Good Shepherd Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Easter)
Today is a special day in more ways than one. First, it is Mother’s Day—Happy Mother’s Day! May God bless all mothers and all those who have been like mothers to us. Today is also a special day in the church—it is Good Shepherd Sunday. Today we celebrate Jesus Christ as he reveals himself in the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
There have been shepherds and sheep in the Holy Land for at least six thousand years. Sheep were a mainstay for the well-being of the inhabitants of the Middle East, providing meat for sustenance and wool for clothing.
While shepherds were not highly regarded, their work was essential and at times, very lonely. One shepherd, David, later became King of the united Israel and Judaea. David was very close to God and spent much of his time in solitude composing songs or psalms. In fact, 73 of the 150 psalms in the Psalter are attributed to David. Perhaps the best known of the Psalms of David is the Shepherd Psalm which we heard this morning. Many years ago I read a Reader’s Digest reflection of this psalm written by a Basque shepherd who looked at David’s psalm from the point of view of the sheep. I was floored.
Suddenly a whole new love for this little gem of poetry was awakened in me.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Sheep have a reputation for not being the brightest of God’s creatures, yet, we here present, are described as God’s flock or Jesus’ sheep. Don’t take offense. Sheep are followers but they will only follow a voice that they know. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” In the time of David and Jesus, there was an unwritten rule that that the shepherds would take their flocks up into the hills en masse early in the morning and return to the valleys in the late afternoon. There simply was not room on the winding paths for flocks going in opposite directions to meet in passing. Sheep learn not only the voice of their particular shepherds but also know their place in the line as they move each day from the fold to the high pasture and then down to the lower and greener pastures. The shepherd who cares for them speaks to them individually and as a flock. Occasionally, individual sheep will move out of line to seek the attention of the shepherd who knows them like his own children. In fact, sheep may be given pet names and the shepherd will often rub their ears and faces with affection—just as Jesus longs to communicate with us through the actions and words of those close to us.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
In David’s time it was customary to take the sheep from the fold up into the hills to feed upon the tougher grasses and plants and then take them down to the valley to feed upon the green pasture grass in a shady spot. After the heat of the day, the sheep were able lie down and chew their cud. When we meet together in church and in our small groups for bible study or outreach, God gives us the opportunity to partake in the same nurturing sustenance and company that the sheep enjoy in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul:
I did not know this but sheep do not like to drink water that babbles, gurgles or moves. They know instinctively not to get their fleece wet because the fleece will become heavy and make it difficult for the sheep maintain their balance. Should they tumble into the water, the risk of drowning from the added weight is very real. The shepherds of David’s time would scoop up mud from the river bed to create little pools for the sheep to drink from. Think of how God likes to meet us in stillness. We gather in worship that is interspersed with quiet times for prayer. In a few moments we will come forward to drink from the cup of salvation—another quiet moment—made possible because the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us. We, like the sheep need little bits of time set aside, to meet God and Jesus, to drink in the love they have for us. This time with God and Jesus helps restores our souls.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
In David’s time, the sheep were moved seasonally through a narrow gorge that ran south of the Jericho Road to the Dead Sea. There were deep gullies and it was badly eroded. The sheep had to follow the shepherd’s path exactly. The sheep could not turn around and had to jump across these gullies that could be particularly deep. The shepherd would stand and coax the sheep across. He would use his staff or crook to help sheep who fell or slipped. The gorge was also wild and there was always the threat of attack from wild dogs or other animals.
Again, the shepherd would use his staff and rod to fend off such attacks. There will be times in our lives when we face what seem like insurmountable odds—misfortune may befall us. We, or someone we love, may fall ill. And sometimes, as David well knew, we may make mistakes that lead us into dire straits of our own making. These are the times when we most need to emulate the sheep of David’s psalm--to trust that our Good Shepherd, Jesus, will guide us or lead us back to the right path, so that, we too, will know safety and comfort and peace with our Lord and Saviour.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
When the sheep return to the fold or pen, there is a narrow opening or gate. The shepherd puts his rod across it and each sheep moves in single file through the opening. The shepherd has a large jar of olive oil and also a large jar of cool water. He examines each sheep as it passes through, looking for briers, snags in the cheeks, or weeping in the eyes from scratches. Each sheep’s wounds are carefully cleaned and then anointed with olive oil. The sheep is then given a ladle overflowing with water into which it sinks its nose right up to the eyes and drinks until fully refreshed. As night falls, the sheep rest and the shepherd lies across the gate to the fold with his staff and rod within easy reach, protecting his sheep from all dangers and perils of the night.
But Jesus carries this one step further. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us. In his resurrection, we are given hope for the here and now and for the future. In his ascension, we are confident that he is preparing a place—a new fold for us—a fold where “the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear f
rom their eyes."
When we belong to the flock of the Good Shepherd, we are able to withstand the evils of this world and bear the suffering that we all face at some point in our lives. For we live in hope of passing through the gate that is Jesus Christ—where our wounds are anointed and healed and we drink in the refreshment of living water.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of
the Lord forever.