfort and compassion,
through Jesus, your Son, you lead us
to the water of life and table of your bounty.
May we who have received
the tender love of our Good Shepherd
be strengthened by your grace
to care for your flock. Amen.

In Psalm 23 and John 10, David and Jesus use the figure of speech of sheep and shepherd to highlight the relationship between God and people who trust God.  It is easy to understand why they did so.  

 

David worked as a shepherd for his family before he entered public life as a soldier and later a ruler.  The birth of Jesus was proclaimed by angels to shepherds who, according to Luke 2, were the first persons to visit him and his family following his birth in Bethlehem.  Beyond those reasons, humans and sheep have co-existed for ages in many areas of the world.   

 

But why is the imagery of shepherd and sheep so powerful for us?  Most of us have not spent much time around sheep and shepherds.  We do not have firsthand knowledge about how sheep live and how shepherds work.  Why do the words of David at Psalm 23 and those of Jesus in John 10 about sheep and shepherd carry so much meaning?

 

Perhaps we are touched by the sheep and shepherd figure of speech in those passages because we sense – at some level – that being human is a lot like being sheep.  Sheep are intelligent.  Sheep are social.  Sheep are vulnerable.  Like humans, sheep recognize sounds and are frightened by sudden, sharp, and loud noises.  

 

One characteristic of sheep that we may not like to think is shared by humans is their vulnerability.  Sheep are prey animals who need to stay together to be safe from wolves.  Shepherds function to keep sheep together, and to protect them from predators because sheep are not able to out-run or out fight wolves and other carnivores.

 

Another aspect of that vulnerability is that sheep prefer to eat grass that is closer to the root than do cattle, which means care must be taken to move the herd so that the sheep do not overgraze a particular range.  

 

David and Jesus understood that people need God for the same reason sheep need shepherds.  Like sheep, humans are intelligent.  Like sheep, sheep need and function best in community.  But like sheep, humans are vulnerable to threatening forces described in Scripture as “thieves and wolves.”

 

We are threatened by hostile people and powers which function like thieves and wolves.  We are threatened by vicious and greedy people.  We are threatened by cruel and violent people.  We are threatened by hateful and oppressive people.  We are threatened by abusive people.  

 

And in the same way that sheep can overgraze a range, humans are threatened by our own appetite.  We are now experiencing climate change and global warming that is caused by human overconsumption of natural resources and use of fossil fuels that deplete the atmosphere.  We are a threat to ourselves and the rest of the world.  Humans can become, in a real sense, thieves and wolves that threaten one another and the rest of the world.   Or in the words of the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  

 

Our hope, according to David and Jesus, is in the sovereignty, grace, provision, and protection of God.  “The LORD is my shepherd” and “my sheep hear my voice” declare that God is our defender, provider, and guide.  God has not left humanity defenseless.  We are vulnerable, but not abandoned.  We are weak, but not without protection.  We go astray, but God is always determined to find and restore us.  

 

Shepherds gather sheep.  Shepherds protect sheep from thieves and wolves.  Shepherds find wayward sheep that have grazed their way from the rest of the flock and are vulnerable because they are alone.  Shepherds lead sheep from one grazing place to another.  

 

The shepherd and sheep figure of speech in Psalm 23 and John 10 is a strong message about God’s grace for us. Shepherds gather, protect, lead, and search for wayward sheep because they care for the sheep.  The relationship between shepherds and sheep reminds us of God’s grace.  According to David and Jesus, God gathers us.  God protects us.  God searches for us and finds us and restores us. 

 

David and Jesus remind us that God, like a shepherd, does this great work at a tremendous risk and accepts that risk because of great love.  God is invested in us.  God has determined that we are worth the risk.  God has determined that we are worth the work.  God has determined that we are worth the trouble.  God has determined that we are worth whatever God needs to sacrifice in order to protect us, find us, lead us, nurture us, and keep us from being snatched and devoured by people and forces that operate like thieves and wolves.  

 

We need that assurance now like never before.  When Jesus delivered his Good Shepherd teaching in John 10 his movement was threatened by political, commercial, and religious thieves and wolves.  The same is true today.  

 

Political, commercial, and religious thieves and wolves are threatening humanity and the creation.  Political, commercial, and religious thieves and wolves are terrorizing immigrants.  Political, commercial, and religious thieves and wolves are destroying the environment.  Political, commercial, and religious thieves and wolves are using racism, religious nationalism, imperialism, materialism, sexism, and militarism to sow hate, fear, violence, and greed throughout the world.  We do not need to look very hard or far to see thieves and wolves.

 

That is why Psalm 23 and John 10 hold so much power for us.  Despite the thieves and wolves, we have the assurance that God is with us even when we walk through the darkest and most dangerous valleys.  God is not scared of the thieves and wolves or our time, or of all time.  God will not lose us.  God will not let us go.  God will not be bullied by political, commercial, and religious thieves and wolves, whether they appear as Egyptian taskmasters and rulers, Roman colonizers, 21st Century crooks and liars, or in other disguises.  

 

The good news about grace and being God’s sheep is that the grace of God for us is stronger than the thieves and wolves aligned against us.  This is the continuing message for us from Psalm 23 and John 10.  That message gives us the assurance that “eternal life” is God’s gift to us so we can live courageously, cooperatively, and joyfully in the world for God.  That grace equips us for living with a peace, strength, and joy that is stronger than all the thieves and wolves the world has even known, or will ever see.  

 

Amen.

 

©Wendell Griffen, 2019