The Good Shepherd
The image of Jesus as The Good Shepherd is one of the strongest in the history of the Church. It is not that flattering to us, to the human race, to the Lord's people, to Christians. We have a conceit of ourselves that we are clever, independent, rational creatures, well capable of organisation. And indeed we are. But we humans can act like sheep. Take the response to the death of David Bowie in 2016. One newsreader on BBC TV actually described him as 'the world's favourite son'. What rubbish! News bulletins devoted the first ten minutes and more to his passing. There were similar if less lengthy tributes to Terry Wogan on the news programmes about the same time. As if there were not more important things happening in the world on that day. You will remember the hysteria that accompanied the sudden death of Diana. We humans can act as foolishly as sheep, blindly following the herd instinct and expressing irrational collective feelings. Look at the behaviour of some football supporters and their fanatical allegiances. There are also vigilante groups who turn on people with a hunting pack mentality. Observe American political presidential campaigning. Supporters of one person or another invest total hope, trust and faith in their favoured candidate. Huge surges of emotion fill great halls as one candidate after another is introduced as 'the next President of the United States of America'. Disappointment, disillusion and anger certainly follow as the incumbent fails to live up to his own self-proclamations and his followers’ expectations.
The prophet Isaiah said “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (53:6). Often our daily life is a sort of wandering, half aimlessly from one thing to another. Not many people walking round shopping centres or garden centres look deliriously happy. Internet surfing is a kind of wandering – the process is not unlike a sheep looking for some grass to eat. Spiritually speaking most folk are lost. They are unfocussed, unclear, vague and undisciplined in the expression of their inner soul and spiritual life. They have an unclear vision of what happens and where we will go when we die. Many people rely on chemicals to get them through the day and night, alcohol or drugs, pills for anxiety and stress. The image of we humans as sheep is not flattering but for all our achievements and success, it is still an accurate reflection of our human condition. Christianity alone brings to the world, to the human race, to everyone on earth the Good Shepherd. A spiritual leader unparalleled in history who defines the relationship between God and creation in terms of the pastoral, the caring, the seeking and the finding, the loving, recovering and returning, the gathering in and the safety and the peace.
Hill farming with sheep is common in the UK in upland regions. In England, hill farms are located mainly in the Lake and Peak Districts and South-Western regions, as well as a few areas bordering Wales. Welsh hill farms survive their perilous geography. The Scottish highlands provide a home for many hill farms. Sheep farms and mixed sheep and cattle farms constitute approximately 55% of the agricultural land in Scotland. These areas have a harsh climate, short growing seasons, relatively poor quality of soil and long winters. Therefore, these areas are considered to be disadvantaged and the animals raised there are generally less productive and fetch low prices at market, sometimes as little as a few pounds for a single sheep or lamb. Britain's hill farmers scrape a living through lifetimes of hard work and dedication to their sheep. They are an approximation to the shepherds in the time of Jesus.
The Judaean uplands provided a harsh environment with sparse grazing. It was a slow process to find enough grass to feed the flock each day and night. There is one difference though. Here sheep are bred for their meat and for their wool. In Palestine sheep were kept only for their wool. Thus they lived long and the each shepherd knew each sheep well and by name. Every shepherd had his own call and the sheep recognised their particular shepherd's call. They wouldn't go to another shepherd whose call was different. The Palestinian shepherd carried a bag made of animal skin for his 'piece'. It would not be a pie or cheese sandwich, a packet of crisps, a Mars bar and a can of Irn-Bru though. It would be some bread, dried fruit, olives and cheese – just the staple food of the people. The shepherd carried a sling to defend himself and also to ping stones in front of straying sheep to keep them on the right track. He had a staff – a knobkerrie – a wooden club studded with nails to ward off wild animals and robbers and he had a rod, a shepherd's crook to catch errant sheep about to do themselves some injury. This is the background to Psalm 23, “The Lord's my shepherd”.
