Scripture Readings: I John 3:11,16-18
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘On some high moor, across which at night the hyenas roar, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type [or image] of self-sacrifice’.
Professor George Adam Smith, who wrote those words in his Historical Geography of the Holy Land– was a Scottish Old Testament scholar who perhaps was a bit of a Michael Palin in his day, describing the people of exotic places to his Victorian readers. His vivid picture of a tough Palestinian shepherds of the late nineteenth century did a job describes a type of person whose job had changed little since Biblical times.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is much beloved in Christianity- he used the image to speak of himself, as in today’s Gospel reading. But the image of the shepherd goes back before Christ, for there was an Old Testament tradition of God as the shepherd of his people, most famously found in the Twenty-third Psalm.
Shepherding to an urban person like me can seem like a gentle profession- but today’s Gospel reading actually teaches us a lot about what shepherds did in Jesus day. It was not at all an easy profession, as Jesus makes very clear.
To begin with, Jesus asks his listeners to imagine a shepherd going to collect his sheep. The image would have been familiar to his hearers- the sheep are held in a sheepfold. The gatekeeper, who is in charge of the sheepfold, knows the shepherd, so he opens the gate so that he can go in. A thief, on the other hand, would arrive in the middle of night perhaps, and climb in over the wall.
The sheep would also know their own shepherd. Jesus creates a picture of sheep following their shepherd, because they know his voice. That in fact actually happened- shepherds used their voices to communicate with the sheep, to keep them in line as they went along, or even to sort out one herd from another. Once again, Jesus is saying- those who belong to me will listen to me, for I am their true shepherd.
Jesus piles up the images here. He is himself even the gate to sheepfold- the way to safety and security. And like a dedicated shepherd, he looks after his sheep. A hired man might run away when thieves or wild animals attack. Not the good shepherd, who stays to fight off the attackers, who is even willing to lay down his life for his flock. As our next hymn puts it, Jesus is, for us, both sacrificial lamb and the shepherd of his flock.
But John the Gospel writer tells us that there were those who were sceptical of what Jesus was saying:
‘Again there was a division among them’
(in John’s Gospel, Jesus often provokes division and argument). Some say he is mad, possessed by a demon- for how can any mere mortal make the kinds of claims Jesus makes. But there are others who think there must be more: ‘A man with a demon could not talk like this’, they say- it is too deep, it somehow rings true. And doesn’t he also give sight to the blind? Later, his followers would remember these words after his death and resurrection, and remember how he lived it all out.
When Jesus was on trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate asked him: ‘What is truth?’ Today, we are haunted by that question. We seem to be living in an age in which people like to say they are sceptics, who will believe nothing; and yet they believe all kinds of nonsense. For John the Gospel writer, and for Christians down through the ages, the answer to the question, ‘What is truth?’
is the man who was standing in front of Pilate when he asked it. Elsewhere, Christ is recorded as having claimed, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. And this is the faith of the Church- Christ’s words ring true, he has authority, because in his words and actions he has seemed to be trustworthy.
Not everyone has been convinced that Christ is the key to truth. Even back in his own day in Palestine, there were those who said he was mad. Someone has said that if Jesus said the sort of things the Gospels say he did, he must have been mad, bad, or God. But reading the Gospels closely, I can see no sign that he was mad. But when I read about how he touched lepers and treated women as equals and spoke to tax collectors and had time for the sick, I can’t really call him bad.
That’s why, for two millennia, Jesus Christ has been for Christians the truth against which all the other competing truths in the world have been judged. The true shepherd, who will even die for his flock, has spoken to his people in words they listened to, because they knew him and trusted him. For Christianity is about following Jesus- Christians claim that the only truly safe way through life is to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and to follow where he leads.
In our digital, multimedia world, we are head many, many different voices each day, and we are pulled in many different directions. But following Jesus has never been easy. We have our doubts about whether he is taking us the right way at all. We sometimes think that he’s taking us a difficult way- and we decide that maybe we can do better, and follow that path across there which seems a bit easier than the rough country Jesus wants to take us across. Too late, we discover that trying to strike out on our own means that we have lost our leader. Unless we listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, we cannot be Christians.
