Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Good Shepherd LOVES his sheep

From the mid 200s AD, this painting of Jesus the Good Shepherd is on the ceiling of the Catacomb of St Callisto in Rome.

I want to start with some words from the Epistle reading we heard a short time ago:

“You were straying like sheep,
but have now returned
to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”
 (1 Peter 2:25)


One of my favourite pictures of Jesus is found in St Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 6. He is exhausted and goes to a remote place for a well earned rest. He gets there, and then discovers that a vast crowd of well over five thousand is waiting for him. His heart goes out to them because, it says, they are like “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark. 6:34).

They are not bad people - well, no worse than anyone else! - but they are trying to live out of their own resources. They think they can successfully run their own lives. In reality, without a shepherd to care for them, to lead them, to guide them, to protect them, they are starving, impoverished. And no-one seems to care - except Jesus. So he teaches them and he feeds them.

I suppose you realise that when Jesus says we are like sheep he is not paying us a compliment! I grew up in the city, but it wasn’t long into my time in sheep farming areas that I realised just how stupid sheep could be, and how in desperate need of guidance and help they are most of the time.


In fact, during a mission in my student days I was billeted for a few nights with a farming family in country New South Wales. They were right in the middle of a drought, and on the first day I went out in the ute with the farmer and his dogs to help round up the sheep and get them back to one of the few dams on the property still containing water.

I discovered that this happened EVERY day. It seemed rather odd to me, but the farmer explained that if he didn’t do this, before long his sheep would end up as parched carcasses strewn from one end of the property to the other. “These sheep,” he said, “are basically dumb. They have all the water they need right here, they have all the shade they need under those trees, and I come daily with extra feed. But one of them gets the bright idea that there is a better supply of water somewhere else - better shade, or more feed -, and wanders off . . . and do you know what the others do? They are perfectly contented, they have everything they need, but they still follow the first one, and for their own good we have to keep bringing them back.”

No wonder the Psalmist says: 

“I have gone astray like a lost sheep”. 
(Psalm 119:176)

No wonder Isaiah the prophet says in chapter 53, verse 6: 

“All we like sheep have gone astray; 
we have turned every one to his own way.”

And looking with a divine longing at the people of his day, and, indeed, looking at the whole of humanity across the centuries, Jesus has compassion because they - because WE - are like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd is risen! Our choir sings this acclamation a number of times in today’s Mass. Do you know why? It’s because when he rose from the dead Jesus did the shepherd-like thing and gathered his followers together, putting new heart into them, and giving them a new purpose and a new reason for living. 

So, it’s good for us to dwell on the idea that he is OUR Good Shepherd, and discover what this says about his way with us now.

And that’s the reason why I really want you to understand today . . .


Those of you who come here a lot know that as Christians in the catholic tradition we usually think of the Church as a whole when we talk about the Lord Jesus being our shepherd. We rightly point out that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes after the one that was lost so as to make the community complete.

But I want to tell you this morning that the other reason he goes after the lost sheep is quite simply HIS NEVER-ENDING LOVE FOR THE SHEEP THAT HAS GONE ASTRAY! This is the Good News. It doesn’t matter how lost you are, you can never stop him loving you. He knew the mess you and I would get into, trying to run our lives our own way.

But that’s why he came from the glory of heaven - to find YOU, to love YOU, to die for YOU, to be stretched out on the cross for YOU, to bring YOU home. Nothing you have ever done can stop him loving you. He loves you with an everlasting love.

Whether you are a regular here, whether you wandered in by accident this morning, or maybe you’ve been brought along by friends, I want to tell you that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you have come from, or what you have done, God has got you here in this church this morning for one thing, and that is so that you can hear these words: YOU ARE LOVED WITH AN EVERLASTING LOVE - a love so great that it doesn’t just touch everyone in general, but reaches out to you in particular.

You matter to God. You always have. He lovingly knit you together in your mother’s womb. All he has ever wanted to do is to draw you to himself and bless you with his love, no matter how far away you might have strayed.

Will you look at him? Will you? See the wounds in his hands, his feet and his side . . . See those dreadful thorns pressed into his brow. See the Precious Blood running down to the ground. He did that for YOU. He bore the hellish consequences of YOUR sins so that YOU could be free.

Look at those arms outstretched, nailed to the cross, outstretched in an eternal embrace . . . yes, a cosmic embrace of suffering, redeeming love . . . reconciling all things in heaven and earth to the Father . . . but arms that reach out personally to YOU.

Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for YOU. It cost him everything. 

This morning - right now - you can respond to that amazing love and let him into your life. You can start all over again. You can know what is to be forgiven. You can know what it is to be free.

I want you to close your eyes for a bit, because I’m going to read as a prayer an old mission hymn which is not sung much these days - more’s the pity - but which so powerfully says it all. As I read it, I invite you - if you’ve never done it before - to open your heart, your mind - your whole life -  to the Lord Jesus:

There were ninety and nine that safely lay
in the shelter of the fold.
But one was out on the hills away,
far off from the gates of gold.
Away on the mountains wild and bare,
away from the tender Shepherd’s care.

“Lord, thou hast here thy ninety and nine;
are they not enough for thee?”
But the Shepherd made answer:
“this of mine has wandered away from me;
and although the road be rough and steep,
I go to the desert to find my sheep.”

But none of the ransomed ever knew
how deep were the waters crossed;
nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through
ere he found his sheep that was lost.
Out in the desert he heard its cry,
sick and helpless and ready to die;

“Lord, whence are those blood drops all the way
that mark out the mountain’s track?”
“They were shed for one who had gone astray
ere the Shepherd could bring him back.”
“Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?”
“They are pierced tonight by many a thorn.”

And all through the mountains, thunder riven,
and up from the rocky steep,
there arose a glad cry to the gate of heaven,
“Rejoice! I have found My sheep!”
And the angels echoed around the throne,
“Rejoice, for the Lord brings back his own!”
(No 584 in the English Hymnal)


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