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The Good Shepherd and his sheep

One of my favourite Australian folk songs starts with the line, “Oh, the springtime it brings on the shearing”. It’s one of many that shearers sing to celebrate their contribution to the economy. Their job is to cut the national wool clip, which last year totalled 325,000 tonnes. That’s over 1.6 million bales, each weighing an average 200 kilograms.


It used to be said that economically Australia “rides on the sheep’s back”. That mightn’t be so true any longer but the wool industry is deeply ingrained in our understanding of who we are as a nation. Indeed our most popular song, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, a kind of alternative national anthem, is all about a chap who stole a sheep when he was hungry.
Our preoccupation with sheep is something we share in common with people in Israel and Palestine, for whom sheep-rearing has been a key rural industry since time immemorial. In fact ‘Hebrews’, the ancient name for the Israelites, is derived from root words meaning ‘nomadic sheep-herders’.
Not surprisingly, sheep, shepherds and sheep-herding are themes that keep recurring in the Bible. It was King David, the one-time shepherd-boy, who wrote one of the best-loved scriptural passages of all — the 23rd Psalm, which famously starts with the words ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want’. David was only one of many writers of Biblical books who used the pastoral imagery of ‘sheep’ and ‘shepherds’, words that occur at least 309 times in the Bible.
Jesus himself used these words on 44 occasions to illustrate the lessons he taught the audiences who soon gathered wherever he went. Some of his best-loved sayings were about sheep and shepherds.

Consider, for instance, the parable in Luke 15:4–7:
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine … and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
The sheep gone astray and then restored to the flock through the determined effort of the devoted shepherd is among the most powerful of images Jesus created in his parables. The lost sheep recovered and the parallel with the repentant sinner remain with us. We ourselves continually use Jesus’s pastoral imagery. In many churches the members call their Minister a Pastor, which is from the Latin word for ‘shepherd’. We talk of the church’s ‘pastoral’ care program, by which we mean the way a congregation cares for the spiritual needs of its members, just as a shepherd cares for his sheep. We liken the congregation to a ‘flock’ as they are led by their Pastor. And if the Pastor is a Bishop, his emblem of office is the crozier — a stylised shepherd’s crook. Sheep-tending is a metaphor so closely intertwined with our understanding of our church and our faith that we can scarcely imagine Christianity without its pastoral imagery.

And that brings us to Jesus’s two famous pronouncements about himself in this morning’s Scripture reading. In John 10:7 he says, “I am the gate for the sheep”; and then in verse 11 he proclaims, “I am the good shepherd.” These are two of the seven ‘I am’ statements Jesus makes about himself in the Gospel of John in order to explain to his contemporaries who he was. You’ll know the other five if you’ve been here the last three times I’ve led worship because I’ve preached you sermons on three of the others — ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘the bread of life’ and ‘the way, the truth and the life’.


    Let’s now tease out what Jesus meant by calling himself, first, a gate in a sheep pen and then, second, the shepherd in charge of the pen. We’ll start by setting his two ‘I am’ pronouncements in context. They come in the middle of one of his frequent disputes with the Pharisees, his chief critics. The scene is Jerusalem and, predictably, the Pharisees are loudly condemning Jesus because, as John 9 tells us, he had just healed a congenitally blind man on the Sabbath. According to the Pharisees, even miraculous healing was labour and therefore Jesus had broken Jewish law by working on the Sabbath. They hadn’t appreciated the inexplicable miracle of giving sight to a man born blind. Nor did they understand that acts of compassion must be performed as opportunities and needs arise rather than in accordance with some schedule determined by the legal day of rest.


    Jesus’s two pastoral ‘I am’ statements were made as part of that debate, as he tries to explain why, as God’s Son, he needn’t obey the rigid rules of behaviour the Pharisees seek to impose on everyone else. Perhaps deciding to use imagery and metaphors they will easily understand, he uses pastoral allegories from everyday life. He likens the Judæans to a flock of sheep and himself to the gate of the sheep-pen in which the sheep are protected at night. Then, extending the allegory further, he says he’s the shepherd as well.


