The Good Shepherd: And Being Sheep

4th Sunday of Easter / Year B

John 10.11-18


Every year, in the summer, I go to the Lake District with my husband, where we like to go walking and climbing the hills.

They are usually long and hard climbs, but the views at the top are worth it.

What does rather unreasonably annoy me though is that often I’m just about at the top and I’ll come across a sheep calmly looking down at me and chewing away in a relaxed fashion.

I may be paranoid, but this comes across as rather smug when I’ve just spent a couple of hours struggling up to this point.

However, apart from that, I rather like sheep.

In this country they don’t really have too much to worry about.

There are a few animals that might attack them, especially when they’re lambs, but they don’t have to worry about wolves, big cats or bears.

Neither do they generally struggle to find food or water.

This is lucky for them because sheep are pretty defenceless animals.

So they need a leader, someone to take care of them who they can trust and follow.

When Jesus talked about being a shepherd he was talking about a very tough job.

I’m sure being a shepherd is a hard, physical job at any time or place but what Jesus had in mind was a bit different from shepherding in this country.

Here sheep have plenty of grass to graze on, water to drink, fields to be penned up in, shelter at night if needed, and no predators that a human would be scared to face.

But in Israel shepherds had to prepared to stay with their sheep day and night, always ready to fight off wolves, bears and lions, sleeping in front of the sheepfolds in case of trouble.

During the day they had to lead their sheep across miles of barren land to find enough grazing and water for the flock.

And they had to know each member of the flock personally.

This was because with no fields to separate one person’s flock from another, sheep belonging to different people would become mixed up during the day.

Then at night, when they needed to be put in their own sheepfolds, their shepherds would call them by name to come and follow him – or her, incidentally, as women could also be shepherds in Jesus’ time.

For this to work the sheep really did have to know and trust their shepherd.

They had to recognise the shepherd as their leader, defender and guide to food and water.

They had to know that this was someone with the authority, power, ability and willingness to look after them.

If they were faced with a stranger or a shepherd who mistreated them they might well run away or refuse to go with that person, so the relationship between shepherd and sheep was vital.

It’s said, by the way, that sheep can recognise up to about 50 different people and other sheep, and distinguish between different sheep and human voices, so this way of shepherding was entirely possible.

So when Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s saying, ‘I am the person you can trust to provide you with what you need, defend you in times of danger, to look out for your needs, and to bring you home at the end of the day’.

Jesus is the one who goes out looking for us when we’re lost in the dark, scared by storms or have fallen down a hole because we weren’t paying proper attention.

He defends us from the things that try to take us away from him and destroy us.

And although we still face difficulties and sorrows, and must still eventually face death, he stays with us and helps us through everything.

Jesus is also saying that he knows every one of us by name, with all our quirks, flaws, gifts and talents.

He knows who will run and hide when things are hard and who will stand and fight – and loves us all equally.

He knows who will be the life and soul of any gathering and who would rather stay at home with a book – and rejoices in and works with our variety.

He knows who can do what, the things that make us laugh or cry, our likes and dislikes, and our secret hopes and fears.

And he wants only those things will help us flourish and grow in the best way for us and his kingdom – even if they look very different from what the world or even the Church calls good, useful or successful.

Of course, if we follow a shepherd then we also need to remember that in some ways we are sheep.

This doesn’t mean we need to follow blindly and not think for ourselves, although sheep are known to be able to solve problems and so are not quite as stupid as people think.

What it does mean is that we’re meant to be Christians with others.

Sheep are highly social flock animals who become stressed if left alone.

When threatened they draw together for defence, not leaving anyone out to face the danger alone.

From the very beginning God said that it is not good for man to be alone, and the same holds true today.

As Christians we’re called into a new family, a new community, a new kingdom, in which all have a known and cherished place, we’re accepted as we are, and no-one is to be left out in the cold to fend for themselves.

We may be very different from one another, and we may find Jesus bringing people to join us who we find it hard to understand, get on with or agree with.

But they, like us, are beloved sheep belonging to our shepherd – the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

And our job is to be his flock together, to listen, trust, follow and play our part in it, and to welcome in all his sheep as he has welcomed us.

What’s Your Passion?

Jeremiah 31.31-34 / Hebrews 5.5-10 / John 12.20-33

5th Sunday of Lent / Year B

I don’t know what sort of things you’re passionate about.


