“The Good Shepherd”
I’ve never liked that the Bible tends to compare humanity to sheep a lot. When I was younger, I was a member of 4-H. While I was mostly interested in horses, I attended a couple of events with sheep and I learned a few things about these animals. Sheep are stubborn and are hard to force into things. While I learned to like individual sheep, once it joined the herd again all of the individuality went away. Sheep follow the rest of the sheep blindly – regardless of the results. There was a disastrous incident in Turkey awhile back when nearly five hundred sheep just followed each other off a cliff while the shepherd was having lunch.
There are so many other animals that God could have compared us to. Foxes because they are clever. Doves because they are peaceful and gentle. But no, we are called sheep. They require a shepherd to care for them. They require a shepherd to protect them. They require someone who will look after their smallest needs and who will lead them to where they need to be. I may not like it, but it seems as though there are a lot of ways humans are like sheep, especially when we begin to flock together. Without their shepherd, sheep will follow each other to disaster. Sound familiar?
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Christians hear these words over and over again in their lives. We hear them so much that it is easy to forget what they actually mean. The Lord is my shepherd. While this is a very useful metaphor in ancient Israel, it needs some translating for 21st century America. We are not quite as familiar with what it means to be a shepherd.
Shepherds are responsible for the care and well being of their sheep. This is a harder task than you might think for all sorts of dangers threaten the sheep. There are thieves who try to steal the sheep. Wolves who try to eat them. Sheep step into holes, get stuck in bushes and follow each other of cliffs. Again, I am seeing some familiarities. We get ourselves in trouble all the time and there are many dangers in our lives. Yet Christ, our shepherd cares for us even in the midst of our troubles.
Shepherds have a close relationship with their sheep. Sheep live for twenty to twenty five years. The sheep of this time were raised for wool, not meat. The shepherd spent most of his time with the sheep. The sheep live with the family.
The Indian theologian D. T. Niles once noticed a young Indian shepherd boy keeping a huge flock of sheep. He stopped and asked, “How many sheep do you have?”
“I don’t know,” answered the boy, “I can’t count.”
Niles asked him, “How do you know if some of the sheep haven’t wandered off when you get to the place where you’re going to camp at night?”
To his astonishment, the boy answered, “I don’t know how many wander off, but I know each one. I can’t count, but each sheep has a name, and I know their names.”
From our casual point of view, all sheep look the same. Different shapes and sizes, but for the most part, they’re a dime a dozen – if you’ve seen one sheep, you’ve seen them all. Right? Not true. Because a shepherd spends a lot of time with his sheep, and as he does, he gets to know the different personalities and quirks of each one of his sheep. That one over there, he might say, likes to stray away. This one over here, he gets tired all the time. And this one, well, he is very bad at finding pasture. You need watch out for this one – he’s mean. And that one over there is always running ahead – overconfident. Each sheep has its own personality, different strengths and weaknesses, and a good shepherd will know what those different things are about his sheep. He knows them.
Christ knows each of us, individually and by name. One of the lessons of Psalm 23 is that every person who is one of God’s flock is individually cared for as one of God’s sheep. Unlike most of the Psalms, 23 says the Lord is MY shepherd. The other psalms say The Lord is OUR shepherd. Never forget that while you are also one of God’s flock, His care for you is an individual type of care, not merely as a number or as a series of perforations in a computer card. David never lost his sense of individual pastoral care from the hand of his Shepherd.
I may be frustrated by the idea of being a sheep, but the Bible keeps pointing out over and over the parallels. One of my favorite passages is from Ezekiel 34:11-15. “For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God.”
The shepherd brings his sheep to food and water. The shepherd rescues his flock and brings them back together. And the shepherd cares for us, just as Christ does.
The tools of a shepherd are telling too. The first tool of a shepherd is the staff, pointed on one end, crooked on the other. A shepherd lovingly reaches his staff down into a hole and slips the staff under the sheep’s leg and gently pulls the sheep out of the hole. And we, people, are like sheep. We get into holes during our lives, and God is forever pulling us out of our holes. A Biblical passage from Isaiah asks, “Is my arm too short to reach down and pull you up? No. My arm is not too short to reach down and help you.” It must be clearly said that the shepherd never uses the other end of the staff to hit the sheep in order to get the sheep to obey. The pointed end of the staff is reserved for the enemies such as wolves and thieves. The shepherd never strikes the sheep with his staff in order to get conformity or obedience; the shepherd is the good shepherd.
The second, more powerful, tool of the shepherd is the shepherd’s voice. Over time, the sheep get to know the shepherd’s voice. In the middle east, there are many caves, and several flocks of sheep might be herded into one of them to escape a storm, or to weather overnight. But in the morning, the shepherd doesn’t have to look for brands or markings, he just steps away from the cave, moves away from the other shepherds, and calls to his flock. And they come right to him, because they know his voice.
For better or for worse, we are God’s sheep. But is Christ our shepherd? Is it his voice we follow?
Scientists hypothesize that if time travel were possible and we could go back 1000 years, one of the things that would shock us most would be the silence. Think about it. All the background noise of our modern world: television, telephones, radios, cars, planes, refrigerators…none of which existed a thousand years ago. Some even hypothesize that for modern man that silence would be deafening. Because we are surrounded by voices: on TV, on the radio, on the internet: all telling us what we need to know, how to be saved, how to find peace, how to be happy.
And yet we are called to listen for the still small voice of God admits the chaos. One voice among the thousands screaming at us. How on earth can we hear that we cry.
There were two men were walking along a crowded city sidewalk. Suddenly, one of the men remarked, “Listen to the lovely sound of that cricket,” But the other man could not hear the sound.
He asked his friend how he could hear the sound of a cricket amid the roar of the traffic and the sound of the people. The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to hear the sounds of nature.
He didn’t explain to his friend in words how he could hear the sound of the cricket, but instead, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a half-dollar coin, dropped it onto the sidewalk, and watched intently as a dozen people began to look for the coin as they heard it clanking around amid the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the city. He turned to his friend and said, “We hear what we listen for.”
What do you listen for? Do you hear Christ’s voice admits the chaos?
Even when we do hear that voice, do we follow it? Jesus leads us through hard places some times and asks us to do difficult things. It seems like it would be so much easier to stray off the path. To eat the grass that is right here rather than struggling through the difficult valleys.
My dog Dylan knows my voice. When we go to the dog park people call commands to their dogs all the time, but he ignores those commands. Yet when I tell him to come, he will race across half the park to respond. I know he knows my voice. Sometimes though, he decides what he is doing is far more interesting then what I am telling him to do. He knows my voice, but he doesn’t always follow it.
We know Christ’s voice. We know what he is calling us to do. The question is do we follow?
Jesus calls us. And in the midst of this noisy world we hear him. And so when we follow him, as he leads us through this world. When we follow Christ we trust him. We don’t always understand him. But I don’t think sheep ever really understand what their shepherd is doing. Don’t you think that’s true? Most of the time, sheep have no idea what their shepherd is doing – why the shepherd is taking them here, or pushing them there. Sheep have no idea. But the shepherd knows his sheep, and he does what is best for them. The sheep follow their shepherd.
Christ is calling you to follow. Whose sheep will you be? Amen.
Rev. Cara Gee
April 25th, 2010