Today we have the nation’s favourite psalm, The Lord is my Shepherd. And we probably have one of the most popular parts of the Gospel’s too, even though the nearest most of us get to shepherds and sheep are woolly jumpers, shepherd’s pie and Countryfile on a Sunday night. We’ll see that there’s a theme today of listening for the shepherd’s voice.
We’re still in Easter Season. The first Sunday after Easter had John’s description of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples and then to Thomas. Last week was Luke’s version – with Jesus scaring the bejesus out of the disciples, then having that bite to eat that he hadn’t had in Emmaus. This week we’ve gone back in time before the crucifixion. We’re still figuring out who this Jesus is – and, in doing that, we’re figuring out who we are too.
In the first part of the chapter, Jesus has been painting us a picture of his leadership and about those who follow. He talks about sheep and being the gatekeeper of the sheepfold. He tells us about a shepherd knowing his sheep by name and leading them out – and his sheep following since they know his voice. You’ve probably heard this before, but Eastern shepherds lead their sheep from the front rather than herd them from behind, as we do here.
It’s worth just saying at this point that here in the West we often have a quite disparaging image of the intelligence of sheep and we may balk at being compared to them. But in the Bible they are portrayed as being discerning, distinguishing between their shepherd and others; listening for their particular shepherds’ voice – and then following.
In the reading that we’ve just heard, Jesus takes the imagery up a notch. This time he’s not just any shepherd. He’s the Good Shepherd. A shepherd who would voluntarily lay his life down for his sheep. “The power to lay it down and the power to take it up again”. In the context of the crucifixion and resurrection, the penny starts to drop.
But there’s more to unpack here because Jesus says: “I am the Good Shepherd”. I am. Like God said to Moses. I am. John starts his Gospel with Jesus being God’s Word made flesh. And John gives us other imagery too. Jesus was the vine and we the branches. He was the bread of life and the living waters. Here, Jesus is the shepherd – and we are his flock.
The people of his pasture
But Jesus calling himself the Good Shepherd was a huge claim. It built on all number of passages in the Hebrew Scripture…
In Ezekiel 34 (verses 11-22), God says: ‘I myself will search for my sheep… care for my sheep… feed my sheep… make them lie down’.
And, of course, in Psalm 23, David describes the Lord as his shepherd. In Psalm 95:7 we have: ‘For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!’
In Micah 2:12 ‘I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob, I will gather the survivors of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture; it will resound with people.’ There’s more – but you get the picture.
Later in this chapter of John, Jesus says: ‘though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that I am in the Father and the Father is in me’. Earlier, in Isaiah 43:10, God says: ‘So that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.’ Spot the difference…
In calling himself the Good Shepherd and alluding to all these OT passages, Jesus is equating himself to God! Jesus is God! At the same time, he is God, he is man, he is the way to the Father and eternal life. And, as we try to make sense of the crucifixion and resurrection, that’s why this is in our Easter Season reading today.
But there are things to learn about ourselves here too.
Jesus said: “believe the works”. His actions gave his words credibility. Now as ever, we are concerned with what our leaders do as well what they say – be that in church or business or politics or sport. Do they say one thing but do another? And we are far more likely to follow those who make personal sacrifices so that others may benefit.
And that leadership is going to be far more effective if the leader knows his team. Once contact is broken and they lose touch then there’ll be trouble ahead. Jesus says: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me”. We can learn about leaders and leadership by thinking about the image of a good shepherd.
Reach the heart
But I also want us to think more particularly about what we do on a Sunday morning. I think this Gospel has something to say about both being a preacher and about being a member of the congregation.
The author and preacher Tim Keller once offered this advice: “…don’t spend as much time preparing a single sermon. Be out with people, holding their hands, helping them die, working through tragedies with people, counselling people whose marriage is falling apart, that’s how you find the word of God really works in people’s lives.
The main way for you to get good as a preacher is to preach regularly and be immersed in people’s lives. Then as time goes on, your sermons become less like theological lectures and more like sermons that reach the heart.”
Much of that has been tough to do these last 12 months – but Keller’s thoughts about the preacher aren’t so far away from the shepherds in Psalm 23 and John 10, are they? And I think there’s something to learn about being part of the flock, the congregation, too.
Hearing, knowing and listening
John speaks of the flock hearing the voice, knowing the voice and listening to the voice. If they don’t, then they’ll never leave the fold. They might be safe there for a while, but if they remain there then they’ll never get out to be fed or watered… The pasture and the stream are outside the fold not within it.
Each week the preacher lends their voice to the Shepherd’s Voice. They dare to claim that they are sharing what God has laid on their heart for their congregation at that moment in time. In a parish setting these are people that they have come to know at their best and at their worst. But, put bluntly, if people don’t listen to the voice then the only person benefitting from the sermon is the preacher!
Perhaps we all need to ask ourselves each week what we are listening out for? Do we listen for our name to be called through the sermon? Are we being led out of the metaphorical fold and into pasture, to drink from still waters? Are we being taken on pathways through dark valleys? And there will be dark valleys – but Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has been out there walking before us.
The words of the preacher won’t touch everyone, every week. But I think we each need to ask, is it my turn this week? And I say this as much to myself as anyone else, since most weeks I’ll be back in the congregation, listening for the Voice.
The other sheep
And Jesus could have finished there but he keeps us on our toes with verse 16: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees when he said this and was possibly thinking of people who weren’t Jewish. Certainly, at the time that John was writing his Gospel, the early church was becoming more Gentile in make-up. And the Pharisees, the theologians of the time, probably wouldn’t have been too surprised at Jesus words. Isaiah 49:6 has God saying to Israel: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
But this verse is a wonderful re-assurance for those who don’t feel part of a flock, who for whatever reason feel isolated. And I wonder if this verse is also an alarm bell for us today if we are ever tempted to think that our way is the only way, to the exclusion of everyone else? To the exclusion of anyone not like us?
Jesus Christ laid down his life and took it back up again. It had a global, indeed a cosmic significance. It’s for God to decide, not us, who his sheep are – in other folds and in none – and with whom we will ultimately be united as one flock and under one shepherd.
All we can do is listen for the Shepherd’s Voice and follow. Amen
‘The Shepherd’s Voice’ was delivered by Ian Banks on Sunday 25th April 2021 to an on-line congregation from Bury and Heywood. It was based on John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23.
- Ronning, J. (2010). The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Music for the service: