Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 KJV)
Here we are again, although we are physically separate, joining together in worship – and as we do so, we recognise that by God’s great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Prayers of adoration and confession
Merciful God, be gracious to us and bless us
and make your face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.
(From Psalm 67)
The prophet Isaiah tells us:
He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the chastisement he bore made us whole,
and with his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
And so we pray:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against you and against one another,
in thought and word and deed,
in the evil we have done,
and in the good we have not done,
through ignorance, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may serve you in newness of life
to the glory of your name.
Assurance of Forgiveness
Be assured that:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
(1 Peter 2:24-25)
Hear Christ’s word of grace to us all: “Your sins are forgiven.”
Thanks be to God
A psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
John 10:1-10 (NIV)
The Good Shepherd and His Sheep
10 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
1 Peter 2:21-25 (NIV)
21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Psalm 23, John 10:1-10, 1 Peter 2:21-25
There’s a common theme in this week’s bible readings: John 10 talks about the good shepherd and the sheep, our reading from 1 Peter talks about sheep and the shepherd, and of course we had the most famous psalm of them all – the Lord is my shepherd.
Of course, the imagery of us as sheep, and the Lord, Jesus, as the shepherd is quite familiar to us. And it’s a concept that we can relate to. We all know about sheep and shepherds, don’t we?
You may have heard stories of missionaries and bible translators working in New Guinea, having difficulty properly translating ‘the lamb of God’ into local languages. They were completely unfamiliar with sheep, so ‘lamb’ made no sense. The only livestock they kept were pigs, but there was nothing symbolic about pigs – and saying ‘the piglet of God’ not only didn’t make sense to the Papuans, but was also offensive to the missionaries.
You can read the story of the effort in the book ‘Peace Child’ by the Canadian missionary Don Richardson. The solution was to translate ‘lamb of God’ as ‘Peace child’ – which was a local custom of the Sawi people of New Guinea which conveyed the right concept, even though it wasn’t a direct translation and the imagery was quite different.
Of course, we all know about sheep and shepherds, don’t we?
But I wonder if we really get what Jesus in the gospel, and Peter in his letter, and David in that psalm were talking about?
Because even if we are familiar with how sheep are farmed, how it happens in Australia today, is quite different from how it happens in modern Israel, let alone how it happened in biblical times.
Of course the sheep were much the same!
Sheep are great animals, aren’t they? Mighty and magnificent beasts. Think of all the football teams which have a sheep as their mascot. Think of all the flags and coats of arms that display sheep.
Think of all the sheep performing tricks at the circus… and of course the seeing-eye sheep that help blind people...
Well, if you can think of them, then you’re doing better than me: Sheep are not known for their intelligence. They wander all over the place – from tuft of grass to tuft of grass. They’re easily scared and known to get stuck in bushes and fall off cliffs.
They’re not generally fearsome, and they’re fairly defenseless as well.
And yet, as Christians, if the Lord is our Shepherd, if Jesus is the good shepherd, then it follows that we must be sheep.
And while that is a comforting notion, the other side is at we are so often like sheep – we wander, we do the wrong thing, we are stubborn, we are foolish and so on it goes. The prophet Isaiah writes “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6)
A sheep needs someone to look after it. A sheep needs a shepherd. And we need Jesus.
At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:1-3)
A sheepfold is – or at least was – usually a stone or mud-brick structure, sometimes partially roofed or sometimes built around a cave. There would have been a single gate, which was likely just a gap in the wall – and I understand that often the shepherd himself would sleep across that gap and effectively be the gate.
The sheepfold served to protect them against thieves, robbers, and wild animals, and the sheep would be taken into the sheepfold every night, and let out every morning.
In Australia these days we typically drive sheep, follow behind them to keep them moving, maybe on a quad bike, and generally with some sheepdogs to keep them from going astray. But in Jesus time, they would have been led – it’s hard for one person to drive a flock of sheep… it’s easier to lead them… but to lead them, they have to follow, the shepherd has to call the sheep, and as Jesus said “the sheep hear his voice”.
The sheep have to recognise their shepherd, but the shepherd also knows his sheep.
For a few years while I was at Meat and Livestock Australia, I worked for Dr Rod Cox. Rod was a lecturer in Agricultural Science based at Orange Ag College, and he was seconded to MLA for a couple of years for a project. He was an interesting person to work with, and he had various agricultural interests, one of which was breeding merino rams.
I was listening to Rod and another scientist discussing his merinos over lunch one day, and I remember him saying “3558 is a fantastic ram”. He was raving about the qualities of 3558. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Rod was being a good shepherd – he knew his sheep by name. Or at least by number, because it seems the convention is that whereas you name bulls and stallions, you simply number rams.
He knew 3558 though. He knew all about 3558. He cared for 3558. 3558 was a great ram.
Rod showed that there needs to be that familiarity, that relationship, between shepherd and sheep.
And having described how the shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them out, Jesus talks about how the shepherd goes on ahead, and the sheep follow him. They won’t follow someone else, because they don’t know his voice (10:5).
