You might have noticed that as people of faith we rely a great deal on metaphors and pictures to speak of God. It`s really the only way we can attempt to describe what we believe God is doing in his world and in us. And one of the most powerful and memorable of these is this image of God as our Shepherd.
Its significance for people worshipping here down the generations is illustrated by that stained glass window behind me. And I really enjoy taking classes of school children up there and reflecting with them on that loveliest of images. But it was a child who pointed out to a colleague of mine how difficult and ambiguous using this picture of shepherd to speak of God can actually be.
On one occasion he invited a Missioner to come and give an assembly in one of his village schools. Now this young Missioner had spent much his ministry working in the Inner City and he understandably picked up on the picture of shepherd to try and relate to these children from the countryside. That`s where the fun began. My colleague tells me that the moment he said to the children… “And so children our God cares for you just like a shepherd” one little boy burst into floods of tears.
Of course the Missioner was completely perplexed…. But it was later discovered that this little boy`s father was himself a shepherd…. And it`s not that his father was bad one – not at all… It`s just that his farm also had a small abattoir…. and clearly, the little boy had seen his father`s shepherding work as also having a very different side to it.
And in fairness we also have to be careful, or at least more aware of what we`re saying when we use the picture of `sheep` in referring to people. Nowadays to refer to people as sheep is a far from complimentary thing to say…. I mean, for example sheep are by no means as stupid as some would make out. There was an article in the newspaper some years ago about a shepherd who couldn`t understand how his sheep were getting out of their enclosure…. only to discover that they had learnt to roll across the cattle grid!
So, I`m not diminishing the significance or devaluing the importance of this picture of God as our Shepherd…. But I think we have to realise that it`s quite complex ….. And I suppose the key thing for me is that we can run into difficulty or misunderstanding particularly if we jump too quickly into making a connection between what WE know of sheep and shepherding (or at least what we THINK we know about it!) and then assume THAT`S what Jesus has in mind.
So again, there`s great value in this picture but so that we don`t become a bit lopsided in our understanding and more importantly …. lopsided in our praying we need to ask: “What did people think Jesus meant when he called himself the `Good Shepherd`?” What did they hear him saying? Well, I think the important thing is to remember that Jesus is a Rabbi… a teacher. And what he`s doing in the Gospel we heard this morning (which was a small extract from a much longer discussion) is that Jesus is taking the people back into their story… to the time when Ezekiel castigated the `shepherds` (the leaders of Israel) for effectively leading the people astray.
It was one of those `enough is enough` moments…. In Ezekiel Chapter 34 the Lord God declares that he himself will `shepherd` the people. To mix our metaphors…the people had been subject to far too many siren and competing voices…. Too many charlatans…. And now the Lord himself would act.
Now, what we need to appreciate is that Jesus is picking up the mantle of Ezekiel… And when he (let`s face it) in an incredibly caustic way; condemns the leaders of Israel in his own day, the sting in the tail comes in those words “Good Shepherd” because he was identifying himself with God…. The God who would himself be their shepherd. It was one of those `enough is enough` moments…. He says “I am the Good Shepherd”. In other words, Jesus was claiming to be doing what Ezekiel had promised…. and the people knew it. They understood the metaphor correctly (from its Biblical context)….. that`s why the next three verses after our Gospel reading this morning are these:
“The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’ (John 10. 31-33). Notice: “you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’ THAT`S what they heard. That`s what made them so angry.
So my point is that before this picture of `Good Shepherd` says anything about the care and concern and support of our God… all of which are of huge importance to faith; this is a picture that is about God`s rightful place and significance….. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me”. (John 10.27) In other words, in the midst of the huge number of competing and contradictory voices we hear and the seductive and all too often illusory images we give ourselves to no, the `Good Shepherd`… Jesus is the place to get your bearings…. The Living God is found in Christ himself.
So whenever you hear that phrase, `Good Shepherd` …if you forget the background…. the Ezekiel part of the story and get yourself drawn into more, shall we say `sentimental` imagery (dwelling perhaps on those delightfully fluffy things we see in the fields round about us!) you miss the point that Jesus is making ….
And you see the consequence is that his teaching has much more to do with the re-orientation of our life … as subjects of his Kingdom. This is again underlined in the passage we heard this morning … but easily miss it. Jesus says “I give them eternal life”… and we all go “Oh, yes… when I die… how reassuring….” and so on. But that`s not what Jesus is saying. At least that`s only part of it. He`s actually saying “I give them the life of the coming age”….. Which changes the perspective hugely doesn`t it? It means that our life isn`t a sort of `waiting around` until the important stuff starts to happens after I die. It tells us that `the Kingdom of heaven`… the `life of the coming age` …..the life and presence of God are, as it were coming out to meet us. This is why we often say in our concluding prayers, “May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life; we who drink his cup bring life to others”.
You see we don`t regard Resurrection as something that firstly, happened to Christ and then secondly as something we hope for `in the end`. The Scriptures teach us to consider ourselves as entering into, and sharing this `resurrection life` in the here and now.
Astonishing really….. In some ways a pale imitation, yes….. we`re not the finished article…. But one way of getting a handle on all of this is by reflecting more deeply on what it means for you to say that Christ is the Good Shepherd…. MY Good Shepherd.
What it means for you to hear his voice, know him and follow him. (John 10.27)