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Sermon: The Good Shepherd
“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” John 10:14
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia I had very limited knowledge of sheep.
The little I knew came from the bedtime and Bible stories I read. And the rare family trip we would take to the petting section of the Philadelphia Zoo.
It wasn’t until I first came to Reading back in the late 1980’s that I had what you might call my first wild real life encounter with sheep. One early morning while fishing in a stream on private property in Womelsdorf I ducked under a low bridge. When I came out on the other side, I straightened up to find that I was now staring face to face with a large agitated looking ram who had lowered his head as if he was about to rush me. Not wanting to expose my hind end by ducking back under the bridge, I did what I had read about in the survivors sections of wildlife magazines, I stood my ground, didn’t budge or blink an eye. Until the “he” sheep, the ram, finally realized I wasn’t a threat, squatted to mark his territory and returned to his fold.
Someone took the time to count all the times that sheep and shepherds are mentioned in the Bible: over 500 times in all. A nomadic people, sheep and shepherds play a prominent role in our Biblical story. In the very first few chapters of the first book of the Old Testament, the book of Genesis, we read that Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, was said to have been a shepherd, “The keeper of sheep.”
Then there were the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, before he was sold into slavery. All of whom were shepherds. Many forget that Moses was also a shepherd along with his wife Zipporah tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro for forty years in the land of Midian.
And then there was King David said to be the author of the 23rd Psalm the youngest of all of Jesse’s sons a ruddy looking shepherd boy who defended his father’s flocks from lions and bears with a sling shot and his own bare hands.
As for sheep, while the Bible makes mention of the four footed kind, it is more concerned with the two legged variety. The relationship between Shepherds and sheep is used in both the Old and New Testament as a description of the relationship between God and His people.
In Psalm 100, we read, “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” In the 23rd Psalm, King David writes, “The Lord is my shepherd,” I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.”
From the beginning, the relationship between the Shepherd and his sheep has been a challenging one. In his book All Creatures of God former zookeeper Gary Richmond describes some of the troublesome habits of sheep. “Of all domestic animals,” he writes “Sheep require the most supervision.” In a dangerous world, when left unsupervised, sheep have a way of getting themselves into trouble.
One temptation of sheep is the “herd or mob instinct.” “If one sheep panics, so do all the rest.”
Have you ever watched or been a part of a wave at a sporting event? They appear to be a little less popular these days. One or two, often inebriated people get the hare brain idea to stand up and wave their arms in the air. Next thing you know their whole section of the stadium is standing up and waving their arms in the air and then the next section of the stadium then the next and the next 30, 40, 50,000 people like a human wave until it comes back to those who came up with the hare brain idea in the first place.
This is only one example of the herd or mob instinct in its less harmless form. But, we know from history the terrible consequence of the “herd instinct” that has led to genocides around the world, of Native Americans, Irish Catholics and Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians, Cambodians, the Hutus of Rwanda, the Daju people of Darfur. “One sheep panics, so do all the rest.”
Social media like text messaging and tweeting has added a new twist on the herd or mob mentality. Some turn into justice movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Others turn into flash mobs in college towns and urban centers often fomenting violence and chaos the overturning of cars attacks on pedestrians and vandalizing stores.
One of the problems with sheep is that you and I can be easily drawn in by the “herd or mob instinct.” Especially when there appears to be a lot of uncertainty if one of us panics and says the sky is falling, that all Muslims are extremists, that all illegal aliens are the bane of our society, that all of the younger generation feels entitled. We may find this collective thinking hard to resist.
This leads us to another problematic characteristic of sheep, our susceptibility to fear. The rustling grass, a loud noise, or an unfamiliar voice can start us all off running in every direction. “Fear,” someone wrote “Is anticipating the worst, not the best that can happen.”
How many of us anticipate the worst rather than the best that can happen? Rumors of forthcoming layoffs at school or in the company can lead us to many sleepless nights. An abnormal test result can result in unexplained physical symptoms and an upset stomach. A looming disagreement or conflict with your spouse can lead you to lash out in anger or withdraw in silence.
Having not heard from a friend or children for several days can lead you to feel you’ve been forgotten. How many of us anticipate the worst rather than the best that can happen? While some fears are justified, too many of us live our lives paralyzed by the fear of things beyond our control expecting the worst rather than the best to happen
In his Epistle, John writes “perfect love casts out fear.” Jesus, our Good Shepherd, calls out to us. His second most often command after his command to “love” “Fear not.” “Be not afraid.” “I am with you”. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “Believe in God; Believe also in me.”
Sheep, Gary Richmond writes are also notoriously stubborn. They will stay in one place and overgraze an entire area roots and all until they have left the landscape barren and lifeless.
How many of us, like sheep, have stubbornly chosen to stay in the same place for too long. Long past the time the landscape or our circumstances have become lifeless and hopeless. A meaningless or dead end job an unhealthy relationship a harmful habit.
We witness this stubbornness all the time in our own lives and in the lives of others. We complain of feeling stuck, lifeless, sad and lonely half-starved from trying to free ourselves from a landscape, a job, an unhealthy relationship, a harmful habit which has long been barren over-grazed, roots and all and yet we are still unwilling to do the hard work of either rectifying or restoring the landscape or to move on.
It’s in times like these that we need to listen to hear the voice of the one who knows us to entrust ourselves into the care of our Good Shepherd who is ever ready and willing to lead us into greener pastures and beside still waters to a new or renewed job a new or revitalized relationship far away from harmful habits.
A problem with sheep is that they we are often too stubborn.
Finally, Sheep have the natural inclination of wandering off and getting lost. With our heads down to the ground nibbling on whatever we can find to fill our emptiness the void in our hearts
How often, have we looked up to find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings even lost or hanging on for dear life at the edge of some dangerous precipice. How many times amidst all of our activities and all our fruitless searches have we in moment of grace finally looked up unfamiliar with our new surroundings asked ourselves “Now, where am I?” “What have I gotten myself into?” “Where am I headed in this life in this job, this relationship, this harmful, lifeless habit?” “What was it I was looking for in the first place?”
Sometimes we walk through life with our head down all the time feeding on the little we can find and find that we have somehow lost our way our moral, relational, or spiritual compass.
The Bible says it like this “All of us have gone astray each of us has turned our own way.” The Good News is that we have a Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety and nine in order to go and find the lost sheep: the wayward son, the prostitute, the tax collector, the confused in mind, the infirmed in body, the least, the last, the lost.
The Bible tells us that there is only one Good Shepherd One Gate Keeper who can lead us in and out into real and eternal life. One who will willingly lay down his life for his sheep. He knows his own and his own know him. He has many other sheep we do not know of who also know his voice.
The sheep of our Good Shepherd have learned to hear his voice in the silence of earnest and anguished prayer in songs and hymns and table fellowship in the howling winds of doubt and uncertainty in the deepest and darkest valleys of broken and lost relationships. We hear his voice bidding us to follow Him. “Follow me,” he calls into greener pastures beside still waters. “Let me restore your soul.”
Do you hear his voice? He is searching for you.” Listen.