"The Lord is my Shepherd"
(The Fourth Sunday after Easter)
Psalm 23 John 10:1-10
No prizes for guessing the theme for this week then!
It’s all shepherds, sheep and lambs. Lots of picture language – and a little bit confusing.
We haven’t read the Psalm, but if you glance at it I am sure it will be familiar. Psalm 23 gives us the famous picture of the shepherd. In the gospel we have Jesus talking about himself as the shepherd and us as the flock.
We will start with shepherds. Both the psalmist and Jesus use shepherds as an illustration. The reason is fairly obvious because there were a lot of them about. Everyone would know what a shepherd looked like and what a shepherd did. I did wonder what would Jesus have used for an illustration in the 21st century. Certainly not everyone knows what a shepherd looks like or could identify with his example. Perhaps he would have said. " I am the Broadband provider – the only one that connects first time every time, I am free, I am always available," or maybe you have a better example.
Jesus chose shepherds - There is a lot of sentimentality surrounding shepherds and sheep. Do you remember the famous paining by Bernhard Plockhurst ‘The Good Shepherd’? His shepherd has long flowing fair hair, and he is wearing something resembling his grannie's nightdress, he is walking barefoot in the grass. There are similar pictures I am sure you can call to mind from Sunday School days of a fair haired, blue eyed shepherd surrounded by while fluffy lambs; but of course we know that shepherds were not like that; the lambs did not look like that; and had Jesus been like that he would not have been executed.
What do we know about sheep and shepherds?
Sheep are not adapted to heat and dryness, they are fragile. Their rough appearance is deceptive. Sheep are naturally defenceless and susceptible to parasites. They have to be watched continually, and they need protection at night. Sheep are short sighted. They can only see 6 feet ahead.
Perhaps now we can begin to understand why Jesus said that we are like sheep and he is our shepherd. However, we need to realize there is very little similarity between Palestinian and British shepherds.
Those shepherds were tough guys, willing to fight wild animals to protect their sheep; -willing to sleep rough under the stars. Psalm 23, the great shepherd psalm, gives us a bit of insight into the role of the shepherd. Shepherds in the east used to go in front of the sheep and lead them – not drive them from behind as our modern shepherds. Jesus our shepherd has gone ahead of us – he has faced the danger for us, he knows where the rocks and ravines are – if we follow we will be safe. Shepherds find good pasture for the sheep, and seek out clean water to drink. Jesus leads us to good pasture, - but sadly some Christians are spiritually starvin. We need to learn to feed on the word of God and drink the water of life.
Shepherds carry two pieces of equipment: a rod and staff. The rod is a short stick to ward off danger from other shepherds who might steal the sheep, and to protect from the wild animals. The staff or crook is not some fancy walking stick – but a long pole with a crook or hook on the end. This would hook around the neck of sheep that look like they might be wandering off, and when the sheep were going into the fold for the night the shepherd would lie down and look at them as they passed by. If he saw one that was injured or lame he could hook it out. Then he could treat the wounds with the oil and wine also mentioned in the Psalm. Wine would have been poured into wounds to cleanse, and the oil poured in to soothe. The other use for the crook is that of prodding and keeping them moving when they were flagging behind. There is a famous scene in the Bayeux Tapestry of a captain prodding his men with a spear - it is called ‘comforting the troops’. Just to complete the picture at the end of the Psalm there are the two sheepdogs, "goodness" and "mercy". They follow us all the days of our lives snapping at our heals when we might go astray. That’s what shepherds are like.
So Jesus returns once more to the shepherd and sheep illustration: – my sheep hear my voice –I know them and they follow me, and this time he ends with a spectacular promise to the sheep.
They do not exist as individuals they belong to flocks. Sometimes we might find ourselves in a flock we are not too keen on. You know how it goes – “These sheep are not quite like me; - I mean, just look at her wool; we didn’t have wool like that in my day, and just look at her lambs – totally out of control.” But like the sheep, we are not called to be isolationists, but called to be the people of God together – sharing our common life and faith.
Today we live in a society where family life around us is collapsing; children and teenagers are growing up with little moral teaching; violent crime is ever more commonplace, people are seeking alternative shepherds in the occult, in drugs, in terrorism and addiction. Many are becoming rich and self satisfied, with more power – while the poor are becoming poorer and more desperate. We who are in a safe flock, need to go out and find the sheep that are lost and bring them in. We don’t have to look far. Wherever we live we are surrounded by people of all ages and all types who are lost, wandering about in despair. They may try to hide it from themselves, and us, but it is real. Jesus intended his church to be one flock; we have made a bit of a mess of the original plan but it is never too late.
Jesus is the good shepherd but it is not enough just to hear his voice – we are called to hear and obey. We are called to follow; and what about the spectacular promise I mentioned earlier? Those who hear and follow the shepherd will be safe forever. He will look after them, and even death itself, the last great enemy, cannot harm them. Christian confidence about life beyond death is not a matter of wishful thinking or a vague general hope that things will turn out all right in the end. It is built on the promise of Jesus. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, however scary that seems, in order for there to be a shadow there has to be the sun. Not just the sun in the sky - but for us who believe, it is the Son of Righteousness – Jesus who is present in the valley with us.
So many analogies, so many pictures, so many challenges – we are the flock of God in this place, four congregations, one flock, being cared for by part time shepherds. We have a vacancy for a Shepherd and we put together the job description and advert.
What kind of shepherd/shepherdess do we really need? (Notice I did not say want!)
We have the divine pattern:
One who will lead from the front.
One who will feed the sheep with rich pasture from the word of God.
One that will offer the water of life.
One that will protect from the wild animals of false teaching and dodgy theology and the dangers of extremism.
One that will revive the soul of the churches.
One that will prod when needed, and seek out those who are hurting and damaged.
One who will bring the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
One who will know our name – call us out, give us work to do.
Not for us then the 30 year old man with 2.4 children and a wife who does not work. One who will be like the pied-paper of Repps, Clippesby Thurne and Martham gathering the young people into our churches, and comforting all the parishioners in the safety of their homes – at the same time keeping all of the flock satisfied and not changing anything? In reality we know that person does not exist.
So we pray for God to seek out the right shepherd for this flock.
May God give us the grace to hear, follow and obey
May God give us the grace and prayerfulness to seek and accept his shepherd for this flock.
May God give us grace. Amen