When I was a young woman I had an amazing experience. I was 25 and about to give birth for the first time in my life. My plan was to be in the constant presence of my baby after her birth in the hospital. I had arranged to have my baby room with me after her birth so that I would hear her every sound, respond to her every need, in order to form a strong and lasting bond with her.
Now we all know that life does not always go according to our plans.
Our labour together was long and arduous with some complications that put my baby’s health at risk. Finally, with much medical assistance my daughter, Lisa, was born healthy but in some distress. I was exhausted in a way I that I had never experienced before in my young life. At first I tried to follow through with my resolve to have Lisa room with me but it was clear that I desperately needed to rest and that Lisa needed some careful attention so I reluctantly agreed to have her stay in the nursery where a nurse would keep an eye on her. I asked that Lisa be brought to me for feeding. Sometime on that first day of Lisa’s new life, a nurse came down the long hall from the nursery to my room to tell me that my daughter needed to be fed. I was surprised the nurse hadn’t brought Lisa with her but I immediately, although somewhat slowly and deliberately, got out of bed and shuffled with my intravenous poll down to long hallway to the nursery. When I arrived at the nursery I heard my baby’s voice, not just crying but screaming louder than I had ever heard a newborn cry. Nothing the nurse did would calm her and I felt the deep distress that new inexperienced mothers often feel. As soon as I reached Lisa the nurse handed her to me. I was feeling a bit panicky as I wasn’t sure I could calm Lisa and we had a long walk back to my room. As I walked I did the only thing that seemed natural to me. I held Lisa close to me and I looked upon her face and spoke gently and continuously to her as I walked. Immediately, something miraculous happened. As soon as I started talking to Lisa she stopped crying and stared, with that unfocussed look that newborns have, toward the sound of my voice. I couldn’t believe it – it was amazing and mystical – I just kept talking to her and she kept staring silently until we reached my room where I fed and cuddled her. It is an experience I will never forget. Lisa knew the sound of my voice from hearing it as she grew in my womb. We were bonded by the sound of my voice before we ever laid eyes on each other.
Newborn babies recognize the sound of their mother’s voice and respond to it by listening intently and expecting / trusting their mother will respond to their needs. Sheep have a similar relationship with their shepherd. It is a relationship of deep trust and caring developed over time. The sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice and will only follow the sound of their own shepherd’s voice.
The Gospel of John tells us that “[The Good Shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. …he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:3-5)
This week, in my reading, I came across an article by theologian and author Barbara Brown Taylor, entitled “The Shepherd’s Voice”. Barbara Brown Taylor says that,
“In Palestine today, it is still possible to witness a scene that Jesus almost certainly saw two thousand years ago, that of Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures they have grazed during the day. Often those flocks will end up at the same watering hole around dusk, so that they get all mixed up together – eight or nine small flocks turning into a convention of thirsty sheep. The shepherds do not worry about the mix-up, however. When it is time to go home, each one issues his or her own distinctive call – a special trill or whistle, or a particular tune…and that shepherd’s sheep withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home. They know who they belong to; they know their shepherd’s voice, and it is the only one they will follow.”(The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, 1993)
The image of the Good Shepherd was prevalent in Hebrew Scriptures long before the time Jesus. God was often portrayed as a shepherd. Listen to these words from the book of Ezekiel,
“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. …I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered …I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture, there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down [and rest]…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:11-16) And, of course, there are the familiar words that we said together this morning from the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:1-3)
It is not surprising that Jesus, with his tireless care for all people, was understood as the Good Shepherd. This is explicitly stated in John’s Gospel, as we heard this morning, but is also referred to in the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark. Understanding Jesus as a shepherd is a powerfully pastoral image. A good shepherd risks his own life for his sheep, calling them by name, caring for each sheep individually and with great love and care. The shepherd, in Jesus’ day, was a constant companion to the sheep leading them to places of nourishment and rest.
For Jesus’ first followers this image of a shepherd was familiar not only in their daily experience of life in the Mediterranean world but would also have been a powerful connection with the great leaders and prophets of their faith tradition. Moses heard God’s call to him in the experience of the Burning Bush while he was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep in the countryside. Moses later used the analogy of a shepherd in his appointment of Joshua to lead the Hebrew people through the wilderness. In the book of Genesis, Jacob blesses his grandsons and refers to “God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” (Gen. 48:15) And, King David, who was a shepherd in his youth was later anointed as king and was referred to as the one who would be the shepherd of the people of Israel. (1 Chronicles 11:2)
It is clear that the image of shepherd was a powerful image of care, guidance, and protection for Jesus’ ancestors and his contemporaries. Most of us, gathered here this morning, are familiar with the 23rd Psalm and have heard these words as words of comfort and spoken them as an affirmation of faith with others in a community of faith, during worship or a memorial service, perhaps even at the bedside of someone dear to us who is nearing the end of their life.
Few of us, however, have experienced living with sheep and being a shepherd in the traditional sense. At the Garden View Bible Study this week I asked the group if anyone had grown up on a farm with sheep. Not one of us had any first hand experience with sheep. All we knew of sheep was what we had read or seen on television or from a distance during travels or driving through the countryside.
Some of us have witnessed new-born lambs on a sunny day springing spritely in a playful looking manner that warms our hearts but that does not help us to understand the rough and arduous life of a 1st Century Mediterranean shepherd experiencing the dangers of wilderness trails while leading his flock of sheep to high pastures and working tirelessly to protect them from predators.
All of us in the Garden View study group, myself included, were of the opinion that sheep are not very bright, in fact that they are downright stupid. None of us could remember exactly why we thought this was true other than it is common knowledge, isn’t it? And, if sheep are dumb and have no common sense at all it makes us wonder whether we want to be likened to sheep who follow our Good Shepherd, Jesus.
Barbara Brown Taylor quotes a shepherd friend when she states that,
“It is cattle ranchers who are responsible for spreading the ugly rumour [that sheep are stupid], …because sheep do not behave like cows. …cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips, but that will not work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all they will do is run around behind you, because they prefer to be led. You push cows…but you lead sheep…” (Ibid)
Sheep follow the voice of their shepherd, and their shepherd only, because of the love and trust instilled in them by their shepherd. They know their shepherd walks with them every moment of every day and will never abandon them. That is exactly why the image of God, or Jesus, as the Good Shepherd is such a powerful image. Jesus promised his disciples that he would always be with them. They were to follow and he would lead them in God’s way of love and justice. Even death could not keep him from nurturing and leading his followers in the ways of goodness and mercy all the days of their lives so they would dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Powerful words, a compelling promise – God is with us, Christ is with us, all the days of our lives and we will dwell in God’s loving presence forever. We are called by name, we are loved into being, we listen and we follow with trust and love, with thankfulness and joy, walking in the Way of Jesus, reaching out to the world God so loves.
Thanks be to God
for this promise of abiding love and care,
this day and always.