Some years ago, I think right after Karen and I were married but before we had children, I was watching a CNN or Fox interview of a former Israeli soldier. Most of us know that military service is a requirement in Israel. Anyway, this guy was talking on television about this incredible experience he had had as a soldier. During one of the Gaza uprisings during the 80’s, Israel had responded as they are wont to do. One of their tactics, at least according to this soldier, was to round the flocks and herds up and confiscate them, thereby putting economic pressure on those who might support the uprisings. The Palestinian herders would tend their flocks in the wilderness, searching for water and grassy areas to feed and water their herds and flocks. Soldiers would be detached to round all these animals up in a couple large pens. This soldier’s job was to guard one of the big pens.
Anyway, while the fighting was still going on, a Palestinian woman and boy came to the pen and asked the soldier to release her sheep to her. Her flock of 25 sheep had been confiscated with everyone else’s. She reminded to the soldier that God loved widows and orphans. Her husband had been killed a couple uprisings before. She was simply trying to scratch out a living to provide for herself and her son. They had not been involved in the uprising, and she asserted they were being treated unjustly. The soldier laughed at her position. Her husband had supported a past uprising, so this punishment seemed just. The people knew that Israel would round up flocks to hinder economic support, so maybe they should have done a better job convincing their leaders not to kill Jews or bomb Jewish establishments.
The woman simply would not take no for an answer. She kept nagging the soldier to release her small herd. What were twenty-five animals in so vast a herd? How were she and her son to live? How was God glorified in his unwillingness to help her in her need? Eventually, she wore the poor soldier down. When I reflect on the interview, I often think of the persistent or nagging widow in Jesus’ stories. I doubt this soldier knew Jesus’ teaching on persistent widows, but he was eventually moved to make a concession. He told the lady he would love to help her. He really would love to help her. Unfortunately, he had no way of figuring out which sheep were hers and which sheep belonged to others in so vast a herd. No doubt he was only assuaging his conscience. He wanted to help her, but he could not risk giving someone else’s animals to her. It was a conundrum with seemingly no solution, and he told the lady such. It allowed him to play the nice guy card and not disobey his commanders at the same time.
She responded that there was no problem at all. Before he could ask what she meant, she started calling her sheep. The soldier, as he shared this story on television, could not believe his eyes. As she called their names, heads popped up in the great herd in the pen! It was like they knew her voice and she knew them all by names! When he said that to her, she confidently stated that she did. She had nursed every sheep at some point right after their birth. She had sheared every sheep multiple times since her husband’s death. She knew them; they knew her.
More amazingly to the soldier, when he asked how she was going to get them out of the herd and back home, she told him they knew her son as well as they knew her. She told her son to start playing. The son pulled out a flute or recorder of some sort and began to play. Sure enough, a couple dozen sheep fought their way through the mass of sheep to get to the boy’s music. And when he turned and headed for home, the sheep followed him like he was the Pied Piper! Just as weird, at least from the soldier’s perspective, none of the other sheep bolted for freedom. He thought lots of sheep would head with the boy and that he would have to figure out which sheep were hers and which were someone else’s, but the other sheep were apparently tone deaf. They made no move to follow, and the soldier could think of no reason not to let the woman and boy go with their sheep, aside from what he would get from his superior officers. A decade later, this story stood out in this soldier’s mind. Two decades after his interview, it still lingers in mine as a wonderful illustration of Good Shepherd Sunday.
We don’t have many shepherds around Music City these days, do we? How can we really understand this idea of sheep and shepherding? Yet it is an image to which our Lord turns over and over again. It is an image in which many of us find comfort during times of bereavement. Why does Psalm 23 sing to us? Why are the words of John that we heard today so comforting? Why do we still listen and long for them, even if we don’t understand the in’s and out’s of sheep farming in this day and age? Why do we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday each and every year, just as we celebrate Christmas, Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost, and other important days?
I know from asking that a few people among us have actually been to sheep farms in New Zealand and a couple and the blessed land of Scotland. Few people, though, have tried their hand at wilderness farming. By that, I mean there is a completely different way of shepherding in New Zealand and Scotland and in parts of the United States than there is in other parts of the world. Many of us, when we think of shepherding probably think of fenced in meadows, such as we might see along the I-81 corridor, where the sheep are given plenty of room to roam and graze. In some places, they don’t even bother to build fences and just let the sheep roam. In the ANE, however, a different shepherding was practiced. Walk a few miles east of Jerusalem and what do you hit? The rocky wilderness. Keep going east, and it does not matter much whether one bends to the north or to the south, what is next? Eventually the deserts. Those of you who have been to Jerusalem: is there a less likely hospitable place for farming? Don’t forget to remove modern irrigation from your mind. It is a difficult place to care for herds of animals. It requires a lot of knowledge and a lot of movement.
