Whilst I was ruminating on Jesus being The Good Shepherd I found myself thinking about how people shepherd animals. It may also have had something to do with the fact that before I flew up to Scotland I came across an episode of Top Gear on the television. It was one where the trio of hapless presenters were trying to shepherd sheep using motorbikes. They failed miserably. A lack of communication and skill was their undoing on this occasion.
Silly as Top Gear can be the presenter’s chosen method wasn’t unusual. Motorbikes and helicopters are often used to herd sheep and cattle in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. It’s quite a sight to behold. But it’s the good old sheep dog that comes to most of our minds.
You may remember watching One Man and His Dog. There was something captivating and fascinating about watching the shepherds and their dogs at work. No matter how hard I tried I never could whistle like the shepherds.
With different inflections in their whistle each shepherd communicated instructions to the dog who listened, heard and put into action and gently cajoled the sheep into moving in the right direction. The sheep either didn’t know or want to go where the shepherd knew they would be safe, so it was never simple for the shepherd and sheepdog to get the sheep to go the right way – they had to work together and repeatedly nudge the sheep until they were safe.
Jesus suggests that we are like sheep but also need to be like sheepdogs.
We are His Sheep (John 10:22-30)
Jesus calls us His sheep. Does that offend you?
On the surface at least, sheep don’t appear to be the most intelligent creatures. They are pretty stubborn. They don’t listen or follow instructions well. They view even their shepherd and carer with suspicion. They don’t pick up on the route to safety they are being shown but actively rebel against taking it.
Come to think about it, we are quite a lot like sheep!
Jesus was quite cutting when He answered those asking if He was the Messiah. He said that they did not believe because they weren’t His sheep. It troubled me when I read it, had not Jesus come for everyone?
The problem was that He was talking to Jews who only heard to what they wanted to hear. Nothing He had said or had done was breaking through the barriers they had put up: preconceptions born out of their existing knowledge of scripture. He didn’t fit the image of what they had been taught or come to understand. They were seeking for something they thought they knew and anything that did match it couldn’t be the way.
Our view and understanding of anything we read or watch that is familiar is often affected by what we read or watched before, and all our experiences and memories around it. It’s easy done and is something we have to be careful to avoid when reading or listening to the Bible. The scripture doesn’t change but its meaning to us as individuals can.
It’s important that we listen, read and indeed follow with fresh hearts and minds. Like wild animals we need to be alert for all that is around us, for the signs and signals around us that tell us what is needed, how to live, how to stay safe, how to enjoy life now and in the future. Yet it’s one thing to listen and hear, it’s another thing to follow and keep true to the path we’re offered and shown.
Sheep are easily scared or distracted and watching a shepherd at work shows that sheep do not know the final destination, or that if they do they don’t want to go there! They make it clear that they cannot be told to go anywhere, instead the shepherds have to gently influence them to turn towards a better direction. Nor is it a single act, instead they have to repeatedly influence the direction the sheep take, making constant corrections to their course as they change direction.
Perhaps it is because they find it hard to understand and follow the shepherd’s instruction, for if they did hear and understand they would walk straight through the correct gate. Perhaps they are suspicious of the shepherd’s intention, not realising that the suggested way is indeed for their own good. After all, why give up this nice piece of pasture and go somewhere new or different?
We too can struggle with the Shepherd’s call, and like sheep we prize ourself on our independence and on our own ability to discern the best path to tread. Yet like sheep without constant adjustments to our route to the destination more troublesome.
I’m starting to feel much more empathy towards sheep and thankful that we’ve got a shepherd who puts up with our attempts to find the way for ourselves.
You see Jesus knows us and yet still shepherds us. He knows our nature and how we need gentle correction and guidance if we are to be effective and keep on, or return to, the right course. He knows a simple instruction like “second to the right and straight on until morning” won’t work with me.
But we are not just any sheep, we were chosen by God as a gift for Jesus. Think on that for a moment, we were thought worthy to be given as gift to the King of Kings! And yet the King to whom we were given gave back an even greater gift to us in return. We were not to be ruled and subjected to meet the King’s personal desires, we were given a secure and ever lasting life.
We were given to Jesus not as a empty or passive gift, but as His mission, and His mission was to wake us up from our passivity, to get us to prick up our ears and to follow Him into the safety of His sheep pen.
And unlike sheep who are at the mercy of foxes, wolfs and other predators we we cannot be snatched away. Sure we can be tempted, distracted and veer off course, we can even be persecuted and far too many Christians are, but we cannot be snatched away from God’s hand. We are all part of God’s mission and nothing will change that. We all have a shepherd who will never give up on us, even when we find ourselves lost and or in need of help.
Shepherds go to tremendous lengths to find lost sheep. It is their nature to want to make sure their sheep are safe and well fed. With Good Friday so recent the length to which Jesus was willing to go to in order to shepherd us home to God is a sobering and humbling thought fresh in our minds.
But to be helped we need to keep from becoming stale and look upon things with fresh eyes, hearts and minds. We need to be like sheep and alert to new things, whether they be within things familiar to us or things unknown. We need to keep our ears our to hear the call of the Good Shepherd.
We are His Sheepdog (Acts 9:31-42)
Whilst we are sheep cared for by The Good Shepherd, we are also called to be somewhat of a sheepdog. Indeed I wonder whether we generally call the Clerical Collar clergy wear a dog collar for this very reason.
Remember the shepherd and the sheepdog tend to the flock in collaboration with each other? The Shepherd is in charge but on his or her own they would find it much harder to get the sheep to safety. The sheepdog listens to their boss’ commands to be perfectly positioned to help influence the sheep to choose the right direction.
When Jesus ascended into Heaven His mission didn’t stop. It went on, as illustrated by Peter in our second reading from Acts.
Peter had seen many of Jesus’ miracles and heard His teaching first hand. Seeing Christ resurrected will have cemented what he had learnt, encouraging and emboldening him to go and do what Jesus had told him to do. Most importantly Peter, knowing that Christ was still alive, would have known deep within his heart, mind and soul that he really had been given the Holy Spirit to help him carry on the work with God’s authority. In other words he knew he was the sheepdog carrying out the shepherd’s instructions.
As Peter visited believers in Lydda, Sharon and Joppa he put into action what he had learnt from Jesus. Now he was listening to the prompting of the Shepherding Holy Spirit in tending to the flock.
Just as Jesus had healed the paralysed man lowered through the roof of a house by his friend (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26) so did Peter command Aeneas to get up from his mat. And just as Jesus had raised Lazarus (John 11:1-44), Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56) and the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17) from the dead, so Peter knew that when he told Tabitha to get up that he was following instructions and that Tabitha would be raised from the dead.
Peter might have had tremendous confidence in the message and his mission, but he knew he was not The Good Shepherd Mark 2. He knew that on his own all he had was the knowledge and experienced he had gained whilst with Jesus. Sure, he had good lessons to teach and amazing tales to tell but they would have had limited effect without the power of the Holy Spirit to transform people.
Instead Peter knew that he was acting in the role of the sheepdog, listening and following the Shepherd’s instruction so that Aeneas and Tabitha could be healed. He knew who was the boss, who had the authority but he also knew that the boss, the Father Jesus called greater than all, was wanting to work with him to enable such things to happen.
It seems apt to close with mentioning that today is Vocations Sunday, a day when churches encourage us all to reflect, discover and recognise God’s call to them, although it’s not something we’re only called to do once a year!
It is a call for us to be both sheep and sheepdog: a call to listen to the guidance that would keep us safe and well fed; and a call to follow instructions to care for others.
It is a time to remember that like sheep we can stray from the path, that at times we will seek to take the easy path, sometimes even an escape route. It is not a time to beat ourselves up about the times we have wondered away from the path or to become anxious about the need for God to influence our choice of direction in future.
Instead it is a time to remember that God knows us, loves us and will never abandon us and that He calls us to do likewise with each other. Quite how is up to Him to tell and us to listen!