Scripture: John 10:11-18
I am a little sheepish to admit this, but I spent WAY to long this week looking for a great joke about sheep to open with this morning. I read dozens and dozens of jokes, but I just could not find one. Believe ewe you, they were are all just baaaad. Kind of like that one was.
Sheep farms are not terribly common in these parts, so perhaps you are like me and most of your imagery and thoughts of sheep come from the bible. The bible is rich in biblical imagery of sheep. We remember that Moses was tending the sheep when God called out to him from a burning bush. We also remember that David learned how to use a sling and a stone fighting off wild animals while watching sheep. Some of our favorite scriptures involve sheep imagery. Several of the prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah use imagery of sheep in their writings. Of course we probably all know (or have at least heard) the twenty third psalm that begins the Lord is my Shepherd. Multiple times Jesus uses sheep or sheep imagery in his teachings. Then of course, there is this morning’s scripture where Jesus uses the Shepherd metaphor to describe himself. At one point or another, we have probably all seen a pictures of perhaps even a little statuette of Jesus with sheep. Secure, in our setting away from sheep farms, the image of sheep for many of us is one that we associated with rustic simplicity and tranquility. For these reasons, I think many of us tend to find the sheep imagery of the Bible pleasant. I cannot help but think though, if we knew more about sheep if we might be kind if insulted. After all, if we belong to Jesus and he is the good shepherd that makes us sheep. Being called a sheep is not exactly a compliment. However, if we are honest we also have to admit just how accurate the sheep description can be.
When you get right down to it, sheep can be kind of dumb at times. Sheep are very much herd animals, and because of that they blindly follow a leader. Several years ago there was an incident where four hundred sheep died. Shepherds in Iran neglected their sheep while eating breakfast, and one stubborn sheep walked off a cliff. The rest of the flock followed. While four hundred sheep died, those four hundred managed to break the fall of the other 1,100 that also followed but survived. All told, 1,500 sheep went off the cliff because they were blindly following the rest. Sheep will blindly follow each other to doom. It is like the old question, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump to?” The answer for sheep is, yes! Actually, for us as well the answer is closer to yes than we like to admit. We are not naturally herding creature but we have an instinctive herd mentality. I think this clip from one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, illustrates this point quite well:
The truth is we are much more likely to conform. We do not take the path less traveled, especially if that means going at it alone. Many, many studies have illustrated this point, some quite literally. At Leeds University an experiment was repeated multiple times where they would get 200 people and tell them to walk around a large room randomly without talking to each other. However, a small number, about 5% of the participants were given more detailed instructions on how to walk. The researchers found that people would begin following the one or two people who appeared to know where they were going. Studies about marketing have found that if we do not have a strong opinion about something, we will default to whatever we believe the most commonly held opinion is. Essentially, unless we have a strong opinion on something we will go along with the opinion of the group rather than be different. We conform, and we follow the herd. Like sheep, this can lead us off of cliffs. The herd mentality can lead us places that are not where we should go. Instead of stopping to consider why something might be wrong or even evil, it is our nature to follow the prevailing viewpoint. A tragic but poignant example of this is that just a couple of generations ago, racism in this country was not only acceptable but it was considered expected, and it was the institutionalized and legally backed status quo.
Of course the reason why sheep are herd animals is because they do not do very well on their own. The only real natural defense a sheep has is safety in numbers. The problem is that sheep have a problem staying in numbers sometimes. The bible even points this out in Isaiah 53:6 which reads, “We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way. Sheep can graze for hour on end, when they do this they become very focused on looking for the next patch of grass to graze on. They can become so focused that each patch they move to can move them further and further away from the herd until they are completely separated and scattered. This is a problem for a sheep because their sense of direction is terrible, and they are unable to retrace their steps. It is extremely easy for sheep to get lost. Again, we find that this might fit us a bit too closely. Maybe you have personally experienced this in your life during a season, or you know someone who has. We can get focused on something like a career, a goal, whatever our next step is that we pursue it with a single minded intensity. As we do this we get further and further away from what is truly important. In the same way, we probably all know of instances where someone made one bad decision in life and that seemed to lead to another, which lead to another, and before they knew it the person felt trapped and lost in a very dark place. We can act a lot like the sheep. One small, oblivious move down that wrong path leads us further and further away from safety.
