Jesus chose the shepherd as a metaphor for himself, and it is one of the most beloved images of Jesus. I've seen countless paintings, stain-glass windows, tapestries, and statues of Jesus as the good shepherd. The image of Jesus guiding, protecting, and caring for sheep touches the heart of many people today – even those of us who live in modern cities with not a sheep in sight. Of course, by making himself the shepherd Jesus makes us the sheep. And sheep don’t have a reputation for being very bright.
Sheep were one of the earliest animals domesticated for agriculture. They are useful animals raised for their fleece, meat, and milk. In the ancient near east, some flocks of sheep were led by their owners, but for large flocks oftentimes people would be hired to help shepherd. Naturally, shepherds who owned their own flock tended to take better care of the sheep than shepherds who were hired hands.
Shepherds cared for the basic needs of sheep – providing food and water, protection, guidance, and occasional rescue. Shepherding was dangerous due to animal predators and human thieves. Hired shepherds would sometimes choose to save themselves rather than protect the sheep. And some hired shepherds would steal sheep from the flock to sell for their own gain. Shepherds developed a bad reputation in the ancient near east for these reasons.
Not having any experience with sheep, I had to read up on them. I found the experience of a friend of a Rev. Mr. Brown: (Dwight L. Moody: his life, his work, his words by Edward Leigh Pell, p390-391)
I have a friend who used to live in Syria, and he became very well acquainted with the shepherds of that country. One day as he was riding among the mountains he came to a spring of water, and stopped to rest awhile. Presently, down one of the steep mountain paths a shepherd came, leading his flock of sheep. Not long after another shepherd with another flock came down to the water by another path, and after awhile a third. The three flocks mingled together, so that he began to wonder how each shepherd was ever going to find his own sheep again.
At last one of them rose up and called out, 'Men-ah !' which in Arabic means ' follow; ' and his sheep came out from the great flock, and followed him back into the mountains. He did not even stop to count them. Then shepherd No. 2 got up and called out to his sheep. ‘Men-ah!' and those of his flock left the others and followed him away.
My friend could speak Arabic very well ; so one day he said to a shepherd, ' I think I could make your sheep follow me.'
' I think not,' said the shepherd.
'Give me your turban, and your cloak, and your crook,' said my friend, ' and we'll see.'
So he put on the shepherd's turban and his cloak, and took the crook in his hand, and stood up where the sheep could see him, and called out, ' Men-ah ! men-ah ! ' but not a sheep would take any notice of him.
' They know not the voice of strangers.'
My friend asked the shepherd if the sheep never followed any body but him.
' O yes ; sometimes a sheep gets sick, and then it will follow a stranger.'
Sheep are actually brighter than I thought. They will not follow a stranger, unless they are sick. Sheep know the voice of their shepherd.
The question for us today is – do we know the voice of our shepherd? Whose voice do we listen to?
There are so many voices in the world today, competing for attention. Some of these voices are temporary distractions but others are dangerous, actively trying to lead us away from the safe path that Jesus would guide us on. How can we, as Christians, discern correctly?
We learn our shepherd’s voice by building up our relationship with Jesus and with each other. We can learn from the example of the early church. In our reading from Acts we learn that, “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This might sound familiar to you; it is one of the vows in our Baptismal covenant. Those baptized in our church make a vow to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” These are four ways in which Christians have stayed connected to Jesus and his first followers.
We find the apostles’ teaching in the scriptures, and we continue in their teaching when we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures. The apostles’ teaching is passed down to us in Sunday school, and shared with one another in bible studies.
We continue in the apostles’ fellowship by congregating with other Christians. Spending time with other Christians helps to nurture our own faith.
The breaking of the bread is a reference to the Eucharist, which is a sacramental meal. We also break bread together whenever we share a meal with one another, whether at our Tongues of Fire Chili cook-off or at our Lenten potluck suppers or every week at EfM – and these meals are excellent times of fellowship with one another.
We have many opportunities to pray together, during formal church services and in informal settings as well.
Christian formation in the form of education, fellowship, sacrament, and prayer – shapes us as Christians. These are things that we can actively participate in that will strengthen our faith. Think of them as ways to keep healthy – so that we can hear Jesus’ voice. When we do not work on our faith, we can become sick and follow other voices.
Sheep are not the brightest animals in the animal kingdom, but they become familiar with their shepherd’s voice and character over time. It takes time to build a relationship of trust. As Christians, we become familiar with our shepherd’s voice and character over time as well. We learn about Jesus through the words written about him in the New Testament. We learn about Jesus through the words and actions of each other, and ultimately, through our own experience of the risen Christ.
As you go through each day, work on strengthening your faith and keep your ears open for Jesus’ voice. We all need to be ready to follow when we hear him call to us, “Me-nah! Me-nah! Come follow me!” Amen.