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Sermon for Easter 4

Easter 4 The Reverend Canon Charles Royden

The Good Shepherd

John 10: 11 –18
Jesus said to the Pharisees: ‘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. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

My daughter Alex once worked as a sort of shepherd. She had to go out into the fields near Leighton Buzzard and look after sheep and deliver lambs and give them medicines and pull them out of barbed wire and stuff. She used to come home with stories of what trouble the sheep had gotten into each day. When she did that job she had a quad bike and at the end of each day she would come home and get showered and get into her warm snuggly bed. So it wasn’t a bad way to spend a day and she enjoyed it.

At the time of Jesus things were very different. Shepherds were rough peasant types, they were not an esteemed group.

  • The Pharisees considered shepherds as a part of an unclean profession.
  • The well to do looked down on shepherds as a vulgar class.

When Jesus uses the words ‘Good Shepherd’ he was choosing to align himself with a group of people who were not usually associated with the word ‘good’. You had to be a certain type of person to be a shepherd. They lived away from civilised life, there were no facilities, they lived with animals, slept with animals, they were dirty and not just physically but also spiritually, they could not go to synagogue.

So why did Jesus align himself with shepherds?

Perhaps one of the main reasons was that he wanted to contrast himself as a ‘good’ shepherd, as opposed to others who were ‘bad’ shepherds. This is another one of Jesus attacks on the Jewish leaders.

We don’t spend enough time thinking and studying the Old Testament but of course it was the scripture of Jesus. It was on the Old Testament that he learned and it was the basis upon which he built his ministry and we have much to learn from it. We read it now, not as Jews who keep the laws, but as Christians who follow the Messiah who is the fulfilment and completion of the promises made. The one who would set aside the Old Covenant and bring in The New Covenant. If we look at the Old Testament today we should read Ezekiel 34 where God, speaking through his prophet Ezekiel, castigates the religious leaders of Israel and tells them that they are greedy, selfish shepherds who care more about themselves than they do for the sheep!

Their crimes were that they had done the following

  • They only take care of themselves
  • They eating and clothing themselves but you do not take care of the flock. 
  • They have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.
  • They have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost
  • They have ruled the people harshly and brutally

Note the things which Jesus accuses them of, this is not the stuff people might think of as being particularly religious. Jesus is saying to the Jewish religious leaders, you are just not nice. The people deserved better than this and as a consequence the religious leaders would be shepherds no more. They had had their chance, and blown it !

The point Jesus wanted to make was that this did not mean that the people were not going to have a shepherd. God was intervening himself and he would properly look after the sheep himself.

  • He would make sure they had pasture
  • That they had safety
  • That the lost were found and the weak restored and the injured healed.
  • There would be a new justice.

Shepherding life in first century Palestine may be a long way away from our understanding of how people behave who look after sheep today, nevertheless we can make sense of what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that being a real shepherd was not a great career move, it was not a profession for those who were fainthearted and there might be a real cost to pay. A real shepherd might have to risk his own life for the sheep, and Jesus knows what that means for him as he would soon give of his own life on the cross.

What is Jesus saying to us when he tells us that he is our Good Shepherd?

Well Jesus is saying to you that he will be with you when things are tough. That is what real shepherds do, listen to Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want he maketh me to lie down in green pasture he leadeth me beside still water, he restoreth my soul, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear nor evil for thou art with me, they rod and thy staff they comfort me. ……

Why does the fact that a shepherd has staff bring us any comfort? It is because the shepherd uses the staff to protect the sheep from the enemy. Wolves or robbers who came by would have to fac e the staff. Jesus is saying that real shepherds don’t just look after themselves, they look after the sheep, even if that means that they have to put themselves in harms way.

Jesus is saying to you this morning that he is not just your fairweather friend. Fairweather freinds are folks who will stand by you when there is no risk. But if there is some trouble, when bad things happen they disappear. They run away because they really only think of themselves. Jesus is not a fairweather friend, he promises to be with us when things get tough or when there is something which is a real problem. He won’t just stand by you he will lay down his life for yours.

We know that this aspect of being a shepherd is important for Jesus. Jesus told his disciples that for him as shepherd every sheep is valuable. There will be no sheep which is considered expendable. None shall be lost, Jesus will seek them out

The Good Shepherd cares for the sheep, he loves the sheep, so much so that he will lay down his own life for the sheep. It seems hard for us that Jesus could be concerned about each one of us, surely the greater good is more important, one solitary life cannot be that important?

potatoe workers - Van GoghLast week Corinne and I went to Amsterdam and visited the Van Gogh museum. It was interesting because like Jesus Van Gogh was strongly drawn towards the peasant, the poor workers, like shepherds, those who worked on the land. One of his paintings was that of peasant potatoe workers.

It is a black painting, dark in all sorts of ways depicting the harsh life of poor workers, these were people who lived off the land, eking out a poor existence. Very much like shepherds in Jesus day. Vincent Van Gogh was drawn towards the peasant and poor workers of the land.

He also wanted to be known as the artist who painted sunflowers and of course he certainly achieved that and lots more. But I had never noticed before that the painting which he did of sunflowers shows not all lovely sunflowers but some sunflowers which are surely past their best. He painted all sunflowers, ones with full bright colours and lovely petals, and then others which have suffered from the passage of time. Some are so weary that their heads hang down over the neck of the pottery vase. He considered them all worth painting, he didn’t just choose the pretty, perfect ones.

Sunflowers Van Gogh

That is the sort of picture which Jesus would have painted because like van Gogh he doesn’t just choose the lovely looking ones and the ones who are all bright and shiny. Jesus went out of his way to call out the unlovely and the unloved, the ones with broken bodies, the ones with wounded minds, the ones considered by others to be best left alone. Jesus gathered them in so that none shall be lost, all are valuable, all are loved.

They know my voice

Jesus uses another aspect of Shepherding life to show that every sheep is important. In Jesus day, the shepherds would lead their flocks through hostile territory, places where there were dangerous animals and dangerous people. They would lead them and the sheep would follow, listening to the voice of the shepherd. They were not driven from behind, but led from the front.

At night they would go into a pen, perhaps one in the countryside, perhaps against the wall of a shelter. There might be several flocks in one fold. In the morning the shepherd would call his sheep out and they would know his voice. The same when they went to watering places. the sheep could mix with other sheep but when it was time to leave each shepherd could lead off his own sheep.

Jesus says that when he speaks we will hear his voice, just as sheep recognises the shepherd.

What Jesus is saying is that if you listen to his voice you will not find a theory or a religious idea, or even a creed by which to live, you will find him. Jesus is saying that he knows you, he knows your name. He doesn’t care if you are beautiful, or clever, or popular or messed up and frightened and lonely. Jesus worries about all the sheep and considers them all of value. He knows what worries and upsets you, he knows your needs, what you care about and he wants to share your life.

So today is the Sunday of the Good Shepherd and a great time to take time to listen, to hear what Jesus might be saying to you. Nobody is left out, he speaks to every one here and laid down his life out of love for each one of us.