Read John 10:7-16 and Psalm 23
My love of psalm 23 has increased since I got to know Graham who looks after a flock of sheep across the road from us. What used to be a small holding/b&b is now a care home for young adults, and Graham looks after the property and grounds for the owners, who have allowed him to raise around sheep, chickens and some ducks and geese in the fields nearby, and involve the residents in the care of these animals, which is great. What has impressed me so much is that just like the biblical shepherds, Graham seems to have been born into the role – he’s been doing it for years, his knowledge of the flock and how to care for them seems awesome to me.
At lambing time earlier this year he was out and about at all hours of the day and night, seeing to the expectant ewes’ needs, helping them lamb, carting them off to the vet through the night if necessary with complications, bringing them into the barn when the weather was so cold and wet. Graham had to hand feed several weak lambs to get them going, and has even shorn the sheep himself. A true shepherd! And why, when he’s probably well over pension age? Not because he has to, but because he want to, because he loves his sheep!
A question: Are you a sheep, because the Bible seems to suggest that we might be here?
Here’s a few of the characteristics of a sheep. I’m going to suggest that if any of these could apply to you, then you qualify as a sheep and the sermon is aimed at the right people. If none of these apply to you then you’ll just have to humour me and look around to see who it might apply to. Here we go then.....
Sheep generally could be said to be...
1) Timid, easily panicked, vulnerable to the psychology of the mob (one goes, they all go)
2) Slow to learn - A sheep may get caught in barbed wire trying to break through a fence. And the next day it will try it again, and again… repeating the same mistakes (we don’t do that, do we?)
3) Vulnerable, main defence is to run away
4) Can be stubborn, occasionally unpredictable (I’m not looking at anyone in particular!)
5) Aren’t generally keen on having a haircut
6) Easily influenced by an individual
7) Dependent upon the someone for their long-term care
8) Have tendency to get lost
9) Wear woolly jumpers.
OK, if you could put a tick against any of those then listen on!
You see, the problem that we (mainly) townies have is that we’ve lost the connection with animals that might end up on our dinner plate (apologies to our vegetarian friends) and simply see sheep as a flock of white animals in a green field, which in the spring have gorgeous little lambs frolicking among them.
We might see someone with a border collie rounding them up now and then, but that’s it. For the majority of farmers these days, it’s they who have the job of looking after their flocks rather than a shepherd that they employ. There’s not enough profit in it.
So maybe we’re losing the significance of the image the Bible paints of the shepherd and his flock, certainly among the younger generation.
Sheep look nice, the hill country would look much different without their grass mowing, but they’re hard work particularly in the winter.
Sheep are constantly in peril.
Lambs can be taken by foxes and sheep can be attacked by stray dogs.
Sheep are stolen. Whole flocks disappear overnight.
Sheep get themselves in awkward spots and have to be rescued.
Food runs out once the grass stops growing. They have to be constantly moved to new pasture.
That’s just in this country. John’s gospel mentions the perils of caring for sheep in Biblical times, and in some parts of the world it is exactly the same today. Caring for sheep out there in the countryside is a very responsible and sometimes risky occupation.
Now you might not like being thought of as a sheep, and in theory, human beings are a lot more advanced as a species, but there’s something to be said for simplicity, maybe.
The one thing that sheep are very good at is following, and particularly the shepherd who brings them their winter feed. As a people of faith, the one thing we are asked to do is be good followers of Jesus.
Psalm 23 takes up that theme, ‘4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’
There are a lot of Christians, and I’ll add my name to the long list, who understand the need for our Shepherd to have a rod and staff. They might not seem ‘comfortable’ items at the time, but only in retrospect. Sometimes we’re reluctant to do what we should do in our Christian life, and that’s where the rod comes in, pushing the reluctant Christian forward to where they should be (I could show you the bruises!)
Then there’s the crook to help extricate us when we get into trouble, to lift us gently out from beneath the snow drift or in the ditch where we’ve spiritually fallen. It’s part of the Psalmist’s picture language, but for those of us who have known God’s help in our lives at difficult times, it’s a picture that is very relevant.
