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The Shepherd Knows My Name

May 8, 2017

“The Shepherd Knows My Name” Ezekiel 34:1-16; 1 Peter 2:11-12, 18-25; John 10:1-18 © 5.7.17 Easter 4A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

For the people of Judah, living in exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, Ezekiel’s description of the Lord as a shepherd brought back memories of a happier day. The image came from the time of their beginnings, before nationhood, when their ancestors had been nomadic herders. As much or more than any other picture of God the Hebrews used, the idea of God as a shepherd had arisen from their experience and their culture. God guided his people, who often wandered off like sheep. He stood guard over them, protecting them from harm.

As years went on, the shepherd metaphor came to be applied not just to God, but to the leaders of the people as well. Of course, Moses and David were quite literally shepherds, taken from tending flocks in the wilderness to care for the flock of God in tabernacle and palace.

If every leader had followed the good example of Moses or David, perhaps the history of Israel would have been different. But they hadn’t. Ezekiel lamented the way in which those with oversight of the flock of God had become more like wolves than shepherds. Prior to the exile to Babylon, they had oppressed the people, enriching themselves at the expense of the poor and powerless, using their office and influence to make money. Charged to provide sustenance of soul that would have preserved the nation’s life, they cared only for heaping up goods for themselves. Ezekiel lays the blame for Judah’s sorry plight squarely at the feet of kings, priests, and court prophets, the latter being yes men who told the king God always approved of what he, the king, wanted to do.

Since these leaders have abdicated their responsibilities, Ezekiel says, Yahweh himself will be the shepherd of his people. He will rescue them from the hands of the evil and corrupt pseudo-shepherds. The Lord will give his flock the nourishment they need, leading them by still waters, restoring their souls, defending them in threatening dark valleys. He will bring them security and freedom as they lie down in green pastures. In the end, the Lord would set up one shepherd over Israel. That one would be none other than the Messiah.

A later prophet, Zechariah, picked up on this imagery and spoke of a shepherd who suffers death and brings about a decisive turn of events. But the reputation of shepherds suffered considerable damage in the years following the Old Testament prophets, so that by the time of Jesus, the rabbis were reticent to speak of God as a shepherd. They considered such people to be thieves and cheats. Shepherds were even without civil rights, despised as much as the worst collaborators with the Romans.

So Jesus’ description of himself as “the good shepherd” is somewhat significant and surprising. Significant, because he names himself as the Messiah promised by the prophets. He’s the one who would lead God’s flock, guiding them to safe pasture, bringing a new day. Surprising, because in calling himself a shepherd he identifies himself with the downcast, the disenfranchised, the stranger, the despised.

The rabbis had wondered aloud how the psalmist could ever have called God “my shepherd.” But now Jesus claims it’s not the shepherds who are liars and thieves. It’s the religious leaders of his day; it’s any leader in any time and of any nation who betrays and/or preys upon the people he or she is charged to guide and protect. Jesus gives honor to the despised.

That would have come as good news to the people who read and heard the letter we call 1 Peter, written around the same time as the gospel of John, approximately 90-100 AD. They felt alienated from their culture because of their faith. Some of them were even quite literally aliens in the land, having been brought there as household slaves of pagan masters. The members of these churches in Asia Minor were looked upon by both neighbors and government as oddballs and weirdoes, with strange habits and subversive beliefs and practices. They were misunderstood and maligned, even suffering verbal or maybe physical abuse for their faith.

The writer reminded them that Jesus had suffered, too. Jesus, their Shepherd and Guardian. Even in the dark night of their alienation, even when the neighbors were laughing or the master was treating them cruelly or the local magistrate was asking for an account of their faith, the Christians could know there was one who cared for them personally and completely.

When you’re lonely, it’s good to know someone knows your name. When you’re lost, it’s comforting that there’s someone who knows the way. When you’re suffering, it’s encouraging that someone has hurt the way you are hurting. When your world comes crashing down and you feel terribly insecure and frightened, how wonderful to hear that there’s someone who can provide protection, who’s in the business of rebuilding broken dreams and opening closed tombs!

The shepherds of old, as I understand, had pet names for their favorite sheep, such as “Long Ears” or “White Nose.” Our shepherd calls us by name as well, in baptism, and he knows us inside and out.

This is what writer Robert Raines has termed a “blessed name-calling.” He tells the story of a little girl who was praying the Lord’s Prayer for her mother. The family happened to live in New Haven, CT. When the child prayed, she said: “Our Father who art in New Haven, how did you know my name?” (A Faithing Oak: 66.)

That child had a wisdom beyond her years. It’s amazing that God knows our names and what we’re like. But in Christ he’s been where we are, walked where we walk. He addresses us in intimate terms.

In the old King James Bible sort of English, there was a distinction in second person pronouns between a formal, corporate address and a personal, familiar address. We’ve lost that difference now, but it’s still preserved in other modern languages. “Thou” was the close, intimate term, while “ye,” in addition to being plural, was the more distanced. God always addresses us as “thou,” as subjects, not objects, as those with whom he is thoroughly familiar and for whom he cares.

In Christ, this Shepherd God who knows his flock by name gave himself for us, laid down his life so his beloved sheep might go in and out and find pasture. Christ suffered and died so we might live. Not just survive. Really, truly live a life of love, a life of relationship, that he called “abundant.”

Because Jesus not only laid down his life, but took it up again, he gives this life to all who hear his call, who follow him. And his goal is that as we know this life, we may experience fellowship with each other, and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

Alleluia, alleluia! Give thanks to the risen Lord, the Shepherd who knows our names.

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