The Claims of the Christ: I Am The Good Shepherd
Don Locker, a Methodist minister in California, tells a wonderful true story about a cute, vivacious elderly woman in his congregation. When she reached her mid-eighties, she decided to enter a retirement home in southern California. She had a number of close friends already living there and they decided to give her a dinner party to welcome her to the home and they invited a number of the other residents to the party so they could get to know her. She was given the place of honor at the table. Immediately next to her was an older gentleman, dignified, well-dressed, and strikingly handsome, also in his 80’s. He had lived in the retirement home for some time. She proceeded to stare a hole through this man, to the point that it became rather obvious and even a bit embarrassing. The gentleman shifted nervously in his chair. She then said: “Please forgive me for staring at you like this, but I just can’t help it. You look exactly like my third husband!” “Oh,” he responded, “and how many times have you been married?” With a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye, she patted his hand and said: “Twice!”
Now there’s a lady who knows how to express love, but sad to say, she is in the minority. The unfortunate fact is that there are many people who never learn in a whole lifetime how to express their love. Social scientists have been telling us for years that love is a learned behavior. It is not something that just happens spontaneously. But the question is: Who teaches us to love? The best answer that I know to that question is that God in Jesus Christ teaches us how to love. In fact, we see that quite clearly in the claim Jesus made for Himself in John 10:11. He said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And the people who first heard Him make that claim would have known immediately what He was saying.
You see, in those days, the shepherd’s life was bleak and demanding. If, as the expression goes, “a woman’s work is never done,” neither was a shepherd’s. Except in the rainy season, grazing was sparse, the shepherd was called to lead his sheep far afield in search of pastureland. A shepherd’s task was also fraught with danger. In New Testament days, wolves and lions roamed the countryside. The shepherd also had to protect his flock from poachers who traveled in bands and stole sheep for food and profit. These outlaws inevitably resorted to violence when resisted. All of that is what led William Barclay to write: “Constant vigilance, fearless courage, and patient love for his flock were the necessary characteristics of a shepherd in Jesus’ day.”
It was against this backdrop that Jesus declared: “I am the good shepherd.” I want us to examine that claim to see how it teaches us about God’s love…
First, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shows us that God’s love never lets us down.
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s the height of love, and Jesus attained that height freely, abundantly, lavishly, and gladly. He gave Himself away in love. He shared His time recklessly; He gave His strength liberally; He spent His energy generously. Whoever needed Him was not denied Him. He wasn’t very careful about choosing His friends. He never aligned Himself with any special interest or political action groups. He gave Himself to all sorts and conditions of people. And having given time and strength and thought and sympathy, He finally gave up His life, consciously and deliberately. It was not snatched from Him by accident or fate. It was freely surrendered by a heart willing to pay the ultimate price. “I have the power to lay down my life,” He said, “and I have power to take it up again.” He gave His life because He believed that only by so doing could He lift people out of the mire of sin and into the glory of God. The love of Jesus was warm, vibrant, dynamic, and inexhaustible. There has never been anything like it before or since. His love will never let us down—it will only lift us up.
I came across a beautiful little story that makes the point. A little pre-school girl was playing at home one day when she accidentally broke one of the family’s most cherished heirlooms. It was an oriental vase which had been passed down from generation to generation. Because she knew its value, the little girl cried out when she broke it. Hearing the crash and the crying, her mother came running. However, the child was in for a big surprise. She saw not anger on her mother’s face, but relief. “O Darling, I thought you were hurt,” her mother said as she gathered the little girl into her loving arms, holding her tightly, rocking her gently, hugging her tenderly. Later, when the little girl grew up, she looked back on that event and said: “That was a great moment for me; I discovered that day that I was the family treasure!”
Well, my friends, you and I are God’s family treasures. He cherishes us more than anything else He ever made. And in Jesus Christ, He loves us with a love that never lets us down, but only lifts us up.
Secondly, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shows us that God’s love never lets us off.
Jesus said: “He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not…cares nothing for the sheep.” Sheep, you see, have a tendency to wander off and get into trouble—and only a true shepherd cares enough about the sheep to discipline them, to hold them to the areas of safety. Jesus is saying here that God loves us enough to discipline us. He cares enough for us to try to keep us out of trouble. He loves us with a love that will not let us off. He lets us know when we are headed in the wrong way.
