One of the many things I have really appreciated about coming back to live in Yorkshire is that we live on the doorstep of such beautiful countryside. It is said for example that Skipton is the Gateway to the Dales and I think that the scenery is simply breathtaking.
On days off, when the weather has been kind, I have really valued an opportunity to recharge by driving into the Dales and taking in the scenery, visiting some of the quaint towns and villages and going for walks. On these outings you cannot fail to notice the vast swathes of farmland – cows and sheep for as far as the eye can see.
Springtime this year has been incredible…everywhere you looked there were sheep and new born lambs. And seeing that reminded me of that great series “One Man and His Dog” which featured various sheepdog trials.
As a child I owned a border collie, whose parents were working sheepdogs in the Dales, so it’s probably fair to say that I have a great fondness for sheepdogs and therefore I particularly enjoyed watching that series. And knowing how intelligent my dog was, it was never a surprise to me to see man and dog working together with such synchronicity, even if it was always an astonishing sight to see. What you may not also be surprised to know is that recent scientific studies have shown that sheep are far more intelligent than they have previously been given credit for! No longer should sheep be a by-word for stupidity and mindlessly following the crowd. And if you want proof of that, you only need to look to a farm in Marsden near Huddersfield where sheep taught themselves to roll 8ft (3m) across hoof-proof metal cattle grids – and raid villagers’ valley gardens. Dorothy Lindley, a former Conservative councillor in the historic textile town on the edge of the Pennine uplands in West Yorkshire, said: “They lie down on their side, or sometimes their back, and just roll over and over the grids until they are clear.”
I was reminded of all of this recently in a number of different ways…when I spoke with a family recently about baptism I invited them to choose a Bible to be presented to them in the service and they choose the Little Lamb’s Bible which invites us to cuddle up with Little Lamb and know God’s Love! Sounds like a smart little lamb to me. And then this week, I went to visit a member of one of my congregations who like me had owned a border collie for many years – and there was an incredible painting of it in her living room.
The shepherding practice in the Dales is certainly very different to shepherding practice in the Middle East. In the Dales, the sheep are driven by the sheepdog, working closely with the shepherd. Whereas in the Middle East, the sheep follow the shepherd and recognise his voice. It isn’t uncommon to see maybe 5 different flocks of sheep with their shepherds coming together at a well for the sheep to be watered. But what is incredible is that when it is time for a flock to move on, the right sheep respond to the voice of their shepherd even if all the flocks are mixed in together. The sheep follow the shepherd.
In both cases, whether in the Dales or in the Middle East, the care and attention, and the protection given by the shepherd is incredible. Shepherds will know each individual sheep – their markings and features, and even their character. Let’s be under no illusion here, shepherding is a hard, demanding and at times costly life.
In Jesus’ time, the imagery of a shepherd will have been very well known in his culture. And here in our reading today we find Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. And note Jesus doesn’t simply say “I AM the Shepherd”…more than that, Jesus is the “Good Shepherd”. And what are the characteristics of a Good Shepherd? We are told the Good Shepherd:
- Lays down his life for the sheep
- Knows his sheep AND his sheep know him
- Brings other sheep from outside of the pen into his care and protection
- Has a flock of sheep that listens to his voice
- Has a flock of sheep that follow him; they respond
- Has one flock
And in other passages that speak of Jesus as the Good Shepherd we learn that he:
- Leads them out to pasture
- Seeks out the lost sheep
- Protects his sheep from danger
Jesus is able to do this because he has the ability and the authority; we see that in the promise he makes…“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
I don’t know where you may be in your faith. I do know that when I heard the call of the Good Shepherd many years ago, I chose to follow him. I chose to respond. It brings me much comfort and assurance in life.
I am sure that we all have hopes and aspirations in our life. And we can choose to express those hopes and aspirations in some very important ways – one being to declare our faith through Baptism or Confirmation. We may choose to seek to get to know Jesus, and enter into a relationship with him…to know God’s love, God’s presence and God’s protection; to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and to hear his voice.
I think I’ve lived long enough, and experienced enough in life to say that to know unconditional love is probably the most precious thing we may ever experience in life. And that is what God offers us. That is what God invites us into. And in that we have a choice…we can only know such love by being in relationship with the one offering it and by accepting it and responding.
People think about life choices at many key points in life…a birth, a baptism, a wedding and a funeral. In a service of baptism we are reminded of the promises that God makes and the promises that parents and godparents have made in response, let’s take a moment to examine where we find ourselves and the choices we have made. Have we heard the voice of the Good Shepherd? Do we know God’s unconditional love? If you want to know more, when we come to our prayers why not say in the silence of your heart “Jesus, I want to know you. I want to hear your voice.” Amen