I’m always intrigued about the image used for our relationship with God that focuses on sheep and shepherd. Whereas there are some endearing pictures of Jesus the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep home on his shoulders the reality is that sheep are not that glamorous as an image. Sheep are considered as dumb animals. Calling someone a “sheep” is often said with a negative term. When a person goes off without using common sense we say they are acting like sheep. If you’ve ever seen a sheep shearer in action they seem to grab the sheep without much regard for their comfort and cut off all their wool and then push them down the ramp and grab the next one. It’s not a very glamourous image in reflecting our relationship with God. But is that the image of a sheep that the bible is wanting to paint for our relationship with God as sheep and shepherd.
Is that the type of relationship that God is pointing out by using the image of sheep and shepherd? It’s an image in both the Old and New Testament. We especially hear that in our Psalm today – the Lord is my Shepherd. But this is not the aspect that Jesus wants to highlight when he speaks of our relationship as sheep and shepherd. What Jesus speaks about is the vulnerability of sheep to predators. David spoke of that vulnerability when he spoke of his confidence in taking on Goliath. He said he used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth And the main predator when it comes to God’s children – his sheep – the sole predator – is Satan, or the Devil.
Jesus speaks of Satan’s sole purpose of destroying our relationship with God when he refers to him as: A thief and a bandit. A stranger. The thief who comes only to steal and kill and destroy. In other places Jesus speaks in similar ways about Satan: Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) So, again, you can see that connection between King David fighting lions to protect his sheep and Satan as the roaring lion looking to devour us with Jesus as our Good Shepherd. Likewise he spoke of the very personal attack against his disciples: Simon, Simon! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; (Luke 22:31,32). Isn’t that such a comforting image that Jesus is praying for us! We speak about how powerful prayer is – imagine that Jesus Christ himself is praying for us!
So we need to understand that Satan’s attacks on us become very personal as he attempts to attack our faith in God. So what are Satan’s tactics in destroying our faith which we learn from our bible reading? First of all, Jesus jumps straight in and says: Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. Jesus would be thinking back to the very first entry by Satan when he climbed into God’s creation as a thief and bandit when he entered into the Garden of Eden. There Satan entered by climbing over with temptation and stole Adam and Eve away from the sheepfold of God’s perfect creation. He came to steal, kill and destroy Adam and Eve and achieved what he came to do. Satan came in and stole them away with a voice of temptation creating doubt in their minds by asking them – did God really say you couldn’t eat from that tree? Today Satan continues to sneak into our lives with the voice of temptation asking us – did God really say?
Did God really say you can’t do that? Did God really say you couldn’t say that? Did God really say you couldn’t look at that? The voice of Satan’s temptation is so strong today especially as there is growing ignorance of what God says as so many bibles remain unopened. So many families today don’t even have a bible in their home. There are so many voices telling us how we should live our lives that we don’t know what God’s voice sounds like. How can we know if God really did say something when we don’t know what God has said? So Jesus says: God’s sheep follow him because they know his voice.
But how well do we know God’s voice today? Satan’s way into our lives today is made even easier. Satan doesn’t have to ask – did God really say – because so many don’t even know what he has said. So in Jesus image today as a Shepherd to battle against Satan – he says – I am the Gate for the sheep.
Tradition has it that Shepherds in Jesus’ time would lie down across the entry to the sheep pen so the predator would have to climb over the shepherd to get to the sheep. The shepherd would then wake up and protect his sheep. So Jesus says that he is our Gate to protect us from Satan’s attacks. And so Satan must go through Jesus in order to attack us.
And Jesus has placed himself in Satan’s path. Firstly with our Baptism where the waters of Baptism protect us from Satan’s attack on our guilt. Peter talks about that protection in his First Letter when he says: Baptism now saves you … as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Look at what sin did to Adam and Eve’s conscience as their guilt didn’t let them be able to be in the presence of God. “We hid because we were ashamed”. When Satan attacks us by using our sin to destroy our relationship with God, our Baptism reminds and reassures us that we are God’s children whom he loves. When Satan attacks our conscience with the same doubt he used on Adam and Eve having us ask whether or not we are loved by God and saved from our sin, our Baptism reminds us of the very words of God – this is my child whom I love.
Legend has it that Luther when he was struggling with his conscience threw an inkwell at Satan yelling – “I am Baptised’. Not – I am a good person – not I’ve done more good than bad – but claiming God’s righteousness and not his own.
The other way that Jesus protects us is by placing his very body and blood in Satan’s path as he places in our hands those very items – his body and blood – broken and shed for us. Satan has no comeback against Jesus’ body and blood. They are the price of our forgiveness and they are placed in our very hands. Just as the blood of the lamb was splashed against the altar in the Old Testament sacrifices to forgive God’s people so too the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, is splashed against God’s altar as St Paul reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the living God. We need to remember that Satan is cunning and will use any tactic he can to attack our faith – as Jesus said: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
But Jesus protects our faith and even more he says: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Maybe we don’t feel at times that special in our relationship with God. We may feel unworthy to approach God because of our poor choices and falling to temptation. But we are not on our own. Jesus is praying for us. Jesus says he is the gate through whom we are assured access to God. He guarantees that whoever enters through me will be saved. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life says Jesus. We can be sure that despite our sin, failures and shortcomings, we are always welcomed into God’s presence because through baptism and by Jesus’ body and blood, we have entered through Jesus, the gate into our heavenly pasture.