Jesus refers to thieves and robbers. These were political insurrectionists in the recent history of the Jews at the time. They were violent fanatics not unlike ISIS and Al Quaeda today. They believed in war, murder and assassination against whichever occupying power was present in the Promised Land. The name "Assassin" is often said to derive from the Arabic word Hashishin or "users of hashish", originally applied in the middle ages to an Islamic sect, the Nizari Ismailis, by the rival Mustali Ismailis. Lacking the numbers to form an army they used espionage and assassination to fight their sectarian battles. However, they turned on Christians making pilgrimages to Jerusalem robbing and killing them and this led in time to the Crusades. Some here may remember Israel's guerilla war against Britain in 1948, the Stern Gang, David ben Gurion and others. The ANC in South Africa conducted terrorism against the apartheid regime and in South America there was Che Guevara and other revolutionaries. We should not forget William Wallace either because he effectively began as a terrorist though he rose to lead an army. It is not so long ago since the IRA were creating murder and mayhem in Northern Ireland. There have always been people willing to fight and kill to achieve their political ends.
Jesus lived in complete contrast to all of these. He is the Good Shepherd. His Way was one of promoting peace, teaching peace and living out peace. It can be hard to imagine that strong and ruthless regimes can be brought down through non-violence. We see that it does not work in the context of Islam. It has however worked where there is a Christian influence. So Britain gave up its empire largely peaceably. India and African countries became independent mostly without wars. In Northern Ireland, because there was a residual influence of Christianity on both sides, a measure of peace became possible. Jesus is the effective Good Shepherd even in the midst of contemporary human strife and struggle.
Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold. He is the way in and the way out. This is a metaphor – a picture – Jesus is the guard and the safety. There's no other way in or out. Going out and in Biblically means living our lives. The Good Shepherd guards our lives, our breathing, our activities, everything. We are looked after and protected. I wonder if any here remember the terms 'guid dochter', 'guid son', 'guid brither', 'guid sister' meaning daughter in law, son in law, brother in law, sister in law? There's a sense and understanding of welcome addition to the family, someone helpful and encouraging bringing prosperity and happiness. It doesn't always work and most family quarrels surround in-laws but the old Scots usage reflects the Good Shepherd and what The Good Shepherd brings to anyone who puts their trust in Him.
Jesus next contrasts his own caring and loving concern for his people with hired shepherds who abandon their flocks in times of danger or difficulty. They are doing the work for the money and not because they genuinely care. You can tell that difference in most walks of life. There are time servers and there are those who give their all for exactly the same salary. From the earliest days of the Christian Church there were hangers on and skivers, imposters and embezzlers. For all its faults and failings the Church of Scotland ministry over the generations has had a high standard of integrity. Far from perfect we may be, but many of us genuinely believe and many of us do care. We follow the Good Shepherd. He laid down his life for his sheep. Some shepherds in Jesus' time did actually forfeit their lives in fights with wild animals and robbers. Very occasionally today a hill farmer may lose his life out on the hills in terrible weather while caring for the sheep.
Jesus talks a bit paradoxically about there being one shepherd and one flock but then adds that he has 'other sheep' also. Most commentators think that he meant all the gentiles and that includes us. The Mormons think that he was referring specifically to them. But it has happened that there is one great flock throughout the world today some 2.3 billion Christians. Even if divided organisationally on different interpretations and views and doctrines, Christians are still united in acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God, our Living lord and Saviour, the Good Shepherd of the earth and its people. Jesus tells those listening to him that it is because of his obedient self-sacrifice that God loves Him especially. But he also says that he will take his life up again and that is what happened. He rose from death into resurrection. He fulfils his Father's will. He is the beloved Son. Jesus was not the haphazard victim of human hatred and violence. This was not an emergency and unexpected occurrence. It was thought out and brought about.
The reaction to these words of Jesus was incredulity and disbelief among some and respect and faith among others. Ours is an age on incredulity and disbelief also. Not too many in our land are angry with Christians. They are indifferent to Christians, to Christ, to Christianity. For them The Good Shepherd is an irrelevance and they can make no connection between their lives and God. So as we gather here to share in the special and beautiful things – gifts from from heaven to us, this worship, these hymns, this living Word, we are filled with joy in believing and in discovering the love for us of Jesus risen and ascended seated at the right hand of God in highest heaven - the Good Shepherd, our Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us.