Psalm 23; John 6:37-40
Commemoration & Thanksgiving Service
St Barbara’s 03.11.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I wonder if you have ever seen the TV programme “One man and his dog” (now part of BBC’s Countryfile programme)? It shows the remarkable skills of shepherds who standing pretty much stock still, by whistles and calls, can control their sheep dogs into herding a flock of sheep into a pen. Occasionally there may be a somewhat errant sheepdog who herds the sheep in the wrong direction, or a sillier than normal sheep who refuses to play fair, but on the whole the skill exhibited by the shepherds are remarkable. This year it was won by a 16 year old Welsh girl.
If you haven’t seen the programme, maybe you have been out and about maybe in the Lakeland fells or the Warwickshire countryside and a farmer has sped by on a quad bike manoeuvring his sheep around at top speed while bouncing over hillocks.
Both types of shepherd are remarkable, but perhaps give a somewhat misleading idea of what it was like to be a shepherd in biblical times.
A shepherd in the middle-east two-to three thousand years ago lived quite a different type of life. Obviously there were no quad bikes, but they didn’t use sheep dogs either. Their relationship to the sheep was that much closer.
A shepherd would live with the sheep, being with them 24 hours of the day. On cold winter nights, they would be with their sheep, enduring the cold with them. On days of scorching heat, they would be with them too, enduring the burning sun as they guided the sheep to shade. The sheep’s hardships were the shepherd’s hardships.
So when Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, and when David, himself a shepherd, describes his Lord God in Psalm 23 as a shepherd, they were saying something very profound. They were saying that God, through Jesus Christ, knows our hardships, knows our struggles, for he has lived them with us. Jesus knew the grief of losing loved ones. It is one of the only times in the Bible when we are told that he wept. But he also knows our sorrow, our sadness. At times of loss and grief in our lives, it can sometimes feel as though no-one can understand. But God does. He has been there with us.
Not only would a middle-eastern shepherd live with his sheep, he would know each one of them, and give them a name. He may at times have his flock share a sheep pen with another flock, but when it came to leave in the morning, he would call them one by one by name, and they would separate off from the other flock and follow his call. He would be the first to know when a sheep had stumbled and was limping, or was ill or diseased. He knew his sheep intimately.
When Jesus is described as our shepherd, it is because he knows us intimately. He knows who we are, and he knows our needs, before we can even speak them. He knows us, cares about us, and loves us. Our God is not a distant and far-removed God, but one who comes alongside us and knows us. At times of grief, we can take comfort in his presence.
As Psalm 23 so beautifully phrases it, the Lord our Shepherd “makes me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” It was the shepherd’s role to find water, pasture and shade for his flock in what was a very dry, arid landscape. The sheep depended on him. For David, the writer of Psalm 23, this was what God did for him. Amidst the hardships of life, God not only shared those with him; he found places of rest and refreshment, places to renew his soul. You may be at a place of dryness, of aridness, in your own life, a desert place. Often grief has a way of making us feel that way. It may be that God wants to lead you to a place of refreshing, a place of peace and restoration. Place your trust in him; ask him to lead you.
Another distinctive of middle-eastern shepherds was that rather than marshalling their sheep from behind, they went ahead of their sheep and led them from the front. They would lead the way, into whatever dangers lay ahead; the sheep would follow. So when Psalm 23 describes the Lord guiding him in paths of righteousness, or being with him through the valley of the shadow of death, in his mind he is describing the Lord going ahead of him, facing the unknown, facing the fears and the darkness first. Jesus goes ahead of us. He goes ahead of us into the darkness of grief, he goes ahead of us into those dark valleys that our sadness and loss leads us into. He does not leave us to find our way alone. He is with us. He leads the way.
And for our loved ones who have died, and who today we are holding particularly in our thoughts, he has gone ahead of them too. He has gone ahead of them leading the way through the valley of death itself and out the other side into the hope and glory of resurrected life. He is the shining light in the darkness, the one whose risen presence assures us that death is not the end, does not have the final word, but that eternal life awaits.
For the feature of the best shepherds would be that they were prepared to lay down their lives for the sake of their flock. When wild wolves or bears came threatening their flock, they would take their life in their hands and defend their sheep, even at the cost of there own life. And that is what Christ has done for us – to die for us – and in rising to new life, make the way possible for us all to enter into the presence of God.
And that is why David can end the 23rd Psalm with the words: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” and why Christ himself in our gospel reading can say “I shall lose none of all that he has given me but raise them up at the last day.”
Our Good Shepherd is with us now, a source of comfort, strength, guidance, restoration. Let us place our trust in him and follow him.
And our Good Shepherd is with our loved ones who have died too. For he is the source of eternal and abundant life in the everlasting presence of God. He has led them from death into life.