21 April 2024 - Easter Week 4

Our best known psalm, and a very well known passage from the Gospel of John. Today we think about shepherds. Put away all images in you mind of the sheep dog trials you have seen on TV or in the Peak district, or the Lakes. Shepherds in the Holy Land were not like that. This is the young lad David describing his job to King Saul “Your servant kept sheep for his father, and when there came a lion or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and smote him and took the lamb out of his mouth. Your servant has killed both lions and bears…..”

And of course the terrain was rocky – rescuing a sheep fallen over a cliff was risky work.

In our psalm the psalmist, traditionally of course David, first sees himself as a sheep. His shepherd leads him to find grass and water. The shepherd has a rod and a staff – the rod for beating wild beasts, the staff the crook for guiding and recuing sheep. All is well with the sheep if the shepherd is with them. By the way – bears and lions have been extinct in Israel since the early C20 – but there may still be leopards!

But we soon see that the psalmist is thinking of God. His God leads him through life like the shepherd leads his sheep – he converts his soul – turns him round? Makes him go the right way? – he shows him the paths of righteousness. Even in the valley of death there is no fear – God is with him, and the journey ends in the House of the Lord.

In those days it was quite common to the think of a King as the shepherd of his people – he would guide them and see they were protected from enemies. So it is not such a step to seeing the shepherd as an image of God.

Shepherds, as we shall see, were not all good. In Ezekiel Chapter 34 the prophet denounces the rulers of the land, and its priests for being poor shepherds. They had fed off the sheep, they had not found them food, they had not strengthened the weak, or brought back the strays or found the lost. So the sheep, God’s people, were scattered, and enemies preyed on them. So God says “I am against the shepherds.” A terrible warning to the powers that be of the day – and for all time.

Ezekiel then writes of a new idea. God himself will be their shepherd. “I myself will search for my sheep, I will rescue them. I will bring out from the countries to the mountains of Israel, and I will feed them with good pasture”. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”

So when Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd” there was a background – bells would ring – lots of images and ideas would come to mind – not just the familiarity with the farming of the day.

Lets look at the Gospel reading.

“I am” – you know the significance. God said to Moses at the Burning Bush – “I am who I am” – and sent him off to say “’I am’ has sent you.” This is one of seven great ‘I am’ sayings in John. When Jesus says ‘I am’ he is saying something about his divinity.

‘Good’ – not just good, or moral – the word can also mean ‘beautiful” – “I am the beautiful shepherd”. Jesus was attractive. People came to him, for teaching , for help, for healing, and he said when he was lifted up on the Cross he would “draw all people to him.”

Why good? The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He is prepared to die for them. He will go after the wolf (or the bears and lions), risking everything for the sheep. He lives for them.

Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hired hand. The idea seems to be that the hireling works for money and is not going to put himself at risk for someone else’s sheep. This may seem hard. We all have to earn a living and many paid shepherds will have been very caring for their sheep. I think we have here the old problem of purity of heart. Are you in the job for the sheep or the pay? Always difficult to assess even our own motives – how pure are our hearts? So often the world thinks in economic terms – we follow suit. We have to find the balance.

But there is more to the Good Shepherd. “I know my own, and my own know me.” – there is an intimate relationship. And Jesus likens this to his own relationship to the Father. “He knows me and I know Him”. Here we are very close to the heart of the matter. In John 17 Jesus says: “I pray that they may all be one, even as you Father are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us.” Here is that intimate relationship with God, that taking up into the Trinity of love, offered by Jesus – who layed down his life for us – and rose again for us. He laid down his Life and took it up again – And he has other sheep, not of the same flock, not of the same race. He draws them all to Him to be one in Him. The Good Shepherd offers life in God, not just in his house, to all.

If you want a sermon on this – a practical working out – you could do no better than turn to the Epistle set for today – St John writes: “ We know love by this: That he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” Read it – 1 John 3: 16 – end. Or what about Jesus’s own words on the night of the Last Supper – “A New commandment I give to you– that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”

We share the risen life of our Lord. We should behave as those in whom the Spirit abides. We have a Good Shepherd, but we are more than sheep. No sheepishness about our faith. No bleating – no infighting – no wandering off. We are here to reveal the beauty of our Lord to the world.