What It Means to Be a Sheep
Text: John 10:1-10
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ecologists and wildlife experts have noticed an interesting trend in foxes that live in suburban areas. Snouts are getting shorter, skulls are getting larger, and fox populations seem less startled by humans in general. Interestingly, these are the same things that happened when our other canine friends, the everyday dog, was domesticated. It’s a curious phenomenon that’s happening in many places at once, leading some experts to think that this could be the very beginning of the domestication of the fox.
I only bring this up to show that domestication of animals changes them—and not just behaviorally. Something happens to animals when they enter into this different relationship with humans. It leaves an indelible mark on them. Usually these changes mean that they’ll have to rely on humans more and more with time. Problem solving skills diminish, hunting and foraging traits are a shadow of what they were before, and natural defenses are lowered. And in no better species is this exemplified than in the case of the fluffy wooly sheep.
Sheep are entirely dependent upon humans. Other animals, even other domesticated animals, have certain things they’ve retained that help protect them. Cattle have their large size and solid horns. Dogs and cats have tooth and claw. And yes, while a sheep can butt someone with its head, that’s no real defense against a determined or clever predator, nor against a pack of hungry animals. So humans have throughout time and cultures had a profession dedicated to the defense and care of helpless sheep: the profession of shepherd. There are shepherds on every inhabited continent. Their job goes as far back as the first generation after Eden with Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve whose task it was to tend the herds.
Shepherds ran especially deep in the history of God’s people. When Abraham struck out in faith toward a place that God had yet to show him, he did it with his flocks in tow—a nomadic shepherd. When the Israelites temporarily settled in Egypt, they were sent to the land of Goshen because of their many flocks; because so many of them were shepherds. King David, Israel’s greatest king, was first a shepherd. The Lord Himself said that He would be a shepherd to Israel, to gather His people from every corner of the earth where they had been exiled after their kingdom was crushed. So when Jesus said those much beloved words, “I am the Good Shepherd,” those first hearers had a very good idea of what He meant—what it meant about the tasks He would be about as He cared for the flock of God.
But knowing what Jesus means and accepting it are two very different things. Because if we’re going to accept that He is the Good Shepherd, that means that we also have to accept that we are the sheep that He’s watching. And what does it mean to be a sheep of the Lord’s flock? It means that we have no natural defenses against our spiritual predators—the devil and the forces of hell. It means that we aren’t able to do much on our own out there in the wilderness. It means that we need to be guided to shelter and safety. It means that we need to be protected, sometimes even from ourselves. And in our own culture of self-sufficiency and faith in self above all else, that can be a hard thing to accept.
So our Good Shepherd guides us. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” As a shepherd does, our Good Shepherd leads His sheep to pasture. He feeds us in the always green grazing land of His Word, the Scriptures, which can never be exhausted of rich meaning and deep wisdom. He points out choice phrases to us to whet our appetites so that we feast on all His teaching, growing in understanding, become strong in faith and acts of loving service to those around us. He prepares a table for us, the table of His Holy Supper, where we receive His own body and blood to forgive our sins and break the power of our enemies. He leads us beside the still waters of Baptism, where our thirst is always quenched, where we can lie down in safety and find rest under the watchful eyes of our Good Shepherd.
Our Good Shepherd protects us. His rod will strike anything that tries to inflict harm on us. The wood of His cross will crack down on the snapping jaws of our old evil foe, the devil, as he prowls around like a hungry lion, looking for ways to trap and devour us. The shepherd’s staff of His Word, His commandments, will pull us back from those dangerous cliffsides that we like to walk along, pulling us away from those things that are harmful to us, even if we’re drawn to them, even if it’s something we think we might like, but would be poison to our faith. After all, sheep, silly animals that they are, are excellent at getting themselves into trouble. I don’t know if you’ve seen it online, but there’s a video of a sheep stuck in a ditch. A man pulls it out of the ditch and the sheep goes skipping off, only to fall right back in the same ditch a few feet away, stuck just as badly as the first time. So it is with us and our Good Shepherd. As St. Peter wrote to us this morning in the Epistle reading, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Jesus guides and protects us, sometimes in unexpected ways. There may be something in your life that you really want—you want something to go a very specific certain way, you want to get hold of something particular. But it just doesn’t seem to happen. Could it be that your Good Shepherd is telling you that whatever it is might not actually be the best thing for you? Could He be trying to show you something else, some other gift from Him, something that’s right in front of you, that would actually be more beneficial? Can you truly accept that you are a lamb of His flock and that He is the Shepherd, that He actually knows better, that He can see the full picture—past, present, and future—and that He has your eternal good in mind? Because He does. This is no thief or robber, no stranger with dark or selfish motives. This is the Shepherd who died for the sheep—a love that’s so intense, so reckless, that it doesn’t even count the cost to Himself. He’s so willing to pay it because it’s through the sacrifice of Himself that you will live forever. It’s through His wounds and stripes that you will be healed, forgiven, purified, and made perfect. He has walked through the valley of the shadow of death ahead of you. And when He has brought out all his own, He goes before them, and they follow Him. So you may be called to go through a valley right now, you may see long shadows on either side. But your Shepherd has walked this path. He’s right ahead of you, showing you the sure footing, picking you up when you slip, leading you home. He’ll do that with the light of His cross. He’ll do that with the comfort of His Word. He’ll wash off every stain and smudge in your Baptism. He’ll sustain and nourish you in His Supper. This is how He calls you by name. This is how He tends and watches out for you. You know His voice. Whether it’s in the pitch and tone of your parents, your teachers in the faith, or your pastor—which by the way, is just a word that means “shepherd” in Latin—it’s Jesus’ voice. It’s His Gospel. It’s His grace. It’s His love. It’s your one eternal Good Shepherd.
That’s really the joy and privilege of being a sheep of Jesus’ flock. It means that He defends you, He guides you. He shelters you and provides you with all that you need. He has called you by name and He will lead you to safety, where you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. In the name of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Amen.