What do you call a sheep without any legs? A cloud.
Because they’re white and fluffy aren’t they? And they live without a care in the world in lush green fields surrounded by hedges. At least the large flock I pass on the way to the Chippenham roundabout does.
But that’s completely different from the setup Jesus talks about in our Gospel reading. If you want to imagine what sheep farming was like in first century Palestine, then think of the wildest hill farm you’ve ever seen – and then make it worse.
Sheep back then weren’t cute, white and cloud like. They were tough old beasts. They had to be because they lived in the semi-desert hill country. Food was scarce, water more so, which meant the flock travelled constantly with the shepherd looking for fresh grazing. Wild animals and bandits lived in the open land, so the shepherd had to be ready to defend his flock against wolves and thieves.
A good shepherd was diligent, wise in providing for his flock, firm in guiding them, strong and courageous, but with a gentle touch as he bound up the wounded and carried the weak. He was self-sacrificial in bearing hardship, walking miles, and enduring sleepless nights at lambing time. In the Old Testament the shepherd is held up as an ideal for how Israel’s kings should be, and as a picture of God’s love.
But with a lifestyle like that it’s perhaps understandable that there were also many bad shepherds. Hired hands, lacking diligence and courage, who would run away at the slightest sign of danger or maybe even kill sheep to eat themselves. They would then pretend that robbers or wild beasts had taken it. So while the good shepherd was a symbol for God and decent leadership, the hired hand shepherd was a proverb for dishonesty –the second hand car dealer of the ancient world, as it were. Remember that next time you hear the Christmas story – why did the angels come to shepherds? Is it a sign of God’s love for the unworthy?
In John chapter 10 verse 11 Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, and in this passage he is building up to it. He describes in verses 1-5 some of the practicalities of the shepherd’s life. How in the villages there might be a stone walled fold into which all the local flocks would be brought at night. How the gatekeeper would guard the door. How at dawn each shepherd would stand at the gate calling his sheep. From the midst of this great combined flock, his own animals would come out.
For that was how it was done. They knew his voice. No sheepdogs back then, and the shepherd did not follow, herding his flock. Instead the shepherd went ahead, he gave each sheep a name and they would respond to his calls and follow him as he led the way to new pasture.
Jesus says his followers are like sheep because he is their shepherd. They know his voice and follow him. That describes a great mystery. Something which can seem counter intuitive and somewhat surprising to anyone who’s never encountered the idea before. That Christianity is not a religion. It is fundamentally a relationship – knowing Christ.
In this passage, hearing Jesus’ voice describes a very personal relationship, that commitment to Jesus which is the heart of our faith. That’s what it’s all about. Knowing Jesus is the wonderful centre of what it means to be a Christian. Loving him, depending on him, being sustained by him, going where he calls.
Last week I was at a two-day conference in the Albert Hall. It’s a massive event with over 6000 people and I’ve been going annually for the past three years because it’s so good for me. It’s a chance to leave behind all the buildings, meetings and pressures and instead take some time to be refreshed. There’s worship, good speakers and prayer for one another. It takes a while to get into, but when I have, I love it because it all creates the space just to be with God. To rest in his presence, to be open to him and his call on my life. I’m so grateful for this opportunity as it centres me on what’s really important.
That’s an event which really helps me return to my relationship with God. I wonder what helps you? Could you consider a time for retreat or a quiet day at somewhere like Mays Farm? If you have a regular prayer time, make sure you don’t spend all of it talking to God – build in time to rest before him, to listen. Many of us are working hard to serve God and grow his church, and that’s wonderful but please don’t forget amidst all the activity to take time to be and to rest in his presence.
But what if you’re going through a dry patch? Let’s be honest, many of us do. If I look back over my life I can see times when God felt very near and times when he really didn’t feel near at all. Sometimes he felt far away but it wasn’t him that had moved – I had wandered off and needed to come back. And we must always ask ourselves if God seems far away: is there anything of which I need to repent?
For several of the Biblical passages about sheep emphasise the one who is lost. Our reading from 1 Peter 2:25 says ‘you were going astray like sheep but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’. Christ the good shepherd seeks the lost sheep and if we have wandered there is no time like the present to come back to him.
But looking back on my own life there are also plenty of times when I have been honestly searching for God, regularly making the time to be present and open to him and haven’t felt anything. Times when prayers have seemed dry, worship a struggle. Maybe you can identify with that – and if so I want to say: ‘it isn’t your fault’. It just happens, we have to plug on, keep praying and eventually we pass through that season.
I think it’s like one of those foggy days we had a few weeks ago. When you go out in the morning and can barely see a few yards in front of you. The sun is invisible. It feels like the mist goes up and up and up, but actually the fog bank is only a few yards deep. Very soon the sun burns through and the day is glorious.
Of course the sun hadn’t gone, it was doing its work, but I couldn’t see it. Sometimes when God feels most absent, that’s when he’s actually carrying us.
Jesus’ listeners don’t get it, so in verse 7 Jesus said to them ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’ It sounds like he’s mixing metaphors, but actually out in the wilds the shepherd acted like a gate. Apparently, at night time, if they were too far from a village, the flock would go into a simple enclosure with a single entrance. There was no door, instead the shepherd himself lay across the gap, with his own body safeguarding the sheep.
Jesus does this for us. Just after our reading, in v. 11 it says he lays down his life for the sheep, pointing to his self-giving on the cross. In v. 9 he says: ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.’ He’s saying do not follow false Messiahs and self-appointed prophets. Don’t try to find salvation through the soul-deadening religious legalism of the Pharisees. They are like self-seeking thieves and bandits. Instead, come to God through Christ, who has come, in v.10, that we might have life and have it abundantly.
So to sum up Jesus says he is the way to salvation, the way to the Father. That is what makes the Christian faith unique – it is about a person. Religions are systems, structures of belief, ethics and culture. And yes Christianity can become a religion, – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the structures of religion can give discipline and perseverance to our relationship with God. Christian religion in society can create the background for individual faith to flourish.
Yet Christianity is fundamentally about Jesus: Christians are disciples of Christ. We are members of his flock. Through Jesus we are saved. In relationship with him we find fulfilment. He is the good shepherd, and he has promised abundant life to those who join his flock. If we hear his voice today calling us to know him, let us respond.