When I say passionate I mean that you feel gripped by them, unable to let them go – you want to spend lots of time doing them because they inspire and excite you or transport you away from everyday life.


Perhaps your passion is music, films, crafts, TV soaps, reading, DIY or gardening.


Or maybe you long to jump out of planes or trek through South America.


When we talk about passion these days we think about an intense desire, maybe even an irresistible force, something we really want to do or have, or a person we feel we can’t live without.


Often, when people don’t know what career they want to have they’re advised to follow their passion, on the grounds that if they really love something they’ll enjoy working in that area.


Passion, though, is one of those words that seems to have completely changed its meaning over time.


Its root is the Latin word patior, which means to suffer.


The word is also used to suggest the idea of being driven to suffer by some sort of force.


And it suggests the idea of being driven to take action where there is pain and suffering.


This is why we talk about the passion of Christ – his suffering on the Cross because of his desire to save all of us from the consequences of sin and bring us into relationship with God.


And today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday, the start of Passiontide, when the Church begins to look more closely at Jesus’ suffering during the last days of his earthly life and his death on the cross.


Yet, although it seems at first glance that the passion of Christ and what we call passion today are completely different, I think there’s still a link between the two.


When we’re truly and deeply passionate about something, or someone, we’ll do anything in pursuit of that passion.


We’ll go out of our way to follow it, even if it means working long hours or sacrificing other things, or even undergoing pain and suffering.


Think of ballet dancers, for example, some of whom will dance on with horrible pain and injuries in their feet in pursuit of their passion.


All of our Bible readings today contain passion in both the old sense of suffering and the modern sense of a strong desire.


In the reading from the book of Jeremiah we’re told that God’s law, the will of God as described in the Old Testament, will pass from the written word, from tablets and scrolls and paper and books, into our hearts, so that we can live it out naturally and easily, in closeness with God.


The promise is, says God, that he will write his law in our hearts.


And this promise comes from God’s suffering as he sees his people betray him again and again, and his strong desire to have a relationship with us despite all of that.


Then in the Hebrews reading we see Jesus described as a priest passionately praying to his Father on our behalf with tears and cries in his desire for us to be saved, and willing to accept suffering on our behalf.


And finally, we have our Gospel reading, in which Jesus talks passionately about his coming death, and how it will both bring about the victory of goodness and love over hatred and evil, and draw people to him.


Although Jesus is troubled he stands firm and faces suffering because of his love for us and his strong desire to win our salvation.


And it was this love, this all-consuming passion, that was the basis of Jesus’ life, and which led him to his own passion and death on that Good Friday.


It was this all-consuming love and passion that guided all that he said and did.


It drove his faith, and it led him in the will of God.


It wasn’t easy, and it lead to death, but his death and resurrection have made it possible for each one of us to share in the life of God.


And we hear in the Gospel that as disciples of Jesus we’re called to follow in his footsteps.


This means we too must have a passion for God that makes us willing to serve him, whatever the cost.


We must also have a passion for those around us that means we’re willing to love, help and serve others as Jesus would do.


The Bible is quite clear that, as Christians, our faith must be alive and active, and filled with passion.


The Christian life is not a passive thing,  but must be a passionate thing.


Serving and following are active, not passive – they are things we must actively pursue as Christians.


And we do all of this so that God’s name may be glorified, so that his Kingdom may come and his will be done.


So that the seed of this old world may pass away and God may bring resurrection life to all of creation.


So that we can oppose all that seeks to hurt and destroy and hinder the purposes of God, for although Jesus has won the war against evil there are still battles to fight.


So that fullness of life in Christ can come.


So that all people may be drawn to Christ as he’s lifted up on the cross.


We can play our part in this great plan, in our great hope of faith, by living our Christian lives with passion in all that we do.


By being willing to face the consequences and the costs, just as Jesus was, in order that God may work in us and through us and in partnership with us to usher in the new life of his Kingdom to all people.


May Jesus’ passion, and the way he passionately led his life, inspire the whole of our lives, and may passion for Christ and for the coming Kingdom consume us and draw us ever closer to God.



Elijah, Elisha and Transfiguration

2 Kings 2.1-12 & Mark 9.2-9

Sunday next before Lent/Year B


This week I’ve been up in my attic rummaging through old things.

