Wednesday, 2 March 2022

The Good Shepherd

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
6th March 2022

John 10.11-30  
I don’t know about you,
            but my subjective experience of the last couple of years
            has been a growing awareness of my own mortality.
From the huge global death-toll of the pandemic,
            to wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and now the Ukraine,
the fragility of life is increasingly apparent,
            and the invincibility of youth
            seems an ever-receding illusion as each year passes.
It may just be that this is creeping middle age,
            as the marriages of friends give way to divorces,
                        and divorces give way to remarriages,
            and the generation above me, that once seemed eternal,
                        gives way to illness and infirmity.
But it all feels very real.
            And life seems very fragile.
And I am left wondering, in my darker moments,
            what the point of it all is.

Sometimes, in fact, it feels as though
    there are forces at work in the world
    seeking to stifle life, joy and creativity.
And I suspect I’m not alone in sometimes struggling
            to find meaning in life and death…
After all, what, at the end of the day,
            is it all about?
What is the point of life? What is the point of death?
            What is the point of fighting, struggling, surviving?
Where do we turn for meaning in it all?
There are many people around in this world
            who, it seems, are only too willing to offer to look after us
Sometimes it can feel as if, from cradle to grave,
            someone, somewhere is promising to take care of us
From political ideology, to religious belief, to consumerism to capitalism,
            the range of options on offer to assuage our existential angst are huge.
We only have to spend a few minutes watching the adverts on the television
            to be bombarded with people offering to solve problems
we didn’t even know we had
                        until that moment the nice smiling person in the advert
                                    told us that they had now found the solution!
And of course, the reason that this is such a powerful
            and effective advertising method
    is that deep down, many of us latch in very easily at a subconscious level
                        to the idea that something is deeply wrong,
    and we long for someone to take care of us.
We long to feel safe and secure
            perhaps to recapture something of the safekeeping
felt by the small child we once were:
            with parents attentive to our every need
                        and the next feed only a screaming fit away…
But it’s not just the adverts offering to pander to our every desire,
            we live in a society which is inherently structured to take care of us:
The police are there, we are told, to keep our streets free of crime,
            and the health services work with the scientists
            to keep our bodies-illness free.
A plethora of diet plans and fitness classes
            promise to keep us young and beautiful forever
from spinning to zumba, from swimming to Pilates,
            we can exercise to our heart’s content
and hopefully its continued good health.
And then there’s the whole host of creams and ointments
            promising youthful looking skin into old age
            as the ‘wrinkles just melt away’.
Our insurance companies say they’ll always be there for us,
            whatever little accidents come along.
Our marriage partners promise to have us and to hold us
            till death us do part.
Our parents say they’ll always love and support their little baby.
            Our friends say they’ll stand by us come what may.
The preacher on the God channel
            promises cheap grace and easy salvation,
and we elect our politicians to represent us
            on their promise of taking our needs with them into government.
From compassionate conservatism to democratic socialism,
            from the nanny state to the big society.
From the personal to the national,
                        we are surrounded by people and institutions and ideologies
            all of whom are all too ready
                        to offer to care for us throughout our lives,
            all of whom will promise
                        to help us keep the wolf from the door.
And yet…
How cared for are we, really?
Ultimately, we still age,
            we still get sick and eventually die.
Marriages still fail,
            and parents grow frail.
Insurance companies declare an act of God,
            and decline to pay out.
Our streets show ample evidence of crime,
            and all too often the bad guys get away with it.
Politicians follow the whip,
            if they know what’s good for them,
            on their way to the front bench.

