“I am the good shepherd”
Probably the only knowledge most people have nowadays of shepherding is “One man and his dog” on BBC2 some time ago, but the role still retains a romantic place in the imagination of many of us.
In the middle east in Jesus’ time shepherds were common and extremely important to the economy even though socially they were pretty much at the bottom of the pile and epitomised a rugged no-nonsense, down to earth quality. That was the point of the announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds rather than kings and princes. They had no airs and graces.
Shepherds in the middle east also led from the front, knew their flock well, protected them by shepherding them into sheepfolds at night and guarding them. Every one of the flock was valuable so if one of the sheep strayed, the shepherd would go and try and find it. The flock in turn knew the voice of their shepherd and responded when they heard him.
So a shepherd provided leadership, protection and because the flock knew and trusted their shepherd, they followed where he led them.
Jesus said “I am the good shepherd” While any shepherd would take a few risks to protect or get back one of his flock who strayed, Jesus promised to go even further. He said he would even “lay down his life for the sheep.”
This is where the metaphors and symbolism start to become entangled. As well as being the good shepherd Jesus is also known as the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. He identifies so completely with his flock he becomes representative of them and offers himself as the perfect sacrificial lamb used in Temple worship.
The good shepherd would gladly swap places and become the sacrificial lamb offered to save all the others. This is the kind of servant leader that we are asked to follow. He can hold two roles together at once. He is both shepherd and lamb, both servant and king.
As I’ve said before, I think it is significant that Jesus never asks us to worship him even once in the New Testament. But he does ask, on many occasions that we follow him. This tells us how important following Jesus is. You can follow him and trust where he leads us because he is the “Good shepherd” the perfect shepherd, leading his flock forwards.
Do we recognise his voice? It is the voice of God speaking through Jesus who is calling us forwards, to follow in the way that Jesus trod.
Do you trust him? “Believe in me, believe also in God” He says. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”.
Everyone has a choice. Do we recognise and trust the voice of Jesus? We can choose to follow where Jesus leads because we trust that he is who He claims to be “the way, the truth and the life” or we can choose not to, because we don’t really trust him. We don’t recognise his voice. We need to recognise his voice and understand what he requires of us.
As a part of his flock there is only two ways that this will recognise his voice. By acting on the prompting of the Holy Spirit in prayer and by reading the Bible to understand what is required of us. Both are closely related to each other.
Bible reading and study of the text has been much neglected in the church of England and the recent reports just publishes on our health, prompted by our decline, has pointed out that this is something the C of E needs to address if it is to flourish again. The Bible is God’s revelation to us of his action first through the Jewish people and then decisively through the person of Jesus Christ.
Who do you trust. Who do you choose? The choice was ever before us but in the days when Christianity was the only choice out there, the choice was more obvious and the church got lazy. In a pluralist society with lots of religious options out there discerning and making that choice is much harder and requires much greater effort, discernment and real commitment that ever before.
Christians believe that Jesus is the decisive and full revelation of God to humankind. So when another revelation appears, like Islam that overturns and contradicts the voice of Jesus, that claims to supersede Christianity and presents itself as the final and definitive revelation of God, and indeed says that we have perverted the gospel of the prophet Jesus – we have a massive personal choice to make. If we are confused, think how confusing it must be for our children and grandchildren, especially if there is no strong example to show them.
Addressing Biblical literacy and fostering discipleship are the ways in which we learn to hear and recognise the voice of God amongst many other voices and following where that voice, that person leads.
Jesus said “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me”.