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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 22nd April 2018 10am Choral Eucharist
Acts 4.5-12 & John 10.11-18
I looked up ‘Dangerous jobs’ on the internet. Apparently one of the most dangerous jobs in the world is underwater welding – statistically it is a thousand times more dangerous than being a policeman. Working on an oil rig is also quite high up the list of dangerous jobs as is ‘snake milker’! A snake milker is someone who takes the venom from poisonous snakes that is then used in creating medicines, including antidotes for those bitten by poisonous snakes! It is quite clear to see how all these jobs are dangerous – but who would ever think that being a shepherd might be dangerous? We think of shepherds as people protecting and herding sheep in beautiful countryside with a well-trained dog. Even when we think of Jesus being a shepherd we think of those images of him standing on a beautiful hillside with a lamb, probably the Lost Sheep from the parable, over his shoulders. And yet, in biblical times, being a shepherd was a very dangerous job indeed. Remember the story of David and Goliath? David was a shepherd and as he goes out to face up to the fearsome Goliath he says, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’ I Sam 17v37. In biblical times,being a shepherd was dangerous.
In today’s gospel Jesus is identified as the Good Shepherd who is prepared to live with danger and even to lay down his life for the sheep. The passage points out that sheep being watched over by a lazy shepherd not fully committed to protecting them, are in great danger. The good shepherd is prepared to die to protect the sheep. The passage we hear as our gospel reading today is hugely encouraging, it is telling us that Jesus is our good shepherd, willing to give his life to protect us.
That is one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at this passage is that it makes it absolutely clear that being one of Jesus’s sheep, or, being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian, is difficult and dangerous. There are wolves out there who will attack and scatter.
Christians have many critics, those who think we are fantasists, simply frightened of death, falling for a silly set of superstitious beliefs that help us get through the day, face our mortality and skate over the issues of real life. Much of this criticism might be summed up in the famous quotation from Karl Marx, ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. In other words, many think that religion is a ‘comfort blanket’ for those who cannot face reality.
What all this does not take into account is the fact that being a Christian is actually quite hard. I have preached many sermons about how we mistakenly think that everyone who met Jesus, everyone who was healed by him or forgiven by him then immediately lived happily ever after. It may be that ultimately they did live happily ever after but encountering Jesus, receiving healing and forgiveness from Jesus, meant radical change, living differently in the future – and that is always hard.
Added to this is the fact that some people come to faith as a result of a joyous conversion experience, but many come to faith through difficulty, pain and darkness. I began thinking about this particularly this week because on Tuesday the Old Testament reading at Morning Prayer was from Exodus 20. Most of that chapter is about God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, but when that has finished it says this in verse 21 ‘The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.’ It is not only Moses who finds God in the ‘deep darkness’, I have spoken to many people who have encountered God in the ‘deep darkness’ that we sometimes experience in our lives. In this Easter season it is important for us to remember that new life comes out of the ‘deep darkness’ of a tomb. Our faith is not about running away from real life to escape it’s challenges and complexity it is about walking into life, with all its challenges and complexities, knowing that even in the darkest places we go, God is in the midst of it and so there is always a way forward, there is always the possibility of new life, there is always hope. Not a kind of wishful thinking, blind optimism, but a way of prayerfully discovering creative ways forward, prayerfully discovering that generosity of spirit, grace and love, though hard times, sometimes involving real challenge and sacrifice, will always lead to new life, new ways of being and ultimately to fullness of life.
I am not sure how Christians have managed to get this reputation for being people who cannot face real life and so embrace a set of silly superstitious beliefs. A careful reading of scripture does not point to this – the life of Jesus certainly does not suggest being his follower will be easy. Being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian is not and never has been about running away from the complications, contradictions, challenges and sometimes the ‘deep darkness’ of real everyday life. It is about walking into life, real everyday life, believing that in the midst of the complications, contradictions, challenges and sometimes the ‘deep darkness’ of everyday life, we can discover God and by aligning ourselves with God, with the ways of God, we will discover how to live and even thrive through all our life experiences. By living this way we will, as John says in his gospel, have life and have it abundantly.
We know that being our Good Shepherd was dangerous for Jesus and that, following this metaphor, being Jesus’ sheep is fraught with challenge and danger. We believe that, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, because of what happened on Good Friday and subsequently on Easter Day, the Good Shepherd walks with us. There is nothing that can happen to us, nowhere, not even a tomb, where we won’t discover God. So we can join with the psalmist in praising God and saying, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139.11-12
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