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The Shepherd's Mark

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The Shepherd's Mark
Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

Read : St John 10: 11-18; Acts 4: 5-12; 1 John 3: 16-24 (NIV) 

Jesus said, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.(St John 10: 11)  

In Australia, there is an organisation which runs an annual Children's Poetry Competition. In 2016 the winner was Kate O'Neil, who plainly is familiar with sheep farming and caring for sheep. Her winning poem envisages the sheep dip, where the animals are driven through a bath of antiseptic disinfectant The title of her very short poem is only two letters, UQ, and here is how it goes. 

If you were a ewe
would you queue
usually do)
if you knew
it was true
that waiting for you
at the end of the path
was a bath?
Or would you
shoot through?

Well done, Kate! And what a happy introduction to a sermon on this Good Shepherd Sunday when we have as our text St John 10 verse 11, Jesus said, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. With a text like that, it is very tempting to say all sorts of pretty things about sheep and shepherds, and, with every syllable, to get further and further away from the realities of life. 

One of these realities is the nature of sheep. We see them as creatures without judgement or foresight: they must be thought for; they must be guarded against their own folly; they must be guided along unknowing, unasking; for they are feckless and fusionless beasts, planless and powerless, ultimately helpless. In short, sheep are sheepish. 

But we are people, not sheep, choosing and daring for ourselves, learning from our mistakes, following the claims of conscience, fulfilling our daily duties, finding the glory of life in the tangle of mingled experiences which combine darkness and light, sorrow and laughter, disappointment and success. 

And that is why, for all that we are not sheep, we still require shepherding. We want to make the best of our life: we want to live it with zest and to embrace each day's opportunities and challenges with the utmost conviction and joy. We want relationships always to be at their most amiable, circumstances at their most agreeable, prospects at their most ample. And to achieve all, or indeed any of that, we need help and guidance. That is to say, we need a shepherd. 

But not every one is suitable to fulfil that role: we need a special kind of person to inspire us and lead us, and not every one calling himself a shepherd will do. It is only when we come across Jesus, the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, that we can begin to be confident that we are at last in a safe pair of hands.  

Safe in the arms of Jesus,
safe on his gentle breast,
there by his love o'ershaded,
sweetly my soul doth rest.
by Francis J Crosby

A trifle mawkish, you may think, perhaps? but it is not a million miles from the rather more robust expression of a similar sentiment in the twenty-third Psalm. 

The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want.
He makes me down to lie
in pastures green; He leadeth me
the quiet waters by.

Jesus' parable of the Good Shepherd reminds us that a shepherd who owns the sheep does not need to make himself care for them: they are his, and therefore he cares for them. If he buys or rents pasture for grazing, if he fences the folds for safety, if he tends the lambs, he does so precisely because the sheep are his own. If there are robbers about, or if wolves threaten, he will take whatever steps are necessary to protect his own, and he does so precisely because they are his own. 

Jesus cares for us as no one else can, just because we are his. We do not belong to anyone else: we belong to him. And his dying for us is the final proof, if proof were needed, of the lengths he will go to show that his care of us is real, effective, and eternal, proof indeed that he is the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep. 

Good shepherds mark their sheep with distinctive marks. The mark can be a daub of paint, a smear of tar, a splash of dye, a clipping of the ear. Whatever it is, the mark is unique, indicating ownership and identifying the owner. The Good Shepherd too has his mark. It is called the sacrament of baptism, which is just Jesus marking his own. In baptism, Jesus claims us as his own. He says, 'You belong to me; you are a child of mine; you bear my mark; you carry my name.' 

In baptism, God signs his autograph on the parchment our lives. It's a signature that is written not just in water, but in blood, Christ's blood, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Do we keep the autograph a secret, shut up somewhere in the inner recesses of our life? Or is it openly on display for all to see, so that by the loving, kindly, caring, shepherding way we live, they know whose we are and whom we seek to serve?  

Rev Charles Robertson, April 2018


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