May 3, 2020
This Sunday is sometimes facetiously called "Sheep Sunday" by ministers, because on this Sunday, every year, the messages preached are similar to the scripture we read in John 10, with his description of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and the Psalmist's song: “The Lord Is My Shepherd”.
So, I wondered, as I read these words, why sheep?
Why not eagles? I can picture us as eagles, soaring high up in a gorgeous blue sky, instead of mobs of daggy sheep, wandering aimlessly in some dusty paddock.
The prophet Isaiah writes ... “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
That sounds good - that's what I’d like to have on a wall plaque. Why not call ourselves “eagles”? Why do we have to be “sheep”?
But then I have to be honest with myself - and think that maybe it's because our prayer of confession got it right when it says: “... we have erred and strayed from God's ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts ...” and so on and so forth.
We seldom soar, like eagles, but we often act like sheep.
We’ve all erred and we’ve all strayed - like lost sheep.
I know that…. You know that…. and the Bible tells us that, and it uses it as a metaphor for the reality of our lives. Lives we live together in our families, at our work, in our community, in our church - every day.
It’s interesting that the sheep metaphor finds its meaning in the fact that sheep are communal, by their very nature. As a matter of fact, we don’t even have a word for one sheep. The term is always understood to be both singular and plural.
We're in it together, and together we’re shepherded by our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
That's a good corrective to the excessive individualism of our day that leaves so many of us feeling very much alone in the presence of almighty God.
More like a sheep at the mercy of a predator, than a lamb in God's arms of protection.
Protection - provided in Jesus' story by the sheep being together in the sheepfold - not just in his willingness to go out into the wild to find them.
The well-known children's poem says, “Mary had a little lamb.”
And the classic picture of Jesus, the good shepherd, has him carrying a single lamb on his shoulders.
But the biblical picture has him surrounded by an uncountable flock of sheep, not just one.
To paraphrase the children's book by Wanda Gag, “there are sheep here, sheep there, sheep and little lambs everywhere; hundreds of sheep, thousands of sheep, millions and billions and trillions of sheep. All being sheep and all in need of a shepherd.”
We can see that the language in John's gospel is reminiscent of the 23rd Psalm.
What is eloquently sung there about the Lord's care, guidance, and protection of the flock is here, in John, reaffirmed in terms of Jesus.
I did a little research and found a book called “Approved Practices in Sheep Production”, which says that in caring for sheep, and I quote: "Most important is that ...continuous attention (is) required.
Sheep are often quite helpless and fall easy prey to predators, especially dogs, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and eagles.
They might even fall prey to such hazards as wire fences, or to ditches and gullies in which they might lie and suffocate unless aid came quickly.
Parasites and disease are also ever-present problems to guard against."
The book says sheep have a lot of problems. Well, so do we!
The book says sheep face a lot of dangers. And so do we.
The book says sheep are best tended together, and so are we, says the very clever book that we call the Bible - with its image of God as our shepherd.
But what about us? The image of the sheepfold and us as the sheep, is not intended to make us feel sheepish, dumb, or individually unimportant. Rather, it’s intended to reinforce the importance of each one of us to the shepherd. The sheepfold, whilst constraining and confining and sometimes crowded, is not claustrophobic.
Rather, like with children, the setting of boundaries gives us security, by knowing how far we can stray, and what can get at us, it frees us to live life as God intends: to live each day to the fullest - just what Jesus meant when he said, "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10 NRSV).
In this world, where the closest most of us will ever get to a sheep is in a book, or on TV, or by touching the wool in our suits, skirts, slacks, or socks, we still need a shepherd, who will lead us and guide us and occasionally prod us to show us the way we should go.
And the good shepherd, who gives his life for the life of the sheep, for your life and mine - that we might live and have life abundantly, is Jesus Christ.
Aren’t we blessed by our ever-loving God!
It’s often said that we are “blessed to be a blessing” and that means that we should use all the love and grace that God has given us, to go out into our world and share that love with others. Let them know that God wants to have a personal relationship with them, too.
Then let the Holy Spirit work on them to bring them around. Do your bit and plant the mustard seed. Others will water and nurture it, so that it, too, will grow into a mighty tree.
We’re in uncertain times, but that feeling of restriction will be going away soon.
What, then, should we focus on?
How should we make the most of our time?
Think about these things, as you go about your daily business today, next week, next month, next year.
And then do your best to take advantage of the opportunities to witness, which God puts in front of you.
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