ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH APRIL 17, 2016
WHAT A BUNCH OF SHEEP!
Psalm 23; John 10: 22 – 30
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
If you could be an animal, what animal would you choose? Some might want to be a horse, strong, magnificent and wild. Others an eagle, soaring through the sky with majestic beauty. If you have a sense of humour you might go for an aardvark or an giraffe. There are lots of options. I reckon though that a sheep would be pretty low on the list for most people. Traditionally Circus acts had elephants, tigers, bears, and even monkeys. Not one sheep. Sheep have never been crowned a national animal – Nigeria and Ghana both chose an eagle, India has a peacock, China a panda, Spain a bull, Afghanistan a snow leopard, Congo has something called an Okapi. Weird. Scotland opted for a unicorn, which isn’t even “a thing” and there are lots of sheep in Scotland. Canada decided even a beaver had more dignity than a sheep. One never sees a sheep as a team mascot. We can find a raven, a buffalo, a dolphin, a cardinal. When Tampa Bay got around to picking a mascot the only thing left was a sheep; so they went for a pirate. I suppose Tampa Bay Buccaneers sounds more fierce than Tampa Bay Lambs or BaaBaas. Apart from lacking in grandeur sheep are dumb and untrainable. They are easily frightened and confused. They have a tendency to wander and very short memories. No matter how many times they fall off a cliff, they just don’t learn. It can even be the same cliff. Beyond that they are dependent, high maintenance critters. They need constant guidance and protection. Sheep tend to follow the crowd, or the fold, or the flock or whatever the next sheep calls it. So of all the beasts of the field, why did Jesus choose a sheep as the symbol of his followers? Well, like sheep, we followers of Jesus are lacking in grandeur. We can be dumb, untrainable, easily frightened, and confused. We have a tendency to wander and very short memories. We just don’t learn. Beyond that we’re dependent, high maintenance beings, in need of constant guidance. We follow the crowd and we do a very poor job of saving ourselves. And so we need a shepherd; and a good one at that.
In his book A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23 Phillip Keller writes “The hired shepherd on the farm next to mine was the most indifferent manager I’d ever met. He wasn’t concerned about his sheep. His land was neglected. He let his flock forage for themselves, both summer and winter. They fell prey to dogs, cougars and rustlers. Every winter there was a shortage of nourishing hay and wholesome grain. Shelter to safeguard and protect the suffering sheep from storms and blizzards was scanty and inadequate. They had only polluted, muddy water to drink. In their thin, weak and diseased condition these poor sheep were a pathetic sight. To all their distress, the heartless, selfish owner seemed utterly callous and indifferent. He simply didn’t care.” By way of contrast Sir George Adam Smith writes, “In the East I’ve never seen a flock of sheep without a shepherd. In such a landscape as Judaea, where a day’s pasture is thinly scattered over an unfenced tract of country covered with delusive paths, still frequented by wild beasts, and rolling off into the desert, the shepherd and his character are indispensable. On some high moor, across which at night the hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why [Jesus identified with shepherds].” Not only is Jesus our shepherd, he is our “good shepherd”.
Our good shepherd loves us. He cares for us. He leads us to green pastures where our souls can be restored. He refreshes us with his own living water. He guides us and watches over us with discerning love. He is concerned for our doubts, fears, trials, conflicts and defeats. He comes to our aid. He is willing to go so far that he would lay down his life to rescue us. No one and nothing can take away his love for us. “His goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives” and in the end we “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Our good shepherd knows each one of us. To the untrained eye individual sheep all look alike. A good shepherd, can tell them apart–often because of their defects and peculiar traits. A man who was tending a large flock explained this to friend who expressed surprise at his familiarity with each animal, “See that sheep? He’s a bit pigeon toed. The one behind has a squint; this one’s missing a patch of wool; that one has a black spot, this poor guy has a small piece torn out of its ear.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows each one of us personally. He is familiar with our unique traits. He knows our individual weaknesses and failings. He watches over us with discerning love and sympathetic understanding. He calls us by name. When night fell in the Judean hillside, every shepherd would bring his flock into a common pen. In the morning, each shepherd would come and call his own sheep by name. Jesus knows who belongs to him. He has called each person here today. He has called each person who is professing their faith this morning. When we belong to Christ, there’s no getting away. If we wander, he goes in search of us. We are his now, tomorrow and forever. He calls us to live in him, to be one with him and he calls us for a purpose.
In turn, his sheep know his voice. In our world many voices compete for our attention: family members, TV, music, social media, friends, the voices we’ve internalized, our own voice, the voices of many religions and spiritual paths, teachers, co-workers, sometimes the voice of Satan and always the voice of God. Every day Christians need to wade through all these voices to hear Christ’s voice and word. We are able to discern the voice of our good shepherd. A man was arrested for stealing a sheep but he insisted he was innocent. When the case went to court, the judge wasn’t sure how to decide the matter. At last he asked that the sheep be brought into the courtroom. Then he ordered the accuser to step outside and call the animal. The frightened sheep made no response. The judge then instructed the suspect to go outside and call the sheep. When he did the sheep bounded toward the door. “His sheep knows him,” said the judge. “Case dismissed!” Those of you who are professing your faith today have heard the voice of Jesus. You know what it sounds like and what he says. Hearing the voice of Jesus is not a one-time thing; it’s not something we do and check off the list and forget about. Christians wake up every morning listening for that voice. At times it’s loud and clear, at times it’s a whisper and at times it is almost drowned out by other noise. The closer we stay to our shepherd, the more easily we hear his voice. That means sticking close to our flock as well. If we leave our flock and wander with other sheep, we end up hearing the voice of a different shepherd, so the closer we stay to other Christians, the more easily we will hear Jesus’ voice. So as sheep value the flock, so we, as Christians, value the Church – involvement in worship and service, being the Church together is essential and vital to each of us. Sheep get lost when separated from the shepherd and the flock.
Hearing the voice of our good shepherd makes us want to follow him, to be like him, to learn from him. Sometimes we follow him very well, at other times, quite poorly. We can become discouraged by our faults and short falls. Imagine if Jesus had an outside company evaluate the disciples. The report might read, “Most of your candidates are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has no leadership qualities. James and John place personal interest above the team. Thomas’ skeptical attitude will undermine morale. Matthew had been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau; James, and Thaddaeus have radical leanings and are easily influenced. One candidate, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your CEO.” It may be trite but God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips those he calls. To follow Jesus is a life-long journey with many ups and downs. Discipleship is to take up your cross daily and deny yourself. We follow Jesus because of our bond of love by putting one foot in front of the other in faithful obedience.
I’ll end with a story. A drama class was practicing their oration by reciting the 23rd Psalm. One student gave a powerful rendition. When he finished, the audience clapped. The next was flat and left the group cold. The next student began, “The Lord is my shepherd…” When she finished, an atmosphere of awe came over the room. The class was silent. After a long pause the teacher said, “It is one thing to know the Psalm, it is quite another to know the Shepherd.” I pray that with those who make a profession of faith today, we will all devote our lives to knowing, listening to and following our good Shepherd