Sermon – 2 May 2004

As we gather to read the word this morning, there is o­ne thing that is inescapable ? it is all about sheep. Sheep and shepherds everywhere.
Whether it is the lamb that was slain in the reading from revelation, or the sheep of his flock in the psalm or that the Lord is my shepherd, or that Jesus wanted people to belong to his sheep ? there is no avoiding them. There are sheep running about in almost all of our readings this morning, and in some of the things that we are singing.

That is what we get on this Sunday ? halfway through the Easter season, the Lectionary compilers give us, every year, lots of sheep. So much so that some people are starting to call this Shepherd Sunday or Sheep Sunday.

Sometimes it seems as though the whole of the bible is full of them. It tells us quite a lot about what life was like and how important sheep were. It was the shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem who were the first to visit Jesus as a child in the manger and it was as the lamb of God that he died. Between the two, Jesus himself often seemed to relate his own mission to this agricultural life which was so common in his days.

We begin though with one of the Easter stories which we have read today which doesn?t seem to have a sheep in it, but a moment?s reflection will enable us to see why we are reading it today.

This morning, we read the story of Tabitha in Acts. She was devoted to good works. She made things for the widows. She looked after them in a culture where no-one would care for them once they had lost their man. When these women had no-one else, Tabitha was the one who was devoted to helping them. Then she died and there was no-one.

Well, I have a theory about Tabitha. You see, in a way, Tabitha was like a shepherd to these women. Looking after them and caring for them. The raising of Tabitha is the story of the raising of a shepherd who was herself restored to her flock. And if I think carefully, I can think of women that I know who act in the same gentle shepherding way.

This image of sheep and shepherd is incredibly powerful. It seems to affect many of us emotionally. When we think of God caring for us in this way ? protecting, feeding, nourishing, healing, seeking us our. There is something about that vision of God which most people find comforting. It is the kind of God that we want to know.

It is worth pausing for a moment though to reflect that Jesus was probably not talking religion as he walked in the Temple, but politics. He was there on the Feast of Dedication ? what would be called Hannukah today. Then it was a relatively new festival, celebrating the restoration of the Temple less than 200 years before by a dedicated band of loyalists. It was they who rescued the Jewish nation of the time from false shepherds. When the angry young men come up to Jesus outside the temple and ask him if he is the Messiah, they do so with some urgency. They don?t want talk of sheep. They are looking for talk of war. They don?t want to know about shepherding. They want things in Jerusalem put right, and put right by force. They want a new Messiah to set free the very Temple in whose shadow they walk.

They don?t want an agricultural labourer ? they want a fighter. A leader. A revolutionary.

And they say to him ? are you the one?

And he talks of sheep.

He will have nothing of the war that they want him to fight. They come to him with the politics of war. His business is in caring for his sheep. Tending his flock. Feeding the lambs. That?s what his politics were, after all.

The idea of the Jesus as a Good Shepherd is one that seems still to have some currency outside the church. It is an image which the church has preached through the centuries and one which I think that still tugs at the heart strings.

I may have told you before of a time when I remember meeting an actual shepherd. I had gone to the first seminar of a course in the University of Edinburgh. And everyone who was there was training to be a minister or priest of some sort. And we were asked to introduce ourselves. And someone had been in the police and someone else had been a civil servant. And so we went round the table until we came to a woman who said ?Well, I was a shepherd.? And there was a moments silence around the table as though she had said something incredibly significant. And then someone said ?How lovely? and she said ?Well, it was a tough life?.

I wonder what kind of shepherd Jesus really intended us to think of him as. Was he someone lovely to be depicted in stained glass with a lamb about his shoulders or was he someone who would have said, ?well, it was a tough life?.

It was a tough life too and a tough death. For Christ was the good shepherd who loved his sheep to death. Even death on a cross and became, not shepherd but the Lamb himself. The lamb that was slain. Sharing the fate of his own flock.

It is that image, of the lamb that was slain which is so powerfully depicted in the book of revelation which we read from.
The lamb that was slain who was surrounded by creatures singing ?Blessing and Glory and Wisdom and Thanksgiving and Honour and Power be to our God for ever and ever Amen.

It is a part of the divine counter-culture ? God?s own way of looking at things. The slain lamb becomes the shepherd of Israel ?(or is it the other way round, we are never quite sure). Nothing in God?s world is quite as it seems to be.

Jesus is the shepherd who knew what it was to be a lamb which was killed. Tough life, a tough death.

In fact – tough love.


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