Sermon - 7th May 2017
God our shepherd: we his sheep
Scripture - Psalm 23; John 10:1-11
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
In many church traditions, today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday”. The lectionary readings we have just heard read – Psalm 23 and the first 11 verses of John 10 – are just two of many passages in the Bible with a shepherd-sheep theme. Psalm 23, beginning “The Lord is my shepherd”, is perhaps the most well-known, even by people who would not identify themselves as Christian.
Looking a little more closely at the Bible, the first shepherd was Abel (the son of Adam and Eve); however, it did not end well for him: he was murdered by his brother, Cain. Later, we read about Abraham and how God called him: he was a shepherd, as were his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob. After Moses fled Egypt to Midian, he was a shepherd for a time; and when he led the Israelites out of Egypt, they took their flocks with them. King David, born the youngest son of Jesse, began life as a shepherd, and his skills as a shepherd using the sling helped him defeat Goliath.
The most well-known account involving shepherds is recorded in Luke’s Gospel, when the angel appears to the shepherds and announces Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. We are all familiar with the manger scenes. Despite their noble fore-fathers, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David, in ancient times, the position of shepherd was a somewhat lowly one.
Let us consider briefly the context of sheep and shepherd to Jesus’ contemporary audience in the first century. In the largely agrarian society of the time, sheep and goats were essential to provide milk and meat, skin and wool for clothing. This point will not have been lost on those listening to Jesus’ words. For us in the 21st century, where our only involvement in the food chain is to buy in the supermarket and to eat, the importance of good animal farming is not a daily imperative and we are detached.
Let us look more closely at some of Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading. Jesus talks about a sheep pen. Next to the houses and tents of those who kept sheep will have a been a stone or wooden enclosure in which to keep the sheet at night, with a gate to let them in or out. Anyone sneaking over the fence is clearly up to no good. Jesus calls these people “thieves and robbers”. The parable Jesus is telling here could refer to many: maybe He meant the Pharisees; maybe He meant the false Messiahs – we can read in Acts 5 and in other contemporary literature about those who proclaimed themselves to be ‘chosen of God’.
At the very of today’s Gospel reading, we read Jesus’ words: “I am the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep.” While the other three Gospels seek to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity in their narrative, John’s Gospel is different: it begins with “the Word was made flesh and lived among us”, an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. The seven “I am” statements made by Jesus which we find in John’s Gospel explore the nature of Jesus. Here, Jesus is “the shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep”, looking ahead to path to salvation we have recently marked before and at Easter.
At this point, I do not think we can continue to reflect on this passage without addressing something significant. If Jesus is the shepherd, who are the sheep? Answer: we are. That is right: Jesus is calling us sheep. The original audience of Jesus words would have had greater understanding of what this means; after all, many of them would have kept sheep themselves. Our modern, urbanised experience of sheep is more remote, and it is perhaps limited to seeing sheep in fields as we travel around.
If someone were to call you a “sheep”, what would they be implying about you and your actions? Would you consider it a compliment if someone you knew were to call you a “sheep”? Probably not.
The world is full of many and varied animals, and while sheep and goats were probably the most common animals in Jesus’ time and place in ancient Israel, His choice of the analogy of sheep and humans is not a comfortable one.
After all, are we humans not the height of God’s creation! Why did Jesus not compare us to the mighty and powerful lion, or to the intelligent and faithful dog, or to the swift and beautiful deer, or to the magnificent and graceful eagle. Should we be offended that Jesus calls us sheep!
Let us reflect on the nature of sheep…
Firstly, sheep are wayward with a tendency to wander off. Our Gospel reading reminds us that humans kept sheep in a pen at night, and during the day they went out with the shepherd. In another place in the Gospels, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, where one wanders off, gets into danger and has to be rescued. The prophet Isaiah (53:6) also compared us humans to sheep: “We like sheep have gone astray, everyone to [their] own way.”
