Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Text: John 10:14
I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me.

Anxiety and the Good Shepherd

One of the marks of the 21st century so far has been the increase in anxiety amongst people of all walks of life.

Just take a look at what there is to be anxious about at the moment.
We have the changed economic situation around the world and here in Australia. We watch the stockmarket and observe the plummeting value of our superannuation and the pressure that is being placed on industry and the prices of everyday essentials. We watch and we pray that the market will bounce back up again and we are being told that eventually it will but in the meantime we are anxious.
For some this has brought insecurity in their jobs. They are waiting and anticipating an announcement that their employment has been terminated or cut back or that the company they work for has either gone into liquidation or has been sold to an overseas buyer. In the past long term security in employment was taken for granted. The possibility of no job or retraining for another job is a cause of anxiety.

The change in moral values and the fact that there doesnít seem to be any consistent guide to the way people behave toward others raises our anxiety levels. People do their own thing, without any consideration of the consequences for the well being of others. The result?  Security systems in our homes, lines of vehicles picking up children after school, our reluctance to travel on public transport at night, children no longer playing without supervision in parkland, practice lockdowns in our schools in preparation for the day when lives are in danger. Anxiety? You bet!

The change in the level of security and safety on the world scene raises our anxiety levels. The increased awareness of terrorism even here in Australia where we have been isolated from this kind of thing for so long; the awareness that the security of all countries can easily be penetrated by those who would seek to cause harm and death; fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being the victim of an act of terrorism; the fear that the shootings in schools overseas will one day be repeated here - all increase our anxiety about our safety and that of our children.
And with the increase in world travel, we have seen how quickly disease can spread around the world. Bird flu, swine flu, or whatever epidemic raise our awareness of our vulnerability and increases our anxiety

The changes in our environment and the global warming causes even our children to be anxious. They know about the destruction of the ozone layer, planetary warming, the pollution of our water and air. They hear about the possibility, sooner or later, of our planet being hit by a large meteor like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs or the possibility of our planet becoming so warm that life on the earth as we know it will become so different.

The changes in relationships bring anxiety into our lives. A falling out with a family member or a friend; parents who separate and divorce leaving their children confused and divided in their loyalties; aggressiveness of people in the work place, on the roads, in queues all raise our anxiety.

All this anxiety and stress is causing havoc with our confidence, health and happiness. But letís get real - there seems to be little we can do about some of the threats that confront us in these times.

We can of course try to minimise the risks. We donít walk alone at night, we donít resign from work without already having another job lined up, we do pick up our children after school, we put locks on all windows and doors, we make sure the iron is turned off before leaving the house, we try to do our bit to reduce our impact on the environment but these things are rather like a little child trying to stop the water coming out of a tap holding a hand over it. No matter how hard he tries the pressure is too great and the inevitable happens.

On one church notice board facing the passing crowd was this advice, "Cheer up it may never happen!" Thatís true to a degree, but this cheery bit of advice doesnít really help when itís your child who has symptoms like the swine flu, or your grandchildren are caught between feuding parents, or itís you trying to make the dollar stretch even a bit further. Surely as followers of Christ we can do more than say, "Cheer up"!

A lot of anxiety is tied up with looking ahead and stressing over the things that might happen. There are times when anxiety grips our heart and fills us with fear. The future seems so uncertain and threatening.

For the Christian there is an important ingredient involved with looking into an uncertain future. Itís called Ďhopeí. Sometimes we think of hope as just wishful thinking like saying, "I hope that I will come into a lot of money so that I can retire". But hope from the Christian point of view knows that even when bad things happen, God will be there with us and with God's help we will be able to cope with whatever it is that causes us to be anxious.

Jesus says in our gospel reading today, "I am the good shepherd". These words point to the God of the Old Testament who makes himself known to Moses as "I am who I am". Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd in the same way that David refers to God as his shepherd in the 23rd Psalm where he states, "The Lord is my shepherd and even though I walk through the darkest valleys he will be there to guide me and protect me." Our hope rests in the almighty and all-powerful God who took the tragedy of the cross and turned it into a victory. He overcame sin and death, rose form the dead and today is our living Lord, our divine good shepherd.

Hope says that we have nothing to be afraid of. Nothing can cut us off from the everlasting love of our Saviour. In the arms of the good shepherd we are safe and secure. We can relax because whatever happens, even if death itself should come, there is nothing to be afraid of because the good shepherd wants only good for us and will take us with him to the joy of everlasting life.

The Bible picture of a shepherd is nothing like the Aussie sheep farmer. Our vast flocks of sheep roam across large paddocks usually well away from the care of their owners. They might see the farmer enter their paddock once a day at certain times of the year with fodder but in the seasons when there is plenty of grass the sheep are left to fend for themselves. They come in contact with the farmer when its time for dipping, crutching or shearing and they are treated with about as much individuality and a can of baked beans in a supermarket. But the old world shepherds lived with and for their sheep.

The Palestinian shepherd, who wandered the hills in search of fresh pasture for his sheep only had a small flock of sheep and knew each sheep individually. In some places around the world shepherds still watch over their sheep, leading them to grass and water. They know the sheep and the sheep know their master and happily follow along behind him.

The Shepherd-God of the Bible is not some distant figure, uninvolved with our daily affairs, sharing both good and bad weather with us.

One of the most meaningful pictures in Christian art shows Jesus the Good Shepherd leaning over a cliff with his arm reaching down to clutch and rescue a lamb caught in a thorn bush. The artist wants to get across the idea that Jesus is the one who cares, the one who saves the lost, and rescues from trouble. He is the one who is intimately and individually concerned about each one of us. He knows each of us by name and knows exactly what is filling us with anxiety at this very moment.

The image of the rescuing shepherd leads us to think of what would have happened to that lamb if the shepherd didnít care enough to rescue it, or if the sheep was wild and stubborn and refused to be helped. Because of his love for his sheep, the shepherd goes to any lengths to make sure his sheep are safe. Even those times when we feel that life is out of control, things are happening that make us anxious and afraid of the future, Jesus, the Good Shepherd suffers with us and for us, and even when our worst fears become a reality, his presence assures us that nothing will happen to us that is outside of his control. There is always a purpose and he will help us through it and bring victory out of defeat. Thatís why people like Corrie ten Boon, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered terribly in the hands of the Nazis, were defeated and humiliated, even killed, and yet they were able to rise above despair and hopelessness and in the end were victorious. They didnít dwell on the negatives and hopelessness of their situations, but lived in hope.

If we decide to dwell on all the negatives, to keep our mind and soul simmering with all the gloomiest possibilities, beware that our small anxieties will grow up to be big anxieties and they will affect our health, our well being, our relationships and our confidence.

On the other hand, we can choose to dwell in hope, focus on the promises of God in the Scriptures, rely on his love for us, and trust the good shepherd who reaches out to us to hold us, rescue us and comfort us.  Instead of shuddering and cringing with anxiety over how things will turn out always thinking of the grimmest possibilities, picture Jesus right here with us in the middle of what is causing us so much anxiety. That is what the 23rd psalm does. The Lord is my shepherd, David says, and I have no reason to be afraid. His rod and staff protect me. His goodness and love will always be with me till the day I leave this life and enter eternity". We can be even more certain of this than the psalm writer because we know of the love and grace of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

You can stake your life on the faithfulness of our loving Shepherd. Nothing in the future is stronger than his love for us - no threat that at first seems overwhelming; no calamity that engulfs us; no grief which in its first dreadful impact makes us wonder if we will ever smile again. Indeed,"The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
3rd May 2009

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