Fourth Sunday of 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 23 but if you glance at it I am sure it will be familiar with the picture of God as our shepherd.
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. There is a lot of sentimentality surrounding shepherds and sheep in biblical times. The famous painting ‘The Good Shepherd.’ by Bernhard Plockhurst depicts Jesus as a shepherd with long flowing fair hair, wearing something resembling his grannie's nightdress, walking barefoot in the grass and surrounded by fluffy white lambs; but of course we know that shepherds were not like that.
Palestinian shepherds were tough guys, willing to fight wild animals, to protect their sheep - willing to sleep rough under the stars. Psalm 23 gives us 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 like shepherds of today. 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 still spiritually starving. 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 a staff. The rod is a short stick to ward off danger from other shepherds who might steal the sheep and to protect them from 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 a sheep that 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 was poured in to soothe the wound.
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’. Thy rod and staff they comfort me!
Flocks of sheep had to be kept in the wilderness, if any sheep wandered and was found between Jerusalem and Bethlehem it was considered a sacrificial victim. So shepherds spent their lives in the wilderness scratching for food for their sheep and facing the danger of wild beasts.
Consequently, those poorly paid, hired hands often lead their flocks onto other people's land, and they had a reputation for stealing. People were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds, on the assumption that it was stolen property. Polite society considered that there was no more disreputable an occupation than that of a shepherd. So when we call Jesus "the Good Shepherd", we may be saying something much more revolutionary than we realise.
What do we know about sheep?
Sheep are fragile creatures, their rough appearance is deceptive. They are naturally defenceless and have to be watched continually, and they need protection at night. Sheep are short sighted they can only see 6 feet ahead so they rely on their very good hearing.
Perhaps now we can begin to understand why Jesus said that we are like sheep and he is our shepherd. In today's Gospel reading Jesus refers to himself as something that sounds even lowlier than a shepherd: ‘I am the gate.’ In those days the gate to the sheepfold was the shepherd himself who would lie across the entrance at night to keep the sheep in and wild beasts out. This was the only way into the sheepfold, since any other entry involved climbing over the wall.
Jesus continues to tell the story:- He call his own sheep by name ~ He knows who you are; He knows your name.
Sheep 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 their wool; we didn’t have wool like that in my day, and just look at their lambs – totally out of control.” But we are called to be the people of God, sharing our life and faith.
Sadly we live in a society where family life is in danger of collapsing; children 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 many forms of addiction. We have an increasingly secular society with many seeking to be rich and powerful, while the poor are becoming poorer and more desperate. We who belong to the safe flock, need to go out and find the sheep that are lost and bring them in. We won’t have to look far. Wherever we live we are surrounded by people who are lost, wandering aimlessly through life, and many are in despair.
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 then we receive that wonderful promise of abundant everlasting life. He will look after us, keep us safe and even death itself, the last great enemy, cannot harm us. 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 promises of God.
Psalm 23, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, however scary that sounds, in order for there to be a shadow there has to be the sun. Not just the sun in the sky - but for those who believe, it is Jesus, the Son of Righteousness who is in the valley with us; we have no need to fear.
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
May God give us the grace to hear his voice, to follow Him and to seek out the lost.
May God give us the grace and prayerfulness to accept our part time shepherds and to continue to prayer for Karen our shepherd.
May God give us grace. Amen