Sunday, 25 April 2010

Good Shepherd

John 10:27-30

Jesus said:
‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice;
I know them and they follow me.
I give them eternal life;
they will never be lost
and no one will ever steal them from me.
The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone,
and no one can steal from the Father.
The Father and I are one.’

'The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice;’

The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one that we have all found easy to relate to from our earliest years. In fact the very first ‘artist’s impression’ of Jesus is though to be an early Roman wall painting of a young man with a sheep held safely on his shoulders.

From our earliest years the pastoral style of the Children’s Bible illustration has given us this lovely, warm image; an image of comfort and protection; the gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

Except that now we know, that the shepherd is not who we used to think he was.

Shepherds in the time of Jesus were thugs with a day job. They were hard, itinerant men with little regards for polite society. The hills were wild places, living in them meant you had to have a certain wildness yourself; there were few places to safely lay your head and the ability to survive did not mean living by the rules but knowing how to go around them; to become a law unto himself.

So, what would be a good shepherd? Certainly not one that had gone over to a genteel way of life.

In the wilderness there is no delegation, nor deciding that the job is not for you. It is all on you. Months at a time when you have a flock to protect from wolves, wild dogs, thieves and other shepherds; when you have to provide that flock with food, water, shelter; when you have to know the lie of the land and the cost of safe passage. Experience builds a good shepherd from one who has been there, done that, walked that, fought that and suffered that.

He has to have done it for the least as well as the most valuable of his flock and he has to have put them first over and over again, so that they are safely delivered to his Lord’s enclosure.
This is an image of a fierce man; but you will not get sheep to obey through fear. A fat, healthy sheep depends on being part of a flock; of feeling safe; of being cared for.

So there is another side to the shepherd – the mother - who imprints his voice, his smell on the young lambs by being there at the birth, by carrying them around with him. He lives in and among them; knowing them intimately. As we wish to be known. All we have to do is to listen to his voice. There is a tale that if a lamb is very wayward, a bit too much of a risk-taker then the shepherd will snap a small bone in the leg – meaning that he has to carry the lamb around – it has to learn, the hard way to rely only on him.

they will never be lost’

But that still doesn’t stop us going astray as sheep go astray. And that is where the Good Shepherd who seeks out the stray comes in. Who puts those woolly headed beasts, who all look alike, ahead of his own safety.

When I was younger, I remember finding a sheep on the Great Orme, stuck upside down in a ditch wrapped in barbed wire, its heavy fleece soaked with rainwater. Heaven knows how long it had been there. The hills of Wales are as wild as any Palestinian range in their way but we just don’t have that sort of shepherd any more.

Impulsively, I climbed into the ditch and started to pull the wire away, ripping my own hands open, the sheep turned and twisted until it could feel it was free, then jack-knifed itself out of my hands, kicking back and sending me flying 200 feet down the Orme; the scree stones ripped the rest of my skin off before I was able to stop. For the sake of one sheep – that will never know what it nearly cost me and wouldn’t even know the meaning of gratitude.
I nearly died that day and always remember it every time this Gospel comes around. A stupid sheep – an even stupider me; but only one sheep and only the once. But for me it serves as a real reminder that Jesus takes that risk; makes that sacrifice and more; every minute of every day for those that belong to him.


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