By Paul Koch –
As I read through the Gospel reading from John chapter 10 and began to study it, I was excited to begin crafting this sermon. After all, this is a powerful text. It seems simple from a cursory glance, but it packs quite a punch. It is a small exchange between Jesus and his opposition while he is walking among Solomon’s colonnade on the outskirts of the temple. And though it is brief, it lays a crucial foundation for understanding just what it is to be a disciple of our Lord. So I got to work. I translated the text, examined the context in which it is given, and began to read up on how it has been understood by those who have gone before us. I thought about how I might approach preaching this text and how it might impact you. And then I remembered something that ruined it all, something that I shouldn’t have overlooked: Today is Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day, how do you focus on hearing the Shepherd’s voice on Mother’s Day? Mother’s Day has a long tradition in the church. It is that day when you give thanks to God for mothers. It’s when you make moms feel good, when you finally give them some long overdue praise for all they do. It is also a day when you make other people feel guilty about how they’ve treated their own mothers. In fact, many Mother’s Day sermons can take that awkward turn where they make mother’s feel guilty for not living up to their vocation. Mother’s Day in church is great if you have a great mother and you treat her as such or if you are a great mother and live as such. But not everyone has a great mother, and not everyone is a great mother. So, what do you do then? I’ll tell you what you do. You stick to the text. To all mothers, to those who celebrate their mothers, to those who have lost their mothers, to those who dislike their mothers, to those who don’t know their mothers, you proclaim the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Now, most people here know the words of Psalm 23. It goes perfectly with the Word of Jesus from John 10. But when I first heard this Psalm as a young boy, I was perplexed by the opening line, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” I wondered why it was that we wouldn’t want our Lord as our shepherd. I didn’t seem to get it that when David speaks of not wanting, he is speaking about not being in want. That is, with God as our shepherd we will want for nothing, as the rest of the Psalm beautifully says. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” But these days I think that there is some merit to my childhood misunderstanding. Yes, the Lord is my shepherd. But is he really what I want? Do I want a shepherd? Do you want one? I think the case can be made that you don’t really want a shepherd, much less one that is the almighty creator of the heavens and the earth.
For starters, to confess that you have a shepherd is to confess that you are sheep. Sheep, those wandering creatures that can’t take care of themselves. No one wants to be that. You are competent and hard-working individuals. Sure, you’ve had your share of struggles, but you’ve overcome and pushed through. You’re not sheep who blindly go where the flock goes. Sheep can’t find their own water or protect themselves from the wild animals that seek to destroy them. They are helpless, foolish, and easily scared. That’s not you. That’s not how you see yourself. You see strong and intelligent people, people who are doing just fine on their own, at least most of the time. You gather together in church because you want to, because you know what you’re doing, because you see it as a good investment in yourself.
But to our Lord, you remain his sheep. You remain in need of a shepherd, whether you see it or not, whether you want it or not you’ve got a shepherd in our Lord Jesus Christ. He didn’t ask you for your permission. He didn’t wait for you to inquire about his shepherding credentials; he just started shepherding you. And it wasn’t always pleasant. It wasn’t always sunshine, rainbows, and warm embraces. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). But that voice can be rough at times. After all, it is the voice of one who sees into your life. He sees everything you do, everything you long for. Every desire of your heart and action you do in secret is clearly seen by your shepherd. So, when he speaks it can be painful. His voice has a way of dragging things into the light of day, things you don’t want to face. He points out your pride and arrogance, your sinful actions and your lustful desires and says, “How dare you! You belong to me and I expect better form you. Look at what you’ve done, at those you hurt, those you’ve failed to help. Look, sin clings to you!”
So we turn on him. You were going on perfectly fine in your life. You were doing things your way, and not much worse than anyone else. In fact, it was probably better than most. And then out of nowhere, he begins to pick you apart, and he gives you this big guilt trip. Truly he is a shepherd you do not want. He exposes your failure, exposes your brokenness, exposes your need of a shepherd in the first place. And perhaps it is that need that is most troubling to hear. The voice of your shepherd tells you over and again that you cannot do it, that your reason, strength, and work will only fall short of the glory of God. On your own, you will never have assurance in life everlasting only fleeting wish dreams that leave you with nothing.
But your Shepherd remains. He is relentless with his words, and when they empty you of everything within yourself, when they rob you of your own self-justifying tactics, then his voice changes. The harsh words of judgment fade. The condemnation that brings you to your knees ceases. And then without any merit or worthiness on your part, he begins to speak to you words of hope. Words that break into your darkness like the dawning of a new day, words of compassion, love, and promise. They are not the words you deserve; they are not controlled by your desires or actions; they are a pure gift and can only be received with empty hands. It is the true voice of your Good Shepherd that speaks to you today and says, “I love you. I forgive you. In me you have life. In me you will live. In me no one will be lost.”
In our text, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30). No one will snatch you out of his hand, for no one can snatch anything out of the hand of the Father. The voice of the Shepherd has called you and gathered you together. He has exposed your sin and then forgiven them all. You this day are secure in the hands of the Good Shepherd. All of history has bent toward this moment. All your steps in life that have brought you here today to hear the voice of the Shepherd.
Let us lift our heads. Let us rejoice in being the sheep of such a Shepherd. A Shepherd who models the love of every faithful mother. A Shepherd who still loves the mothers that have failed in their task. A Shepherd who speaks to children young and old, those who struggle with regrets about their moms, those who honor them, and those who miss them. For you have a Good Shepherd and all will be made whole in him.