Easter 4 Year B

Sermon Title: Easter 4 Year B
Date: 22nd April 2018
Preacher: Rev’d Wendy Pullin
Church Calendar Date: Easter 4 Year B
Lectionary Reading: Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
A little story about someone at the church door:

‘Let me make one thing clear, Wendy! I’m NO SHEEP!

I’m always just a bit wary when it comes to preaching on today’s reading!

All I’ve ever known about sheep, I learnt on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. Every second Sunday I led a church service in the little seaside town of Stansbury, 30 kilometres from home. Getting there was always an adventure. I would drive along country roads past paddocks of barley, watching for hazards. This was kangaroo and sheep territory!

Week after week, on the outskirts of town, I would grind to a stop. Sheep!

Every Sunday, a farmer moved his sheep from one paddock to another, blocking the road. Sheep are incredibly unpredictable! They leap! They bound! They escape! They take off after a leader and run! They need protection and care – but catch them first! I spent many frustrating mornings watching the clock, sitting behind a hundred sheep. A Toyota Tray top flashed its hazard lights on the side of the road. A couple of shepherds on fast motorbikes rounded up the mob. Sheep dogs darted around. Eventually, I learnt just to keep driving, dispersing the mob.

On a long ago visit to the Holy Land, I saw a very different shepherd to my Yorke Peninsula farmer. He looked like a Bible Story illustration. In a bare landscape of limestone rocks and little grass, I watched from a bus and saw him for a fleeting moment. A small mob of perhaps 15 sheep surrounded him and he stood amongst them, crook in hand.

Clearly, in today’s readings, Jesus and his listeners understood much more about sheep than me. Two things stand out. The first is that Jesus was very familiar with the work and life of everyday people and he spoke to them in language they understood. The second is that his illustrations were often also deep and theological. The image of the Good Shepherd is a great example. When Jesus says he is ‘the Good Shepherd’, he’s making a big and provocative claim. The Old Testament prophets Isaiah (40:11), Jeremiah (23:1-6) and Ezekiel (34:11) all referred to God’s promise that he himself would come to shepherd his people. Jesus is the fulfilment of the promise.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ Jn 10:11 In this shepherd role, Jesus will reach out in love to gather and protect God’s people. In doing so, his life will be in danger. Many oppose and reject him. Jesus is courageous, prepared to endure all that’s necessary to fulfil the Father’s will.

‘I lay down my life in order to take it up again. ‘No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.’ Jn 10:18

Love reigns. Jesus, the Good Shepherd will guard and protect and rescue God’s people in an extraordinary act of self-giving love.

The depth of that love is wonderfully expressed in Psalm 23. It’s an extraordinary prayer of confidence and trust. The Shepherd in this psalm is not driving a Toyota! He is intimately connected with the sheep. He knows how to find everything necessary to sustain life and protect them even in dangerous and difficult circumstances.

This psalm is a wonderful and very personal gift to all of us.

‘The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing.’

Enter into these life-giving words.  Bring them into your own life; your own deep needs; your own circumstances. They are the most beautiful and life giving words of love, bringing assurance that God is watching over and caring for each one of us, whatever the day brings:

‘The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing.’ Ps 23:1

God’s presence and love is everything. Goodness and loving kindness is God’s gift. In good times and in bad the Good Shepherd will lead us, refresh us, console us and guide us. Even in the face of death, he will walk with us.

Let the words of this psalm rest on you and bless you. Be strengthened.  Be sustained. These words are for you.

The Yorke Peninsula sheep farmers taught me many things. Jesus’ words rang true to them. He understood their work; spoke to their situation.  They taught me to really value creation; to have a thankful heart for the environment; to understand how dependent all our lives are on the gift of rain and the rhythm of the seasons and to take seriously the responsibility we all have for living creatures. They may have dealt with large mobs of sheep – but those sheep mattered. They were their livelihood. They were also God’s creation. For so many of those farmers, the Good Shepherd image pointed them to their own lifestyle. They had to care for their sheep – the real sheep. They took care to provide all they needed and although they were never in doubt that many would be sacrificed to feed all of us, they took pride in the way they were handled. I thought about them as I watched the terrible pictures of sheep caught up in the live sheep export trade recently. Where are the shepherds, valuing, guarding and protecting those poor creatures from harm, ensuring humane conditions for animals that are part of God’s creation?

The Bishop of Willochra, in which the Yorke Peninsula lies, carries a beautiful symbol related to the image of the Good Shepherd. His pastoral staff is real. It’s made of wood, with a very meaningful hook on the end to haul a sheep out of danger. No jewels encrust it nor is it crafted to perfection. A real shepherd once used it to guard, protect and save the sheep in their care.

There’s a challenge in that simple shepherd’s staff – to the Bishop and farmers of Willochra and also to us. May we all, like the Good Shepherd, open our eyes to the world and fearlessly reach out with love to all who need protection, love and care.