Sheep very often get a bad press. We often think that these wooly quadrupeds don’t have a brain in their heads. They bleat, eat and wander and don’t seem to do much more. But there is more to them than we think. They have sharp instincts, they have attuned senses, they have heightened survival skills, they are the great survivors! They seem to know when danger is around and are constantly alert. They have great ability to see in all directions and hear and see things much better than we can. They flock together for safety and are happy to have the protection of a shepherd or a dog or whatever that helps them. They have forged a friendship with men and women who for ages they have allowed to steward them, take care of them. They have taken over parts of the planet that we wouldn’t go. They survive in extreme temperatures that we couldn’t survive in. They seem not to know what a road is, what cars are but why should they. They are animals that roam over great tracks of land grazing, sleeping and drinking waters. They frolic, they fight, they mate and they survive and multiply. We for our parts have struck up a friendship with them that has meant everything to us – we shepherd them and they supply us with their coats for clothes that we wear and their flesh, food for our table. Our friendship has meant that these sheep not only survive but thrive – they don’t deserve much criticism but and admiring glance in their direction.
Down through the centuries our poets have written poems, our song writers have sung songs about them. And we have looked back at the time we spent with them as an idyllic period, shepherd and sheep together in green pastures – it evokes something peaceful and serene in our minds.
In the scriptures sheep and shepherd have pride of place. Israel is described as sheep that is shepherded by God. God is described a shepherd with qualities of a shepherd. And even at the birth of Christ sheep and shepherd are there too, of all the professions and livelihoods in the world, they are there.
In chapter 10 of St John’s Gospel, which we’ve joust listened to, there is an interweaving reflection on sheep and shepherd. Even the gate-fold is mentioned where they are kept safe. Dangers are mentioned, wandering sheep, wolves that encircle the flock. Contrasts between a good shepherd and a hired man are made, one stays one runs away, one will face all the dangers the other will flee at the first sight of danger.
For us who are town dwellers, crushed into cities, packed into small spaces, stacked and layered like sardines, who don’t live on the wide open spaces of the countryside this image couldn’t be further from us. The only time we have met a sheep is when we see them in Morrisons. Most certainly few of us have even met a shepherd, I certainly haven’t. Its a curious one. Its an interweaving tale.
In biblical times shepherds weren’t all that we crack them up to be today. It was the bottom of the rung in terms of jobs, the job that no one would take, it’s the job you would only take if there was no other. The youngest or the lowest in the house was sent out to be the shepherd because it entailed long periods sitting with the animals in all elements which no one else would do.
The story of the prodigal son positions him as looking after the animals; to underline it was a lowly job and hard times that he had fallen on him. Consequently often shepherds were people who didn’t really care about the sheep, who would often run away at the first sign of danger, or who would leave the sheep unattended. Finally it was often a job that the criminal class would take. People identified shepherds as thuggish, ill mannered, untrustworthy.
Jesus picks strange heroes for his stories, so it would seem for his listeners. The Good Samaritan, a foreigner. An indulgent father over a strict father. A tax collector over a Pharisee. An adulterous person over so-called respectable people. The shepherd over the carpenter, an honest vineyard worker, a person who works in the fields.
Even although it’s a million miles from the way that we live the shepherd has come to symbolise something that we recognise as good all round – the Good Shepherd shows endurance, night and day watches over the sheep. The Good Shepherd shows courage in the face of danger. The Good Shepherd walks with and cares for the sheep all the time. The Good Shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and living waters. It has come to be a paradigm which we know God’s love through – this is the way that God acts, this is the way God is, this is how he behaves.
He loves us like a shepherd loves his sheep. He protects us as a shepherd protects sheep. He guards us as a shepherd guards his sheep. He is leading us in the right direction to pastures and waters as no one else can.
This Sunday we leave behind accounts if the resurrection to listen to the passage in 10th chapter of John’s Gospel. In this passage what we have is what it feels like to have the risen Christ’s presence among us, protecting caring and leading us. This is what it means to have the risen Christ with us For those who feel they need protection from the wintry blasts of life this image of God gives great consolation. For those who are lost in life, not knowing whether to turn to the left or right, to go forward or back - this image brings comfort. To those who feel themselves in danger this image of God reminds them that they are always protected. To those who have wandered off in the wrong direction they know that God will lead them back to safe places.
This is the risen Christ’s enduring, remaining, strong and lasting presence for us - we are not alone but we have the watchful eye of the shepherd over us, no harm shall come to us, no ill overtake us because the Good Shepherd, watches over his flock day and night.