And as for wolves and predators, well, Jesus did warn his disciples that he was sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves (Matthew 10:16) and Paul warned the church at Ephesus that ‘ I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.’ (Acts 20:29)
In all these pictures, the flock of sheep can be seen as ‘believers’, the ‘Church’ or the ‘People of God’ in the Old Testament. And they have always suffered from a double danger, liable to attacks from the outside from wolves and robbers - those who would try and rob us of our beliefs or divide us from each other so that we become more vulnerable to attack – and from false shepherds or leaders within, who have agendas that are theirs and not Gods.
You see, the Bible doesn’t say that bad things won’t happen to Christians. It’s not ‘if I walk through the darkest valley” but “Even though I walk I through the darkest valley” which seems to suggest that it is more of an occupational hazard than a rare occurrence.
Mother Teresa, who committed her life to helping some of the most desperate of peoples in India, and was sainted in 2016 by the Catholic Church had a very long ‘dark night of the soul’ lasting around 50 years, when she struggled with her faith whilst continuing her work. Listen to these words..
‘Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul ... How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, ... What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.’
Did this affect her chances of becoming a saint? Not at all, because many have been through these periods of doubt, to be gently lifted out of them by the Good Shepherd and his crook, and brought safely to the fold.
That’s Jesus the Good Shepherd whose care for his sheep extends to the point of being prepared to die for them. Care beyond the call of duty, full of compassion, there whenever they need help and are in peril.
The journalist John McCarthy, who was kidnapped in Beirut and held hostage for some years, and who describes himself as not really a conventionally religious person, found himself in a period of extreme despair. He cried out, ‘God help me!’ and to his great surprise says that he was immediately aware of returning strength, and an inner renewal that was to see him through the rest of his captivity.
What was McCarthy describing?
‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me’
Unfortunately, many people use God as a sort of spiritual 999 number, to be ignored until needed, but a comfort to know he might be there. Someone has said that there aren’t many atheists in a lifeboat!
That’s not what the Christian life is about, and for those that have that attitude then they are missing out on so much. For the truth of Psalm 23, and John’s words from our gospel reading, is that there is always a divine presence in our lives, not just in times of need, it’s just that we’re just not very good at discerning it.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t sit around on the hillside waiting for the distant call of a sheep as it slips into a ditch or rolls onto its back and can’t get up (I missed that one off our list of sheep characteristics, and it might apply to some!). The Good Shepherd is there, is here with us in our daily lives if we will just attune our ears to his gentle whisper and open our eyes to see where he would have us go next.
I often rely on a Sat Nav if we’re driving somewhere we haven’t been before, otherwise I know that I’m likely to get lost. It’s very reassuring to hear that mechanical Sat Nav voice saying ‘You have reached your destination!’ and discovering that we actually have. It means having faith in someone or something, that they can see beyond the next corner to the many other junctions that need negotiating before you end up where you are meant to be. Why should our spiritual life be any different.
Can we see where we will be ‘spiritually’ in 5 years time? I guess that if we’re not planning on going anywhere spiritually then perhaps we’d be right in saying ‘yes, I know exactly where I’ll be - I’ll be right where I am now!’
But Jesus’ call wasn’t to stay where we are now.
His call was ‘Follow!’ and that implies getting off our spiritual backside and going somewhere. That might be somewhere that we haven’t been before, somewhere challenging, somewhere risky or dangerous. In that case we do need the Shepherd to guide and protect.
Eglantyne Jebb, founder off Save the Children wrote ‘In these tragic days, so full of darkness and terror... what happiness and peace can nevertheless be ours if we can realise Christ in our midst. He (is) here with us now... giving us directions day by day as to the ways in which we are to undertake practical service for his kingdom.’
Don’t treat the Good Shepherd as one of the Emergency Services coming to our aid when we’re in a bad place. Our Good Shepherd is with us as we wander through the green pasture as well, and life is so much more blessed when it’s lived in the knowledge that God’s presence is with us always.
‘And surely I am with you always,’ says Jesus in Matthew 28. ‘..to the very end of the age.’