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