Tag Archives: shepherd

Motivation

When a leader talks of self-sacrifice, it makes all the difference if we know whether he gives it, or expects others to give it.  Jesus is one of the few who lead by example.

This leads us to a great division between two motives for living as a Christian.  Some rely on the fact that the Christian faith is true, that Jesus has the authority of God, and that the promise of heaven and threat of judgement need to be taken seriously.  There is not a lot wrong with that, except that as motivation, it needs a very high level of self-discipline to keep going, and can be a bit – miserable?

I think there is a stronger motive, though I struggle to describe it without using cliches.  The motive is Jesus, who is worth following just because of who he is.  It comes out in John 10:11-18, where he uses the language of shepherding a flock to explain his ministry.  He is true – not because he talks about truth, but by his actions.  He is both justice and mercy, and at the same time.  He is not caught off balance, even when tired or threatened.  I hesitate to use the word love, because it is so often misused, but he defines it.  He gives, but gives only what is good; he never forces, never manipulates.  His love pays the cost, without whining, without announcing the fact or making demands.

You may be a Christian because you hold the faith to be true and accurate and offers the only sure way to heaven, and I shall have no complaint.  But I shall follow Jesus as much for what he is, for the way he gives our salvation, and invites our partnership.

If that provides a great motivation, I am afraid it is not well understood.  It worries me that I meet people who are not ready to serve.  Somehow they haven’t understood that to follow such a Lord comes before all sorts of other (good) things, like family, career, friends and lifestyle choices . . .  Odd! and sad.

Judged – for what?

Sometimes it really helps to understand Jesus words when we know what he is referring to.  This week we read Matthew 25:31-46, but it may be easier to first read the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 34:11-24, which is also a reading for this Sunday which we call Christ the King.

When Ezekiel, prophet of the exile in the 6C BC, spoke of God shepherding his people, it was a direct and forthright criticism of the leaders of the nation. Read the rest of chapter 34, and you will find no excuses for the abuse of power by the powerful.  But the prophet has more to say than to denounce the leaders of the time. First, he makes clear that God is concerned – concerned not just with punishing the abuse and removing the abusers, but with stepping in to care for his victimised people.

But there is more. In verse 17 he says “I myself will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”.  And in verse 23,“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:”

Jesus clearly finds several points of contact with Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, like it or not, Jesus is talking about judgement, and about a judgement which divides people into just 2 groups. In the context of his day, the criticism of the leaders of the people is very clear. They have opposed him, refused to hear his message or to recognise his God given status.

The basis of the judgement is not “Have you been nice to people?”, despite what so many seem to think. It is not even “have you been religious?”. Jesus says “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Earlier in the gospel (chapter 12:48f) he has made it clear that his “family” are not the blood relations, but those who followed him. It seems that here he is saying that our support of, and identifying with, poor Christians is critical.

You will understand why we read this today, on the the feast of Christ the King, last Sunday before Advent. The promised King Messiah, descendant of King David, has arrived. He will assume the role of shepherding leadership of the people, and will be judge of all.

But what are we supposed to learn, and – perhaps more important – do? We know that we are not saved by being good enough – because we are never up to God’s standard. Our hope is that faith in Jesus, and the forgiveness he offers, brings us to new life now and after this life.

The punch line is that it has to be real. Christian faith is not about mental acrobatics, or sophisticated pretending. Our faith is a trust which has to work through and show in every part of our life. There is an old joke which says, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Would you, perhaps, be able to pass it off – I didn’t really mean it, just went along with some friends, it didn’t change the way I worked, or spent money, or who I socialised with. . . .

We won’t frighten people into heaven with talk of judgement, but as Christians we dare not be unprepared to face our Judge. Is my faith more than words and vague good intentions? Am I prepared to support and stand with Christians, even poor, vulnerable and needy Christians against their sophisticated and rich critics? Both sheep and goats seem surprised at the judgement – but neither argue the truth of it.