The final way that we can be like sheep is that we can be stubborn. When a sheep gets in its head it is going a certain way, either because the herd is or because there is a perceived threat, there is very little that can be done to dissuade it. Shepherds are needed to herd sheep to ensure they go the right way and protect them from themselves. Now if I want to know what a stubborn person looks like, I only need to look in a mirror. Growing up, my mom always tried to find a positive spin to my behavior and said I was a “strong willed child.” I also have met enough people in my life, that I am convinced that being stubborn is not just a personal issue of mine but something inherent to the human condition. Like sheep, we can get notions in our heads and we are going to see them through no matter what. Sometimes this determination can be admirable, but other times we like sheep endanger ourselves. Our stubborn nature keeps us from looking at the big picture, it keeps us from focusing on how we might be impacting others, and it keeps us from seeking Godly wisdom in our lives. The bible uses the imagery of sheep because all of the obvious faults that sheep have can be seen in our own behavior as well. Like sheep we can follow the flock to places we should not, like sheep our selfish and insular behavior can lead us to danger, and like sheep we can be stubborn to our own detriment.
So being compared to sheep might be a bit insulting but painfully true when we really look at. The good news though, is that while sheep may do dumb things in groups they individually are smart. Studies have shown that sheep have capacity to learn, remember, and even make decisions apart from the herd. This is why we need the good shepherd. Jesus makes the point that what makes him the good shepherd is that he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. This is different than a hired hand, who at the end of the day is not willing to risk life and limb for a job. However, Jesus as the good shepherd has a commitment and a love that goes beyond that. As the good shepherd he cares enough for his sheep that he is willing to sacrifice everything on their behalf. He states in this morning scripture that the good shepherd is willing to die so that the sheep can have life. This of course is exactly what Jesus did for us on the cross. This love that Jesus shows as the good shepherd though does more than give us life, it establishes a deep, loving relationship. In John 10:14 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” If you consider Jesus your Lord, the person for whom you wish to live your life, then he is your good shepherd. This scripture makes clear that the sheep listen to the voice of the shepherd. If we listen to the voice of the shepherd, we does what he says. This works out well for us, because all of our sheepish faults can be overcome by following the good shepherd.
Jesus advocated for treating the poor fairly, showing radical forgiveness, and loving God not just with empty actions but a genuinely changed heart. In short Jesus advocated living a life that goes against the grain, against the herd. When we follow the good shepherd, we do go against conformity. We do find our own walk. Perhaps one of the finest examples of this is Deietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a minister in Germany during the rise of Nazism. The rise of Nazi Germany is a sad example of our herd mentality. Only a minority of the country truly supported the Nazi party the majority went along with the crowd. A few though, like Bonhoeffer actively resisted it. The church leaders of his day confessed support for Hitler, but he could not go along with that. He once wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” He led the confessing church, which was a network of Christians that opposed the Nazi regime. Bonoeffer helped Jews escape and he actively participated in organized resistance before being arrested and sent to a concentration camp where he died. Bonhoeffer is a shining example of what it means to follow the voice of the good shepherd in a culture that all but ignores it.
Following the good shepherd can also keep us from going astray and stubbornly seeking our own way. It is quite simple, if we are following Jesus, we are not following ourselves. To reiterate the writings of poet Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in the woods and I- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all of the difference.” In the history of humanity, in our current culture, and perhaps even in our own lives the path of Christ is the less traveled one. The prayer that should guide our lives is the one we pray every week, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Not our will, not what we want, not the path more commonly taken. We should follow the good shepherd and listen to his voice.
If you were here last week, I mentioned that to follow Jesus we have to know what he said and did. That point cannot be emphasized enough. We need to know the voice of the good shepherd, and follow him. In our Methodist Tradition we have a fancy word for this called sanctification. Sanctification is the life long process to become more like Jesus, the follow the voice of the good shepherd. Sanctification is the process where we learn to listen and follow his voice over our own. Sanctification is the process that takes from just being sheep in the herd to disciples.
May we know the voice of the good shepherd, and may we follow that voice. When we feel the pressure to confirm the norms of society, may we follow the voice. When we are led astray by our selfish desires may we follow the voice. When we dig our heels in out of prideful stubbornness, may we follow the voice. The good shepherd know his sheep and the sheep know his voice. With all of the voices that cry out for our attention, our money, and our devotion which voice do you listen to the most? The question that all of us need to consider today, is do we know the voice of the good shepherd? May you know the good shepherd loves you to the point of laying down his life for you. And may you know and follow that voice all the days of your life.