    For Jesus’s Judæan audience, these were very powerful images. Although they lived in places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, they were never far from sheep and shepherds. Inevitably, in travelling from one place to another they walked past sheep-pens, sheep and shepherds. For us, it might seem odd for Jesus to call himself ‘the gate for the sheep’, but Jesus’s audience knew exactly what he meant. Sheep-pens were enclosures of stone, about 1.5 metres high, often topped with thorn-bushes to prevent the sheep from jumping out and predators — thieves, wolves, foxes — climbing in.The sheep-pen had a narrow entrance, but no gate because the shepherd himself was the gate. When he had penned his sheep for the night, he sat in the entrance. That’s where he slept. Any sheep trying to escape would have to clamber over him, as would any predator trying to get in.


    Not only that, but the shepherd and his sheep were bonded. He knew them by name; and they knew him. He counted them into the pen in the evening and out again in the morning. He probably didn’t need to count them to tell if any were missing. They knew his voice, trusted him and followed him, knowing he would lead them to fresh pasture. As long as he was with them, watching over them, they were safe. Without him they were vulnerable. Unless he kept them flocking together, they would scatter as they grazed; and then those who strayed too far could easily be picked off by predators. Thus, when Jesus said he was ‘the gate for the sheep’, his audience would immediately have understood he was referring to his reliable, caring, protective, nurturing role for those who believed in him.

Jesus then clinches the point he’s making by going on to say that as well as being the gate, he’s the good shepherd — the owner of the sheep, with a proprietorial interest in their safety and well-being. Unlike the hired help, who has no pride in ownership and might even abandon the flock, the owner has an investment to protect. He’ll fend off whoever and whatever tries to raid his flock; and if necessary he’ll fight to the death to protect the sheep that are his. Wherever they are, he’ll be there too, ready to ward off dangers and threats, prepared to guard their lives with his own.

And how does the audience respond to all these pastoral allusions, the notion of Jesus caring for his followers like a shepherd does a flock of sheep? As usual when he made one of his ‘I am’ pronouncements, opinion was divided. Some said, “He’s a demented lunatic! He’s so mad he must be demon-possessed!” Others, remembering the recent healing of the congenitally blind chap, disagreed. “No, he can’t be demon-possessed because people infested by demons don’t spend their time giving sight to people born blind.”

That’s the end of the debate for the time being. Our Scripture reading didn’t take us to the end of John 10 today; however, if it had, we’d have heard how the argument about the shepherd and the sheep broke out again later when Jesus was in the temple courtyard. A crowd gathers around him and asks him if he’s the Messiah, the long-awaited saviour of the Jews. Jesus responds by saying that his good works, giving sight to the blind for instance, demonstrate that he’s God’s son. Reverting to the pastoral allegory, he then tells them they’d know this if they were his followers — his flock, those who believe in him; however, because they don’t believe his claim to be God’s Son, they’re not his ‘sheep’. Pushing the metaphor further, he tells them that the sheep of his flock will never perish because he will grant them eternal life. He can do this, he says, because he and his Father God are one and the same.


    Hearing this, the crowd take up stones to hurl at him. Jesus says, “You have seen me perform many miracles of healing in my Father’s name. Which one of them are stoning me for?” “We’re not stoning you for your miracles,” they reply, “but because of your blasphemy in equating yourself with God.” The debate ends there because fortunately Jesus manages to escape. He quits Jerusalem, and makes his way to the far side of the River Jordan, where his ministry had begun with his baptism. He stays there preaching to those who follow.


    Meanwhile, as these incidents demonstrate, Jesus’s claims to be the shepherd of souls had once again provoked dissension among his contemporaries. Two thousand years and innumerable sermons later, Jesus’s pastoral imagery is inseparable from our religious belief and understanding of our faith. At the time, however, it won him as many enemies as followers.
    The pastoral imagery might be self-evident, but is there anything new we might learn from it? I hope so, because in John 10 Jesus is describing the proper relationship between himself and us his followers. We join his flock by conscious choice. We are here because we want to be. No one is forcing us; however, in joining the flock of believers, the worldwide fellowship of Christians, we must enter the gateway that is the shepherd. There is no other way to enter God’s Kingdom than by accepting Jesus as your personal shepherd — your guide, mentor, role model and protector, the one you trust above all others.


