Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday—on Ash Wednesday. We here at St. John’s, and also at Salem, have been trying something new, and have been following the narrative lectionary. We entered into this on the Year 4 cycle, which focuses on the Gospel of John, and we have been going through the Gospel of John somewhat in order for the last several Sundays. I will admit that when I saw that the text the narrative lectionary had assigned for Ash Wednesday was the text about the Good Shepherd, my initial reaction was a bewildered, “Huh?” And I did seriously consider changing it back to the Revised Common Lectionary, with its text from Matthew which says to pray, give alms, and fast in secret, even though it would mean yet again struggling to reconcile that reading with the fact that we’re putting big ugly ash crosses on one another’s foreheads. But then I took a second look at the John reading and saw this verse: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And I realized that this is, after all, what we’re supposed to be focusing on during Lent: Jesus laying down his life for us. Now I’m wondering why the Revised Common Lectionary assigns this text for the fourth Sunday of Easter.
Lent is a time when we focus on what Jesus did on the cross for us, and it is a time when we examine ourselves and find that yes, we are still sinful human beings and as such, that we miss the mark in many ways. And when we hear this portion of the Gospel of John, the image that we get in our heads most likely comes from paintings of Jesus as the kindly shepherd, perhaps with a lamb on his shoulders, and with kind-hearted, white, fuzzy sheep frolicking around him. In fact, if you look up at our stained-glass window over the balcony, that’s exactly the image that I’m describing. Well, I’m here to tell you that sheep are not like that at all. Richard Swanson, in his book, Provoking the Gospel of John, describes sheep like this: “. . . to anyone who has worked closely with sheep, it is not a compliment to say that we are the sheep of God’s pasture. Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along. Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell. Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and they leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be” (p. 269).
What does it mean for us to be sheep? Well, we like to think of ourselves as those cute and fluffy animals who are so sweet that we see in our pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And most of the time, we delude ourselves into thinking this is so. But Lent is a time to come clean and acknowledge that we are more like those creatures that Swanson describes so poetically for us: greedy, smelly, and not too bright. It is a time for us to acknowledge that there is something deeply wrong in each of us, and we each have the potential to violate God’s law in the worst of ways. As an example of that self-examination: I have been working my way through the wildly popular cable TV series, “Game of Thrones”. And part of me is appalled at myself that I am still watching this show, because it is probably the most graphically and gratuitously violent thing I have ever seen. I tell myself that I still watch it because the story is compelling and because I want to see who is going to finally end up sitting on the Iron Throne. But what if I’m deluding myself? What if, on some level, I am enjoying the violent side of it as well? What if, deep down, I’m not as good of a person as I imagine myself to be?
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What does it say about Jesus that he wants to be our shepherd? I have a friend whose father raised sheep, and she told me a story about how one day he came in to the house, fully exasperated with whatever the sheep had done that day, and said, “The only thing dumber than sheep is the man who raises them.” Is Jesus dumber than we are? Well, I don’t think so. But I do think that he has compassion on us. The Gospels tell us in several places that Jesus has compassion on the crowds because “they were like sheep without a shepherd”. And that compassion that Jesus has and that love for us means that Jesus knows us completely: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he loves us in spite of all that. His love for us is so immense that he is willing to suffer violence at the hands of his sheep and to give his life so that these sheep—us—might live.
This year for Lent, I invite you to contemplate Jesus as the good shepherd, willing to give his life for us dirty, smelly, violent sheep. Many of us will be taking on extra disciplines during these 40 days, such as fasting from something, praying or studying more, and giving money or time to good causes. And that is all good—as long as you remember the reason that you are doing it. If you’re just doing it to have an answer to someone when they ask you, “What did you give up for Lent?” then that’s not a good reason to engage in this discipline. But, if you are doing it to remind you of what Jesus has done for us, how he laid down his life for us, and to grow in your love for him, then do take on that extra discipline this Lent. Jesus is the good shepherd who loves us so much that he lays down his life for us. What awesome love that is, and what a good thing to hold in front of us as we enter the season of Lent. Amen.