Following In His Footsteps
Have you ever worked with sheep? I have had only one experience with herding sheep and it was a very strange one. When I was a young man, I had friends who farmed near North Loup, Nebraska. It was a small, family farm and so they had many different farm animals along with the crops they were raising. But they had a large herd of sheep. The sheep wandered the hills around the farm and did not require “shepherding” because they were fenced in.
But while I was visiting one summer, my friends decided it was time to gather up the sheep and separate some of the ewes from the rest of the flock. I have no idea why! I watched in amazement as their dog, a beautiful Australian Shepherd, moved with blinding speed and agility gathering up that herd of sheep. The dog moved them down off of the hills and into a penned in area near the barnyard.
You could tell, that dog loved his work! He looked like he was smiling while he ran! I asked my friends about the dog and they told me that he had cost them a lot of money but he was well worth it. It would have take all day, they said for them to have done the same job.
You see, we call it “shepherding” but it is not easy to herd sheep. Why? Because sheep are followers! Their natural instinct is to follow a leader. This flock had no shepherd and the dog had to motivate them with barks and nips and stunning bursts of speed to get them into the pen.
That afternoon, I saw a remarkable example of the sheep’s willingness to follow. While trying to separate the ewes, the flock began to run. They followed the sheep in front of them, running through the old barn around the outside and then back through the barn again. Soon there was a continuous circle of sheep running after the animal in front of them and doing whatever that animal was doing! There was a beam of sunlight shining down through the barn and the dust from the dirt floor was illuminated by the beam. One sheep, not knowing what that bar of dust was, jumped over the light as if it was a solid object. From that point on, every sheep following jumped over that beam of light! Sheep are followers!
Jesus used that fact to illustrate his relationship with his people in John 10:1-6. That is our scripture passage this morning. John 10:1-6.
JN 10:1 ”I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.
May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said. Here is Jesus’ stamp of importance. The scripture calls this word picture that Jesus draws a “figure of speech” and it is clearly allegory. Verse 6 says that his followers, “did not understand what he was telling them.” It seems a bit odd since they should have had a clear understanding of sheep and shepherds. Our “distance” from the events gives us a broader view and perhaps that makes it more clear.
What is Jesus’ word picture? The image is one of a “sheep pen.” In that time and place, an enclosure to protect sheep would have been made of stone or handmade brick. It would have had walls that would be high enough to keep predators out; both animal predators and human predators. It might have been partially roofed with a sunscreen and would have had a single door. When the shepherd came for the sheep he would have come to the door and called his flock by name; naming sheep was commonplace in that culture.
Who were the “thieves,” to which Jesus referred? Mark records (13:22) that Jesus said, MK 13:22 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect–if that were possible. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
There had been and would continue to be, those who claimed to be the Messiah. In 4 BC, Simon of Peraea was killed by the Romans when he tried to lead a rebellion claiming to be the Christ. Seven years later, a shepherd named Athronges attempted another rebellion that was quickly put down. Menahem ben Judah led an attempted revolt against Agrippa II but was slain by a rival zealot leader. Jewish historian Josephus said that Vespasian claimed to be the Messiah in 70 CE. There were (and are) many, many more; right up to David Koresh who led the Branch Dividians to their fiery deaths in 1993.
Jesus contrasted himself with the false Messiahs of his day. The false Messiahs “climbed the walls” to gain control over people with feigned greatness or violence. Jesus, on the other hand, “enters by the gate” with humility and love. The true shepherd would not drive the sheep out like a thief, but would lead them by calling their names. The true shepherd has a relationship with the sheep!
The obvious implication of Jesus’ allegorical word picture is that you and I need to have a relationship with the authentic Messiah; the chosen one of God himself. But there are some subtleties that we must not miss.
First, to follow in the footsteps of the true shepherd a follower must recognize his voice. When my son calls on the phone from Mississippi (or Afghanistan), I know who it is with the first words he says. Usually, “Yo Pops!” We have a relationship and I recognize his voice. We talk often. Do you recognize Jesus’ voice? Do you talk often? Do you listen? If you are not in the habit of listening to his voice you may be listening to others and being led in false and dangerous directions. If you are to “follow in his footsteps” you will need to recognize his voice.
Secondly, if you are to “follow in his footsteps” you need to be willing to go where he leads. That may seem obvious, but think for a moment about where Jesus’ path took him! We use that phrase, “follow in his footsteps” when we mean live a life like he lived. Are you willing to live a life focused on humility, love and self-sacrifice? If you are to “follow in his footsteps,” you will need to be willing to go where he leads.
Third, if you are to “follow in his footsteps” you must flee from what is false. We live in a world where misdirection is advertized on billboards with flashing lights and bright colors. Keeping your eyes on Jesus takes constant effort; following Jesus is an act of the will! If you are going to “follow in his footsteps” you must flee from what is false.
Following the good shepherd may mean sacrifice and paths that might hold dangers. But the result?
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD