Look up. You see the cross. As Christians, when we come to worship this is something we are used to and expect. We expect to walk into the sanctuary and see the cross there up front and above the altar, we always have. But it wasn’t always like that.
The earliest Christians till about the 3rd century could not even consider having the sight of a cross in the front of the worship space. It was simply just to painful to bear. The Cross was the national symbol of bloody torture and an unbearable execution by Roman soldiers. To have the cross at the front of the worship space would be like having the guillotine at the front of the worship space in France or maybe the electric chair at the front of the worship space here in the U.S. To be reminded of the price that Jesus paid upon that cross at the front of the church was simply something that Christians could not bear to see every time they met. So they choose other symbols to identity themselves as Christians to each other and to remind them of the salvation that Jesus accomplished for them.
One of those earliest symbols was the fish. When the Christians were being persecuted they had to meet in secret. One Christian would come to the doorway and draw a simple half-oval in the sand and then a line coming straight down at the end. The other person would finish the drawing by completing the oval and finish with a line going straight up, creating the basic image of a fish.
But the most popular image by far in those early centuries of Christianity was the shepherd. The shepherd was the image that the Israelites of old used to picture God’s work in their lives. A gentle shepherd who would lead and guide the sheep through the wilderness to still waters and green meadows that restore the soul. And like sheep, they would often go astray and the shepherd would come and find them. In the wilderness when a sheep had wandered away from the flock and gotten lost they would wedge themselves underneath the nearest bush or stone and start crying as loud as they could. When the shepherd finally finds the lost sheep the poor thing has worn itself out so badly that it cannot even stand on its own feet. No matter how large that sheep is or how much it weighs, the only way for the shepherd to save that sheep from being devoured by the wild animals is to pick it up and heave it behind his neck and around his shoulders and carry it all the way home. In those early worship spaces, they would have instead of a cross, a carving or statute of a gentle shepherd carrying this hefty and cumbersome sheep around his shoulders, easily as big as the shepherd himself. But the depictions of the shepherd, despite the burden he is carrying, they always show him with a smile on his face like the weight he is carrying, it’s worth the price he is paying to carry the sheep home.
Whenever we talk about shepherds we know we are talking about sheep as well, because sheep rely upon the shepherd to take them to the right places, where they will be fed and watered, and to keep them safe from the harm that is constantly threatening them. And almost always in the bible the sheep are a metaphor for you and me, people who are just trying to find their way in this world but we don’t really know how, we need a shepherd, even if we don’t like to admit that we do. If you were to ask Jesus how someone is suppose to know which Shepherd to follow, Jesus would say, look at the price that the shepherd pays for the sheep, then you will know.
Then Jesus would share a parable to describe what this looks like. From our Gospel reading in John 10, “So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, Truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep/If anyone enters by me, they will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”
Middle eastern shepherds typically only half about two or two and a half months of good green grazing time for their flocks and then the rest of the 10 months things would be mostly brown and dry. As the shepherds take their flocks out they always have to go farther and farther out each day for there to be decent enough grazing ground. Pretty soon it always gets to a point when it just doesn’t make sense to travel a great distance for food and to walk all the way back that same day and use up all of the food they worked so hard to get to. So, the shepherds corral the sheep into a cave and take bramble and thorn bushes from the countryside and create a wall in front of the cave entrance to discourage wild animals from getting in. But in this thorn bush wall there always has to be an opening so the shepherd can get in and the sheep can get out. If left open, predators would simply go into the opening and kill the sheep, so the shepherd himself lies in front of the opening and becomes the door for his flock, paying the price in his own blood to protect the sheep.
Jesus said I am the door. This is what the Good Shepherd does for his sheep. Jesus of his own choice laid down his life for his sheep and in his blood paid the price to protect the sheep against the enemies that would enter in and kill and destroy. These same enemies that we face today that wage war against us: the sin and brokenness of this world and our own hearts, the power of death and the spiritual forces of the devil. The Bible reminds us that sin and the devil are like a roaring lion seeking those people they can eat and destroy. But, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life upon the cross and in His blood destroyed the power of our spiritual enemies so that with Jesus as our shepherd we do not have anything to be afraid of whether in this life or the next. If you are wondering what shepherd to follow, look at the cross and remember the price the Good Shepherd paid for His sheep.
Then Jesus says, “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and go out and find pasture.” I have to tell you that this little verse has meant more and more to me the longer I meditate on it. Thinking about those sheep, there was only way for them to be safe and that was through the Good Shepherd. If they went anywhere else they would get tangled in a thorn bush, fall of a cliff, drown in a river, get eaten by a wild animal. There was only one place that would be safe and that would be through the door and into the safety that the shepherd created for them. But the sheep wouldn’t stay their forever, they had to graze and live and find pasture, but again they couldn’t do that without going through the Good Shepherd who would take them where they needed to be. Those sheep were completely dependent upon the Good Shepherd for all good things and to go anywhere else meant thorns, cliffs, drowning and death.
For us, its not really all that different is it. There are a lot of places we can go in our spiritual lives, a lot of different shepherds you can follow, a lot of different kinds of ways of living that all promise you happiness but how often do we only find in those false shepherds thorns, cliffs, drowning and death both physically and spiritually. How do we know who to follow as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death together? Well, look at the price that the Shepherd pays for the sheep. Look at the cross. Look at the Good Shepherd that carries the burden of our sin upon his shoulders. Look at the price Jesus paid for you, then you will know. Amen.
(Author’s Note: The background information for today’s sermon came from the Rev. Dr. Ken Bailey. He is an expert in Middle-Eastern studies and his books and videos shed a lot of light on the culture and practices of that region that are many times a mystery to us Westerners. If you get a chance simply google Ken Bailey and Psalm 23 and you will get a good youtube listing for his videos.)