In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I love and despair at early mornings at this time of the year, I love them because when we head out for our early morning run, there is a fresh chill in the air, and there is a renewed sense of newness and hope as we head off up Calderbrook on our route.
However, the despair hits about half a mile in when the dogs get a scent of something they are interested in, often it is a stag or a deer, but more often than not at this time of the year it’s the sheep and lambs.
You see every so often a sheep will have managed to get out of its field, and it will be on the road, or on the canal running haphazardly around, which can bring danger to the sheep, and potentially others.
Now whilst their shepherd isn’t by their side to keep them safe, they are alerted to the problems usually by a phone call, or someone who helpfully posts a message on Facebook. This will usually state what colour is one their back and where they have been seen, which helps them to be identified by the correct person, who will then head out to bring that sheep back into the safety of their field and flock.
This is effective method today here in the UK, but in other countries, there are still those who use traditional methods of shepherding, and as I understand it, that whilst there are many things that sheep are not, there is one thing that they are good at, and that is hearing.
They can recognise their shepherds voice, and through the building up of trust, will follow the voice because there is a recognition in them that they will be safe.
Their shepherd will keep them safe from predators, lead them to a place where they can be nourished, ensure that they stay close by, and when necessary call them back to the safety of the flock, or if they have strayed to far, use their voice to allow the sheep to have the right direction to return.
In fact, a shepherd would be there to do everything they could to make provision for their flock, to care for them, and help them in both easy and hard times, and through this demonstration of care, the flock would follow, because they would have the confidence to do so.
No doubt we will all have recognised the fact that a shepherd looks after their flock, but perhaps as we consider the many other things they do, it helps us to begin to put our Gospel this morning into a new context.
The past couple of weeks we have been considering the reactions that the disciples had to greeting the risen Christ, and all that represents, but this reading from John which discusses the significance of one of the great ‘I Am’ sayings reminds us that what Christ did and continues to do for us is no much more that we at times recognise or comprehend.
He begins by reminding us that he is always here for us just as a good shepherd would be, but goes further, by saying he is going to lay down his life for us, alluding to his impending crucifixion. The wolf in this case could be seen as the devil, but then he refers to the hired help, the one who doesn’t have full commitment to his work, so in reality the wolf that he is talking about is our sin, that which is redeemed through His sacrifice upon the cross, the plan that God had to bring his creation back into right relationship, to bring us redemption.
He then goes further, I have other sheep not belonging to this fold. At this point Christ would have been addressing the house of Israel, and so he is explaining to them that His work will encompass others, to them the gentiles, us.
This saving work wasn’t just for some, it was for all, but even more so it was the call to unity, one people, one church, no more division or discrimination, everyone is to have the same opportunity to become part of the family of God.
We also see in this scripture a deeper significance, because as we think about how the Shepherd looks after the flock, they will know each sheep individually, some will be fast, others will be slow, some may like this kind of grazing, while other prefer something different.
When we consider this aspect of shepherding, we also begin to think about how Christ knows us, the pains we have and continue to bear, the joys we experienced, and even our deepest needs. As we learn to trust and follow him more closely in our lives, and it is always our choice, the more we come to understand that amazing gift of grace and love which is ours.
But perhaps there are some who today who haven’t had that opportunity to hear His voice, to come to know him personally in their life.
Christ’s flock is not an exclusive club that only the select few are called to be part of, everyone has that opportunity to be welcomed into the flock, to know Christ’s voice, to know his love for themselves.
There is a story told about a Shakespearean actor who was known everywhere for his one-man shows of readings and recitations from the classics. He would always end his performance with a dramatic reading of Psalm 23.
Each night, without exception, as the actor began his recitation - "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”. The crowd would listen attentively. And then, at the conclusion of the Psalm, they would rise in thunderous applause in appreciation of the actor's incredible ability to bring the verse to life.
But one night, just before the actor was to offer his customary recital of Psalm 23, a young man from the audience spoke up. "Sir, do you mind if tonight I recite Psalm 23?" The actor was quite taken back by this unusual request, but he allowed the young man to come forward and stand front and centre on the stage to recite the Psalm, knowing that the ability of this unskilled youth would be no match for his own talent.
With a soft voice, the young man began to recite the words of the Psalm. When he was finished, there was no applause. There was no standing ovation as on other nights. All that could be heard was the sound of weeping. The audience had been so moved by the young man's recitation that every eye was full of tears. Amazed by what he had heard, the actor said to the youth, "I don't understand. I have been performing Psalm 23 for years. I have a lifetime of experience and training - but I have never been able to move an audience as you have tonight. Tell me, what is your secret?"
The young man quietly replied, "Well sir, you know the Psalm... I know the Shepherd."
Just like the actor no doubt we all know the words of Psalm 23 so well, but when we consider the Gospel this morning, in the context of the opening verse of this well-loved Psalm,
The Lord is my shepherd;
therefore can I lack nothing.
There can only be one question that we need to ask today.
When our Good shepherd calls each of us by name, do we know him well enough to have ears to answer his call?