The Voice of the Good Shepherd is Blowin’ in the Wind

‘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. I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
John 10:14–16, NIVUK

I have been working at home for around nine weeks now. I am missing all the chance conversations I used to have with my work colleagues. I miss the ongoing joke with the painter and decorator about my twin brother that no one else understands. I miss the encouragement of a friend very much on my wavelength. I miss the exchange of little snippets of life that connects my story to that of others.

There are a handful of colleagues whose conversation I do not miss so much—the handful of cynics who turn everything sour. These are the small number of people who turn anything good to dust. Being cynical is easy—I know I have tried it. Of course, sometimes being cynical is wise when we have seen how certain things operate, especially when they involve people and power. But being cynical is an unhappy state. It is a surrender to fate. It is a denial of new possibilities. It is contrary to the vitality and new life afforded by the gospel.

Our brokenness and frailty can give us a default setting to cynicism. We see this in casual ways. We make children embrace drawing, painting, stories, drama, and poetry, but often deny these things any role or influence over us as adults. These creative, imaginative, and reflective things all take time. And we have bought into the lie that we are time poor when we have more time at our disposal than at any previous time in history.

Being a Christian does not immunise us from the malaise. Often we have little time for stories about sheep, bad shepherds, the Good Shepherd, gates, and green pastures. We have been there and done that. The poetic seems too vague and idealistic—we do not have time in our schedule for these things.

But if we do not embrace story and imagery, we have little left of what God has given us in the Bible. The Bible is not a list of propositions for adults who have graduated from stories and poems. It tells us about God, about ourselves, and about how Jesus Christ makes a relationship with God possible. It does this in imagery, in stories, and in poetry. We live in the Information Age. We must not mistake information, for understanding, or wisdom, or the possibility of spiritual growth. We must not embrace the information deception, in which facts eclipse imagery and story. I was found by God when I heard the story of the crucifixion. I was saved when I understood a poetic parable about a vineyard.

The ‘facts’ of our faith are of course important, but rather short and to the point. You can catch them in a good creed. But these propositions are just the dry roots of our relationship with God, not its end. They require feeding if they are to enable our growth. We are changed and transformed on our pilgrimage to God by the richness of the biblical story and its intersection with our own. The Bible is full of stories, imagery, metaphor, and poetry.

Or, to switch images, we are sheep following a shepherd. We are journeying through mixed pasture with a shepherd to a final green pasture. The picture of God as the Good Shepherd is just one of a huge variety of images. But it is a biggie. We find it in Psalm 23, the book of Jeremiah, the book of Ezekiel, in Zechariah, in different ways in all four gospels, and in Peter’s First Letter. And as someone who I admire, called Jason Byassee, once said “We do well to listen when the Bible talks to itself.”

In Ezekiel we read a prophecy about Jesus:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:23–24, NIVUK

This is God promising to send the messiah, the New David, to be the shepherd of his people. Just a few verses before this we hear God promising that he himself will be the shepherd:

I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.
Ezekiel 34:14–16a, NIVUK

These words from Ezekiel are the foundation of the familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. Where we read:

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognised them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32–34, NIVUK

A few verses later, Jesus does what Ezekiel promised:

Then Jesus told them to make all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Mark 6:39–44, NIVUK

This is all ‘very nice’, but in all this talk of sheep, shepherds, and green grass, we are in danger of missing something. Because of our wet climate and experience of the English countryside and fluffy well-kempt sheep, all these stories and images becomes sickly sweet and as pointless as a poster of sheep in a field in Somerset with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ stuck on it.

Even in this serene story it is not all pastoral idyll and tenderness. The people with Jesus have walked many miles—there is nothing to eat. This is no miracle done only so Jesus can be the David Blaine of the first century. This is provision of their greatest need—a meal so they have the energy, having not eaten all day, to make their way back home across many miles.

In the wider accounts of the Good Shepherd we need to appreciate that a Good Shepherd is the difference between life and death. A Good Shepherd is the only chance the sheep have of surviving the night! In the first century there were no walls or fences keeping predators out – the shepherd is the only hope for being alive in the morning. This is why the Good Shepherd will go out looking for the one missing sheep.

Psalm 23 can also be misheard as a rural niceness:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

But the same first century Palestine realities lie on the background. As a sheep you would very quickly lack everything. You need a shepherd to protect you from predators to guide you to safe water and good pasture. You wouldn’t know the right path without this sure guide.

Martin Luther expressed it like this in 1536:

A sheep must live entirely by its shepherds help, protection and care. As soon as it loses him, it is surrounded by all kinds of dangers and must perish, for it is quite unable to help itself. The reason? It is a poor, weak, simple little beast that can neither feed nor rule itself, nor find the right way, nor protect itself against any kind of danger or misfortune. Moreover, it is by nature timid, shy and likely to go astray. When it does go a bit astray and leaves its shepherd, it is unable to find its way back to him; indeed, it merely runs farther away from him. Though it may find other shepherds and sheep, that does not help it, for it does not know the voices of strange shepherds. Therefore it flees them and strays about until the wolf seizes or it perishes some other way.