So we have this image of the shepherd going on ahead, and the sheep, rather than wandering all over the place, follow him. He’s not driving them, he’s not forcing them, he’s leading them.
In fact, if you think about it, he’s not making them go anywhere he doesn’t go first.
Jesus doesn’t prod us forward or make us go somewhere He’s not willing to go. He goes ahead of us.
And that means that quite often, we can’t see what’s ahead – and that’s true for us as individuals, for us here as the congregation of Carlingford, and for that matter for the whole church. We live in a time of great uncertainty. We worry about the future, and what it will mean for us and the people and things we love.
But if we are following Jesus, then we can trust him to lead us through it all. He can see what’s ahead because he’s already there! And he can see what’s coming up and he can help us avoid dangers and mistakes and help us to avoid drifting of his path.
It means that he’s going ahead of us and he’s leading us to metaphorical green pastures – to the place where we should be, where God and his creation are reconciled.
If we’re following the good shepherd, it means we don’t have to fear – as individuals or as a church - that our lives are going the wrong direction. If we are following the good shepherd, following Jesus through seeking his word and through prayer, then we can follow him with confidence. He is the good shepherd: he’s not going to lead us off a cliff or into a desert.
Jesus goes ahead of us and calls us all to follow him. Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus calls people to come to him, to follow him. He called the first disciples to follow him, and they left their nets and followed him, he offered the Samaritan woman the living water, he offered himself as the bread of life. Jesus says, in Matthew’s gospel, come unto him if you’re burdened and he will give you rest.
Jesus doesn’t demand tributes from those who follow him. Instead he gives freely: the living water, the bread of life, rest. If we choose to follow Jesus, then we receive those gifts. And most of all we receive life in Jesus: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Or as Jesus says here to today’s reading, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b)
As the good shepherd, Jesus offers us all abundant life.
Abundant life. Full life. I think if we asked them, people on the street that would say that Christians don’t lead very exciting lives. They don’t have much fun. They’re wowsers.
But following Jesus doesn’t take the fun and enjoyment out of our lives. God doesn’t give us a rulebook that puts everything fun out of bounds. Jesus wants us to love one another, and the commandments that we have help us to do that. If we really do love each other, then we will do no murder, we will not steal we will not commit adultery and so on.
So, if we are truly following Jesus and listening to his voice then we will not be doing those things. But if we think we know better, if we follow our own ways, or if we listen to the voice or the voices of imposters, and we don’t keep those commandments, then people will get hurt – and we’ll get hurt too.
When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s prayer, Jesus said we are to forgive those who hurt us. I reckon that is one of the toughest things to do, but when we don’t forgive as Jesus wants us to forgive – and indeed as God has forgiven us, we’ll get hurt. Anger, hatred, relationship breakups - and for that matter, high blood pressure, stress and ulcers.
It’s a tough thing to do, but if we are following Jesus, we can take heart that Jesus has gone on ahead – he’s already been there. As he was being crucified, he prayed “Forgive them, father, for they don’t know what they’re doing”
If we forgive, we are living out Jesus’ new commandment. Love one another. We are freed from the burden of hate, we can find ourselves coming to know God’s peace in our lives. And others begin to lose their power over our emotions. We become examples of God’s forgiveness, examples of grace. We become witnesses of Jesus’ love for us – and for all people.
And we should be spending time in prayer and meditating on God’s word. But life is so busy; there is so much to do.
Remember though, that Jesus took time out to pray. Not in a legalistic way where he wouldn’t do certain things on certain days, but when the time was right, he withdrew from the crowds, he withdrew from his disciples, to spend time with his father in prayer. And so should we.
We have the promise of eternal life with Jesus, but we also have the promise of abundant life when we are born again as followers of Jesus. To experience that abundant life, we just need be his followers: not simply call ourselves ‘followers of Jesus’. Instead we need to consciously and actively follow him in our lives.
When it comes down to it, we are like sheep. It’s not flattering comparison is it? But I think we all are. Sometimes we do better, but we’re not always that bright, and we stray, and we do the wrong thing.
And left to our own devices, we will perish as surely as a sheep left to its own devices the wilderness.
We might be like sheep, but we do have a good shepherd. A shepherd who we can know, but who also knows us. A shepherd who calls each one of us by name. A shepherd who knows us and loves us and cares for us.
Not someone who comes behind us, beating us with a stick, and sending dogs to nip at our heels, but a good shepherd who goes in front. The good shepherd who leads us to green pastures beside quiet waters. The good shepherd who has gone on in front of us all the way through the valley of the shadow of death and emerged victorious.
Jesus is the good shepherd who guides us all in the paths of righteousness, who provides for us even when we are in danger. Whose goodness and love will be with us all the days of our lives, and in whose house we will dwell forever.
Know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who calls you by name, and who has laid down his life for you.
Follow him, through all the trials of life, to the green pastures beside the still waters.
Know his blessing, today, tomorrow and always.
Hymns for this week:
Looking Out: One in Christ
Readings for next Sunday:
Lectionary: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
Worship: John 14:1-4, 1 Peter 2:2-10
Theme: "God’s own people"