While I was a full-time student, I worked a few jobs in retail. During our training for each of these positions, we were told that if we were ever to be held up, we were not to argue with the person robbing us but we were to open the cash register and give the money over. Each time the reason was the same: our lives were much more valuable than the money. The cash could be replaced, but our lives can’t.
Given the choice between putting our lives on the line to protect what was in our care and letting it be taken by someone who was threatening us, it makes sense to save our lives and let go of what we are looking after.
However, sometimes it’s not that simple. For example, a few months ago there was a shooting in a school in the USA. A security guard at the school was heavily criticised afterwards for remaining outside the building when he could hear gunshots inside the classrooms. I don’t know why he didn’t go in to confront the shooters, but I wonder if he was possibly following the instructions I received in my retail training – that you don’t put your life at risk because you can’t get it back.
We all have an inbuilt desire for self-preservation. What my retail trainers were telling me and what the security guard at the school in the USA shows is that our natural tendency is to want to save our lives, even if it comes at the expense of others. My intention is not to be critical or condemning, and I do not want to make anyone feel guilty for making a choice like this. Instead, I want to show that there is a stark contrast between our natural human tendency and Jesus, who willingly laid down his life for us.
Jesus makes this contrast in John 10:11-18 when he describes the difference between a hired hand who is employed to look after a flock of sheep and himself as the Good Shepherd. The hired hand follows my retail training by leaving the sheep when they are threatened by a wolf. The Good Shepherd, however, knows the sheep and values each sheep so much that he willingly lays his life down for the sheep.
When you stop to think about it, this is a pretty disturbing image. Jesus isn’t saying that the shepherd he scares the wolf away or fights it off. Instead, the Good Shepherd places himself between the sheep in his care and the wolf that is threatening them. He willingly lets the wolf kill him and, assuming the wolf is looking for something to eat, feast on his carcass so that the sheep can escape to safety. This is not exactly a child-friendly image. But Jesus is wanting to show us the lengths that he will go to for those in his care because he values each of his sheep so much. That is the way he values each of us…
This idea of sacrifice for others is deeply embedded in our Australian culture. Each year on April 25th we pause as a nation to remember the men and women of our defence forces who have died for our country in war. ANZAC Day is an opportunity for us to stop and reflect on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us so we can live in peace and freedom. It is an important part of our culture as a nation and vitally important that we honour those who have given their lives to protect us.
Even though we live in relative freedom in Australia, we still face threats which want to rob us of life. In the verses preceding Jesus’ words about being the Good Shepherd, he talked about thieves who come to ‘steal and kill and destroy’ the ‘rich and satisfying life’ (v10 NLT) that Jesus gives us. We all face wolves in our lives who want to rob us of life. Sometimes those wolves might be fear, guilt, anger or hopelessness. At other times they might take other forms, but their intention is still the same – to rob life from us.
That’s when the Good Shepherd steps in. He knows what threatens to rob life from us and he places himself between us and the wolves that threaten us so we can find safety and freedom through his sacrifice for us. When we are threatened by fear, Jesus our Good Shepherd takes the worst of this world’s evils on himself in his suffering and death so we can find comfort in his presence with us. When we are threatened by guilt, Jesus takes all of our guilt on himself and dies with it on the cross so we can find forgiveness in him. When we are threatened by anger or hatred, Jesus takes the full force of this world’s anger and hated on the cross, as well as our Father’s wrath, so we can find peace. When hopelessness approaches, our Good Shepherd who died for us comes to us as the One who is risen from the grave to give us his love and life which are stronger than anything we will face in this world. No matter what may threaten to rob us of life, Jesus our Good Shepherd steps up for us, and takes the full force of the threat so we can live in his protection, freedom, peace and hope.
He does all of this because each one of us is so valuable to him. Matthew ends his version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep with Jesus saying, ‘it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish’ (18:12-14 NLT). Each and every sheep in the flock is precious to the Good Shepherd. It can be easy for us to understand that Jesus would give his life for others, but often it can be more difficult to trust that he did that for me, or for you. This is the heart of faith: trusting that each of us is so precious, so valuable, so essential to our Good Shepherd that he would lay down his life for us so we can live.
It would be easy to go on at this point to how we should also give our lives for others, but I’m not going to do that. We know we should be willing to lay down our lives for others, but we still have this thing within us that asks what’s in it for me, or what do I get out of it, or what is it going to cost me? It is part of our natural human condition. That’s why Jesus’ love still amazes me. He knows us well enough to know that it’s not in our nature to be willing to give our lives for others unconditionally, but he still does that for us. For me. For you. That’s why he’s the Good Shepherd.
And that’s why I reckon he can be trusted and why he’s worth following…