Apparently 2015 is the year of the sheep. Ewe herd it here first!
Sheep aren’t the most glamorous of animals. They’re somewhat stupid, they smell, and they have a habit of blithely wandering into danger. Devotees of the Chinese calendar (and particularly those who are a little more superstitious!) consider the sheep to be an unlucky animal. Reports have suggested a spike in year-end births, as many people have tried to squeeze out children in the year of the horse rather than that of the sheep!!
I don’t buy that, to be honest, and I think sheep get a bit of a bad rap. The sheep-shepherd relationship is one of the metaphors that the Bible writers most often use to describe the relationship between humanity and God. Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life to rescue his sheep (John 10). And King David – who spent many years working as a shepherd – described himself like a sheep, dependent on God for protection and provision (Psalm 23).
A sheep’s life is tied up with that of its shepherd. And if you’re crossing difficult terrain, you’re going to want to make sure you’re travelling alongside someone who’s well equipped to deliver you safely to the other side.
All of us are on a journey; navigating life in all its diversity and complexity. There are highs and lows, twists and turns, seasons of plenty and seasons of lack. Sheep may not be the brightest animal of the bunch, but then again, neither am I all the time! None of us knows what this year holds in store, but chances are all of us will find moments when we feel like sheep in need of a shepherd.
For thousands of years Christians have drawn strength and understanding from a range of metaphors rooted in the Bible and have crafted a range of associated practices, designed to help us progress in our spiritual journeys.
From January to March, we’re preaching a series called The Way: Ancient Habits for Modern Pilgrims. Over seven talks we’ll look at metaphors like exile, struggle, ascent and feast. We’ll unpack what the Bible has to say about these images, and look at various habits of prayer, reflection and worship that will help enrich our lives over the coming year.
I hope this series will help us approach 2015 with excitement rather than trepidation, confident in the shepherd who encourages us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
To find out what we will be preaching on, visit the Sermon Calendar. And here are a number of resources you may find helpful as we work through this series.
There are various plans and apps to help you read the Bible in a year. Most include an Old Testament passage, a New Testament passage, some thoughts to help you get to grips with them, and some suggestions for reflection and application. You might want to try one of these from Mike Pilavachi at Soul Survivor or Nicky Gumbel at Holy Trinity Brompton.
You may also find a book like How to Read the Bible for all its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart really helpful. And we will also be running some teaching sessions on understanding the gospels this year. The first four weeks run from 25 Jan – 15 Feb and you can sign up here.
If you would like to learn more about prayer, we would recommend Tim Keller’s latest book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. You may also find the Church of England’s Daily Prayer app helpful. It provides a selection of prayers that you can use for yourself, or as an inspiration for your own prayer.
Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water has some really good material on how to draw from various Christian traditions, and Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas is a great book on the different ways we can engage with God. If you’ve ever wondered why some people find prayer effortless and others find it hard, or why some people enjoy certain practices that you find turgid, these books may really help you work out a selection of spiritual disciplines that will cohere with the way you are wired.