Follow the Leader
Based on Psalm 23, 1John 3:16-24, John 10:1-18
When I was a small child I liked playing the game “follow the leader”. It was the most fun when an adult led because they would be more inventive than one of us kids. He or she could hold our attention by moving us around not only a classroom, but outside as well. Running, jumping, hopping on one foot, hand gestures, changes of posture, all this was part of the game and you did whatever the leader shouted and acted out. My sister, who has spent her adult life in elementary education and Head Start reminded me that everyone wants to be the leader. However, the game isn’t anywhere near as fun if the leader didn’t have an idea of what they wanted to do or where they wanted to go. It is a truism that there are always more followers than there are leaders.
Our scripture passages today are all dealing with leading or shepherding. My only run-in with sheep was a childhood trip out to the Southwest with my family. We were driving down a fairly deserted road near Monument Valley in Southern Utah. In the distance I could make out a mass of creatures in the road headed towards us. Turns out it was two mounted shepherds and a few hundred sheep. We kept getting closer to each other and my dad slowed the car until he had to stop. The sheep kept coming and I expected at any moment they would realize that they needed to part and go around our parked car. Nope – a half dozen smacked into the grill of the car and looked surprised when that happened. The ones behind kept coming and did the exact same thing…over and over this happened until most of the sheep had met our car with their heads and figured out how to move around. My first impression of crowd mentality – a truly leaderless group (because the mounted shepherds just let this happen) will just keep knocking their heads against an obstruction without finding a way around. It is good that we as Christians have a good leader to look to for our direction. Let us go to God now in prayer and thanksgiving…
Psalm 23 and John 10 make it clear who is our leader. In the first, the LORD, the God of Israel is the shepherd leading me and all the people who believe. The LORD cares for my every need and leads me safely through all of life’s dangers. The LORD prepares a kingly festival in my honor and invites those persons who do not like me or who seek to harm me. I am given kingly honors with oil anointing and a feast in the midst of those who seek to harm me. Finally, I will never leave this land or my LORD’s house which I am given to dwell in all my days. Similarly, in John 10, Jesus is the shepherd who leads the sheep, the gate, and the good shepherd all at the same time. He embodies all the needs that sheep have. Jesus keeps away all the thieves and bandits of the world. Because I am listening to and following the voice of the shepherd that I know (and who knows me by name) through the gate of his resurrection, following his sacrifice for me (not like a hired hand but as a true shepherd), I will find abundant life.
1 John says that this is how we know what true (agape) love is – because Jesus laid down his life for me and for all. Thus, if we are following in the footsteps of this good shepherd, we ought to do the same for any of our neighbors. The question from verse 17 is a poignant one and the crux of our time together this morning, “…How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help?…” Because let’s face the truth of living in our world today, friends, there are a lot of us who have the “world’s goods” and yet there are countless brothers and sisters who are in need. Not just physical needs, but with spiritual, emotional, loneliness, isolation, abandonment, forgiveness, compassionate companionship, etc. So many needs – but we often act like the hired hand in John 10 who runs away when the ravening wolves come to harry the sheep. That person is just getting paid to do a job, not to put his or her life on the line to save any of the animals. Sometimes our Christian witness is just like that – we have all the spiritual platitudes and clichés ready for any situation, and we speak them as a balm or a Band-Aid. Yet, what the person in front of us truly needs is the self-sacrificing love of Jesus who can and will walk with them through the darkness and back into the light of life and love and supportive community.
Because sometimes that dark valley is just a behavior rut that we get into. A preacher named Vance Havner once said that a rut is nothing more than a grave with the sides kicked out. I’m going to repeat that phrase and then let it sink in for just a moment… A wonderful mind picture isn’t it – and there is great truth contained in it. We often fail to realize when something in our lives has become a rut – we’re so used to things as they are that we forget that things haven’t always been that way. We are walking in a 6 foot deep grave that stretches out in front of us for the rest of our lives. This can be work, family life, church life and attendance, volunteering and leading, general busyness – anything can become a rut when we lose sight of what brought us to that behavior in the first place.
In America we have all the worldly goods we could ever want and more. The self-storage industry is a $38 billion dollar machine in 2017 with approximately 50,000 storage facilities in the U.S. There is roughly 7 square feet of rentable storage capacity per capita in the U.S. and the most profitable company had $2.5 billion in revenue last year. We store up that which we cannot currently house and yet there are many of our brothers and sisters in the U.S. and abroad who go without the basic necessities of food, water and shelter – not to mention a TV and other things stored in most self-storage units. We forget the scripture lesson of the hoarder who continued to build bigger storage units and worried about this right up until the moment that he died. What good did it do him to own the whole world but to lose his life for his things? He got into the rut the “grave” of acquisition, if you will, and it cost him living his life as his shepherd would lead him to live.
How about us – you and me? Whose lead are we following on a daily basis? Are we following someone or something that really doesn’t know us – that we don’t know ourselves? Where is that thing leading us? There was a note on Friday about a young EDM D.J. – 28 years old, who died from complications of pancreatitis and kidney disease secondary to alcohol abuse. He was following the idols of fame, celebrity and fortune (2018 net worth estimated at $85 million) and it cost him at least 50 years of his life. He died early due to his idol worship – idols always require a blood sacrifice. He was stuck in a rut that turned into a grave for real. So many people today are listening to something that doesn’t lead them to life eternal, it leads them to an early grave.
Jesus, the good shepherd and protector, who willingly died an early death for all of us, knows us by name and knows what we need. We need to follow Him to green pastures, but then we need to lie down so we don’t over eat and make ourselves sick. We need to follow him to still waters so that we aren’t swept away and drown while we try to quench our thirst. We need to follow his voice along straight paths that lead to abundant life. We need to follow our Lord and Savior who watches out for us and will defend us from all evil – if we only let him. We need to follow the One who truly and deeply loves us and paid the price for that love. He laid down his life as a conscious choice for all of us – and then was empowered by God and the Holy Spirit to pick it back up again and live until he comes again in glory.
What leader are you following and to what future? Our scripture reading form John 10 today says, “…The thief only comes to steal and destroy. I (Jesus) came that they may have life and have it abundantly….” When you choose to follow the LORD as your leader, you are anointed, you have abundant life, and goodness and mercy shall be what you sow all the days of your life in the house of the LORD. Thanks be to our gracious and loving God – amen!