Good Shepherds

Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-end
John 10:11-18

Well it’s hotting up. The General Election is round the corner, and most of us are feeling a mixture of battered and bewildered by the barrage of promises, the endless stream of claim and counter claim. Those of us who aren’t economists really have little idea what pledges are funded when they say they are which are not. It’s very tempting to write off politicians as all nasty people out for themselves, and such like. However that would be to allow a few bad examples to sour the whole picture in the same way that some people write off the whole of Christianity because of a few bad examples. It’s important to remember that Christians have a responsibility to take part in civic duties. We mustn’t forget that the right to vote is a privilege denied to so many people in the world, and we have a Christian duty to make responsible decisions for ourselves and our neighbours.

Behind all this is the search for truth. We ask again and again: who can lead us at this moment in history? Who understands the needs of the nation, the aspirations of the people, the hopes of you and me? And even more fundamental is the question: who can we trust? So many voices; so many promises to lead us into green pastures and to guide us by still waters; so many great intentions to safeguard our health service, our economy, our employment, our education, our standards of life.

All very well, you might be saying, but what has this spiel got to do with our Bible readings. He’s supposed to be rambling on about sheep, isn’t he? What I want to suggest to you is that our Bible readings are asking the same questions many of us are asking: what sort of leadership is needed in the world? Where is there a good shepherd to take hold of the crises through which we are passing? Who can help us with the pressing issues of our day? And the top issues are there for us to see: safety wherever we journey, health for us and our children, solutions to the huge divisions between people and nations, hope in days of violence and fear. The Biblical world cries out for leadership from someone who is without deceit, someone who is genuinely caring, someone who is more like the God who has given us all life.

Our world is still cram-packed with ideologies, and with angry passion usually completely mis-directed. Much of it stems from religious prejudice and intolerance, leading to acts of terror and a complete disregard for the welfare of our neighbours. And so much of the distortion is backed by so-called divine mandate. Violent men have lost sight of the God of Shalom and Safety and Welfare found in both Koran and Bible.

If we are to rediscover the best gifts of leadership we need to rid ourselves of such aberrations. So the plea of the psalmist calls to us: “The Lord is my shepherd!” God’s main goal is our safety and security. Psalm 23 is written by a person going on a journey, a dangerous journey. There will be dark valleys, burning sun-rays, unexpected dangers. There may be hunger and thirst, fever and exhaustion. The traveller’s one longing is to get to the end of the road, to be home. And what is home? Home is the safe place of worship, the house of the Lord, to enjoy the worship of the Lord for ever.

We were created to enjoy God, not to fear him. The chief end of man, says the Westminster Catechism, is glorify God and to enjoy him forever. We were made for praise, not sacrifice. We were intended for the harmony of Eden, not the terror of Gethsemane. The traveller in any age has simple basic needs: life, love, daily bread, freedom to worship, and the challenge to explore the beauty of the world and of human relationships. Of course it can’t be over-simplified. Politicians will be the first to tell us how complicated everything is. But can’t we return to the Psalmist’s basic needs? Surely if our leaders concentrated on these we would be treading in the right direction.

I think Jesus of Nazareth knew this. His kingdom values were not complicated. When the author of John’s Gospel penned his extraordinary Gospel the search for truth was in full spate. In chapter 19 Pilate provides us with the clinching sound-bite: What is truth? he asks. And the question has already been answered in so many of the previous pages: grace and truth has come through Jesus Christ; Jesus is true bread; true vine and is the good shepherd who knows his people. He is not like the false teachers and prophets whose only goal is to harm the flock.

The truth which is personified in Jesus arises out of the quality of care and understanding which the shepherd shows. The shepherd’s goal is the safety and togetherness of his sheep. This leadership is intensely personal, knowing all the sheep by first names, seeking the lost and isolated, and enabling the flock to be united in love: one flock, one shepherd.

But there is more that John wishes us to understand. The leadership which the Good Shepherd offers goes to the ultimate extreme of sacrificial care. The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The letter of John presses the message home: we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

Isn’t this the ultimate test of honest leadership? After all these words by politicians we’re aware how feeble and unsatisfactory words are in the end. The letter of John goes on: little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Here is the measure of truth. Words have to be completed by deeds. In the Hebrew language no word is legitimate until it is fulfilled in an action. The Hebrews did not have a word for promise; when a person spoke, he or she promised. Words and deeds are one. No word is true until it is fulfilled in a deed.

And that is how God works. His words are commitments. The travelling Psalmist knew that. God’s words did not return empty. God always matched promises with deeds. God didn’t talk about mercy; he was merciful. God didn’t speak words of love and forgiveness; he was loving and full of compassion.

Now there’s a challenge for election candidates! We will measure effectiveness not by eloquence alone, but by creating and transforming society. Nor can we leave ourselves out of this. The challenge comes to us all. The truth of our lives is measured by word and deed.

I haven’t mentioned leadership in the church yet. In many people’s minds shepherding is particularly relevant to this particular area of service. The Bible has much to say about this. The prophets, especially, spoke out about the frailties of the religious leadership. As a nation Israel was weakened by the failures of both priests and politicians. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, all spoke with courage. Certainly the churches can have nothing to say to politicians or to the secular world unless the quality of their own house is of the highest order. All I’ve said so far about the need for truthfulness and compassion, pastoral sensitivity and personal self-giving, apply at least as much to the ministry of all religious leaders. For Christians, good shepherding is the task of every follower of the Jesus shepherd. He remains our model.

Our thanks go to Psalmist, and especially to John, for painting pictures which are unforgettable. Green pastures and still waters remain the hope of every human being. They are gifts of God in a war-weary world. Whatever happens in General Elections or the comings and goings of governments, the challenges remain for pilgrims in every place and time: help the world walk in safety, seek truth and wisdom from peace-loving words and deeds, and set your sights on glorifying the God whose care is as sure as the dawn of each new day.

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