I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

John 10: 11

Jesus’ words here seem obvious. He will do this exact thing, and although the actions that He is describing might have been mysterious to the audience on that day when He was saying this, we all know about the events that the Lord is referencing. But I wonder if that is all that there is to this? Jesus was often a little devious in what He said. He wanted the people who were hearing Him to consider and to ponder His words so that they might discover deeper meanings and broader applications within their lives for them. People in that region in those days were very aware of the role of shepherds in their society. Sheep were important for their many uses, and their need for care and guidance was also understood by all. Yet, the job of caring for sheep was not glamourous or even well thought of in society. Tending sheep required for a person to dedicate their life to that often risky endeavor and to do so in relative isolation while working for many months of the year without break or respite.

Yes, Jesus would give up His life in order to bring salvation to those that He loved, which means that He did so for the sake of all of humanity, but He also did far more than that for us. Jesus demonstrated what it means to care about others in ways that crossed over the lines that people tend to draw between the secular and the sacred. He engaged with people in the places where they were living out the routines of their lives, and He went into places that the religious of His day had deemed to be unholy and unacceptable for anyone who followed God to set foot. Yet, Jesus knew that the entirety of creation belonged to God; so, there was literally no place on this earth where He should not go. There were also no people who were not worthy of His attention, love, and care. Christ brought healing to the physically, emotionally, and spiritually sick people of His day, and He set out the model for us to do the same for those people in the world during our days. Jesus went out into the world, and He sought out the lost, the wandering, and the needy among the multitudes in His world, and He sends His followers out to do the same in ours.

So, when Jesus gave Himself up to be tortured and executed on the cross, that was really a culminating moment to a life that had already been surrendered to following the Father’s will in every aspect of what He thought and did. Jesus lived out God’s redemptive desire as He entered into the harsh realities of people’s lives, and He engaged in this with utter disregard for what others might think, how they would treat Him as a result of what He said and did, or the impact upon His social and societal standing. Jesus was the shepherd that genuinely loved sheep. So, He calls upon all of us that claim to follow Him to do the same. We are to set aside our cares and concerns about involvement with people that our world has designated as unworthy or as lacking in value. We are to take the risk of entering into the lives of those that are foreign to us or who might seem to be dangerous in order to know them and so that they might see and get to know Christ through us. When we are reluctant to enter into caring for the many needy people in our world and as we are weary and desiring a break from the task of shepherding these sheep, Jesus asks the hard questions, “Whose life is it that you are protecting?” and “Which of these sheep is the one that I would not be willing to lay down my life to save?”    

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A voice cries,

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;

   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Isaiah 40: 3

Wilderness is a strong word. It brings to mind vivid images, and it does this in most people’s imaginations, too. When we hear of wilderness, we may think about a barren desert place or the picture that comes to mind may be of rugged mountains with no one nearby. The wilderness that the prophet was referencing was physically near for the people of Israel, and their national story of years spent in a circular journey in it were also well known to them all. Yet, Isaiah was speaking in terms of the conditions of their hearts and their souls. The people and their nation were traveling through life in the barren dryness of a wilderness of faith. They had turned away from the sweet water of the Spirit of God, and their table was now set with the bitterness of prideful separation from their Lord. Although they may have been sleeping in comfortable houses, their hearts were residing far from the presence of God. 

Most of us can identify with aspects of this situation. It seems to be true that almost everyone goes through some of these hard and lonely times during the course of our days. As it was in Israel, these days spent in isolation and seeming separation from God can become the reality for our churches, our cities, and the nations that we call home. Individuals lose touch with God’s truth, will, and righteousness so that they may, in turn, lead these larger groups and organizations along the desert path. Sometimes we just touch upon the edges of the barren places and find that its harsh heat or emptiness are overwhelming. Then, we turn back to the sure nurture of God’s presence and the security of His Word of grace and truth. In many instances, we relocate to those rugged environs over a long period of time wherein a short day trip becomes an overnight camping experience that is followed by ever increasing days, months, and finally years spent in turning away from the Lord’s way of thinking and of living.

However deep we may have gone into these deserts of the soul, there is a way out. Even when we have traversed so far into the barren lands of rejection of God and the deep valleys of separation from the Lord’s gospel of love and grace, He is still seeking after each of us with the singularly redemptive intent of the shepherd who has nurtured and cared for His flock since the beginning of time. Life may seem like it is being lived out in an unrecoverable and lost place, but Christ is a singularly qualified and skillful builder of roads. He desires to lead each of us out of the living purgatory that we have exiled ourselves into, and when we open up our hearts to Him and surrender our lives to His loving authority and sovereign rule, the Lord comes to us where we are located, and He guides and supports us for each and every step of the journey back into the bountiful land that is found in the center of God’s will.     

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

Mark 6: 34

Sheep are remarkable animals. They can be very productive as they grow that woolen coat that can be made into clothing and many other useful items. They are also used for food, and their skins make great cold weather clothing. Sheep are smaller and so eat less than cattle and more can be kept on a parcel of land. Yet, they do need care and management. Sheep will not take care of themselves and thrive. One of the most impressive sights that can be seen in my part of the world is that twice a year migration when sheep are moved from winter pasture to higher elevation summer ones and its reversal in the fall. Then, large flocks of sheep are moved by a team of shepherds and sheep dogs, and these flocks are so large that their entire group cannot be seen at one time. Still, even in large numbers, they are not safe or secure without that human and working dog care, management, and direction.

