As a family we do enjoy a visit to a farm. My daughter’s favourite animals are the pigs and, at our local farm, the owls. I’m a fan of pygmy goats, they are bouncy and fun with a lower risk of harm than full sized goats.
It’s always particularly enjoyable to visit a farm in spring when the new life is being birthed, and there is something especially cute about a baby lamb. However, once a lamb grows up I don’t know too many people who say their favourite animal is a sheep. Perhaps I’m wrong, I’m ok with that.
Sheep are however the most commonly mentioned animal in the Bible (I haven’t checked so don’t judge me on this point). Throughout scripture sheep are used to identify someone’s wealth (they have x number of sheep in their flock, eg. 1 Samuel 25:2; Job 1:3), they are important in rituals and sacrifices (e.g. Leviticus 1:10; 5:6; 22:27) and they are given as the a metaphor for how God views his people (e.g. 2 Chronicles 18:16; Psalm 78:52; Psalm 95:7), Jesus is described as the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36😉 the sacrificial lamb. Jesus speaks of the church and his disciples as sheep (e.g. John 10:11-16). We are told that Jesus said to Peter he would build the church (Matthew 16:18) and gave Peter the commission to feed his sheep (John 21:15-19). Sheep are therefore really significant and it is probably wise for us to understand something about them.
‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’John 10:1-5
I did a little reading recently about shepherds in Palestine, where Jesus would have been teaching. Of course, some things have changed, and traditional shepherds are a dying bread for one reason and another, not least the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and harassment of Palestinians, including shepherds. However, what takes place each day, to this day, is that shepherds from the village walk together to take their sheep to pasture. Each morning and afternoon they open their sheep pen and join with the other shepherds walking from their village, the flocks become mixed together as they journey across rocky and barren land to a suitable grazing place. The sheep know and trust all the shepherds voices but they know their own shepherd uniquely. The sheep all graze together and if necessary, the shepherds fend off any potential threats, keeping the sheep safe. Then, with full stomachs all return more slowly than they set out, back to the village. On reaching a pen the gate is opened and only the sheep belonging to a shepherd enter, the rest continue with their shepherd to their own pen, because they know the shepherds voice and the shepherd knows his sheep.
I don’t know about you, but as a Christian I find this a reassuring metaphor. I have always held the confidence of belief that Jesus is my shepherd, by guide and protector, and Jesus will lead me safely to where I need to be, protect me until I return to the safety of the metaphorical pen. Similarly, I read Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quite waters, he gives me rest”. It is a protective image or safety, security and peace. Instinctively I place myself in position of being one who is loved and protected by Jesus. It is a message of reassurance, a message that is welcome in these uncertain times of the covid pandemic and economic uncertainty. I’d love to be able to preach this message of protection and reassurance and finish, concluding with a warm and pleasant feeling for all who listen.
I can’t finish there though. When I consider, the idea that the Jesus’ sheep, hear his voice I will be honest and admit doubt creeps in. We are told that Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27). If I ask, When did you last hear God’s voice? When did you last hear from the Spirit? I wonder how your respond. It is a terrifying question to ask a pastor because I want to hear daily from God, I hope that I am following his way and even guiding his church the way he intends me to, and yet sometimes, often it can feel like endless silence. Sometimes my mind can be full of doubt about whether it is even possible to hear the voice of God, for who am I, little insignificant me, to hear from the author of creation? There is a whole teaching series in unpicking how we might hear and recognise the voice of Jesus, but that is for another time. Asking others, asking church communities, when was the last time you heard God’s voice? Now that is fascinating. How would you respond? Are you ready to confidently say you know the voice of God and you know where God is leading you? Or are you a little less certain? When was the last time you made time to be led by the still waters or to the lie in the fresh pastures? Is this part of your life’s rhythm? Personally? Corporately as a family or with local church?
Furthermore, when was the last time you were walking the darkest path, not because you had turned away from God, and not because the natural pains and griefs of life caught up with you, but because you were following Jesus’ lead?
Psalm 23 continues and says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” In order for the sheep to reach the fresh, healthy pastures the shepherd will lead them over rocky ground, up mountains or through barren valleys. If a sheep is sick or wounded the shepherd will leave it in the safety of the pen to rest or will carry it should it be necessary. The shepherd will not force a sheep in pain to walk through the rocky paths to find pasture. The shepherd knows what lies ahead but also how treacherous the journey may be. The shepherd knows the risks of wolves, snakes and other wild animals and whilst the sheep cannot defend or protect themselves, the shepherd with his rod and staff, two simple tools, offers perfectly adequate protection. The shepherd leads the healthy sheep through the rocky paths to the fresh pastures.
