Prayers of Approach
Come, all you people, wandering and lost, far from home. Come to the shepherd – the one who guides us, the one who remakes us, and the one who will bring us to safety. Listen! The shepherd is calling! Listen! The shepherd is searching for you. Listen! He is calling you by name.
God, our shepherd, you gather us into your kingdom, and into your loving arms. You seek us out when we are lost. You rescue us when we are in trouble. You welcome us when we return home. Make us – your church, your people – into a sanctuary for all who are fearful, a place of healing for those who are broken, and a welcoming home for all who seek it. Amen.
Awesome God, full of glory, you fill our hearts with your love. Awesome God, full of blessings, you fill our lives with your wisdom. Awesome God, full of riches, you enrich us with power and strength for all the ups and downs of life. Awesome God, full of Grace, we love you and glorify your mighty name. Amen.
Hymn Come let us join our cheerful songs (R&S 382)
Readings: Revelation 7:9-17
Today we read of a vision seen by John who sees people from around the world worshipping God. It has rich imagery of angels, a magnificent throne and fantastical animals. Jesus is referred to as the Lamb and at the end of the passage also as the ‘shepherd’ who protects, guides and feeds us. As we seek to live out the message and implications of Easter, we are reminded of the endurance we need to live in the light of the kingdom, facing life’s struggles in the company and comfort of the good shepherd, who is also the crucified and risen Christ.
In our Gospel reading Jesus has made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Festival of Dedication, better known as Hanukkah (celebrating the Temple’s rededication by Judas Maccabeus in 164 BC). Here Jesus underlines the intimacy of his relationship with his sheep, who follow him because he knows them, not the other way round! The Temple was central to Jewish identity, but writing after its destruction in AD 70, and after many years of collective reflection on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, John understands Jesus’ body as the new Temple.
Hymn The king of love my shepherd is (R&S 552)
Have you ever looked at those ‘magic eye’ pictures which just seem to be an abstract multi-coloured image but when viewed in a certain way resolve themselves into a 3D picture? For some people the image comes easily, for others it is more tricky and some just can’t see it at all. Or what about those optical illusions – do you see a beautiful young woman or an old lady, a vase or two faces in profile, is the object in the box or in front of it, which of the figures is taller, or which line longer? Sometimes the images which the Bible presents are just as tricky to see or to work out. John’s visions in the book of Revelation are among the most difficult passages to understand in the whole Bible and scholars and others have pored over them for centuries trying to divine what they mean and coming up with many different interpretations.
Today’s passage seems to be one of the more straightforward ones – a simple picture of God’s throne room in heaven with the saints worshipping God. But even here there are puzzles to be worked out. The initial question, ‘who are these people?’ gets a straightforward answer but there is more to the picture. The Lamb and the palm branches raise suggestions of the Passover festival and this leads us to a paradox – the slaughtered Lamb is also the Lord, the shepherd who leads to life.
Lambs, sheep and shepherds of course are familiar themes in Jewish faith and history. Jesus
on more than one occasion refers to himself as the Good Shepherd and we find him in the Temple at the Dedication Festival answering the question of his identity, ‘Tell us plainly: Are you the Messiah?’ by saying, ‘I’ve already told you but you won’t believe me because you are not my sheep.’ And once more we get that problem of ‘seeing’ and of recognizing what is there. Jesus knows his ‘sheep’ and they follow him because he knows them. He cares for them and gives them eternal life and no one can snatch them away from him. It is a role that Jesus takes seriously.
Sometimes we behave as if caring for the sheep is enough, and anything beyond that it is someone else’s problem. But shouldn’t we ask ourselves do we work to challenge and change unjust structures, or do we respond only to the pastoral issues that they tend to cause? There is nothing wrong with doing the latter. We are called to serve and care for one another, especially for those in need, those who are the poorest, who are on the fringes of what we might regard as ‘normal’ society, those who are persecuted and so on. The question is, is that enough?
The gospel stories about finding lost sheep encourage us to think about it in a human context. But caring for sheep also requires mending fences and anticipating problems further down the line, so that the sheep do not have to face the same risks again. Being a shepherd is more than tending to pastoral problems; it is about fixing structural things that are not right or not working.
Do we romanticise the life and role of the shepherd, as if it exists only in some kind of pastoral idyll? Real shepherding needs strength of mind and heart to do difficult work, day after day. Real shepherds are tough in body and mind. They work to a clear plan and coordinate the overall movement of a large group of easily distracted animals. They are ready to intervene at a moment’s notice when a problem arises, and their life is one of nearly constant vigilance.
How well are we doing?
Hymn Will you come and follow me (R&S 558)
Prayers of Intercession
Lamb of God, we thank you for your loving sacrifice. Thank you for putting purpose, light and colour into our dark empty lives. Thank you for your perseverance with us, your never-ending provision of wisdom and strength that helps guide us through all life’s circumstances.
Lord, we thank you that we believe in you and we belong to your family.
We pray for those who don’t feel they belong anywhere; for refugees, asylum seekers, homeless people on the street. Help us not to look the other way when we see them. We pray that we might be able to help them to see a chink of light at the end of their very dark tunnels.
We pray for people of other faiths, and of other denominations within our own faith. We sometimes find it hard to accept them and their beliefs. Help us genuinely to try to understand them, and to show them respect. We pray for our church family. We pray for the people sitting around us, that you will be with them in all their joys and sorrows. We pray that we don’t become a holy huddle, and are welcoming to people on the fringe.
We pray for those facing illness, or even death. Perhaps they have a sense, a fear even, of not belonging. Help them to believe in you and your power to heal, physically, mentally, and spiritually; and to know that you bring the promise of eternal life. Amen.
Hymn One more step along the world I go (R&S 549)
God of our coming in and going out,
Help us to trust in you, to hear and follow your voice, and to share with others the blessing of the Good Shepherd of the sheep.