May 2nd, 2004
Wesley, Doncaster East
© John M. Connan
We don’t always realise the extent to which symbols are used in every day life. Some are obvious: road-signs; corporate trademarks; slogans; jingles.
Can any of you sing the aeroplane jelly jingle? And I haven’t heard it on the radio for years.
Some symbols are so obvious we forget about them: words. Words don’t mean the same thing to everyone. Their meaning is shared only by common and constant usage. We’re aware of the way a word like gay has changed its meaning. Never tell an English woman she’s a cow. Never describe an American who’s looking nervous as nervy. In both cases you’ve misused the symbol and outrageously insulted them.
Symbols can be dangerous if misunderstood and misused,
When we came back from 13½ years overseas, I took up the Grand Entrance: the open Bible carried into the church. It was the bringing of the open word to God’s people. And at the end of the service the open word was carried out with us all into the world. Or that’s what I intended it to mean. Sometimes symbols need explaining, as I discovered the day one of the Frankston Elders went forward at the end of the Service, took the Bible, slammed it shut, turned and walked down the aisle.
I still remember hearing of a member of a work party in Tonga, where one member, a church-going married man, took off his wedding ring before going out walking in the early evening. The absence of symbols, when they’re expected, can be misinterpreted!
Chuck Kraft, Professor of Anthropology at Fuller Seminary, told us of an unforgettable experience in his early days as a missionary in Nigeria. A church member asked, “What was wrong with Jesus?”
Chuck was puzzled, until he realised that in Nigeria shepherds are not ranchers or station owners. They’re the poor, the uneducated, and, frequently, the mentally retarded, with no abilities beyond minding sheep!
So much for the loved Christian symbol: Jesus, the Good Shepherd!
Symbols are powerful – but can be misunderstood!
If Chuck has never forgotten that misunderstanding of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, I have never forgotten a student sermon and the critique that followed.
In the United Theological College, Bangalore, in the early 1960s there were not only B.D. courses for ministers in training, but courses for YMCA secretaries and for laymen. One of the laymen took up the theme of shepherd and sheep. His imagination ran away with him. It seemed he needed to look at every aspect of a sheep’s life – the critique later suggested he’d omitted to include the sheep’s droppings. But what none of us there that day would forget was the suggestion that the Good Shepherd might need to discipline a wandering sheep by breaking one of its legs.
So much for Jesus the Good Shepherd!
So, what are we to understand nearly thirty centuries since David the shepherd boy put into Hebrew poetry his ode to the Lord as shepherd? How are we in a scientific and urbanised age twenty centuries after Jesus to understand him as Good Shepherd and us as sheep, those who recognize his voice and follow him? And how are we to understand him, a carpenter from Nazareth, when he says, “The Father and I are one”? Can we in any way blame the Jewish leaders in the scenario as it continued who said, “You, a mere man, have made yourself God”?
Words are symbols and are used to paint word pictures that are more evocative, but are still no more than symbols to be understood and misunderstood.
Among many feelings we share with other creatures is anxiety. We’re aware of people and events that undermine our self-assurance and security. Only two days ago I heard yet again, “Nothing’s right. Every thing I do seems to be wrong.”
We’ve got to admit our uncertainties to ourselves. We can’t stuff them down. Do that, and the pressure builds up, until some day somehow, it all comes out – explosively. And as with other explosions, someone – maybe we ourselves, maybe others – will be hurt.
Sometimes our way of dealing with anxieties is to buy more and more, until we need somewhere other than our homes to store our excess. There are, I’ve read, self-storage units scattered throughout Melbourne, where excess possessions are hidden from sight. We buy to settle our anxieties.
Plastic surgeons are in demand to settle our anxieties. The profession of personal trainer is booming – to settle our anxieties.
Drugs; crimes of all sorts; terrorism; armed conflict are all signs of our anxieties and our attempts to deal with them.
Anxiety is a symbol of our dependence on others and other things. Some possessions we need, but when possessions become obsessions, we’re in deep trouble. Relationships matter more. And loving relationships matter even more. They quieten our anxieties as few things can. We need people. “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”
Anxiety, restlessness is always with us. Those of faith assert that doesn’t have to be the way it is. Augustine, the great Bishop of Hippo, said God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless till they find there rest in him.
The way John tells the Jesus story, there was bad blood between the Jewish leaders and Jesus. He recast religious priorities. While his message was good news, for them and their ways, it was bad news. He made them anxious about themselves and their position.
They wanted an end to this anxiety. “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, just tell us!”
Earlier in Chapter 10 Jesus had used a great deal of shepherd and sheep imagery. He’d spoken of himself as gate for the sheep; good shepherd; knowing his sheep; ready to sacrifice his life for his sheep.
This was imagery that imbued their souls. It was language from throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It was part of them. It was part of him. When he used it of himself, he knew it was a claim to be more than a prophet challenging their faith and their values. And they knew it too.
It was a claim, which led to Augustine’s phrase, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.” For Jesus was claiming that his sheep, his followers would find eternal life, completion and fulfilment in company with him.
It’s human to be anxious. It’s human to be afraid. Jesus doesn’t abolish anxieties and fears. They can be the impulses which lead us back to him.
But knowing Jesus as Good Shepherd gives us the courage to risk – even failure. Knowing Jesus as Good shepherd and ourselves as the sheep of his care, enables us to be vulnerable enough to share our fears and anxieties. Once that happens the possibilities in life become endless. And our lives become open and free as never before.
No one will ever snatch us from Jesus. We are his, and he is ours. We are his Father’s gift to him. The Father is more powerful than anyone else, so no one can take us from him.
That’s the promise. That’s our experience. Thanks be to God.