Countries go to war over self interest
    and nationalist ideologies.
And televangelists get richer,
            as their congregations pay for salvation.
Sometimes, it feels as if we are like sheep without a shepherd,
            lost amidst a bewildering array of promises,
                        unsure who to believe, and who to distrust,
            uncertain who to turn to for help when the going gets tough.
And let’s make no mistake about it, there’s plenty out there to distrust!
            there’s plenty out there to be afraid of.
As the current tragedy of war in the Ukraine so horrifically demonstrates,
            the wolves of the world circle around us,
                        just waiting for us to show our vulnerability
                        so that they can pounce.
And when they do,
            who is to care for us?
Don’t get me wrong,
            the police, the health services, the politicians,
            our friends, our families, our loved ones,
they all, at their best, do their best,
            and sometimes they do it very well.
But ultimately, when the wolf bites,
            sometimes the best they can do is to stand alongside us,
            holding our hand to comfort us,
                        as we find ourselves passing
through the valley of the shadow of death,
            facing that which we have so long sought to avoid.
And it’s at moments like this,
            when all other helpers melt away,
that Jesus’ words from John’s gospel
take on their most compelling meaning:
‘I am the good shepherd’ says Jesus,
            and ‘the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’.
Jesus draws a distinction between a good shepherd
            who protects his sheep even unto death,
            and a hired hand who doesn’t own the sheep in his care
The hired hand, who is paid to protect the sheep,
            will ultimately fail them if the danger gets too real,
                        if the wolf gets too close.
The hired hand, however well intentioned,
            is never going to exercise the same care for the sheep
            as the shepherd who owns them and knows them by name.
Jesus description of himself as ‘the good Shepherd’
            is an image of great comfort
            for those facing times of darkness and difficulty in their lives.
And many have found great assurance in Jesus’ words
            when they have experienced the terror
            of being deserted by all other earthly consolations.
But this image is far more than simply an assurance
            for those who need comforting.
You see, the description of Jesus as the good shepherd,
            who lays down his life for the sheep,
offers a direct challenge
            to the way in which we have been conditioned
            to understand the very concept of care and protection.
The way the world typically works is that we enter into a contract
            with someone or something who promises to care of us.
We pay our taxes, and they pay the police,
            we collectively pay for the NHS,
            and then some individuals pay even more for private health care.
We pay our politicians and our insurance companies,
            we pay for our low fat cookbooks, our diet classes, our fitness groups.
We even speak of marriage as a contract.
We pay, we pay, we pay,
            and in return we receive that which we have bought,
            and we are cared for, protected, loved and looked after,
                        at least we are some of the time…
I want to suggest that the ideology behind much of this care
            is an ideology of death-avoidance:
We are paying to cheat death for another year,
            we are paying to sleep safely in our beds for another night.
And so we judge the success of the care we receive,
            by whether we make it through another day unscathed,
            through another year unharmed.
Yet all the while we creep closer to that point
            at which we will be deserted by the guardians
            with which we have so assiduously surrounded ourselves.
From the world’s perspective, death is so often seen as the ultimate failure:
            it’s the point at which our contracted protectors fail us,
            it’s the point at which our medical care has run its full course,
            it’s the point at which we are parted from our loved ones.
It is, if you like, the ultimate enemy,
            one we are told is to be avoided and postponed at all costs
But Jesus statement in John’s gospel
            forces us face-to-face with the brute reality of death.
because the care he offers us is not a care which avoids death,
            it is rather care which embraces death.
You see, he describes himself as
            the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
When the hound of death finally creeps up on us,
            and takes us in its jaws,
Jesus describes himself as the one, the only one, who will not desert us,
            because he himself is the one who journeys with us through death,
laying down his own life as we lay down ours,
            in order that as he takes up his life again through resurrection,
            so we too might enter into an experience
of new life which transcends death.
And in the face of protection like this,
            the wolf of death is rendered powerless.
Jesus isn’t simply talking here about some promise for beyond the grave,
            some kind of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ vision of heaven.
Rather, the new life which Jesus offers,
            this new ‘quality of life’ which transcends even death,
is something which begins very much in the here and now.
Other carers may seek to help us avoid death,
            but ultimately they are simply postponing the inevitable,