When the Nazi party took power in Germany, there were many who considered Hitler to be a new Messiah. Many people were dazzled by Hitler and his doctrines, including Protestant Christians. I’ve even read an article in Life and Work by a visiting Church of Scotland minister, praising the so-called ‘German Christians’, a group within the Protestant Church who supported Hitler. Indeed, it was only a minority of German Protestants who held out against Hitler and the Nazis. A meeting of those opposed to Hitler took place in the city of Barmen in 1934, and they produced a ‘theological declaration which quoted Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel and then commented:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death.
At a time when many in the Church were ready to welcome Hitler, this was a powerful affirmation that all that he stood for stood against the word of God, as we hear it in the voice of Jesus. For Christians of every generation, that’s still what is required of us. Our great shepherd may be gentle and caring- but he’s also tough, makes demands of us, is strong in keeping us on safe. We are called to hear his voice, and none other. No political philosophy, no economic theory, no demagogue, can ever be ultimate truth for Christians. On the ultimate matters, only the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd, really matters.
For some, that’s a stumbling block, for we are always tempted to stray from the flock and find their own way. But it’s hardly a safe way. Apparently most of the grazing land in Israel was on a central plateau, on either side of which were steep slopes which plunged quickly into desert areas. So a sheep that went astray could easily get into difficulties, could get lost or die. Keep listening to the shepherd, the one of whom the Psalm says, ‘He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised’.
In my work is I’m often with people in their dark valleys, and it’s a humbling and moving experience. Because often I’m humbled and moved by the faith I see at work there. Yes, there are tears, sometimes even anger directed towards God- but the faith is still there. People tell me that they know that God is with them in their dark valley. They tell me that their faith sustains them. Somehow, even in the worst of times, they are surer than ever of God’s protecting presence with them. And so they can say, as the psalmist did:
Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear none ill:
For thou are with me; and thy rod
and staff me comfort still. (Psalm 23: Metrical Version)
For Christians, that sense that God goes with us through the darkest times is strengthened by the thought that our Shepherd is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus has walked the road of human life. He found that being faithful to his father brought conflict, misunderstanding, betrayal. He walked through the valley of the shadow of death- he was crucified and laid in a rock tomb. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who was willing to lay down his life for the sheep. And so Christians know that the risen Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, will not abandon us. His pledge to walk through the dark times with us is more than a promise. It is a reality- for he has led the way, he was here before us. And he will guide us out to better times.
And if our faith is enough to bring us through the dark vale, if we are willing to allow our Shepherd to guide us through all the trials of life- what then? We think of Psalm 23 as ‘the Shepherd Psalm’, yet only the first part of it uses shepherd imagery. In verse 5 the scene changes:
You prepare a banquet for me,
where all my enemies can see me;
you welcome me as an honoured guest
and you fill my cup to the brim.
I know that your goodness and love
will be with me all my life;
and your house will be my home as long as I live.
The scene has changed from a windy hillside to a banqueting suite. God is no longer now seen as a shepherd, but as a king. Around the king’s table sit the psalmist and those who were once his enemies. It is a joyous feast- there is more than enough wine for everyone- the cups are overflowing.
When we come to worship, God is the host here, too. God wants those who were once enemies to gather around this table. God wants joy and gladness, goodness and mercy for those whose journey of life has brought them through dark valleys. Our lives find their fulfilment in worship in the God of Jesus Christ. When we worship God, we’re especially aware of God’s presence with us. Our worship should be full of joy, the joy of someone who knows that they’re in the presence of their God and King, the one who blesses them wherever they are on their journey through life.
A colleague of mine told me once how she’d gone to conduct a funeral one morning. Sadly, the person who’d died had no church connection, and neither had the family. It was a driech day, my friend was overworked at the time, and she was feeling a bit depressed.
The first hymn was the 23rd Psalm. She began to lead the singing: ‘The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want…’ And she found herself thinking, in spite of her mood, ‘I believe this. God is my shepherd’. And she found herself worshipping this God who had gone with her all the days of her life, who had been her guide and protector, who renewed her strength and who had gave her moments of calm by quiet waters and led her through deep valleys. Old, familiar words- but they are our words, for they are the story of our journey of faith. For the way of the Christian is the way of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd whose truth is, for us, the key life in all its fullness
Ascription of Praise
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth,
wisdom and might,
honour and glory and praise! Amen.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
George Adam Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land (Fontana 1966) p210
 Lord, you are both Lamb and Shepherd (CH4 355)
 John 14.6
Barmen Theological Declaration, II.1; in The Book of Confessions (PC (USA) 1991, 8.11
William Barclay, DSB John vol.2 on John 10 for this and much more about shepherds
 John 10.11