Of course, we know the Psalm is not an idyll:

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

The Good Shepherd is not good because he hides us from trouble, hardship, and death. He is the Good Shepherd because he is our guide and our comfort in the midst of all life’s challenges. He is there leading on the path even when it goes places, we’d rather it didn’t. I sometimes feel that the cynical are those who have unknowingly chosen to make their home in the valley of the shadow of death.

Returning to the opening words from John:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

As Gentiles we have been let into the sheepfold that is home to all God’s people. We are called to listen to his voice. The voice of Jesus is not a one-off reality in our lives, though of course there is that first day when metaphorically we hear him.

How do you listen to his voice? What space and time do we make for this? There are so many competing voices. The needs of family and friends. Our own internal voice. The news that seems like Groundhog Day at the moment. The froth of Facebook. The insanity of Twitter. How many voices do we have to choose from?

For some of us the current situation means a possibility of more time to hear our Lord. It is a test in some ways. When asked what we did in an Age of Covid-19 what will our answer be. Will it be binge-watching TV? Or might it be the time we came before God to hear his voice—a time of quietness by still waters before our Shepherd? Might it be the time we ensured we were on the path looking ahead to follow our guide to put ourselves close enough to him to hear his voice?

Amidst so many voices clamouring for our waning attention it can be like being in a Bob Dylan song.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

The true voice of the shepherd is blowin’ in the wind. The still small voice of the Spirit is there to be heard if we just turn off the other voices for a time.

 

Reference

The quote from Luther comes from his Exegesis of Psalm 23 at Table, Luther’s Works Volume 12, Muhlenberg Press, 1955.

Born From Above—John 3:1‒17

 

What did the Pharisee see?

Nicodemus is in the dark. The fact that Nicodemus visits Jesus at night was probably both a necessity—Nicodemus is fearful of what others may think—but it also resonates with the fact that Nicodemus is in a very real sense in the dark. We don’t expect a member of the Jewish political and religious elite to be in the dark. Most politicians and senior religious leaders by definition consider themselves to be well informed. They expect to be in the know about what is going on around them and confident that they have ‘life, the universe and everything’ sorted, understood and managed.

The very fact that Nicodemus seeks out Jesus points to the fact that Jesus had disturbed this ordered equilibrium. There was something about Jesus that did not fit with Nicodemus’ worldview.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was all too aware that things had gone wrong for Israel. The return from exile, centuries ago, had not really delivered on expectation. The Temple was not as good as it had been before the exile and the prophets, and by implication God himself, were all largely silent. The nation was under humiliating Roman occupation which was following close on the heels of a painful period of Greek persecution.

The people were also divided—not everyone saw the world as Nicodemus did. He knew adherence to the Law was the only way that the nation could find its place of blessing before God again. It was hard work, obedience to the Law was demanding and so it was difficult to motivate everyone to do all that was required. Whilst he delighted in the Law he knew that the majority struggled to understand it fully let alone keep it to the letter.

It was far from clear to Nicodemus how an untrained teacher and miracle worker fitted into God’s plans of redemption for Israel and the nations. There is something in the way that Nicodemus seeks out Jesus which echoes the experience of others as they start discovering Jesus—a process which we might describe as ‘faith seeking understanding’. This is an attitude we would do well to cultivate on our journey with God. On the journey of faith we grow in understanding as we continually question God from our stance of faith.

As I pray today I spend far far more time questioning God than asking for things. “Why?” is the one of the most natural words for the journey. The Psalter gives us ample permission to ask “why?”.

Born to give them second birth

Despite faith being a journey and an ongoing process there are also defining moments of discontinuity. And what Jesus explains to Nicodemus is the most fundamental one—being born again. The term ‘born again’ has had a rough time in recent decades in the UK at least. I’ve seen and heard it used disparagingly in tabloid newspapers and soap operas. ‘Born again Christian’ can in secular society be translated “nutter”.

And I’ve also experienced first-hand the discomfort of trying to explain the idea to a rather sceptical audience. It was only an audience of two but it was one of these moments when you find yourself explaining your faith and really wished you somewhere else. I remember it well though it was over 25 years ago—in fact it was September 1988. I was in the back seat of a car, a 3500cc Rover, being driven home from work by my new landlord and landlady—David and Andrea (names changed just in case!). Andrea had a PhD in Nuclear Materials and David was a Maintenance Engineer who worked with two experimental nuclear reactors.

