Psalm 23 & John 10: 22-30
The Lord is my Shepherd
In my early teenage years, I used to work on my uncle’s farm in Dipton during the school holidays. Lambing used to occur usually during the holiday time and it fell to my lot to join, Doug, the farm shepherd, in the Commer truck as we worked our way from paddock to paddock. He drove and the dog and I chased down the ewes that needed attention. Usually the mornings were cold and often frosty, which I presume is why my uncle stayed in by the fire. We arrived back at the farm house in time for morning tea and to tend the motherless lambs before lunch and then starting the next round of the lambing paddocks. The work was constant, often demanding and at times revolting. Yet, I also gained the impression that the ewes in trouble somehow knew that we were there for them and their lambs. Always our top priority was the ewe and her lamb or lambs. And if bad weather looked likely to come up during the night then it was out of bed, into the wet weather gear and out in the truck again to move the stock to sheltered pasture.
Cold cracked hands dipped in cold water and disinfectant and wiped on a wet bloody towel may have been our lot but we did it for the ewe and her lamb.
I am sure that some of you here today can identify with what I am saying for like me, you have done the lambing rounds as shepherds of the flock.
Yet many here today may have no idea of what I am talking about when I speak of doing the lambing beat. Your life may not have been one of living on a sheep farm yet you will have had hens, chickens or other animals which depended on you for nurture and care so you really do have some idea of what it is to shepherd or to care.
Today we heard the words of the 23rd Psalm – The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…
Like many of you I learned it off by heart at Sunday School.
The image of the shepherd has a long history in biblical tradition. Terah, the father of Abraham, Abraham, Isaac, Esau and Jacob were all shepherds. Jacob’s sons identified themselves before Joseph when they came down to seek assistance in Egypt as shepherds just like our ancestors (Genesis 47:3). Moses was taking care of the sheep of his father-in-law when the Lord called him. And the young boy David, who was to become King of all Israel, was a shepherd who looked after the sheep of his father. It is as if shepherding was part of the DNA of Israel.
It is no wonder that one of the most appealing symbols the people of Israel used to describe God’s relationship with them was one of shepherd.
Our image of the modern-day shepherd is of a person on a horse, or a four-wheel motor bike, with a string of dogs in tow riding around the hills rounding up sheep into a large flock to bring them down for shearing or lambing or wintering over. For me it was riding in the cab of a truck, the heater on as high as it would go, trying to keep orphaned lambs warm, and praying the rain would stop or the sun would warm up.
Not so for the shepherds of Israel who wandered the hills and the plains in front of their flocks looking for good pasture and water and protecting them from wild animals and thieves. The shepherd knew each animal and the animals knew the shepherd. The shepherd called and the sheep followed very much like we walk in front and call our dog to heel. The sheep trusted the shepherd with their lives.
At night the shepherd took the sheep in to a protective stone enclosure and then lay across the door to guard them from danger. This image is very evident in John 10 when Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:1-3) and at verse seven of the same chapter Jesus says again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.”
Most of Jesus’ shepherd imagery is built on Ezekiel 34 which speaks of God and God’s concern for the wellbeing of his people in images of God being the shepherd. In fact, Ezekiel is bold enough to say that God is the real and only good shepherd.
Jesus built on this when he spoke of himself as the shepherd prepared to put his own life on the line for his flock. Jesus contrasted his loving concern and the loving concern of God for God’s people with those who ruled the people with their primary motivation being self interest and self protection. Being a good shepherd does place Jesus in harm’s way.
To return to Psalm 23. Often this Psalm is sung at funerals or printed on “In memoriam” cards. Many identify the Psalm with death, tears, grieving and funerals. In fact, people have sometimes asked that we not sing the 23rd Psalm “because we had it at Mum or Dad’s funeral.”
Because the Psalm comforts it speaks to us in our time of need. Often the comfort comes about because we perceive the Psalm to be speaking about what God does for us “after death.” I suspect that is because verse 4 speaks of God being with us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and verse 6 speaks of ‘goodness and mercy following us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.’
I want to challenge you today to give consideration as to whether people of today are more comfortable with the dead Jesus whose body is safely disposed of in the tomb, rather than the risen Christ moving in our midst challenging us to look at life and death, faith and values through God’s eyes and not our own.
Often, I would finish the sermon at that point with a question – something for you to mull over for the next week. But I am not.
I would like to provide something of an answer to that question.
The answer is linked to our readings for today revolving around the biblical understand that God is personal and caring; revolving around the understanding of “Emmanuel” – or God being with us in Jesus Christ; revolving our understanding that God is not the great watchmaker who has created the clock, wound it up and left it to run down of its own accord. Rather God is both the watch maker and the watch repair person who keeps the watch well oiled and in time; God is the shepherd who cares and watches over the people of the world; God is present and active in our world providing for us, caring for us, loving us, encouraging us, quietly teaching us and at times shouting out loud asking us to “pay attention.” God is not the distant observer – rather God in Jesus Christ is the one riding in the front of the truck on the lambing beat, heater on full, picking up the strays and the orphans, out there in the cold and the wind and rain, the harsh sun and the drying wind saying “you are my people and I love.” This is not a promise for whatever may be after death – rather it is a promise and indication of where God is now and what God is doing now. It is about life now.
But if we don’t have the eyes of faith with which to view God’s presence active in our world, or the ability to recognise God’s Holy Spirit active in our lives and the lives of others in the world; if we cannot discern God’s hand in the help, protection and care that comes through others then what are we left with? Are we not left simply with ourselves and what we make of our own destiny?
There is much anxiety in the world, at the moment, partly because of what is known as the alt right and racist attitudes being blatantly exhibited.
I do not wish to underplay our responsibility in shepherding and caring for each other in times such as the one we are presently in. God asks us to behave responsibly, as God asked Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and all those people of faith who have gone before us to do. Yet God also asks us in times when anxiety surfaces to remember ‘that the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want.” Rather than feeding our anxiety let us feed our faith and hope through our love of God in Jesus Christ and our love of each other.
Let us remember that we are not alone. God is with us and God is shepherding us.
To God be the glory. Amen