True story. A few years ago, the newspaper in Prague, Czechoslovkia reported that a woman named Vera Czermak, upon learning that her husband had betrayed her, jumped out of the window of her third story apartment. The paper noted that she was recovering nicely at the local hospital, having landed on top of her unfaithful husband who was killed instantly! Well, I don’t know that God always acts that dramatically to hold us accountable for that which is evil in our lives, but the fact is that He does not ignore the things that we do in life that are wrong. He doesn’t let us off the hook. He holds us accountable. But the good news is that when we yield to His guiding, loving, and caring hand in our lives, He transforms us into right-living and right-loving people.
They buried Lee Atwater the other day. You know that he was the political operative for the Republican Party. He was a rough and tumble political strategist, widely known as “the pit bull of American politics.” But something happened to Lee Atwater. In March, 1990, he was delivering a speech which included a vicious and cynical attack on Michael Dukakis. Suddenly, Atwater collapsed with a seizure. Later, at the hospital, he learned that he had a brain tumor which ultimately would cost him his life. Life changed for Lee Atwater. He stopped reading Machiavelli and started reading the Bible. Listen to what he wrote in Life magazine just a few weeks ago.
“I have found Jesus Christ. It’s that simple. He has made the difference, and I am glad I found Him while there is still time. I don’t hate anyone. For the first time in my life, I don’t hate somebody. I have nothing but good feelings toward people. There’s just no point in fighting and feuding. I used to say that the President might be kinder and gentler, but I wasn’t going to be. How wrong I was. There is nothing more important in life than human beings and there’s nothing sweeter than human love. I found Jesus Christ and He made the difference.”
Lee Atwater spent the last months of his life making peace with former enemies, writing letters of penitence asking for forgiveness, and telling everyone he could about the redeeming, reconciling love of God. God’s love, you see, wouldn’t let him off, and ultimately God’s love transformed his life from wrong to right. God’s love can do the same for us.
Then thirdly, Jesus, The Good Shepherd, shows us that God’s love never lets us go.
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.” In those days, because water was scarce, whenever a well was located, the shepherds and their flocks would all gather in that spot to be replenished by the water. Of course, the sheep intermingled with one another as they drank the water. When they had had their fill, each shepherd would then call out to the sheep in his own unique way. All of the sheep belonging to a particular shepherd would recognize that call and follow the shepherd. The good shepherd, you see, not only knew the flock, he also knew every sheep within it—and each of those sheep knew the shepherd. Jesus is reminding us here that God knows each of us by name and He loves us as if we were the only person in all the world to love.
Graham Greene, the great British novelist, died the other day—and his death reminded me that my favorite Graham Greene novel is The Heart of the Matter. It portrays an English Chief of Police in an African colony, a man whose bitter frustration has involved him in a tangled web of intrigue, adultery and murder. Beside himself with despair, he lunges toward the brink of suicide. Religion has ceased to guide and comfort him, but in a gesture of defiance, he goes to church for the last time, more to curse God than to pray. However, as he stands before the altar and looks at the crucifix, there breaks upon him as never before the amazing awareness of One who clings to him in spite of all that he is and all that he has done. Suddenly he cries out: “How desperately God must love me!”
God does love us desperately. God even loves us defiantly. He will not stop loving us no matter what we do. We sin against God, but God will not be compromised by our sin. We break our friendship with God, but God will not allow the bond to be broken. We defy God, but God answers with an even greater defiance. He loves us so desperately and so defiantly that He will not stop loving us even if we refuse to love Him and to be loved by Him. No barrier of indifference or pride or unbelief, no aspect of our intellect or our emotions or our conduct, nothing we say or think or do can ever separate us from the love of God made visible and actual in the cross of Jesus Christ. From the cross God says: “You can break my bones and bruise my flesh and drain my blood, but you cannot stop me from being what I am—the God who loves you and will not let you go.”
Jesus teaches us all we ever need to know about God’s kind of love. God loves us with a love that will never let us down, that will never let us off, and that will never let us go. That means that we are His, and He is ours, forever. I learn that from the One who said: “I am the good shepherd.”