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Meeting a Distant Shepherd

The Coast

Week of Sunday April 29 - Easter 4
Gospel: John 10:11-19

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake. 

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. 

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows. 
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

My Dad used to walk around the sheep. It’s not that common in Australia. Why walk when we have utes and motorbikes? (My cousin Phillip rides a mountain bike when he shifts sheep, but that’s to keep his weight down. It has nothing to do with caring for the sheep.)  For the most part here in Australia, you don’t walk around the sheep. Life is good, and the sheep don’t need much help. We don’t have wolves, and mostly, we don’t have sheep stealers.

In the saltbush country, sheep grazing means keeping the water up at the bores, and accepting that when you have ten or fifteen thousand sheep, you’ll lose a few. The sheep ignore the farmer; in fact, they try and stay right out of her way, and the farmer has a distant relationship with the sheep, looking after fences, fixing troughs, and keeping the property running.

So, the farmer ignores the sheep, day to day, and the sheep get along pretty well on their own. It feels a bit like being a Christian. You could almost wonder where God is some days... or even, if God is. Life is comfortable... but sometimes, a bit bland.

There was a sheep on our farm that “got down.” For some reason it was sick, and couldn’t stand up on its own. That’s the end for a sheep. When it “gets down,” it is attacked by carrion and ants. It can’t eat or drink. And it soon dies.

Because my Dad so frequently walked around the sheep, he found her. I like to imagine she was up in the wild part of the scrub. He walked home, got the ute, drove as close as he could, and half dragged and half carried her to safety. Back at the shed, he made a sling out of old wheat bags, and trussed her up like a baby in one of those bouncy things we use when they can’t walk yet. She hung up in the corner of the barn for days, while he brought water and grain. She recovered.

Forever after, while the other sheep ranged everywhere across the paddocks, this sheep did her best to break out of any paddock, and come back to the barn. Face-Ache—there was reason for that name—knew where the good food was! She was in love with the good shepherd.

In the dry summers, when we fed the sheep from the back of the ute, tipping a long stream of grain out on the ground, Faceache would run behind with her head under the stream of grain, gobbling everything she could. At shearing, Keith Ballantyne said, “That’s a good sheep, Mel; eight pound of wool, and half a bushel of wheat!”

We never used to bother much with shutting the barn door, until Faceache came to stay. After that, it had to be repaired and shut, or she would be in there breaking open bags of seed wheat. She had discovered the shepherd of the sheep, and that he was good!

In the ancient world, life as sheep was not easy. Sheep actually followed the shepherd; something Australian farmers find hard to believe! They did it because the shepherd took them out to water, led them to good pasture, and fought off wolves, and even lions, and took them home to a safe fold at night.

Several shepherds would share the one sheepfold, and in the morning, allegedly, call out their own sheep. The sheep would hear their shepherd’s voice, and only follow him. I say “allegedly,” because as one who has dealt with sheep, I find this absolutely remarkable! Then, I remember Face-Ache, who would come running when my Dad called her.

The image of the shepherd was often used for the rulers of a country. The good shepherd was not the one who played politics in Canberra, scoring points and lining his own nest. The good shepherd would die for the sheep, if necessary. (Ancient Israel was like dingo country, for a sheep.)

Priest and politician were combined in those times. The good priest would die for the sheep; he was not in the game as a hired hand because it had a good wage and a parliamentary pension.

There was at least one more image floating around for the first listeners to John’s Gospel. The leader of a country—the Shepherd of the nation—was often regarded as God’s son. People would think of this close relationship with God without thinking; like you think Anzac Day, if I say, “April the twenty fifth.” That meant they would hear something else in John 10; something we miss. Jesus keeps saying, “I am...”  “I am the good shepherd.” He says somewhere else in the Gospel, “before Abraham was, I am. ” I am... is the name for God which was given to Moses in Exodus.

Jesus is not any man, says John. Jesus is not only a shepherd king. Jesus is God, who lays down his life for us. Not Jesus who-dies-once-on-the-cross kind of laying down his life, but a God who is the shepherd who walks with us daily laying down his life...

...which brings me back to Australian sheep and their distant relationship to the shepherd...

Australian sheep run away from the farmer. When the farmer goes out to move the sheep, it’s like herding cats. I once watched a mob of sheep flatten 150 yards of fence, with all the tangling and snapping and pain that involved, right next to the gate the shepherd had opened for them! Sadly, that sounds a lot like us!

Why are we so distant from the shepherd? Why do texts like John sometimes feel so artificial?

Perhaps we are given a hint by that other famous shepherd text, The Lord is my Shepherd.

This is our Face-Ache text...  We read it in funerals when we are down like a sick sheep, and unable to stand on our own feet. Suddenly, we see the shepherd with new eyes. In the darkest valley, in the valley of the shadow of death, the shepherd comes near to us, and becomes our friend.

I think one of the saddest funerals I’ve ever experienced, was where the shepherd was absent—unrecognised. The event was led by a hired hand from the undertakers. It was almost without grief; there would have been more feeling when the man was politely farewelled on his last day at work!

God help us if we are so distant during life, that we cannot recognise the shepherd when we are in the valley of the shadow of death!

What I am about to say to you is not in the text. It is what brings the text alive.

Australian sheep are too safe. They listen too much to the voice of strangers and hired hands. The voices that promise a good life in the suburbs, rather than the harder life of risk and pain, which comes when you follow the shepherd. The one who leads us beside the still waters is the one who leads us into the darkest valley. That... is discipleship.

We mostly choose not to follow (include me in that) which means that the shepherd seems far away. Perhaps, in a sense, he is!

In the grace of God, when we are dragged into the darkest valley by the death of a loved one, or our own illness, we often find he has come back us, the sheep who has gone astray and been lost.

Would we like to have that closeness, that abiding sense of God’s presence, more often? Perhaps instead of reading about the sheep who listen to his voice, we should be sheep who listen, and be sheep who follow.

Then John, and the other gospels, will not be strange and distant texts about sheep and gates and shepherds, but words of life to us... because they will be describing the life and the shepherd we know.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Speaking Australian:
A ute is what folks in the US call a pickup.
A dingo is Australia's wild dog. These cause massive sheep losses. In the north we have the dog fence, which runs 3.500 miles across Australia, keeping dingos out of the sheep country. Sometimes I wonder if we approach life like the dog fence. We keep inside a nice safe fence where we don't really need God. And then we wonder why God seems so far away.

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