People are similar. We may not seem to need the presence of that highly instinctual and well-trained herding dog nipping at our heels to keep us moving in the proper direction, or the skill and knowledge of the shepherd who leads us to places where good water and abundant forage are available. But, when I look at the sorts of challenges, trials, and struggles that people generate for themselves, I am not so convinced that we don’t need a little herding along the course of life. We might fight against the idea of management or control, for we are thinking and perceiving creatures and can sort out the best ways to handle whatever it is that life sends our way. However, it is my observation that people simply don’t always pick the best path, make the righteous decision, or seek to think, speak, and act in a manner that brings honor and glory to God. We need to be taught, we require correction, and we thrive when we are receiving nurture and encouragement along the way.

Christ provides all of this to His people. His Spirit takes us into the deep truths that are contained in the text of God’s Word, and He opens up our minds and our hearts to understanding the application of those words of life to the situations that we are encountering today. When we look at Mark’s account of the events that were happening in those days when Jesus was actively teaching and healing on earth, we see the Lord directly engaged with people in meeting their needs and providing care and comfort to them. This same real and tangible presence of our Lord is with us now, too. Christ gave us His Spirit, and He is at work in and with us on a continual basis. Our Great Shepherd walks through life with us, and He never fails to safeguard our souls or to feed our spirits. The Lord’s truth guides our steps and protects us from the deceptive traps that Satan attempts to set for us. As we navigate life’s journey with Jesus, we are no longer those lost sheep who are without a shepherd, for we are continually cared about and cared for by the one true and eternal shepherd, Jesus Christ, God With Us.    

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray?

Matthew 18: 12

 

As He tells this story, Jesus is sharing the Father’s heart and His own. For in the greater sense of things Jesus was doing this very thing. He was on a dangerous journey that was going to bring back many of the lost among God’s sheep. His days upon earth were focused on sharing in actions and by His words of truth God’s redemptive desire and plan for creation. Then, that plan was fully launched as Jesus gave Himself as the sacrifice that would pay all of our sin-debt, and this was followed by the glorious victory over death by which God demonstrated His sovereignty over every force and power that was present in this world and beyond it.

 

In all of this, Christ has demonstrated His authority and power to accomplish what God desires by way of rescue of the lost and restoration of these wandering sheep to the eternal fold of His kingdom. So, the answer to all of the needs that my soul has is Jesus, and the same is true for every other person on the earth. Each of us is born with a heart that is lost in its wandering and is in need of finding its way home. All people have a desire to know God; yet, most of us have no real idea about who that god is or where to find him. Thus, we travel the treacherous paths of this world until we recognize our Savior in the presence of the great soul-seeker, Christ.

 

We may be one short step away from the precipice or our minds might be shrouded in the shadows of a deep valley when the voice of redemption penetrates our hearing. That day may seem to be bright and full of promise; yet, the heart is needy and starved for love as we encounter the One whose love gives all to enter into relationship with us. There is no place that is too remote for Christ to discover His people, and there are no circumstances too desperate or despicable for Christ to enter in and to provide forgiveness and restoration. He brings home everyone who accepts Him, and He does this over and over again throughout all the hours of each day. In the entire universe Christ is the singular relentless seeker after the lost, as I have answered His call to me, I pray that my life would reflect this same unceasing desire to bring others home to God’s redemptive kingdom.

If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

Matthew 18: 12

 

When I think about this story and create the picture of the scene in my mind, I envision the gentle and compassionate Jesus. He is walking across a smooth meadow with a smallish, fluffy-white sheep across His strong shoulders. The sheep looks peaceful, and Jesus has a satisfied half smile on His face. This is a story about God’s unending pursuit and rescue of all of us sheep as we head off into the wilderness of sin with its separation and grave dangers. This is a wonderful picture of Christ’s saving love that is demonstrated in paintings and captured in songs; yet, I think that there is something very wrong with this image of Christ.

 

We fail to give credit to Jesus for the real journey that He undertook in order to effect this rescue. When I consider the parable of the shepherd that Jesus tells, I need to think about the real conditions that would have existed. This shepherd did not head out across a smooth, grassy meadow in order to follow the lost one’s trail. He stepped away from the comfort of family and friends and the warm safety of the campfire and walked into the dangerous dark of the wilderness. He traveled over rocks and through ravines, and probably faced down predatory animals along the way. When he finds the sheep, it is a reluctant passenger for the journey home. It is also a sheep; that is, dirty and mouthy and not very cooperative with its savior.

