Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Our image of God is so important. It causes us to think and act the way we do. In our Gospel reading Jesus makes it clear that he is the good Shepherd, and for good reason. But we’ll come back to that. I’d like to tell you a story.
Once upon a time (well, in ancient Palestine) there was a wolf. Actually Jesus mentions him in the verses immediately after our Gospel reading. But back to our story. This wolf had found a seriously prosperous patch of countryside in a valley where he could feed royally.
The wolf’s plan was to get to know the sheep so well that he might understand their behaviour better and hence have better access to them. And it was a successful strategy. As he began to see as sheep saw, so he understood what was going on around him in this green and woolly world, or so he thought. There appeared to be four shepherds in the valley, though he had never seen more than one at a time.
Shepherd 1 was good for a feed. He was dressed in long formal robes, carried a carved staff, and appeared too important to walk all the way round to the gate of the sheepfold; so he climbed over a wall to access his sheep. He preferred that the sheep remain in the sheepfold. On rare occasions the sheep would follow him out into the countryside to feed.
The sheep grew thin with very little food. They were often scattered and it was then that the wolf was able to pick off a sheep while the shepherd and the rest of his flock went by. Lean pickings, but a meal nonetheless.
Shepherd 2 was scruffy and seldom bothered to enter the sheepfold. He’d yell from outside, “C’mon you lot! Time to graze.” When the sheep nervously exited the fold, he’d tell them to take responsibility for themselves and go and look for food and water.
Inevitably he would either snooze in the shade of a tree or head off to the brook for a swim. Either way, the wolf had good pickings. This shepherd never bothered about what his sheep ate or drank. He disapproved of nothing. At the end of the day he’d yell, “C’mon! Back you go!” With that he’d add, “Last one in to shut the gate!” and off he’d walk.
Shepherd 3 had built his own entrance to the sheepfold. His sheep ignored the natural entrance and used the artificial one. He was dressed smartly in the latest robes and had an exact plan for each day’s foraging. He was altogether directive and, although the sheep appeared to be following him, they did so reluctantly.
Whenever they could, they would skitter out from under his gaze, and follow far behind or perilously close to areas where the wolf could pounce on them. They were fearful of what the shepherd was feeding them and so strayed to eat elsewhere.
All good news for the wolf, who had grown so intimate with how the sheep thought, he was now definitely seeing things through their eyes. But while this successfully informed his hunting strategies, he had a niggling doubt that the sheep had 20/20 vision. Were they seeing clearly, especially when it came to their shepherds? He shrugged off the thought. He was eating well and that was what was important to him.
But then there was the 4th Shepherd.
He had strong and alert sheep. They looked delicious! But he could never touch one. The sheep seemed to enjoy the presence of their shepherd.
During the day Shepherd 4 led his sheep out to find pasture and water. In the afternoon he led them safely back to the sheepfold and lay down in the gateway to keep them safe. He could hear him talking to his sheep. He knew each of their names! Fancy that.
This 4th Shepherd took special care of those sheep that had gone astray but were now learning to know his voice and follow him. The wolf could have sworn that these sheep were enjoying life! Somehow this annoyed him.
Then one day it happened. He slunk round the corner and there before him, stood the four shepherds. He froze, unable to move a muscle.
“Wolf,” said the 4th Shepherd, looking directly at him.
At that moment he saw clearly. Shepherd 1 was not proud at all. In fact he looked exactly the same as 4th Shepherd. The same applied to shepherds 2 and 3. But what was going on? The shepherds had merged into one.
And it dawned on him. “There is only one shepherd,” he said. He turned tail and ran.
What we have learnt from this story is that the way the sheep perceived their shepherd influenced the way they thought and behaved. In other words, the way we perceive God influences the way we think and behave.
If we think of God as proud and haughty, or as indifferent to our plight, or as cruel; we shall be fearful, afraid to put ourselves on the line and take steps of faith.
We have, of course, been looking at a fanciful rendering of the Parable of the Good Shepherd that teaches the dangers of not taking God at his word, namely that he is indeed a good Shepherd.
Abundant life – the 4th Shepherd’s sheep experienced it. What enabled the sheep to experience the abundant life, was that they trusted and followed.
This was because they knew the shepherd – personally. Their perception of who he was enabled them to entrust themselves to him even when the wolf was near.
Any growth requires faith (the opposite of fear). We are to walk by faith and not by sight, as St Paul told the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 5: 7).
It is no coincidence that again and again the Scriptures speak of us as sheep. In the reading from the epistle this morning the writer of 2 Peter says 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. When we believe that, we will trust him and entrust ourselves to him when he stretches us. God always tests our faith. It is the only way we will grow.
But it all starts with an understanding that God is good and loves us profoundly. There is only one shepherd, and he is good.
John 10:10; 1 Peter 2: 19-25; Acts 2: 42-47