Psalm 23 v. 1. The Lord is my Shepherd
The picture of the shepherd lay at the very heart of Israel's life. Today's psalm reflects how God's relationship with His people was seen in these terms and we find it again and again throughout the Old Testament; the people are God's and He will lead them and protect them as long as they do not stray from Him.
Jesus took this same idea and some of His illustrations reflect it. So He speaks of Himself as The Good Shepherd in the passage that follows today's Gospel reading. Furthermore by saying that 'I AM the Good Shepherd' He was claiming by implication to be God's Son; we find this phrase 'I am' several times in John's Gospel and they all relates to such claims. He, God's Son is the Good Shepherd, just as He is the light of the world, and so on.
But it lies deeper than this. Israel was a rural country and sheep with their shepherds were everywhere; it was one of the most common sights in the country. So when Jesus spoke of sheep and shepherds He was using a picture from everyday life. This was typical, for many of the parables take the form of spiritual lessons taken from things that were part of the lives of the man in the street. So we read of looking for lost sheep and lost coins – the notorious road from Jerusalem to Jericho – absentee landlords and rogue servants – sowing and harvesting – and so on. Were He on earth today I sometimes wonder in my naughtier moments what illustrations He might use as a basis for parables. Driving on the M1 or M25 perhaps (a variation on the Good Samaritan parable!) - the tedium of airports – a lost passport just before going on holiday - stuck in a traffic jam on the way to an important appointment – celebrating a family event – the daily commute or the weekly shop – add your own example. Jesus started where people were. He was a man of the people and He drew on the everyday experiences of everyday people – which of course He was before He began His ministry. So He drew faith into the realm of normal human existence rather than being outside it.
It is pure luck that this psalm and today's Gospel are appointed for this Sunday of all Sundays, lying as it does during the coronavirus crisis; lessons in the Church of England are fixed on a three year cycle (rather than chosen at random) and these have come on this day this year. Believe it or not Judy and I deliver the Hitchin Comet every week around part of the village where we live. Wherever we go these days we find the famous rainbow in windows or even chalked on the pavement, often by children. Everywhere there is this slogan 'You are not alone', again often written by children. Our village care scheme is thriving, offering help to anyone who needs it. On a personal level we (as senior citizens!) have been offered endless help by neighbours and friends. Above all we had enormous sympathy and help from the Accident & Emergency team at Bedford Hospital last Sunday after Judy had dislocated her shoulder in a freak fall - then from people who have discovered about it. If anything good comes out of this crisis it should take two forms. One is that this spirit of mutual support and care should continue when it is all over. The other is that we should never ever again take for granted the skill and compassion and utter dedication of the medical profession, especially those serving in hospitals.
You are not alone. We do not know what the future holds for ourselves or our country. In the short term we do not know for certain whether we or our loved ones will be touched by this virus. We do not know how the next few days or the next few weeks will turn out, how life will be and what the new normality will be. Even closer to home, we do not know when we will be allowed to worship together again in this church; I am sure I am not the only person who is missing being in church with you and with the other congregations who I am honoured to serve. Then of course we can have no idea of the long term economic and social impact of what has struck us so suddenly and tragically and what the effect on us will be. The future has seldom been more uncertain than it is at present.
But I am absolutely certain of one thing. It is that 'You are not alone'. Everyone is going through the same kind of experience; nobody is exempt because this is a worldwide thing. Other people care about you personally as you read this. I doubt if there has been a time since the end of the 2nd World War (another related picture but for next Sunday!) when the nation has been so united and so caring about one another.
But even more importantly God cares about you, as a person. This is what we find in another agricultural parable as the shepherd searches for a single lost sheep from his flock. YOU personally matter to God, in all your vulnerability, with all your anxieties, in your mundane everyday lives in this worldwide crisis. The Psalmist writes that 'even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me'. Even when things are as bad as they could be, even when our fears are at their greatest, even when we feel most alone, even when we are at rock bottom, God is with us to support us and help us. You are not alone. The slogan of this pandemic is also God's message to everyone at this time. He is with us to encourage us, to calm our fears, to help us through. He will never ever leave us, no matter what may happen to us.