 

As mentioned, Jesus is sharing a parable. He speaks about the life of a shepherd and tells of an event in that life that would have been well known to His audience. Yet, He was telling about His own journey as He left Heaven and entered into the Father’s creation intent of walking among His people. However, the world that Jesus joined was violently broken by our sin, and it was openly and aggressively antagonistic to Him. It is this path of opposition, peril, and pain that Jesus traveled in order to find, recover, and save any and all of us lost sheep who will allow it. That bleating and kicking muddy sheep is me as Christ carries my lost soul into His salvation. All I can say in response is, “Thank you, Jesus!”

For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2: 25

 

Most people don’t like to admit that this is our own description, but it is. Every single one of us, all of the people who exist on this earth, wander away from God and so from His righteousness. In fact it often looks as if there is some form of opposite polarity at work in our worlds so that the direction that people go is clearly and stridently away from that of God. The old expression that says that someone “seems to be working at” doing whatever it is that is negative or destructive applies to times in almost everyone’s life in response to Godly living. We wander off by ourselves, and we find ample company for traveling the dark path of sin. Some of these journeys involve epic proportions of waste and loss, while others are short duration afternoon strolls through a place that just seemed to be appealing on that day.

 

Jesus secured the means for our return to the place where life is found on His cross of sacrifice. Christ set out the path that we would need to follow in order to return from any and from all of our wanderings, and He also provides the door to dwelling inside of the Kingdom of the Lord that opens to everyone who will submit and turn to Christ. This journey of return to the place of security and prosperity for our souls that was the dwelling place that God designed for people to reside within in His Creation work is exclusive and it is restrictive, but it is also the only place on earth where true freedom is known. The exclusivity exists because many if not most people will not accept Christ’s gift of grace and offer of salvation, and God desires for people to surrender ourselves and the direction of our lives fully to Him in His fullness of existence. God’s Kingdom on earth and in eternity is restrictive because God limits admittance to people who desire to dwell in relationship with Him. We must want to be there and to enter into the active process of knowing God and of being known by Him.

 

Yet, God works aggressively to overcome our objections to that surrender, and He has done so from the beginning of time. It is a part of the amazing, miraculous, and mystical nature of God that He seeks after and pursues everyone on this earth with some form of His Gospel message of love, redemption, and restoration of relationship with our Creator. Left to our own purposes and devices, everyone does wander away from God. Many of us do it to varying degrees on a daily basis. Still, Christ calls us back to Him, and He takes us in despite the messiness of our appearance or the harshness of the rebuke that we may have thrown at His truth. Christ’s grace is abundant and overcomes all of our attempts at unrighteous thought and action. He accepts our repentance from our wandering ways with ready forgiveness and with full engagement in the transformation of our hearts and minds into people who more fully reflect and indicate the righteous nature that is Christ’s character. As sheep we all do wander, and as our Shepherd and Caretaker of our souls, Christ works continually to bring us home again.

 

Know that the LORD, he is God!

It is he who makes us, and we are his;

we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100: 3

 

The fact that the writers of God’s Word used sheep and shepherds as images to describe the relationship that exists between humanity and our Creator is very interesting. There was certainly a component of convenience to this, for sheep were plentiful throughout the lands and the times of the Bible, and they provide numerous examples of relationships and engagement in them. Sheep are also known for possessing qualities that demand care and provision by a wise and knowledgeable keeper, the shepherd. Yet sheep have also gotten something of a bad reputation when it comes to some of the aspects of their nature and abilities. For one thing, sheep are considerably more intelligent than people often grant them credit for being, There is a documented case from Yorkshire in Great Britain where sheep defeat the metal grates in the road to get to the lush gardens beyond by laying down and rolling across the hoof guards. That does not seem to indicate a lack of brainpower. Sheep follow the leader and flock together in order to achieve the protection of many, and sheep will selectively eat the plants that they need to cure illness and to supplement their diets with something that is otherwise lacking.

 

It would seem that sheep are far more capable than we often grant them credit for being; yet, they still need a caretaker and they flounder and fail without someone to provide them with direction and a shepherd to define and guide their purpose. All of this would seem to create a good picture of how people interact with God. The Lord made us and gave us intelligence and capability to live and to thrive in this world. His creative handiwork is beautiful, complex, and complete, but it is not intended to grant to us everything that we need in order to live well and to travel through life successfully. We were created to dwell on this earth in relationship with each other and with God. People do not possess the ethical and the moral foundation for living righteously without the presence of God in our lives. Although we have the intelligence and the drive to devise those foundational structures for our societies, we lack the selfless guidance of eternal truth that is necessary for this work. On our own, we lack the care of the shepherd to set direction and tone for our lives.

 

God does this for us. He leads us along the paths of life in ways that take us out of our natural drive toward self-care and that leads us into engagement with others for their sakes. God provides His people with a greater understanding of what is right, loving, and care-giving than we would ever achieve on our own. He guides us along a path that leads to justice, peace, and the deep joy of the Lord’s presence. God grants to us a purpose that matches well to the needs of the pasture where we dwell. He values each person as a beloved child and as an important member of His flock. God’s Word feeds us, and we are sheltered under the covering of the Lord’s sovereignty over all of creation. As sheep, we are loved, cared for, and led into service to our Lord and to the world where He provides us with the pasture that we need to achieve His plans and purposes for the life that the Lord has granted to each of us.