Comfort and Healing – that we must share

As Jesus travelled, ” he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  no surprise there – we expect Jesus to teach, heal, be compassionate. But think what else he could have done:

  • this is ridiculous, I need a holiday, I’m off!
  • here’s a real commercial opportunity, if I charge them £5 a head, we can all retire next month
  • if I organise them properly, I can have any position I want just by asking for it.

But Jesus isn’t like that, and won’t do those things (not that they are necessarily bad! – there’s nothing essentially wrong in making money by supplying what people want, or organising people to voice their demands and promote their leader, but)  As Mt summarises the first part of his gospel, he reminds us that Jesus had taken the initiative. He travelled, and taught (free of charge), and healed people. His reaction to the crowd is not even “here we go again”, but one of concern for them, for their real wellbeing. He doesn’t wring his hands or bemoan the situation, he gets on with working to tackle it. I hope you find all this encouraging. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to be a Christian, a better, more effective Christian, a Christian in action, not just words or theory.  It is evidence of love, of quality love which is not interfering do-goodism, nor ego-boosting “I told you my way was best”ism, nor anything else but deep, effective concern for the best for the other person.

There’s a bit of a sting in the tail!  Jesus reaction to the need is v37 (” Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”) and 10:1,7 (” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”, “go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. “). The 12 (only here does Matthew call them apostles – those sent out) are given authority, and their marching orders.  Again, we’re not terribly surprised; heard it before, perhaps. But shouldn’t we be?

  • Jesus could have called for volunteers – the extrovert, perhaps?
  • he could have sent those with that sort of gift
  • he could at least have kept a couple back, to keep him company, to get things ready for the others when they came back. You know the sort of people – “don’t expect me to do the religious stuff, but if you want practical help, I’ll be there.”

But just as Jesus worked for the good, the real benefit of the crowds – in the same way he sends all his disciples, to work in the same way. It’s a bit daunting, very much against our culture.  Imagine the complaints, and their answers:

  • I just want a bit of comfort; – fine, but go and give it
  • I like religion the way I like it; – go and love people
  • I’m hurt, damaged, tired, too old; – welcome, find the healing, energy, renewal – but even as you find it, share it with others.

It’s very easy to get used to Jesus, active in practical love.  It is distressingly easy to get used to our own willingness to admire that, even benefit from it, but not take him seriously.

Whose Shepherd?

There is a lot about the Good Shepherd in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, which provides the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Easter (in all 3 years of the lectionary).  It also reflects Psalm 23, which worries me, because so many people happily quote, “The Lord is my Shepherd”.

Is he?  It is a factual question.  Reading John 10 will help to give a factual answer.  The chapter begins with reference to “thieves and bandits”, and a look back to chapter 9 makes clear that Jesus is labelling those who assumed a right to be leaders of religion – and to criticise him for a remarkable healing on the Sabbath day.  Clearly there is a choice of leaders to follow!

Then Jesus talks about the relationship between sheep and shepherd.  While flocks might be kept together overnight, the shepherd would be able to pick out his sheep, and they would know “their” shepherd from others.  The implication is that Christians relate to the Good Shepherd, distinguishing him from others and being known by him.  This is where “The Lord is my Shepherd” becomes a true or false statement.

Apparently this is not understood (verse 6).  We might take comfort that other people get things wrong and fail to understand!  (Preachers are relieved to know that even Jesus didn’t always get his point over first time).  Even better, he explains again.

The sheepfold is needed – at night it provides safety and rest.  We might see a comparison with the Church, or Christian fellowship.  Under Jesus’ direction, we need to go in to be protected from “thieves and bandits” – to be taught, and find rest and healing.  But the sheep cannot stay in the sheepfold.  By day they need to go out – with the Shepherd – to be taken to food and water.  Christians need to get into the world, to work, to serve the wider community, to “practise” their faith, and be a blessing to others.  There has to be movement in and out, with the Shepherd the key figure.

So I find challenge in these passages, and not just reassurance – let alone sentimentality.  How do you take it?  Can you be taken seriously saying, “The Lord IS my Shepherd”?