Water, of course, was the big issue. If we look back over the Old Testament, we realize that Israel knew this and God knew this. God promised to send the rains, so long as Israel was faithful. When droughts occur in the Old Testament, they are not just natural weather phenomena. Droughts are theological commentaries; they are signals that Israel is being disobedient. Think of Elijah and the slaying of the priests of Ba’al or of Naomi and her husband’s decision to head to Moab, for examples. When the rains came, life flourished. Most of us have probably seen movies on the Discovery Channel of how wildernesses and deserts respond to rain. So long as the water is there, flowers bloom and plants grow. The animals that feed on the plants thrive. When the rain stops, of course, the water that has fallen collects in rivulets and streams, some of which would be nigh impossible for you or me to find we were stranded in the wilderness. Some of that water flows into small ponds in wadis. Getting the picture? Anyone can shepherd when water is plentiful, but it takes a wise, seasoned, competent shepherd to care for his flock weeks and months after the last rain. Add in the danger of predatory animals and poachers, and you get the idea of what shepherds faced during the time that Jesus walked the earth.
It was with this very idea of shepherd that Jesus makes His claim about being the Good Shepherd in John, and in Psalm 23, and elsewhere throughout Scripture. Sheep are not the stupid animals that people sometimes like to claim. I’ve no doubt there are stupid sheep, just like there are stupid cats and stupid dogs and other animals. Sheep are stubborn, though. They are relatively blind, as well. That makes for a bad combination. How will a stubborn animal with poor eyesight ever find food or water in a wilderness or desert? Won’t it all look blurrily the same? Won’t all directions seem identical?
I see the nods. Now you are beginning to see how we really do resemble sheep. We are stubborn, and we see God poorly! Many of us are like Tarzan in the Geico commercial and go stubbornly on our way “because we know” like Tarzan knows. And God has to remind us, sometimes with His crook and other times with His voice and other times using other means, where He is and where He wants us to go. We would stubbornly head off in our own directions, directions that lead to starvation, dehydration, predation, and death. And He wants none of that for us! He would have us fed abundantly, watered lavishly, and protected. That’s His will for us. But, like sheep, we stubbornly go astray. We continue in our determined efforts to head that way or to swim to Portugal.
The image of God as the Good Shepherd in Scripture is important because it reminds us of our own nature and of God’s desire. We need food and water; our Good Shepherd leads us to those streams and wadis of refreshment that human eyes cannot always see. We need protection; our Good Shepherd protects us from those dangers, many of which are lying in ambush, just waiting for us to stumble or head off in another direction. What’s more amazing is that our Good Shepherd lays down His life to protect us! Our Good Shepherd is so powerful and so protective and so supplying that He can feed us a banquet in the midst of our enemies, and we need not fear! And though He is more powerful than we can ever imagine, He chooses to speak to us in soothing terms: Follow Me! This way! Drink! Eat! Sleep!, much in the same way as the woman’s voice or her son’s melody spoke to the sheep!
Lastly, and no doubt of most importance, there is the promise that we can never be stolen by someone else. We can give our allegiance to someone simply because we are stubborn and blind, but we can never be stolen out of His care. Never. And just in case we might be tempted to think that Jesus might be using hyperbole, He reminds us that not even death can separate us from Him, if we choose to be numbered among His herd! I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and I give them eternal life, and they will never perish remind us of the power and provision of this Shepherd.
During the telling of the story, the Israeli soldier spoke of the cacophony of voices and noises that surround the pens. Lots of people were arguing with soldiers, animals were making all kinds of noises, trucks and cars were passing by, vendors were hawking wares or trying to convince guards to sell them animals on the cheap, officers were issuing orders, and even jets were passing by. As he reflected on the event nearly a decade or so later, the soldier was still amazed that within that cacophony the sheep heard the woman’s voice and her son’s music and latched onto both sounds, seemingly deaf to all that was happening around them.
In many ways, such a cacophony surrounds us. We live in an election year that seems to be full of hyperbole and bluster. Candidates are claiming to be our only hope. We live in a society that equates fame with worldly wisdom and chases after the famous for their opinions on great matters so that we will know how to act or what to think. We live in a world nearly drowned in screaming advertisements: Have it your way! You deserve a break today! We live in a world where self-help gurus are all too excited to share with you your need to be fixed and how you can do it—for a price, of course! We live in a world that claims that its wisdom is greater than the wisdom of God. And all Jesus does to counter this cacophony of noise is to speak gently, to remind us that He is the Good Shepherd. Only our Lord loved us enough to die for us. Only our Lord knows what is truly best for us! Only our Lord longs to provide for each one of us abundantly. And His weapon of choice for now is the call of a shepherd?
As crazy as it sounds, it is. The mark of the Good Shepherd vs. that of the hired hand, is the willingness of the shepherd to die to protect his flock rather than fleeing. When faced with the harsh and stark reality of the Cross that Maundy Thursday so long ago in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord chose not to flee but to save the flock—you, me, and all those who call Him Lord. He laid down His life and picked it up again so that we might know, beyond all shadow of a doubt, His love and His ability to care for us. We might face disease, privation, broken relationships, and any number of new wildernesses and new predators in our modern lives, but we still belong to the same Shepherd—the One who knows us and calls us by Name, asking us to trust and to follow Him all the way to the Father’s presence! Do you hear His voice calling for you ever so gently this day? He has already proven Himself your and my Good Shepherd. Why not follow where He leads?