I don’t go up there much because there’s a danger of meeting spiders, but for some reason I had an urge to do some clearing out, and it’s not a big time for spiders right now, so I went.

And while I was up there I came across a portfolio from when I was a librarian and working to get my chartership.

Once you’ve got your academic qualification in librarianship you can become a chartered librarian by working for 1 to 2 years with a mentor to achieve some continuing professional development objectives.

I’d never worked with a mentor before and I found I really enjoyed it.

It was good to have someone interested in my development, and willing to talk and listen about how I could further my career and interests, generously giving me the benefit of her wisdom and experience.

There came a time, though, when I had to leave my mentor behind and begin to stand on my own.

At that point I was on my own when it came to making my way in the library world.

And this feeling of being on your own is what Elisha experienced on the day when his mentor Elijah was taken up to heaven.

Elisha really didn’t want to let go of this relationship, saying three times during our reading that he wouldn’t leave Elijah.

His fellow-prophets also seem worried, as they keep asking Elisha if he knows that today’s the day he loses his mentor and has to take on the job of lead prophet himself.

Elisha isn’t pleased by this, essentially telling them to shut up and stop going on about it.

Perhaps the other prophets weren’t confident about Elisha’s abilities, maybe they were trying to make sure Elisha was prepared, but all they do is rub salt in the wound.

Then Elijah is suddenly gone, separated from Elisha by a chariot and horses of fire, and taken in a whirlwind.

Then Elisha cries out “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”

Now, Elijah was not Elisha’s father, but it was normal at that time for a pupil to refer to a master as ‘father’, so that much makes sense.

But I did wonder what that statement about the chariots of Israel and its horsemen was about.

It seems this refers to an ancient image of God as the commander and chief chariot driver of the heavenly host of angels.

Elisha is therefore recognising that God himself, or at least his heavenly host, has come to collect Elijah.

Interestingly, when Elisha later lies dying in 2 Kings 13 the king of Israel uses the same words in grieving for him, as if Elisha is to be taken in the same way.

And this phrase is also where the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” comes from.

But, going back to our story, an interesting thing happens.

Just after the place where our reading ends, having seen this great vision of God’s power and glory, Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle, repeats his miracle of parting the waters of the river Jordan, and is recognised by the other prophets of Israel as having received Elijah’s spirit, meaning that he’s been given the power that Elijah was given – to act as a prophet of God and leader of all the prophets in Israel.

Elisha has been empowered and reassured, and the further story of his life proves that he’s learnt from his mentor and walks in the power of God.

But what does all this have to do with the transfiguration of Jesus, which is what we’re supposed to be remembering today?

Well I think perhaps the link lies in the way in which the visions in the two stories reassure, strengthen and help God’s people in their work.

Elisha was given a vision of glory which equipped him to take on his mentor’s job when he was full of doubt, fear and grief.

The disciples on the mountain with Jesus were also given a vision of glory.

They weren’t yet facing doubt, fear and grief but it wouldn’t be long before Jesus began heading towards Jerusalem and towards his suffering and death.

Then they would begin to doubt – this wasn’t how the story of God’s Messiah was supposed to go, perhaps they’d made a terrible mistake.

And they would be afraid – if their leader had been arrested and executed maybe they would be next.

And they would be grief-stricken – their leader, friend, guide and mentor would be dead, and all their hopes would be gone.

It’s easy for us to underestimate how difficult that time was for the first disciples, as we move into Lent and start to look at the events of Jesus’ suffering and death from the other side of Easter.

For them there was no Easter, and no idea that one person could die and rise from the dead for all of humanity.

To them, resurrection was something that happened all at once to everyone at the end of the world, and then it would be too late to make any difference to things here and now.

So perhaps this vision of glory, like the one given to Elisha, was designed to help them through the dark times to come, to strengthen them when they felt weak, give them hope when they wanted to give up, and to reassure them that God was indeed near them and at work in the person of Jesus – they had only to hold on until things became clearer.

Of course, there is a difference: Elijah was gone and couldn’t help Elisha any more.

But Jesus is not gone, and he doesn’t leave us to carry on alone, but stands with us always.

And, even if we never get a vision like the ones we’ve heard about today, we have the benefit of the Easter story to help us hold on to the truth that God is alive and active in the world, the mentor who never leaves us, and the one whose glory fills both heaven and earth for ever.


