On Sheep and Shepherds


Filed under: Pastor Jeff’s Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 9:33 pm on Sunday, April 22, 2018
A sermon preached on April 22nd, 2018 – Good Shepherd Sunday – based upon John 10:11-16 and Psalm 23.

Human beings have a lot in common with sheep.

Sheep don’t think for themselves very well; they just follow the herd. Although we like to think we form our opinions on our own, researchers show our opinions are actually shaped by the company we keep.

Sheep are easily frightened, and if we are honest, so are we.

And sheep are very social creatures that need to have other sheep around, just like we need other people. A sheep left alone is a sheep that is in the process of dying. And although we can theoretically keep ourselves alive physically on our own, without other human beings we waste away emotionally and spiritually. Also, sheep need the company of not just any sheep; they need to be with the herd with whom trust has been established. Similarly, we human beings can be terribly alone in the midst of a crowd if the crowd doesn’t include people who really know us.

Although we may know these things about sheep and their resemblance to ourselves, we don’t have any shepherds leading flocks of sheep to observe that live in the manner and under the conditions in which they did back in ancient Israel, so we miss a lot of the significance of this imagery found so frequently in the Bible.

The first thing would be that shepherds in Jesus’ day tended to be poor and homeless, living on the very fringes of society. People who lived in towns and villages most likely had private homes, humble though they likely were, but there was no such thing for the shepherds who watched over sheep. So similar to the way people once viewed gypsies, the townspeople in those days tended to view shepherds suspiciously. They were, as we talked about last week, “strangers” rather than what we think of as “neighbors.”

With this in mind, a shepherd is a surprising image for God or Jesus. It is an image that by its very nature identifies with the outcastes of society. Jesus said, “Foxes have dens, and birds have nests but the Son of Man (his reference for himself) has no place to lay his head,” and neither do shepherds.

Ancient Israel possessed an arid climate without modern irrigation, which meant that the green pastures and the still waters required to keep the sheep alive were relatively few and far between, and if a herd of sheep stayed in one patch of green for very long, well, it wouldn’t take long before the greenery would be pretty much eaten up, which meant that sheep and shepherds were invariably in a continual process of movement in search of new places to graze.

There were lots of poor shepherds, each with their own small herd of perhaps a hundred sheep or so, all seeking out the same few green pastures or watering holes, so the sheep invariably intermixed, especially at night. This was the time of the greatest danger with wolves and lions close at hand in the darkness, so the shepherds would build simple communal sheepfolds – basically rocks piled in a large circle high enough to keep the sheep from wandering off.

The shepherds themselves would sleep in the opening of the sheepfold to keep the sheep from exiting, and when the sun came up the shepherds would rise and the sheep would stream forth in mass which meant a great deal of confusion with a high possibility that sheep would begin the morning in the wrong herd.

When we picture the 23rd psalm most likely we imagine a much more stable, sedentary life than was the reality, because as you see the actual life of sheep and shepherds was highly instable, with constant change and flux that resulted in each one of the sheep having multiple experiences to various degrees of getting lost.

Although on the surface our lives seem to be a great deal more stable than that of the sheep of Jesus’ day, the fact of the matter is that the nature of life is that things are constantly changing — nothing stays the same.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put this succinctly when he said, “What was scattered gathers. What was gathered blows away.” Try as we may to resist it, our lives are in constant flux. When you strip away the illusions we have of being able to overcome the unavoidable change that is life itself we realize that the life of the sheep in Biblical times is a pretty good metaphor for the way life truly is.

In the end the lives of the individual sheep came down to the quality of their relationships – the relationships with their fellow sheep and especially the relationship with their particular shepherd.

And the same is true for us: in the end our lives are all about our relationships as well. The basic questions to ask are: who are we connected to in our herd? And who is leading our herd – who is our shepherd?

Regarding the first: who are we connected to?

Not all herds are equal. Does a given “herd” force us to conform in such a way that we are kept from becoming who God made us to be? Will they encourage us to be our very best selves, even when our best selves are different from what they imagine their best selves to be?

Will our herd be there for us when we need them? Will they forgive us when we mess up and help us back up when we stumble?

There is a distressing way in which our society has been increasingly coming to resemble the lives of ancient sheep and that is the greater and greater potential for people to get lost – which is to say, losing the loving human connection we need to thrive. By various measures the experience of loneliness — and with it the accompanying rates of depression and addiction and suicide – are increasing in our society.

And when people are desperate for human connection any kind of flock will seem to do, even one that is destructive.

So the second question: Who is leading our herd – who is our shepherd?

