1 Peter 2:19-25 John 10:11-16
You were as sheep going astray;
but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
This Sunday has been called Good Shepherd Sunday from ancient times.
We are being asked this morning in our readings to think about Jesus, about God, as the Good Shepherd. Jesus says, I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
The image of God as the Good shepherd is something that is found throughout the Bible. In the very first book, Genesis, and the first descendents of Adam and Eve, we have the mysterious story of their children Cane and Abel. It is mysterious because the brothers are two kinds of farmers: Abel is a shepherd and offers up a lamb and it is seen as a more acceptable offering than the offering of Cane, who grew and offered up to God grain. Why was it more acceptable to offer a lamb?
Later, after the flood, when Jacob went into Egypt with their flocks, they were abhorred by the Egyptians for being shepherds, they were given a special land apart the Egyptians, but were shown favour by God. When Jacob blessed his sons before his death, he blesses them by the name of “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day” and later “by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.” (Gen 48-49).
From the 10th century BC, we have probably the most famous and loved Psalm of David, Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. And if you say Morning Prayer daily, as monks and nuns have since the 5th century, you start each day with Psalm 95 where we are reminded, we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
The greatest leaders of Israel were literally first shepherds over flocks of sheep – Moses for 40 years and David, as a youth – before they were called to lead Israel. (St Patrick as a youth was forced to be a shepherd by his Irish captors. And while attending to them that he had a call from God to escape and then come back to convert them to Christ). For me, it was during a trip to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, trying to discern God’s will for me, that encounters with actual flocks of sheep began to make me wonder if I was being called to be a priest. The Biblical images of the Good Shepherd and sheep is deep in our souls.
In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, written in the 6th century BC – God explains what He does as the Good Shepherd [34: 11-16a].
I myself will search for my sheep…I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
Each one of us has our own story of a way we have been scattered from our true purpose, become lost on the way, or as St Peter puts it, were straying like sheep. And even if it is not some breech of God’s law of Love, we can simply become so absorbed in our daily tasks that our souls are scattered.
But if we pause and take time to reflect on our lives, the good of a Sabbath rest and an occasional longer retreat, we can see the ways that God, through his Providence has searched us out and found us and guides each one of us like a Shepherd – we hear a kind or a wise word given just at the right time, even from a perfect stranger, a gentle nudge when we were ready to receive it, or a more dramatic intervention where we were at the edge of the abyss.
I have come to love this image of us being sheep under the Good Shepherd. There is great comfort in being within the flock, that is the Church. Think of what happens in the midst of a flock –
- if I can’t see Christ myself at the moment, I can depend on the others around me who may at this moment be better able to see Him
- if I’m in the midst of the flock I’m being moved generally in the same direction as the rest and will be brought safely home within that flock! Of course God wants each of us individually to know Him, so we mustn’t depend solely on others, but we do help each other from getting completely lost.
Do you see how God has made sheep in Creation with these instincts, to gather together and to follow, and has shown his favour towards them from the beginning, to teach us to be like sheep guided by the Good Shepherd?
Within that flock, God can and will lead us.
But some might say – well is this image of God as a Shepherd really a good image for us? I mean after all, the shepherd guards his flock so that he might fatten them up for the slaughter, to consume them! [see sermon by Fr Crouse]
But Jesus shows us most dramatically by His own life, death and resurrection that he is not gathering us in under his leadership simply to fatten us up for the slaughter –
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.
Jesus laid down his life for us on the Cross, he went through the gates of death on our behalf, and he rose from the dead. He did this that we might be gathered up under his good shepherding and brought to the mountain heights - through this life and into heaven itself. He didn’t do this that he might destroy us, but that he might save us, and save us eternally.
Jesus concludes the Gospel this morning saying,
Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.
We have been gathered up by the Good Shepherd and fed on good pasture – our souls are being remade in His image and likeness – and when we return to the world it is as sheep in relation to our Lord, but as good shepherds in relation to others. We come to know others and as we make ourselves known to them, in so far as we are in Christ, we make Jesus known – and that recalls people to Him. The many little deaths that we endure, through forebearance, through forgiveness, or as St Peter says, when you do right and suffer for it and take it patiently as Christ did – these little deaths are most certainly followed by a resurrection within us – if we return to our own land, to the streams, to the rich pasture, where we are inwardly renewed in quiet before our Lord.
Today Jesus has recalled us to the mountain top, to the green pasture by water brooks… and he wants us to rest in Him today. He has told us to prepare ourselves now to be fed by Him. Strangely, the Good Shepherd becomes the Lamb. We are fed with the Body and Blood of the Lamb of God. We partake as lambs so that we might become his shepherds…who like Him don’t lord it over others but offer the substance of our lives for the flock.
In Scripture, God commands the Israelites to offer up an unblemished lambs as sacrifice. [Lev 22:17-25; Deut 15:21; Malachi 1:6-14]. In Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, God speaks of what will happen and is happening this morning around the world: For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. [Mal 1:11] We do that here this morning as we recall and join ourselves with the once for all perfect sacrifice and fragrant offering of Jesus Christ. By this offering we ourselves become unblemished offerings acceptable to the Lord, for his work in the world.
The Collect for today is a perfect prayer in preparation for Holy Communion:
Almighty God, who has given your only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow, the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2