Sermon for Easter 4 year C 2022-05-05
What do we make of the fact that Jesus calls us his ‘sheep’, and describes himself as our trustworthy Shepherd ?
“You are My sheep” the Lord says. But it is a image that does little to flatter us! We only have to listen to every news-bulletin to see how appropriate that image is for us, as we scramble about wondering what matters, and if it matters more than our fellow creatures and human beings.
The film ‘Babe” reminds us that sheep can be a panicky and chaotic bunch. And if we are fans of “Shaun the Sheep” then we will know that at least one sheep might be very inventive, but also it doesn’t always end well!
Scripture shares that same realism about our fallibility. Isaiah uses the sheep image to announce a faithful Shepherd King, a second and greater King David. This ‘Messiah’ will finally sort things out, but it will be at personal cost to himself. Remember that setting of his prophetic words in Handel’s ‘Messiah, when each voice veers off in a pretty angular direction. “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.” Then the mood shifts suddenly to describe the sacrificial suffering that Messiah will undergo for his people. “ And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all!”-
Perhaps that’s enough for the moment about the sad reality of our likeness to flocks of bewildered sheep!
In this morning’s Gospel we eavesdrop a moment during one of the pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem where Jesus speaks to the crowds in the Temple precincts. The Dedication festival celebrated the victory of the Judas ‘the Hammer’ Maccabeus, the priest and his rebel army who overthrew the rule of the pagan Seleucid Empire which had banned all Jewish worship, and vandalised the Holy Place. So it was a Feast heavy with meaning for people there that day, once more under the fist of their Roman overlords. Jesus takes the risk of being in the holy city, where his enemies are based. Will he decide to take the risk of starting a revolution?
The crowd are desperate to know if he will be that Shepherd King promised by the prophets, the one to bring in better times, the one to take the throne of David by force. But Jesus deliberately avoids any language about power and lordship, and returns to the images of care and protection, that he began his teaching with. A few verses before this passage he has proclaimed himself as the Good Shepherd. He needs to say that- shepherds didn’t have a good reputation either. When Luke tells us that the first people to hear that the Saviour King has been born were shepherds we are meant to react- “Shepherds!!!” Jesus reminds us that shepherds were often hired men, travelling wherever there was work, with a reputation for bunking off at the first sight of trouble. And so Ezekiel the prophet was called upon by God to challenge the political and religious leaders of the nation with this message- “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves and neglect the flock.”
Jesus names himself the good shepherd, and challenges the authorities head on. Unlike hired hands, he says that the good shepherd will stay with his threatened flock, ready to lay down his life for them. He is not going anywhere. This is the command his Father has set for him, to stay with his followers in the face of opposition, evil, even death. This immediately splits the listening crowd in two, some shouting that he is crazy, and others pointing these disbelievers to the signs and wonders of healing he has performed. Now we hear the same defiance again. “My sheep will hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. No-one will snatch them from out of my hand. No one can steal them from my Father’s hand.”
This provokes a furious response. The very next verse, (which we don’t hear this morning!) tells us that “The crowd fetched stones to stone him then.” For Jesus to say that he and the Father were one was blasphemy. He manages to walk through this threatening crowd, but the net was closing in.
The early Church held on to this promise of the faithful Shepherd, despite all that they had to endure. Confident that He would be with them whatever they met with. So John in his vision in todays second lesson puts this song of the promise on the lips of the redeemed who have passed beyond suffering and death. “ We will hunger no more, and thirst no more, God will shelter us, and Jesus the Lamb will guide us to springs of life giving water, and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
To make sense of the power of Jesus’ image we need to remember that eastern shepherds do not herd their sheep before them. Their relationship with the flock is traditionally much more hands on, calling each sheep by an individual pet name, calling them individually to follow. It is this model of Christ as the pioneer leading us through the dark places of evil and death that the Letter to the Hebrews describes, and the Puritan Hymn Writer Richard Baxter pens in these words. “Christ leads us through no darker rooms than he went through before. He that unto God’s Kingdom comes must enter by this door.” In the dark valley he is there.
The climax of this shepherd-sheep imagery is the title given to Jesus by his followers – The Lamb. We hear it first in John’s prologue when John the Baptist blurts out as Jesus approaches- “Look, there is the Lamb of God.” Jesus is the one who leads us out of darkness, but he is also the one who bears the scars of that sacrificial rescue. The book of Revelation uses this picture of Jesus as the slain but victorious Lamb 29 times In the second reading today we are re-assured that Jesus is the saviour, marked for ever with the wounds of his sacrificial love, but bringing us back to the Father, assuring us of healing, safer paths forward. And it is the song of the sacrificial Lamb that the church has sung from its earliest days as the bread of the Eucharist is broken for us- Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.
Our Anglican rite often adds the response- “We break this bread to share in the Body of Christ- Though we are many we are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” This breaking of the bread to be shared reminds us that the action of the Good Shepherd is to unite us, heal a fractured world, calling us to love one another as he has loved us. This gathering of all to God might seem impossible to a bunch of wayward human sheep, but it is the task the Father has called on his Son to realise.
And we are not lost in that gathering. Our intimate relationship with the Good Shepherd remains. At that first meeting between the risen Lord and Mary Magdalene she is distracted with grief. Jesus calls her by name. The call of the Father and the Son is one
“Do not be afraid. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.”
“The Lord is my shepherd- there is nothing I shall want.”