Sermon for Sunday, 8 May 2022 Easter 4
Psalm 23 and John 10: 22–30
By Revd George Mwaura
A couple, Arthur and Jane, retired to a small farm in Wales and acquired a few sheep. During the lambing season it was necessary to bring two new-born lambs, whose mothers were struggling, into the house for care and bottle-feeding. As the lambs grew, they began to follow Jane around the farm just like children do. One day, she was having coffee with a friend and narrating this strange behaviour, and the friend asked her, ‘So, what did you name them?’ ‘Goodness and Mercy,’ Jane replied with a chuckle in her voice. She was, of course, referring to a line in today’s Psalm: ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.’
Both lessons today, make reference to sheep and shepherds. It is probably the most familiar image in all Scripture. God is a shepherd and we are God’s sheep. Sheep were important to the agricultural lives of the ancient Hebrew people. Perhaps that is why sheep are mentioned more than five hundred times in the Bible, more than any other animal. For King David, who wrote most of the Psalms, the metaphor of the sheep and the shepherd was an obvious way to think of our relationship with God. He had vivid memories of life as a young shepherd before he became a warrior and a king. You can tell that in the way he begins Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. Nevertheless, David was not the only Old Testament writer to use this imagery. The Prophet Isaiah used sheep to illustrate the waywardness of God’s people. He wrote; ‘All of us, like sheep, have gone astray and turned each to their own ways.’ He might as well have been talking about us!
Most people I know would not consider being described as sheep very flattering today, although, I suspect sheep have more right to be offended by the comparison than we do. Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as street-wise and free-spirited to go along with any herd. If you ask me, sheep tend to be awfully under-appreciated. When most of us think of sheep, we see them as feeble-minded animals. Too stupid to think for themselves and therefore apt to follow along with the rest of the herd, sometimes into dangerous or deadly situations. However, this image of the life of a sheep is based on a lack of understanding. When you get to know a little bit about sheep, or spend time in a farm, you begin to realise that being a good sheep – that is, a sheep that sticks with its flock and tries to remain close to the shepherd –requires some basic qualities that are also essential to being a true follower of Jesus. And, like the disciples of Christ, the sheep benefits from belonging to the flock by gaining safety, guidance, nourishment, care, as well as the opportunity to be useful and productive. In other words, being part of the flock has its privileges.
It is perhaps also worth remembering that membership to any flock –sheep or human –has its responsibilities. Sadly, most of us are resistant to those responsibilities. And it takes the work of the Holy Spirit to make us into the right kind of sheep, capable of following Jesus. So we need to ask ourselves, what does being a good sheep demand? How can we make sure we are in the right flock instead of following a stray herd? What do we need to know and do as members of Christ’s flock?
In the gospel lesson, Jesus is walking in the temple courts and some Jews asked, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly!’ Jesus response? ‘I told you but you will not listen. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.’ Notice what Jesus says about his flock, he says that he knows them individually. This is a beautiful picture that Jesus paints here of our relationship with God. Each one of us is known to God by name,-no matter how insignificant other people may think you are, God values you and know you by name.
Jesus also says the sheep listen to his voice. This relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is not one-sided; oh, no; it is a two-way communication. Here is a true story. A farmer in New Zealand was arrested sometime back and charged with stealing a sheep. But he protested that he owned the sheep and that it had been missing for many days. When the case went to court, the judge did not know how to decide the matter. Finally, he asked that the sheep be brought into the courtroom. Then he ordered the man who had accused the other of stealing his sheep, to step outside and call the animal. The sheep made no response except to raise its head and look frightened. The judge then instructed the defendant to go to the courtyard and call the sheep. When the accused man began to make his distinctive call, the sheep ran toward the door. It was obvious that the sheep recognised the familiar voice of its master. ‘His sheep knows him,’ said the judge, ‘this case is dismissed!’
So, let me ask you; is this imagery descriptive of your relationship with God? Do you listen to God’s voice? When God calls, can you tell the difference between God’s voice and the competing voices in our society. You will agree with me that most of us talk too much when it comes to our devotional life, but we are very poor listeners. We approach God with a shopping list each day, but we are not committed to honestly listening to the instructions that God has for us.
Jesus says he knows his sheep, that they listen to his voice and that they follow him. Both Jesus and God are fully aware of our shortcomings. That is why our primary task every morning, is to pray that God will send us sufficient Grace as we wander from pasture to pasture,-sometimes lost, but content that our good shepherd guides us with the rod and staff to protect us from the marauding tigers of this world. I pray you will hear God’s voice, recognise it, and follow in Jesus’ name.