Like sheep, we humans have a tendency to stray: we get involved in things which separate us from family, friends and our church community; we isolate ourselves and make choices which may seem correct to us in the moment but distance ourselves from those that care about us.
Secondly, sheep are witless. Everyone’s household dog is trained to some extent; we have all seen specially-trained dogs, horses, birds and even lions. Who has ever heard of a trained sheep!
Like sheep, we humans have a tendency to be witless. We like to think we are smart with our science, inventions, advanced thinking and reasoning; however, most humans are not even smart enough to acknowledge their Creator, get to know God and follow God’s basic directions for life. Consequently, we live in divided societies, broken families, the rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer.
Like sheep, we humans have a tendency to be witless: we do things even when we know that they will harm us. The abuse of food, drugs or alcohol is one example. We have patterns of behaviour that are destructive like so-called casual relationships.
Also, humans can be even worse than witless: we can be just plain stupid. We delude ourselves sometimes with our achievement and knowledge that we think we can out-think God.
Thirdly, sheep are weak. Even though the ram has horns, sheep cannot out run its predators. Dogs can bite, deer can run so fast, the cat can scratch and the wasp can sting.
And so it is with us humans, we might like to think we are strong: our brick-built houses, our money, our jobs, the governments of the world and their military power. And but for the slightest thing, we are stripped of our power and reduced to weakness: the flood that destroys our house; the accident that is not our fault leaves us paralysed for life; the recession that leads us redundancy and unemployment; the kiss with a lover that is discovered and makes us flee for our lives; an illness, cancer.
While Jesus, in comparing humans to sheep, sought to make His audience aware of our real position, the value of sheep in the contemporary society would not have been lost of them. Sheep were extremely precious animals: their wool for clothing, their milk and meat for food, and their lambs to provide for the next generations.
Recalling Jesus’ parable of the shepherd going to find the one lost sheep speaks of the immense worth we are to God. Even though, because of sheepish waywardness, witlessness and weakness, we may not feel worthy of God’s love at times, the wonderful message is this: God sees as worth saving; after all, God sent His own Son, Jesus, who paid the price for our eternal salvation. The price is paid was the ultimate one, not measured in gold or silver, but in blood, Jesus’ blood on the Cross.
There are some other lessons we can learn from sheep. Sheep live in flocks: this keeps them safer. The New Testament letter of 1 Peter (5:8) says: “Be alert, be on watch! Your enemy, the Devil, roams around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (4:10): “If one of them falls down, the other can help him up. But if someone is alone and falls, it's just too bad, because there is no one to help him.” Sheep are not supposed to go off on their own, neither are we. Who is our flock? We are pleased that you are here today: you are part of the flock of the church in this place.
Another lesson we can learn from sheep is their ability to know and follow their shepherd’s voice. Sheep are wary animals and will flee from strangers. In this respect, sheep are smart than we are. Jesus is our shepherd, but when we hear voices that are not His, we tend to be drawn by them. We spend huge amounts of money on TV and the internet. If we ask ourselves honestly as to how much time we spend each day trying to hear God’s voice – Our Shepherd – compared to the time we spend online or in front of the TV.
Jesus’ promise to us, read at the end of today’s Gospel reading, is this: “I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fulness.” Let us learn from the sheep who know their shepherd’s voice. Jesus invites us in, telling us that He is the “Good Shepherd”. He died for us, His sheep. Before He died, He spoke the words of promise to us “life in all its fulness”, and that was not an empty promise: He died and lives again, raised to life in the Resurrection.
Jesus’ promise is echoed in Psalm 23: “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.”
The pain and brokenness we may feel personally is part of a greater, broken whole: our nation and our world have strayed like the solitary sheep. God’s word in the Old Testament book of 2 Chronicles says (7:14): “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
So when Jesus likened us to sheep, He meant it. There is a lot we can learn from sheep. The eternal life, which Our Good Shepherd brings us, begins now, “life in all its fullness”.