recently walked out of a Christian gathering to find a man stood on a soapbox shouting, “accept Jesus or you’re going to burn”, “you need to be born again to secure your place in eternity”. Often when I see these kinds of street preachers I have to admit I’m more scared than encouraged. Their negative terminology subtly communicates this God who is going to be casting people to hell unless they ‘turn’.
The irony is that this street preacher was stood on a box with the words of John 3:16- “For God so loved the world that he sent his Son”- written on it. Sadly sometimes we subtly communicate that we believe in a revengeful God whilst standing on verses like “God so loved”.
I have a burning question in my mind at the moment. How did we take the most exciting and fascinating revolutionary movement in time and history and reduce it to a religious organisation? And how did we turn it into a scary announcement of God’s wrath against people?
The God we find in scripture is often described as the ‘bread of life’, the ‘solid rock on which we stand’, ‘living water’ and the ‘good shepherd’ among others. But it’s this term ‘good shepherd’ that intrigues me the most. The good shepherd would imply that there were bad Shepard’s or certainly less proficient shepherds. The word for good in the Gospel of John 10v11 is kalos, which can also be translated as ‘skilled’ or ‘proficient.’ Jesus calls himself the skilled and proficient, the good shepherd. The reality is that this term was loaded. For Jesus to call himself this could have received a massive response from the crowd. This term good shepherd was loaded because there had been a prophecy in Ezekiel 34 about poor shepherds.
Ezekiel 34 1-5 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals”.
The Pharisees were the shepherds of Israel. By calling himself the good shepherd Jesus is making it clear that he is more proficient than them and that they have failed to be who they were meant to be. They were keeping the best for themselves, not serving the poor, and had allowed the sheep of Israel to be scattered. These shepherds were building a religion, maintaining and protecting a powerful religious empire. If they were the poor shepherds and Jesus was the good we can conclude that he was doing everything opposite to the Ezekiel verses.
Jesus takes care of the flock.
He leaves the best for others and takes care of those in need.
He has strengthened the weak and healed the sick and bound up the injured.
He has sought and brought back the strays and searched for the lost.
He has ruled generously and mercifully and has gathered in those who were far off.
Doesn’t all that ring a bell? A story about sheep that have become scattered and shepherds who have left them to wander away? Jesus tells a story of a new kind of shepherd, one that is willing to leave the 99 to go find the lost sheep. A shepherd who is going to seek those who have become lost and whom the religious have abandoned. This new story is found in Luke 15. Here the shepherd is going to relentlessly seek the lost sheep of Israel and is willing to lay down his life for them. And when he finds them it reads that he is going to be ‘joyful’. Actually this word ‘joyful’ isn’t the best translation of the Greek. It would be clearer if it said ‘explosion of joy; extravagant and exuberant joy in a lost sheep that is found’. The good shepherd is relentlessly searching and when he finds one he explodes with joy.
If the good shepherd is relentlessly perusing them, then so should we as disciples of the shepherd. The shepherd is looking for partners in the pursuit of the lost. This pursuit isn’t an arm-twisting, an attack or a convincing. It isn’t a turn or burn- you don’t scare people into being found.
The Jesus Movement does not spread by force but through fascination.
We will win hearts and minds by seeking them, inviting them and fascinating them with the Good News of Jesus that all people are welcome, that all people are invited, that all people are loved and that all people can find a new hope in the resurrection. The flock of 99 isn’t complete- it isn’t finished and the shepherd will not stop searching until the flock is together again. The shepherd isn’t happy until the flock is full.
God is on our side; he is with us and for us – and it is this that will find people.
No one ever felt loved by being shouted at.
No one ever was found by condemning them to the fire.
No one ever heard a message of searching and pursuing when being told they needed to turn or burn.
As disciples of the shepherd we are to live our lives in such a way that we fascinate people. We are to pursue people with love. A love that does mean leaving the 99, leaving the protective empires and security we have in the search for the 1. A search which may cost us everything… like it did the good shepherd.