Readings May 3 2020
1 Peter 2:19-25
There are many images around shepherds in the bible. The Lord is my shepherd – this is a beautiful psalm isn’t it? But let’s look at what our experience of a shepherd is. Not many of us have had a rural background, looking after sheep, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, most of you have watched Country Calendar a few times in your life. It is a window into the rural life, and a way of escaping from our bubbles for half an hour on a Sunday night. A shepherd cares for the sheep. Yes, that is obvious. But what does that actually mean? It doesn’t just mean nice feelings about them, cuddling them and ruffling their nice woolly heads. It means doing the necessary tasks – drenching, crutching, docking, weighing, shearing, feeding out, and in a big winter snow finding those which have got stuck and bringing them back to safety.
Have a look at this painting. It’s called High Country Shepherd, and painted after a Philip Temple photo by my grandfather David Davidson.
High country Shepherd might be its official name, but in our family we have always called it the Good Shepherd, and it has been in my house since my grandparents died.
Jesus is like that shepherd – he goes out into the cold and lonely places and brings us back into the fold when we can’t do anything for ourselves. This shepherd is not just leading the sheep, he is carrying it on his shoulders. I don’t know how much a sheep weighs but from my Country Calendar research a lamb can weigh 40 kilos, so a full-grown sheep must be at least 50 or 60 kilos. That’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders. And Jesus carries a lot of weight on his shoulders for us too – the weight of our sins.
He carried them to the cross, where they were dealt with once and for all. What does this mean for us? Since we have been forgiven, it means that we don’t need to dwell on our sins, on our past stuff-ups, our failures. We can move confidently towards the future, knowing that the slate is wiped clean.
Often we find ourselves thinking about the things that have gone wrong in our past, forgetting about the forgiven and wiped away part of that. Why do we do this?
Well, it’s because we have an adversary. The word Satan means accuser. And this is just what Satan does – when we are feeling ok, there may be that little niggle reminding us, yes but how about when you did that? Hm??? When we hear this voice we can hold fast to the picture of Jesus as our shepherd – he has rescued us from our sins, he has thrown us over his strong shoulders and brought us back to the fold. We can in all confidence say to Satan, get in behind! Or, get thee behind me, in the old version.
Why is Jesus our shepherd? What can that mean for us? He is the gate, as we heard in our reading from John’s gospel. He is the way in and out, the way to freedom, safety and good pasture. Jesus will take us where we can thrive and grow and produce.
Sometimes a sheep needs to be brought back in to the yards for scrutiny – for drenching and weighing, and for shearing. We come back under Jesus’ guidance periodically. It means coming to scripture, to prayer, to engaging with other Christians. One day that might mean coming into the same building and worshipping together, but for now, we are coming together in other ways, with more or less technical proficiency. Caring phone calls are part of that.
Just as a sheep needs to be shorn, sometimes we need to let things go in our Christian walk. If a sheep carries all its wool for too long it will fall under the weight, be bogged down by snow, and not able to survive. We can let ourselves be shorn too, let a ministry go, let our fruits go where they are needed, and then grown a new fleece. It might be different from the old one too. While we are apart these months in lockdown, it’s a time for reflection – let’s face it, there is plenty of time for that! We can consider what we have been doing that is producing good fruit, and where we feel called in the next season. It may be that, like sheep, year after year we produce a goodly amount of that same wool. That’s not a problem.
But maybe it’s time to see where Jesus will take us next. Will the pasture be the same as before? I was watching another programme on Country Calendar last week, where the farmer was planting all sorts of wildflowers in the paddock – tall sunflowers and mustard, 20 different varieties of plants, so the sheep could thrive, choosing whatever they wanted and sheltering from the heat. I think maybe our next season will be like that – our paddocks will be all the richer and more varied. Instead of having just rye grass and clover to chose from, we may see so much more variety.
This time of being apart has been hard. Our reading from Peter talks about a situation like this.
“But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Christ had a 40 day time of social distancing in the wilderness, before he embarked on his public ministry. Indeed, the word ‘quarantine’ means forty days. He knows what it is like to be apart from others for extended periods of time. Everything that we go through, Jesus has been there before, and will be with us as we endure.
When life is hard for you, may you remember the image of the cold and tired sheep, slung across the shepherd’s shoulders, caring for you and bringing you to a place of safety and warmth.