I was explaining that I would be visiting Newbury Baptist Church at the weekend because I was a Christian and wanted to find a church I could go to each week. Their initial puzzlement about why I might want to bother to do this suddenly turned directly to the question of being born again. Two questions came in rapid succession:

“You’re not one of those born again Christians are you? How can someone be born again anyway?”

The two questions arrived with disturbing speed, one on top of the other. I was floored by how to answer the first question—what did these two sceptics understand a born again Christian to be exactly?

So I concentrated on the second question. I like to think I gave a great account of biblical imagery, a rich theology of atonement and clear articulation of the connection between ontology and metaphorical language. But the fact that I have no clear memory of what I said or how the conversation ended makes me think it did not go so well.

Nicodemus asked Jesus out of an attitude of faith seeking understanding—I was asked from an attitude of doubt seeking ridicule. Despite the tone of the questions I faced, it is not an unreasonable question—how can someone be born again?

Jesus refers to a first birth, as mother gives birth to child and the second birth by implication has some characteristics of the first—it is a fresh start in some sense. Jesus also indicates that this second birth has two elements to it: water and Spirit. This is most likely equating being born again with the NT’s twofold view of baptism. Twofold, because there is a water dynamic that we can control and Spirit dynamic which is God’s prerogative. The defining dynamic here is the Spirit. Spirit gives birth to Spirit—the new start comes from God and is affected by the Spirit.

Christians can still do different things with this idea—but ta natural way to appreciate this text is to understand that there is a critical moment in the early life of the Christian in which the Holy Spirit effects a permanent change. Being born means a fresh start—a joining of the kingdom God. We would do well to pay attention to Jesus and not put an emphasis on individual salvation at the expense of a broader concept of the kingdom of God.

A key issue here is that it is helpful to see this second birth as a being ‘born from above’. The Greek is consistent with this translation although the wider sense makes of ‘born again’ is more natural. The language of being born from above usefully deflects the modern baggage of being ‘born again’and it also captures appropriately the way the Spirit works in freedom.

This is the learning experience that Nicodemus had to go through. Devout though he is, he has embraced a theology which places hope in a person’s and a community’s efforts to live up to the Law. Jesus provides the revelation and the means by which we are born from above—it is God’s initiative. Just as the wind comes and stirs the trees unpredictably, to those who are not experts in meteorology, so it is with the Spirit—in Greek and Hebrew this is self-evident as the words for wind and Spirit are the same. Here it is pneuma as in pneumatic —operated by air—and pneumatology—the theology of the Holy Spirit.

The life that comes from being born again is a one-off work of God in which we embrace the kingdom of God. This is not to be confused with the ongoing work of the Spirit. We need to be open to the everyday possibility of the work of the Spirit in our lives.

Christians have often debated the precise nature of the work of the Spirit—sometimes even fallen out over it. Clearly it’s not good to argue, but the Church seems to have become unhelpfully post-doctrine. We don’t disagree much anymore (at least locally within a fellowship), not out of love for one another, but because too few people know, or care, enough about doctrine. This is a serious concern as it makes the Church vulnerable to being led astray.

New Life

Sometimes we even use Pharisees like Nicodemus as an excuse to not be bothered. We despise the devotion to the Law of the Pharisees, we avoid discipline by labelling it legalism—we embrace the ‘60 second’ approach to the life of faith which was absent for more than 1900 years of Church History.

Jesus does not indicate that devotion to the law, God’s instruction, is a problem per se. His ability to quote Deuteronomy freely during his Desert experience (Matthew 4:1‒11) very much says otherwise.

The new life of second birth and the ongoing life of the Spirit only make sense in a context of God’s instruction (the literal meaning of torah). The Law is more story than rules and regulations.

Jesus meets Nicodemus where he is at—and where he is at is on a journey in which his heart, mind and spirit have been prepared by the Law. Familiar with the Law he sees in Jesus the extra thing that he needs—to be born from above. Jesus uses the story of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21 to teach Nicodemus. How often had Nicodemus chewed on these verses, questioned God’s judgement, been grateful for God’s mercy, wondered at the imagery of a snake, examined his own devotion to God, looked for connections elsewhere in Scripture to this episode and wondered if it had any bearing on the future messiah?

Jesus gives Nicodemus the insight that the frailty we all know from being born of Adam and Eve is addressed in the frailty Jesus showed on our behalf.

The Spirit sent by the Father to Jesus at his baptism is at work in us to renew, to cleanse, to make whole, to wipe clean, lives marred all too often by broken relationships, bad choices, and vain ambitions. The Spirit also sustains us through the difficult times that are not of our making. For we still live in-between the ages—born from above but awaiting the full reality.

The new birth that comes like the wind into our lives means that though we will die physically we will not die spiritually—more than that we will one day be physically reborn on the day of resurrection. Being born from above by the Spirit implies an ultimate physicality in the kingdom of God.