Read Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18 ..
Have you ever spent time around sheep?
When I was younger, I was a member of 4-H. While I was mostly interested in horses, part of my education involved sheep and I learned a few things about these animals. Sheep are stubborn and are hard to force into things. They have been bred to the point of actually requiring humans to shear them in order to survive. They behave very differently when they were alone as a opposed to in a group. 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. Farmers tell stories about how when there is a flood, horses and cows will run away or try to swim to safety, but a sheep will just stand there until the water rises over it’s head.
And these are the animals that we are compared to the most in the Bible. As a child, I was absolutely insulted by this comparison.
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. Sheep 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. Without their shepherd, sheep will follow each other to disaster. And over and over again, the Bible calls us sheep. Maybe God is trying to tell us something.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. This is probably the best known psalm to modern day Christians, but we hear it so much sometimes we lose sight of what it actually means. 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. They do their very best to keep them safe from all of the dangers out there. 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.
Looking at our own lives, I see some parallels. There are dangers in the world, and we are constantly getting ourselves into trouble. 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, if you’ve seen one sheep, you’ve seen them all.
But because a shepherd spends a lot of time with his sheep, 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 gotta 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 not be crazy about 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. When we get into holes during our lives, and God is forever pulling us out of our holes.
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?
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 we listen for? Do we hear Christ's voice amidst the chaos?
Even when we do hear that voice, do we follow it? Jesus leads us through hard places sometimes 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 – 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.
Christ is calling you to follow. Whose sheep will you be? Amen.