Some years ago, when I lived in a small village called Horton-cum-Studley (which is just outside Oxford in England) I felt that I had a sense that I lived very closely with sheep. At the bottom of the garden of the house which I shared with a friend was a large paddock which was full of them.
I went to sleep at night hearing the gentle bleeting of sheep, and when I looked out of my bedroom window in the morning I saw them running around aimlessly. At a certain point in the year I rejoiced as the new lambs came springing out of the barn with their mothers, and then of course there was the other point in the year when they were loaded on to a truck for their summer holiday, never to return.
It is perhaps because of these memories of the sheep at the bottom of my garden which have contributed to my sense of restlessness over the last few days about the Gospel reading which we have just heard this morning. Being a cute little lamb is one thing, but being an old dirty sheep, (and that is what some of them were like when I looked at them closely) is rather a different, and a far less flattering proposition. So I have been struggling this week about being numbered as one of the sheep in Jesus’ flock.
In the passages of John’s gospel which lead up to today’s reading, Jesus has been teaching about all of humanity being like sheep. Sheep in many different flocks. But the focus of this metaphor is not us (the sheep) – the focus has been on the shepherd. There are good shepherds and there are bad shepherds – bad shepherds leave their flock and run away at the first sign of danger – when the wolf appears on the horizon. But the good shepherd protects his sheep, he acts as the closed gate of protection between the sheep .ne the thieves who might want to steal them: this is not a one-sided relationship. The good shepherd knows his sheep by name, and they know him as well: when they hear his voice, they follow him.
This kind of a description will conjure up rich images in our minds. Jesus is the good shepherd, who has come to bring his flock together, and to protect them in response to the will of his Father. Some of us will be able to see that image of Jesus with golden blonde hair holding the lamb which had gone astray, which was above our beds as children. This is a far cry of course, from the sheep farming in modern day Australia. Shepherds in our modern society do not have as one of their duties sleeping at the entrance to the sheepfold to protect their flock inside. Neither do they wander in front of their sheep to lead them in the right direction, as they did in the time of Jesus. Some of our modern day shepherds travel by helicopter rather than walking or using other transport, in order to cover the vast distances of their stations. But in the time of Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t- live at a distance from his sheep, he knows each one of them, and he cares for each one of them, and they in return know his voice to the extent that if they are mixed up in another flock they are able to detect his call from the words of others, and follow him.
So Jesus says to his questioners in today’s Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.” But the reality of Jesus’ words is that others have heard his voice, and have not followed, those who question him seem to still be unaware of who he is. Jesus has been telling them again and again in different ways that he has been sent by the Father, to bring all of humanity back into a relationship of love with God. He has come as the shepherd who will round up his flock and look after them. But they haven’t heard his message. We heard just a moment ago their response to his teaching: they say – “how long will you keep us in suspense Jesus? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” And yet Jesus has been telling them, through signs and miracles and stories; and still they have not heard his voice.
They have seen all that he has been doing, but have not received his message. Instead they have heard the threat of change, the possibility of blasphemy and so the need for this man (Jesus) to be removed from the public arena. Jesus brings a message of love and acceptance, but it is met with a message of hostility and perhaps even hatred.
The encounter which we ponder this morning took place at the Jewish feast of the Dedication. This festival was a great celebration in the Temple. It is remembered to this day by modern Jews as the festival of lights, which is called Hannukkah. Our Jewish neighbours celebrate Hannukah in the month of Chislev, which is somewhere near our own festival of Christmas. It commemorates the most remarkable of stories. The Jewish people had reclaimed their Temple from those who had defiled it, and tried to destroy it, in the time of Judas Maccabeus, about 150 years before the birth of Christ. Having reclaimed the Temple the Jewish priests set about purifying it through. their rituals, so that they could worship God there again. But as they set about their task, they found that they only had enough ritual oil for the candle in the Temple to burn for one day – but in order for the Temple to be purified there had to be a continuous burning of the candle for eight days. So they lit the candle, sent out for more oil and hoped for the best. By a divine miracle (according to the Jewish story) that oil was still supplying the fuel for the candle eight days later when new oil arrived. This symbol of God’s faithfulness has been remembered within the Jewish tradition .from then on and even to this day.
It is that faithfulness which keeps alive a sacred flame, which is being remembered as Jesus is confronted in the Temple precincts. Jesus is there with his fellow Jews to remember and celebrate the faithfulness of God which is symbolised in that continuously burning candle. The significance of the timing of the encounter in today’s Gospel reading would not have been lost on the Jews who read John’s account of what took place.
As people come together in Jerusalem to celebrate God’s miraculous action of keeping alight the candle in the Temple, they are oblivious to, or unable to receive the most incredible event of ‘all. That God has taken upon himself, the form of a human, to shine like that miraculous light in the Temple, but not for eight days – no for all time. To shine as the light of the world – Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Jesus’ response to those who want to carry on the debate is a challenge to us all: he says to them – “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Or as a paraphrase, “I have shown you and you will not accept the things which you have seen. You await proof, but I call you to step out in faith.”
If we have any doubt about the power of Jesus’ voice to change lives, we need only to remember back a few weeks to our Easter readings. You will know the accounts very well. Mary discovers that Jesus’ body is missing, and after some of the disciples have been and gone, she meets someone who she thinks is the gardener. Through her tears she can see his outline, but does not recognise him. And then he speaks – “Mary,” and instantly she knows that she is in the presence of the risen Christ.
The dramatic life change for Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, from a life as a persecutor of Christians, to Paul the missionary church planter, and author of much of our New Testament comes about through a similar experience of hearing the voice of Jesus. On that road he is stopped in his tracks, and hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me,” says Jesus – and how do we respond?
We see God at work in our world, and in the lives of others and in our own lives, and how do we respond? We hear the challenge of the Gospel as it is read across this Diocese every Sunday, and in our own reading of it in our homes, the stories of Jesus and of his followers – and how do we respond? We have experienced the fuller tradition of faith, passed down and expanded and thought about over many, many generations in the worldwide Church, the testimony of many millions of believers, in whose words and lives we hear the whisper of the voice of Jesus – and how do we respond?
Do we say with those who question Jesus in Jerusalem at the Feast of the Dedication, we know that you acted in the past, we have heard about what you have done, but we need more proof to believe that you will act now? Or are we willing by faith, knowing that we don’t have all the answers, to hear and to receive the good news of God’s love in the voice of Jesus?
Much of our Christian tradition is very complicated, we can often be uncertain about whether we are hearing the story of Jesus as it was intended, or instead whether we are simply using Jesus to support the ideas which we already have. It will take more than a life time for us to answer many of the questions which linger in our minds. But the essence of the good news of God in Jesus is accessible for us all this morning. Jesus presents; himself to us as the Good Shepherd, and he asks us to make a choice. Will we by faith stay in his flock, or perhaps become a part of it for the first time?
Or will we remain at a distance waiting to see whether all of our questions can be answered first?
The altar in this place is open to us all. Here again we will remember (as we gather around it together) one of the great mysteries of our faith, that the Good Shepherd is also the Lamb of God, the one who-has come amongst us to take away the sins of the world. And who calls each one of us into his flock, which is the Kingdom of God: that Kingdom of love, and joy and peace. As we approach it again this morning the words of Jesus stand before us, to challenge us, and to welcome us. Jesus says to all who will listen: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Jesus says to us, I am the Good Shepherd, come be counted as one of my flock, and follow me. And more than that – share this good news with others; because just like that candle burning brightly in the Temple, we have each been called with Christ, through our baptism into him, to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.