    That’s something we accept as Christians. We are in Tuggeranong Uniting Church this morning because we heard the shepherd calling us. At some point in our lives each of us realised that we were wandering astray and needed Christ in our lives to guide us. Some of us came to the good shepherd voluntarily, knowing he wanted us to follow him. And some of us had to be rescued. We were so thoroughly lost that if the shepherd hadn’t found us we’d have perished in the wilderness.
    But why should anyone who isn’t already in the sheep-fold wish to join the flock? If you’re secularised and thoroughly non-religious, part of the great sceptical unchurched majority who now comprise a third of the Australian population, who profess no faith and probably regard religion as irrelevant superstition, why on earth would you want to become a Christian? What might prompt you to attend a church on a frosty Sunday instead of staying in bed?

I don’t know the answer; but what I do know is that there’s much needless grief in the world because the sheep have gone astray, and no more so than in Australia. We see it all around us — people who are lost, alienated, leading sad, conflict-ridden, unfulfilled, directionless lives, people needing a shepherd. If only they knew! He’s calling them, but they don’t hear. He’s waiting for them, hoping they’ll come to him, hoping they’ll allow him to rescue them.
    Many don’t know they’re lost. They seek salvation elsewhere — in travel, education, entertainment, social activity, money-making, physical fitness and/or their careers. All those have a place in the great, wide spectrum of human endeavour; but God won’t judge you on your attainments there because none of them leads to salvation. Faith in the Good Shepherd is what counts. And none is ultimately as satisfying as the assurance of following the Shepherd.

The reason for that is the intimate relationship between Jesus and those who have accepted him into their lives. Christianity is primarily a faith built on a relationship with God. By accepting Jesus as Shepherd, we enter into a right relationship with God — a relationship based on trust, honesty, forgiveness and love. Others may not trust, forgive, love or be honest with us; but that is the kind of relationship we enjoy with Jesus when we join the Good Shepherd’s flock.

There’s another, critical difference between our relationship with Jesus and those with other people. This is what Jesus said in our Scripture reading in John 10:11 — “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”. To emphasise the point, he repeats it four verses later in Verse 15 — “I lay down my life for my sheep”. And of course that’s what he did later, submitting himself to the prolonged agony of death on the cross, surely the most fiendishly cruel death ever designed. (You might be fortunate enough to have friends who would willingly die for you, but few of them would agree to be crucified!)

Through the crucifixion, Jesus proved his love for us, his wayward sheep, in the most demonstrative manner possible. As he himself said in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
 In closing, I’ll observe that in recent times the Islamists responsible for almost daily acts of terrorism in the West, have taken to deriding us Christians as ‘Worshippers of the Cross’. Meanwhile, ISIS is carrying out genocide against Christians communities in the Middle East and North Africa. Sadly, in their cruel, murdering, destructive fanaticism, the Islamists misunderstand us and our faith. It’s not the cross we worship but what it represents; and what it stands for is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life to save his sheep. It’s the Good Shepherd we worship and are in a loving relationship with, not the instrument of his torture and execution.   Bearing that in mind, I will conclude by reading you this prayer:

Good Shepherd, within your embrace we are secure. We feel the warmth of belonging to one flock under your loving care and protection.
Good Shepherd, within your embrace we find healing. We pray for healing for all those struggling with physical, mental or spiritual health.
Good Shepherd, within your embrace we find justice. We pray for those who have been imprisoned or tortured for their race, colour, caste or faith.
Good Shepherd, within your embrace we find peace. We pray for those dispossessed by war, who wander this earth as refugees. And we pray always for reconciliation among people of all creeds, races and ethnicities. Amen.  (From John Birch on his ‘Faith and Worship website’.)


Ian Willis 2 July 2017

Ian Willis

Dr Ian Willis is a long-term lay preacher at TUC.

Ian has a deep commitment to prayer and regularly gives his time to pray with preachers and worship leaders before worship services each Sunday.

Ian is also a writer and historian.

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About Our Church

Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering and ministry.

We aim to help people have life to the full. We welcome people into a our Christian community where they can connect with God, with one another and with opportunities to make a difference in our changing world.

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