The Good Shepherd: a sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
[John 10:1-30; Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; Ps 23]
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts
be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Two of our readings and the psalm this morning reference the role of shepherd both for Jesus and for God. Psalm 23 for example:
The Lord is my shepherd.
Also the reading from Revelation:
… for the lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd.
And then we have our Gospel reading this morning speaking about the sheep of Jesus who ‘hear my voice’. But, in considering the concept of Good Shepherd, we should really refer back to some earlier verses in John 10 than those of our reading this morning; in particular:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. [John 10:11-15]
I’ll get on to the subject of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in a
moment, but for the image to work we need to make certain assumptions about
shepherds as a general group – they do need to know their trade well. If they
didn’t there would be lost sheep all over the place. It reminds me of a joke I
once read about a shepherd from Rev Martin Dale of the diocese of Ely.
One day whilst a shepherd was minding his own business, which is to say tending his flock, along the road came a brand-new red Porsche sports car. It stopped by the shepherd and out stepped a designer-clad young man who said to the shepherd, ‘If I can guess exactly how many sheep you have in the paddock here, can I have one?’ The shepherd looked the yuppie from the city up and down and with a degree off self-assurance said, ‘Sure.’ The young man then pulled out his i-Phone connected it to his laptop and, using GPS, Excel software and other aids, did various calculations which he finally printed out on the Bluetooth-connected printer in his car. Pulling a great length of printout from it, he triumphantly gave his answer to the shepherd, ‘1256.’ The shepherd responded, ‘Yup’ – he was a laconic sort. The young man then went into the paddock picked up an animal and put it on the back seat of his car.
When this had been done, the shepherd spoke again, ‘If I guess your occupation, can I have my animal back?’ Now it was the turn of the young city slicker to look the shepherd up and down with a similar degree of self-assurance; he said, ‘Of course.’ After a pause for effect, the shepherd spoke, ‘You’re an IT consultant.’ The young man was taken aback that, out here in the boondocks, his profession had been guessed by such as this rustic. ‘How … how did you know?’ he stammered. ‘Three things,’ the cocky replied. ‘First, you came here uninvited; second you charged me to tell me something I already knew; and thirdly, you obviously know nothing about my business … now can I have my dog back.’
Shepherds know their business even if others don’t. One of the things shepherds do is to herd sheep, which implies that sheep follow. Which reminds me of another salutary story about sheep. At the time of the 1979 state election, when I was first elected to the state parliament, my party chose as its campaign slogan the words ‘Follow the Leader’. The intent had been to encourage voters to maintain what was being promoted at the time as South Australia’s leading innovating role in the country. However, the slogan was a disaster because the very astute Opposition of the day picked up another message that could equally well be drawn from such a slogan and quickly had adverts running showing sheep following a leader, implying that voters were being asked by the government simply to follow blindly. There was the further implication that following the government shepherd of the day would lead to disaster.
So now we turn to Jesus’ reference not only to shepherding but to the good and bad practice of this skill. Having called himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus noted the dangers of being in the herd of a hired hand, or a bad shepherd – for they, he said, would run away in times of danger as they did not care for their sheep. Sheep following such shepherds would be doomed.
How was Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd different from such laggardly shepherding? Verse three from John 10 provides the answer:
the sheep hear (the shepherd’s) voice (and) he calls his own sheep by name.
These were not sheep blindly following a sound but listening to a voice; and for the shepherd’s part, these sheep were not anonymous parts of a mob, they were each named individually. Thus, unlike the bad shepherds, Jesus the Good Shepherd gave and received loyalty to and from his flock. Because they knew his voice and he knew their names, they could safely follow knowing they would never be abandoned.
Where should they follow? What would be the purpose of following Jesus? Following implies going from one place to somewhere else. Temporal well-being, the safety of the gated enclosure would certainly have been somewhere but it wouldn’t have been going anywhere. Of course, it could still be a valid interpretation of those comforting words of Jesus from John 10:10:
I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.
However, we are meant to take much more from these words of Jesus; for our reading this morning indicates more than mere earthly well-being as having been the promise of Jesus to his sheep. Verse 28 is key:
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
Life abundant therefore should mean more than that which we live before death but lead to that which is offered to us afterwards. For this eternal purpose to be so, however, the sheep following Jesus had to understand something much more than a simple suggestion of following a leader; they needed to understand the Messiahship of Jesus, someone who would save them and guide them by the hand. Those gathered around him in the portico of Solomon that day, at the festival of Dedication spoken of in our reading, had asked Jesus:
How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.
In his answer Jesus spoke of his voice. This voice of Jesus was not just to be a sound trigger but a call of meaning, a call of belief in a new concept of Messiah. He said (in verse 26):
You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
In other words, to hear is one thing, to believe something much more; and from believing belonging comes and thence a deeper sense of following could result, for now they would be following the one who proclaimed:
The Father and I are one.
Just how much deeper a sense of following resulted can be gleaned from our reading this morning from Revelation. This reading upends any sense of earthly comfort as being the goal of following this shepherd. Consider again the words I mentioned at the start:
The Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd.
The lamb will be a shepherd? Have you realised how odd that sounds? Sheep, especially lambs, could hardly ever be considered as shepherds. Yet here is the Lamb becoming not only a shepherd but the greatest shepherd of all, the shepherd who will sit upon the throne of heaven. It’s still very odd though, isn’t it?
The key to the conundrum lay in the words I quoted from those earlier verses of John 10, Jesus said:
I will lay down my life for my sheep.
For this lamb on the throne of heaven is the slain lamb. This was not just a nice shepherd who protected his flock from the wolves of this world, this was the truly Good Shepherd who, through sacrificing himself, would lead his sheep in an act of transcendent goodness to a place as the psalm says where they could ‘lie down in green pastures and (be) beside still waters’, a place where ‘He will refresh’ the soul of his flock. This place of transcendent goodness where there will be no more danger from the wolves of the world because the lamb that was slain would now sit upon the eternal throne having guided his flock to where, as our reading from Revelation finished this morning:
(there will be) the springs of the water of life, and (where) God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
In preparing this sermon, I have had an odd mind-worm playing in my head. A mind-worm incidentally is defined as the condition of having a song stuck in one’s head. The theme from the old TV series ‘The Brady Bunch’ is generally considered the most infectious mind-worm in existence. But for me this week it has been one from Leonard Bernstein’s musical ‘West Side Story’, that musical loosely based upon the Romeo and Juliet theme. I remember first seeing that movie with my family when I was twelve; the imagery that stood out for me then was the emotional coldness of the brick and concrete of west side New York as a background to a story of the search for love. It was against such a background that the words of one of that musical’s signature songs, Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Somewhere’, have been playing in my mind and I say them now hoping they may become mind-worm for you, for they offer a chance to comprehend Jesus as the Good Shepherd:
We’ll find a new way of living.
We’ll find a new way of forgiving
There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re half way there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
The Good Shepherd offers us his hand and he’ll lead us to a new way of living, a new way of forgiving, a new place for us a place of green pastures and still waters where we may refresh our souls.