‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. Amen.
He was 6’2” tall, with strawberry blond hair and a beard, as the girls would say now he was ‘fit’, he wore a long white robe, held a staff, and had a lamb draped around his neck. This is the earliest picture I can remember from my childhood Sunday School. I expect that many of us here will have seen that same picture. I used to wonder why people see Jesus as one of their own, in colour and culture, but of course that it is how we might initially connect with him.
Another picture I have in mind is of a stocky, dark haired man, walking ahead of about a dozen sheep, who seemed to follow him like puppy dogs. This was in the American run theme park, called ‘Nazareth Village’, in the Holy Land. Neither of these images of the shepherd are completely wrong but they are both somewhat romantic.
Before we are able to grasp the full meaning of what Jesus, the ‘Good Shepherd’, was saying to his disciples, its helpful to learn more of the background to sheep farming in 1st century Israel. Sheep were very important in Israel. They were precious, so much so, every part of them was used with the exception of the bleat.
Although not eaten regularly, possibly by the poor, only at feast times. Lamb meant food and sacrifice, their skin was used to store wine and water, to make parchment for writing, their wool was essential for clothing, and their horns and bones used for writing tools and other utensils. Sheep were a form of currency and the Shepherd was custodian of them.
Despite the importance of their role, shepherds were considered to be ritually unclean and were not allowed to enter the Temple. Shepherding was not a nine to five job, they lived with their sheep out in the fields, sometimes for months at a time, they cared for their flocks, and they grew to know each and every sheep individually by name and character. Because of the close nature of their connection, sheep also knew their shepherd, both his voice and his call. Any parent will tell you they can recognise their own child’s voice in a crowd, and a child will also know it’s parent’s. Jesus wants us to know, that is how close he is to us and all whom he calls.
Pastures in Israel were not neat fields as we would know them in the South East of England, but more like the sparce mountains and moors of the North and Scotland. Jewish flocks, at that time, mingled where ever the grass was green. At night the sheepfold was not always an exclusive place, but sometimes a communal affair. Large circles of stone topped with brambles. High enough to keep out predators, with an entrance small enough for the Shepherds, sleeping across the gap, to take turns in keeping the sheep in and wild animals out.
In the morning the Shepherd would call out for his own sheep to follow as he lead them out into the pasture and closer to water. Shepherds of larger flocks would often hire in help but these workers would not necesserally have the same commitment as owners, or the same relationship with the flock.
Throughout their history, Jewish people knew ‘The Shepherd’ as a metaphor for both their God and their King. Those listening to Jesus would have known Ezekiel refered to God as a Shepherd/King and his people were his flock. In singing Psalm 23 they would be assured that it refered to God’s care and provision, his ‘goodness and mercy’. And of course they knew their hero, the Shepherd King David, who fought and killed Goliath, saving the nation. David, for 1st century Jews, displayed and ipitomised the kind of king they longed for in the promised Messiah.
Jesus, in his two declarations, “I Am The Good Shepherd” was saying to all, both then and now, ‘I am’ God and King. He went on to describe the Pharisees, Herod and his puppet rulers and the occupying Roman leaders, as the ‘hired hand’, who cared nothing for the people. Unlike The Good Shepherd, who Jesus said, knows, protects and provides for his sheep.
Jesus went on to include other sheep, other peoples, into his fold. Although they didn’t know it yet, he indicated to the disciples, where his ministry was going to take him, and where their own would lead them. Jesus described his death and resurrection in terms of God’s command. He also described the close relationship between him and the Father as one of love and self sacrifice for the whole world.
After receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and we shall hear more about that in a few weeks time, Peter and the disciples became bolder knowing Jesus to be their Shepherd/King/ Messiah. They were passionate and after Peter and John were arrested for preaching the Good News of Jesus, Peter defended himself to the Priests, Temple officials and the Sadducees, proclaiming that an act of healing was the work of the risen Jesus.
Peter reminded the Pharisees they were the instrument of Jesus’ death, emphasising his resurrection in particular for his followers. Despite the danger of being killed for inciting rebellion, Peter declared Jesus to be the foundation of his faith and the ‘cornerstone’ of the emerging church.
Equally passionate about sharing the joy of knowing and following their shepherd, John in his letter, reminds his reader of Jesus’ sacrifice made for all. He reminds us of our responsibility, as lambs of his flock, to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
We may not be called, like Jesus, to die for our neighbours, but we are called to know, protect and provide for them. What Jesus does for us, we must do for others in need. The Good Shepherd gave his life for the sheep. He loved us first and commanded that we in turn love one another, and believe in him. His promise for those who keep his commandments is to abide in us, to dwell with us, and to send his Holy Spirit that we might have life in abundance.
I read recently that the word ‘Good’ in the Greek can also be translated as Beautiful, not beautiful in looks but in action. So my Sunday School picture of Jesus, whilst inaccurate in a visual sense, but in character was not so wrong after all. Amen.
The Rev'd Mo Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 25/04/2021