John 10:11-18, Psalm 23
Let me share with you a story. It’s a story that involves Princess Diana, whose son Prince Harry – as I’m sure most of you – will be tying the knot on May 19th.
Now, I don’t know why May 19th was selected by Harry and his wife to be, Meghan Markle. But I find it interesting that back in 1994 – on May 19th – the Associated Press reported that Princess Diana had been jogging in Regents Park and was being driven home. A group of tourists flagged her car down as it was leaving the park, saying someone had fallen in a nearby lake.
Diana told her chauffer to call police. She then dashed to the bridge, where she was joined by Karl Kotila, a Finnish student living in south London.
Kotila, followed by Diana, climbed over the bridge’s railing onto the bank of the lake. He passed his backpack and wallet to Diana, then plunged into the lake, swam to the unconscious man and towed him to the bank. Diana and others who had joined her at the water’s edge pulled the man out.
Diana then helped turn him on his side as Kotila gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until police arrived and took over. The man revived.
Police indicated that the man was a homeless man who had been living on the streets of London for 20 years. They said he lived under a bridge with 7 or 8 other homeless individuals.
I would like to think that the first face that the rescued man saw when he came to was that of the former princess. Of course, the story would have been even better if it had been Diana who had jumped into the water, pulled the man out, and had been the one giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Think of the story that man could have told all his friends for years to come!
Let me tell you something. You and I have that kind of story to tell. We DO have someone who comes after us – and rescues us – when we are drowning in sin. When we are drowning in guilt. When we have chosen the wrong way. When we have wandered too far. His name is Jesus. And like a shepherd who cares for the sheep – Jesus just happens to be our Good Shepherd.
So yes – we do have a story to tell. It is Jesus – no one else – it is Jesus who comes after us and leads us safely home.
Listen! No one – not even an angel – can do for us what God alone can do for us. And that’s why God sent Jesus to be the rescuer and protector that we need. That’s why Jesus calls himself – and why one of the ways we can know him today – as the shepherd of the sheep. The Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
This weekend we use the metaphor of Jesus as a shepherd. This fourth weekend or Sunday in Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. And once again we are introduced to what may be the best known Psalm in the Bible – the 23rd Psalm. Sometimes it’s called the Shepherd’s Psalm. I learned it at an early age in Sunday School. It’s read at almost every funeral that I’ve ever done. I guess you could say that – like an old friend – the 23rd Psalm comes to us at the beginning of life and again at the end of life. And at least once a year in between.
You also know – most of you know – that I have traveled to Israel five times. They’ve got sheep and goats all over the place over there. Raising sheep is an important part of the economy. Three times Nancy and I had a tour guide by the name of Jael. And Jael told us of an interesting observation she once made. She said, “One day, I was watching a shepherd leading his sheep through the rugged terrain of the Judean wilderness, and I realized who the Psalm was talking about when it says, ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.’ Following the sheep were two sheep dogs, and I realized that their names were, Goodness and Mercy.”
Good way to think about how the goodness and mercy of our God follow us throughout our lives. I like to think of those two dogs – Goodness and Mercy – as the Hounds of Heaven! And yet! And yet, the Hounds of Heaven do more than just follow. The Hebrew word for follow can also be translated, “pursue.”
Think about it. Here you are – plodding through life – making the best of every day – and you turn around and take a look. Who’s that behind you? Oh yes! The Hounds of Heaven. Goodness and Mercy! Not stalking you. Pursuing you.
Look. No matter how well you think you know the 23rd Psalm – or how well you know Jesus as the Good Shepherd – it seems to me that we can’t fully comprehend God’s goodness and mercy until we also understand God as the pursuer – the One who pursues us when we’ve wandered away. There’s a difference – a big difference – between being followed – and being pursued. There’s a difference between looking over your shoulder and seeing good old reliable Goodness and Mercy just sauntering along behind you – and being pursued by the Hounds of Heaven – a breathless – in pursuit – Goodness and Mercy.
Let me share with you another story.
He was known as a mean, old man. Resentful. Bitter. Someone said that his bitterness was justified. His beloved wife died giving birth to their one child. The child died shortly thereafter from complications. “He has reason to be bitter,” they said in town.
Never went to church. Never had anything to do with anyone. When, in his late sixties, they carried him out of his apartment and over to the hospital to die, no one visited, no one sent cards or flowers. He went there to die alone.
But, there was this nurse. Well, she wasn’t really a nurse. Not yet anyway. She was a student nurse in training. And because she was in training, she didn’t know everything that they teach you in school about the necessity for detachment. The need for distance with your patients.
She befriended the old man. It had been so long since he had friends, he didn’t know how to act with one. He told her, “Go away! Leave me alone!”
She would just smile. Try to coax him to eat some jello. At night she would tuck him in. “Don’t need nobody to help me,” he would growl.
Soon, he grew so weak, he didn’t have the strength to resist her kindness. Late at night, after her duties were done, she would pull up a chair, and sit by his bed, and sing to him as she held his old, gnarled hand. He looked up at her in the dim lamp light and wondered if he saw the face of a little one whom he never got to see as an adult. And a tear formed in his eye when she kissed him goodnight. For the first time in forty years, he said, “God bless you.”
As the young nurse left the room, two others remained behind. Breathless – whispering in the old man’s ears the last word he heard before slipping away.
“Gotcha.” The word was whispered in unison – by Goodness and Mercy.
So you see? Do you see? Yes indeed. We do have a story to tell. The story of Jesus our Good Shepherd – and of his goodness and mercy. It’s a story that says – and by the way – I will never tire of saying this –
No matter who you are. No matter what you’ve done. No matter where you’ve been. And if you’re prone to wander – no matter how long you’ve been away. Jesus – our Good Shepherd – comes – pursuing us. And gently leads us home.
He has set the Hounds of Heaven upon you – Goodness and Mercy – to follow us – no! To pursue us – all the days of our lives. That we might dwell in the house of the Lord – forever!