            whilst at best easing our journey towards it.
Whereas the image of Jesus as the one who exercises care,
                        by himself dying,
            is something altogether of a different order,
because it allows us to enter with him,
            into a new quality of life.
            where death is no longer the enemy to be feared,
                        a wolf to be dodged.
Eternal life in Christ, is something that radically affects
            the way we live our lives in the present.
And the effect of this is one of release,
            as we are freed from our oh-so-human compulsion
                        to see death as failure,
                                    death as defeat,
                                                death as the enemy.
            And instead we are enabled to see our whole lives,
                        from birth to death, as a gift from God,
                                    which has an eternal quality in Christ,
                        and is unconstrained to three score years and ten.
The significance of this is that who we are today is therefore of eternal value:
            who we are, even now, is held fast within God’s eternity,
because eternal life is ours today,
            it is ours as a result of the care offered by the good shepherd,
            who lays down his life for the sheep.
This way of looking at the world has the potential
            to radically alter the way in which we structure society,
                        including those parts of it
which we might call our ‘care systems’.
So I wonder what a health service would look like,
            which was predicated on the notion of a good death,
                        rather than automatically seeing death
as the enemy to be avoided,
            and which was focussed on wholeness of living,
                        rather than simply sickness management.
I wonder what a police force would look like,
            which was predicated on the concept of promoting justice,
                        rather than punishing wrongdoing,
            and which sought restoration
                        rather than exercising retribution.
I wonder what a political system would look like,
            which systemically recognised the eternal value of each human life,
            wherever that life was located on the planet,
and which sought peace and equality between humans
            as its first priority,
rather than the protection of national interest
            at the expense of those less fortunate than ourselves.
This way of living has the capacity to transform society,
            and it begins with us.
Those who are cared for by the good shepherd
            have entered into a fullness of life,
which offers a prophetic witness to the wider society
            that there is an alternative way of being human,
where death is not the ultimate enemy,
            and self preservation is not the ultimate goal.
The experience of abundant life, eternal life, ‘life in all its fullness’,
            comes to us as the gift of the good shepherd.
But it would be wrong of me to imply that it is cost free!
Certainly, Jesus never demanded nor demands money
            in exchange for the fullness of life that he offers,
and any who seek to sell wholeness of life in Christ
            are placing themselves at odds
with his free gift of abundant life available to all.
But, as I said, there is a cost;
            because entering into life eternal
            means entering into the life of Christ,
who asks us to give ourselves for others,
            just as he has already given himself for us.
This is no invoice we can pay and be done with,
            it is rather a call on all that we are,
            all that we do, and all that we have;
a call to begin to live lives dedicated to others,
            and to seeing them also entering into the free gift of abundant life,
            that has been so graciously given to us.
Jesus is very clear that the gift of life eternal
            is not something that people have the liberty of keeping to themselves,
and so he says that he also has other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
In the context of the first century, he was talking about the fact
            that the message of life eternal was not something just for the Jews,
            but was also a gift that must be given to the gentiles.
And in our context, it is similarly not something
                        just for those who come to church Sunday by Sunday,
            but it is also a gift for those who have never been near a church,
                        and may never do so.
This gift of abundant living, that comes through the care of the good shepherd,
            is good news for all.
And we who have received this gift,
            are those who must also take that gift and share it with others,
            through our words, by our deeds, and with our whole lives.
But as we do so, we bear witness to a new way of being human,
            which offers the world beyond our walls
            a profound and prophetic message of hope,
which has the capacity to transform lives
            and renew society,
as others enter into the care of the good shepherd
            and receive the gift of life eternal.
As Jesus put it, slightly earlier in John’s gospel, in chapter 6 (v.39):
This is the will of him who sent me,
            that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me,
            but raise it up on the last day.
Nothing is lost,
            nothing is wasted.
No life is of no value,
            and each moment is of eternal worth.
This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the good shepherd.
Thanks be to God.

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