1 Samuel 3:1-10 / Revelation 5:1-10 / John 1:43-51

2nd Sunday of Epiphany / Year B


In this season of Epiphany we’re celebrating the ways in which God reveals himself to the world in Jesus.

Revelations come in many ways.

Some are small but persistent like the voice in the night that Samuel got.

Some are dramatic, scary and strange, like the visions of the Book of Revelation.

And some build up quite slowly but then become big, as with the one given to Nathanael.

This revelation begins with Jesus showing that he knows something about Nathanael’s character – that he’s an honest man.

John seems to be suggesting that this is a wry reference to Nathanael’s rather impolite question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”.

Nathanael is amazed because Jesus has never met him and shouldn’t know anything about him.

And Jesus wasn’t there for the Nazareth statement, so how does he know what Nathanael said?

This is the first step of the revelation – that God knows us inside and out even if we don’t know him.


Then Jesus says that he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him.

This apparently small thing refers to a prophecy about the coming of God’s Messiah in Micah Chapter 4:

“… they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid…”

It’s subtle but to someone steeped in Scripture and Israel’s hopes the meaning is there.

Nathanael obviously gets the reference because he reacts by moving from cynicism about people from Nazareth to proclaiming this particular Nazarene to be the Son of God and the King of Israel.

This is the second step of the revelation – that Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel.


And then Jesus promises more even than these things by referring to back to Jacob’s ladder.

Jacob appears back in Genesis, where we find that he’s the son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham, and one of the great patriarchs of Israel.

He’s also a trickster and a liar who takes his older brother Esau’s birth right in exchange for some lentil stew, fools his father into giving him the blessing that should’ve gone to Esau, and then runs away to stay with his uncle when his brother threatens to kill him.

Yet it’s while he’s running away that Jacob’s life is changed by an encounter with God in his famous dream about a ladder between heaven and earth with angels going up and down it, in Chapter 28 of Genesis.

God himself then appears to Jacob in the dream and promises to bring him back home with blessing, peace and prosperity.

Now why God does this, and the further story of Jacob, are a tale for another time, but the relevance here is that it seems to be this dream of Jacob’s that Jesus is referring to when he says, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.

The point of Jacob’s dream was that it showed that God was there with him, with angels moving up and down to bring heaven and earth together.

Jacob named the place where he had the dream Bethel, or the house of God, and later the idea grew up that when you worshipped God in his house he was really there with you in a special way, you were directly in his presence and linked with heaven.

This is why the Temple was so important – it was where the gap between heaven and earth was closed and God was among his people in a special way.

And now Jesus is here saying that he’s the place where heaven connects to earth – not the Temple in Jerusalem.

He’s the gateway through which angels pass to connect earth and heaven, and the place where God dwells.

Jesus is the real ladder between fallen humanity and a perfect God which Jacob’s dream was pointing to.

And he makes a further small change.

Nathanael has referred to Jesus as the King of Israel, claiming Jesus and the blessings of God for his own people.

Yet Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, pointing to himself as belonging to all of humanity.

He is a ladder not just for Israel and God to meet but for all people and God to meet.

We don’t know how Nathanael reacted to this, but it is the third step of the revelation – that God has come to draw all people to himself, not just Jews but also us Gentiles.


These are big ideas: God knows us completely before we know him; Jesus is the promised Messiah of God; Jesus bridges the gap between heaven and earth for all people.

And they are truths that shine brightly in a sometimes dark world.

If we wonder if we’re really good enough for God or other people we can be comforted by remembering that God has always known exactly who and what we are – and he has always loved us.

We are his children, whatever we do and wherever we go.

We can stop rushing round trying to prove ourselves with achievements and possessions, and difficult New Year’s resolutions, and instead focus on sharing the love we’ve received with others.

When we look at the news and see prejudice, death, war, division, disasters and cruelty we don’t need to lose hope.

Our hope and faith are that the world has a Messiah, one who has lived, suffered and died among us, and who lives now forever to lead us to a new world of peace and safety, justice and mercy.

Living in the light of this revelation we can be a source of hope for others by being people who offer the peace, love, forgiveness and help we received to those around us, without judgement or expecting anything back.

So may God lead us and all his people to his promised kingdom, in which everyone “…. shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid…”.