By definition, a church is a herd of humans whose shepherd is Jesus, which is to say it is his voice we recognize, his voice we listen to above all others. If we follow the guidance of that voice then we won’t hold onto grudges, because Jesus was all about forgiveness, and we will encourage one another to be who God made you to be – our very best selves.

If we are listening to his voice then we will be willing to be there for one another, to make sacrifices for one another, because that’s what Jesus was about, laying his life down for us.

Jesus makes a distinction in the words we heard between the good shepherd and the “hired hand”.

For the hired hand, it’s all about the money.

You remember the parable Jesus told about the good shepherd with a herd of 100 sheep of which one wanders off, getting lost in the wilderness. From the mindset of the “hired hand” — the behavior of the shepherd Jesus describes doesn’t make good business sense. The sacrifice isn’t cost efficient — to leave the 99 to expend all that time and energy and money to try and find that one lost sheep. Cut your losses. Turn the lost sheep into a tax deduction and move on.

These days some people find their human connection exclusively at their job, giving the company they work for their loyalty, and then when profit margin dictates that a downsize is required, they find themselves cut loose with no loyalty shown to them.

The last verse Jesus said in our lesson this morning was,

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Who are these “other sheep” Jesus is referring to?

There are people who might not set foot in a church perhaps because the Christians and the churches they’ve had experience with don’t express a whole lot of Christ-like love. They gather together in other ways and in their midst express something that is like unto the sacrificial love of Christ. Perhaps these are Jesus’ other sheep.

Bill Gripp and I play on an old guy softball team that is led by Tom Miceli. The only time that we are likely to hear Jesus Christ referenced when the team is gathered is as a swear word. The clear purpose is to have some fun together – we aren’t obsessed with winning and apart from some good natured ribbing no one gets down on anybody for making an error, and we make lots of errors! We’ve seen other teams – they are not the same. There is a unique spirit on this team, and it begins with the leadership of Tom, our “shepherd.”

A lot of these guys have very little to do with church, but they know something about how to love one another. Maybe somewhere along the line they will discover that Jesus is the Shepherd reveals most clearly the love that life is all about. Maybe it won’t happen until the moment of their deaths and they find themselves welcomed by the one who has always been their unseen shepherd.

Michael Keller enters the army tomorrow for a five year commitment. Michael, hopefully you will find some of that Christ-like love in the brotherhood of your army unit. Jesus said the central act is laying down one’s life for one’s brother. Often soldiers describe finding such a love with their army buddies.

And here’s the big claim being made by Christianity: The extraordinary love that Jesus lived out in this world – this same love is actually at the very heart of the universe. The One who made each one of us is a good shepherd, who cherishes every single one of us.

Here’s the challenge for most of us: This God created a world where getting lost is a real possibility – in fact a world where getting lost is practically inevitable. “Prone to wander” is how the hymn puts it. It’s in our nature.

Why would God do this? Apparently there is a value to “getting lost.”

Unless we get lost, we can’t be found.

When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for hanging out with those who were “sinners” in a very public way, Jesus said, “I came to seek and save the lost.” If you don’t in some sense know what it feels like to be lost, you can’t get found by Jesus.

So what does it mean to be “lost”? It can mean a whole host of things. It can mean feeling overwhelmed by fear. It can mean being overcome with grief and heartbreak in such a way you’re not sure you can go on. It can mean feeling like your heart is shutting down with resentments and you don’t know how to avoid ending up consumed with bitterness. It can feel like you’re on the altogether wrong path in life and don’t know how to find you way home.

Right after the parable about the Good Shepherd, Jesus told the parable about the father with two sons. One never leaves home – never gets lost, and the other gets altogether lost. In the end though it is the son who got lost who ends up knowing the depth of the Father’s love and shares in the joy of the great party. The elder brother is lost in his certainty that he never could be “lost.”

If you think about this, there’s something deeply comforting here. We worry a lot about whether we’ve made the right decisions. Are we on the right path? We can be lost to ourselves but we can never be so lost that God can’t find us. The Good Shepherd searches UNTIL he finds the lost sheep.

We are sheep who need the Good Shepherd, but we are also called to become good shepherds ourselves. How do we become good shepherds?

And here, too we see a value to having experienced what it is to be lost. Unless you have some first hand experience of how a lost sheep feels and thinks, how will you ever be able find a lost sheep? All of our own personal experiences of being lost have the potential of becoming experiences we will draw upon in the future to be a good shepherd for Jesus.

King David purportedly wrote the 23rd psalm 2500 years ago. If you are familiar with his story you know there was at least one time when he got himself altogether lost. If you don’t know the story, look it up. You’ll find it in 2Samuel 11 and 12. I don’t think David could have written that psalm without having known what it was to be found in the darkness. “Thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”