The Reverend Margaret Legg
Shepherds have been in the news recently, or rather their huts have! David Cameron has bought a modern one for his office (unless his children dig in first) – a snip at £25,000 and painted in tasteful shades of Mouse’s Back for the outside and Old White for the interior.
Authentic huts were generally corrugated iron numbers, weathered and filled with items the shepherd would find handy: twine, pipe and baccy, a crook or two. Jesus didn’t have a hut. The sheepfold was the courtyard in front of the house, where the sheep were brought for the night. The shepherd slept on the ground at the entrance. The door-keeper knew him and would open the courtyard gate for him. When a shepherd had brought out all his own sheep he would lead them to pasture, make sure they were fed, watered and safe.
But what Jesus did have was the gift of life – life in abundance. Life on earth and, thanks to the resurrection, life in eternity. To know that life is our hope, our sure hope that when we follow Jesus, he will lead us to pasture and make sure that we are fed, watered and safe. It is of our hope that I would speak today. Hope is a core emotion. It is I believe, one of the keys to a balanced and healthy life.
There are many kinds of hope. Often it’s an expression of our desires:
‘I hope there isn’t a draught this summer’;
'I hope they give me a decent bonus after all the extra work I’ve done'.
These though are perhaps a sign of wishful thinking! A surface expectation. Then there’s the classic (for my generation) ‘I hope you are well’ as we dutifully penned thank you letters to distant relatives who we could not even remember ever having met! Surprisingly, though, this often trite sentiment does touch on the Christian view of hope, because it refers to our health. Recently I came across a description of this hope which for me hit the nail on the head: ‘Hope is the healing mechanism that helps people be restored.' A healing in body, mind and spirit that gives us life in abundance. A healing in which we are rescued from our baser selves, the parts of us that do what we know we shouldn’t. A healing in which we are restored to a relationship, a unity with God and so restored to our true selves.
It is in Jesus that we place our hope. Jesus doesn’t say: ‘No, you’ve gone down that wrong track once too often, I am washing my hands of you’ and exclude us from his flock. He doesn’t need to because we know how we should live; when we approach him in penitence to ask forgiveness we have a sure hope that he will do so.
Now Jesus does, in an attempt to clarify the meaning of what he’s saying, confuse things a little. Having begun by suggesting he is the good shepherd, who leads his flock to pasture and cares for them, he then describes himself as the gate to the sheepfold. In his day there might be sheep from several flocks gathered in the courtyard for the night; each shepherd would call his own sheep by name, and his own would recognise his voice and follow him.
Some of those shepherds may be bad ones, who avoid the gate and enter the fold by another way. There were and are so many thieves and brigands around. In Jesus’s day false messiahs or holy brigands – fundamental terrorists we would call them nowadays. At their worst, they are evil. The way they live reminds me that live is evil spelt backwards. Following them does not bring life, rather death.
Here the bad shepherds to whom Jesus is referring are the Pharisees. Jesus, following the sequence of events in John’s gospel, has just restored sight to a blind man. The Pharisees, quizzing the man afterwards, don’t believe it was a holy man who had healed him, because the miracle took place on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were intent on following the letter, rather than the spirit of the law. The metaphor extends to all who are in authority and then misuse that authority. The high priests, King Herod; for us we might think of dictators like Mugabe and Kim Jong – un.
The bad shepherds speak to our everyday lives too, in alluring tones, tempting us to go astray. Think of the siren voices of some TV Commercials, tempting us to spend money we do not have, to buy products we do not need; or the seductive tones of someone with whom we make friends or fall in love, when we know we shouldn’t.
Then there are those inner voices which lead us astray: ‘Oh don’t bother to visit x. It’s such a long way and you’re short of time. Yes I know they’ve been very kind to you and they are dangerously ill, but they’ll understand if you don’t go and you yourself could do with a rest.’
When we succumb to them and then later have regrets and want to return to his fold, when we recognise our misdeeds and are sorry for them, we have a sure hope that Jesus is ready to forgive us and bring us back. To restore us to life with him.
Each Thursday I spend the day looking after my grandson, who is 20 months old. A busy toddler one might say!! It’s quite a responsibility – he relies totally on me to look after him, as do his parents.
Fortunately he still has an afternoon nap (and so do I)! Last Thursday when he awoke I realised I had not changed his nappy before putting him down. So when he awoke and I lifted him from his cot, after a brief cuddle I put him on the nappy mat- and he cried so miserably and forcefully that I picked him up, sat down in the next room on his parents’ bed and just held him, and held him, and held him. Finally he was ready to carry on with life, hiding under the covers, jumping up and down, smiling and chuckling. He was restored.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the correct and only gateway to his flock, restores us; he wants us to be enfolded and united in God, he wants us to have life, life in abundance. Christian hope, rooted in the death and resurrection of Christ, is the healing mechanism that helps people be restored. Hold it fast!