As a church are we listening to God’s voice? Are we prepared to be led out, out across challenging terrain, out from the comfort of the four walls of the church or the screens of Zoom? If we choose to stay in the safety of the pen, when we should be walking out we won’t get the exercise we need, the food in the pen will quickly get used up and we will rely on someone putting in far more energy, effort and resource to feed us than if we leave the pen and trust the shepherd. If we stay in the safety of our churches, in our little clusters and huddles, if we do not dare to walk through what might seem the darkest valley we forget what it is to trust, to have faith and to follow Jesus. This is not about one or two people following the shepherd, sheep live in flocks, the church is a flock and as one body we are called to follow Jesus to pastures new.
In John 10:11-16 Jesus tells us ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 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.”
The shepherd is willing to give up everything for his flock, because his flock are everything to him. If you are just paid look after a flock it is fairly easy to aim for the minimum. Make sure the sheep are fed and watered but as no one is watching, you may not take them to the best pasture or be willing to take risks that could cause you harm. The paid helper will leave the sheep at the first sign of danger rather than standing between the sheep and danger. Following the shepherd doesn’t mean there won’t be danger, there will, but it does mean that everyone is in it together. The shepherd and the sheep become one. Jesus desires to be one with his church just as he is one with God the Father, and he will risk his own life for our sake. Jesus chooses to lay down his life for us, it is not taken from him but given for us.
When the sheep are out of the safety of the pen they are free to roam. If one sheep goes astray the good shepherd goes in search for that lost sheep and rejoices when it is found and returned (Matthew 18:10). Who are the lost sheep from our churches? Are we willing to go in search of them or have we left them to fend for themselves because the risks are too great? Proportionally in the UK the church is in decline, lots of people are missing. People who are black, Asian and minority ethnic too often are not welcome in white majority churches, which is why Sunday morning remains the most racially divided time of the week. Young people and young adults do not find church to be relevant because we don’t address their needs or listen to them, they hear a list of rules and funny traditions, perhaps they see some hired hands but far too often do not get to meet the good shepherd. Far too often the only voices that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people hear are the ones shouting that God hates them. Disabled people are forgotten about when they cannot attend Sunday services and feel judged as not being good enough for God. The church too often keep the gates to the pen closed to try to stay safe, and we fail to open the pen to allow the missing sheep in. In John 10:16 Jesus says, “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.” Are we ready for different folds to join with ours to become one flock listening to one Good Shepherd? Are we ready to listen to God’s voice and to follow him into the world, picking up our cross and loving our neighbour? Are we ready to follow to where the Spirit of God wants to feed us? Are we ready to open the gates to the pen to the lost sheep, laying down our life for their sake? Are we ready to mix with the other folds and become one flock?
Jesus hands over the responsibility of caring for his sheep to Peter and asks him to feed his sheep (John 21:15-19). In fact Jesus first says, “feed my lambs” (this is done in the safety of the pen or even the home); secondly he says “tend my sheep” (this is the role of the helping hand); thirdly Jesus says “feed my sheep” (this is the full responsibility to lead the sheep from the pen to the pasture and to protect them all the while). As we mature in Christ we are called to take on similar responsibilities. Jesus said he would build his church upon Peter (Matthew 16:18), we are that church, we are to feed the lambs, tend and feed the sheep. That is not to keep them penned in but to lead the church to pastures new. To see where God is at work, where there are pastures to be enjoyed beyond the relatively short rocky pathway, to take the challenging journey without seeing what lies ahead. We are called to join in the search for the missing sheep and rejoice when they are found. If we want the church to grow, to mature, to be well fed, to be true to our Saviour we must follow when the gate to the pen is opened. Too many churches today are struggling because we have failed to follow Christ into the streets, into our towns and cities, to where God is already at work and wants us to be there with him. We vote to keep our churches safe and fail to hear the voice of the shepherd calling us out daily. We therefore fail to trust the good shepherd. Are you ready to listen to the voice of Jesus’ Spirit, the heart of the Father and follow along what you perceive as the darkest path to discover anointing, goodness and mercy?