I’ve been seeing the usual round of tweets all week admonishing every pastor not to blow it on Mother’s Day. Strike the right note, they all say, don’t say the Wrong Thing. Remember that there will be mothers who have lost babies, or men and women who can’t have children, or someone who just lost her mother. Don’t ruin an already fraught day with a sermon that makes everyone feel bad.
There is a clever way around that, of course. Mother’s Day doesn’t need to factor into your church calendar. You can just preach on the Bible, and not worry about Mother’s Day at all. And the biblical text that you pull out of your hat, because it should always be read aloud on this number of Sundays after Easter, can be about the Good Shepherd. If you’re a mother you can get a flower after the service and be taken out to lunch by your family. The sermon can be for the whole church no matter who they are.
Happily for me, John 10 is the central text of my Sunday school effort. After the smallest child is acclimated to the room and all the interesting materials, has learned to roll up his mat, to water the plant, to walk and speak reverently, sometime before advent, if I have my wits about me, I haul out the pasture and the sheep and trace out the properties and characteristics of the Good Shepherd—he knows each sheep by name, he leads them in and out, they listen to his voice and not to the voice of a stranger, he feeds them with good things, he lays down his life for them. Later on in the year we face the Lost Sheep—that a sheep went missing, and that the Good Shepherd left all those other sheep standing around in the field and went off to find it.
And that difficult question is asked over and over, “Who are the sheep?” and, “Who is the Shepherd?” Gradually the children, rolling around on the floor, thinking hard, say one by one, “I am a sheep,” and “Jesus is the Shepherd.”
It is a vast and astonishing revelation, and after that everything in the room—and indeed the Bible—opens up to that small person. But that singular truth is also so rich and deep that we come round to it over and over and over, no matter whatever else we might be talking about.
Jesus is a good Shepherd. He is not a bad one. He is not a confused and muddled shepherd who means well, who is trying his best but gets it wrong sometimes. He is not a twitter influencer shouting into an electronic void. No, his goodness succeeds where all other incompetent, half-hearted, selfish shepherds have failed.
And there are so many—bad shepherds that is. Jesus calls them ‘hired hands’, those people who think they’ve got some clever solution, or who just want to gather a crowd, and so apply their great and curious wisdom to the souls of other people to lead them every which way. And we all, being sheep, are pretty happy to wander in all those strange directions, down the alluring highways and byways that all eventually flow into the one broad road of ultimate destruction.
The Lord excoriates the bad shepherds of Israel through the mouth of Ezekiel:
Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
It is a bleak picture. It is not a ‘just be happy in Jesus’ flannel board. When you line up all the little wooden sheep, helping small chubby hands to move them in and out of the pasture, you don’t really want to give a warning, you don’t want to explain how twitter works, or even ask what kinds of malign forces already reside in the heart of that little one’s home. Indeed, every sane adult doesn’t really want to face the scattering, evil shepherds of the church and the world—the ones that smoothly make a buck off the faithful, who abuse the weak and innocent, who spew error from the pulpit, who are too fearful and weak to tackle the destructive and strong.
But observe, when Jesus picks up this terrible thread on the very night before his own death, when he tells his nearest sheep that they will scatter. He will be struck down, and they will all run away. The disciples are grieved, disbelieving. It cannot be so. Peter insists that he will never run away. But he does. They all do. And so the Good Shepherd, as he said he would, alone lays down his life for his sheep who are hiding in the dark, ruined by sin, overcome by fear, lost.
But it wasn’t just some terrible tragedy—his crucifixion and death. He didn’t just die because the world hates love. It isn’t complicated to understand. We, like sheep, had gone astray, each to his own iniquitous and sinful way, a way that leads to eternal perishing. But He—that’s God the Father—laid on Him—that’s God the Son—the iniquity of us all. The way that he gathers back the scattered sheep is by taking their sin and dying in their place, falling into the pit that they dug for themselves.
And rising again, of course. The Shepherd is as strong as he is good. By the strength of his glorious arm he casts down their chief enemy—death—and gathers them back into the fold. It is a visceral image, almost warlike. But also intimate, motherly—a hen with her brood, a shepherd with his flock, a man seeking a pearl, a father scanning the horizon for his son, you coming to rest before the one who is good and not evil.
However clever you are, however old you become, however sophisticated your material and electronic world, you never get over being a sheep. You get to be called a lot of things in the Bible, but the one that you can always go back to and understand is Sheep. Errant, wandering, foolish, weak, troubled, confused, constantly getting lost—you need a true, strong shepherd to bring always back to himself. And because he is truly good, he will.