A sermon preached by Hilary Pearson on Wednesday 9th November 2022
Our psalm for today, Psalm 23, is probably the best known bit of the Bible, even by people who have never read the Bible and who rarely attend church. Many of us will know it by heart, or at least the hymn version of it. But our familiarity with it can mean that we read it without really thinking about what it means. If the Lord is my shepherd – than I am a sheep. We tend to anthropomorphise this psalm and look at the positive aspects for us as humans. But perhaps we need to know a bit more about sheep.
When I was a teenager, I liked going hiking in the Cheviot hills in Northumberland, which are the northernmost part of the Pennines. The only real agricultural use tor these high moorland hills is to rear sheep. Because the edible vegetation is thin, a flock can be spread out over a wide area of hillside. Once I was out hiking with two friends from Girl Guides. We had walked for several hours without seeing another human. Coming down a steep slope, at the bottom we found an ewe who had fallen and was on her side. The way she was lying and the weight of her fleece meant that she was unable to get back to her feet, despite her struggles. As we had not seen a shepherd, and we knew that the ewe could die if she was not helped back on her feet, we decided we had to act. It was difficult to get her upright because she struggled and kicked, and her fleece was wet and greasy, but we finally managed it. With no sign of gratitude, she trotted off and was soon grazing again. Don’t we all know people like that, who resist help and, after it has been given, show no gratitude – wait a minute, don’t we sometimes do that ourselves? Rather like the nine lepers in our Gospel reading. It can put a big dent in our pride to admit that we need help when we have got ourselves into trouble.
Here in the south, sheep are kept in fields. I have more than once had the experience of passing a field of sheep while driving along a narrow country lane, turning a corner and – there is one sheep on its own, grazing on the verge, in imminent danger from the traffic. This stray sheep obviously decided the grass was greener on the other side of the hedge and managed to find a way through. As today’s epistle says: ‘For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray’.
What do sheep need to flourish? First, good grazing. Sheep are herbivores and are ruminants; like cows, they have two stomachs. Once they find suitable grazing they eat as fast as possible. This food goes into their first stomach which begins the digestion process. To complete digestion, sheep need to lie down to chew the cud, which then goes to the second stomach to complete digestion. As sheep are prey animals, they are more vulnerable while they are doing this and need safety from predators. So a good shepherd provides his sheep with ample grazing and security from predators – he makes them to lie down in green pastures. Sheep also need to drink. Generally, sheep prefer to drink from still rather than running water. Because sheep have short necks and for much of the year have a heavy fleece, it is difficult and dangerous for them to drink from fast running water. The still waters their good shepherd leads them by allows them to slake their thirst easily and without danger.
Sheep turn up a lot in the Bible. There are about 200 references to sheep, a similar number to lambs and about 100 references to rams. Most of Old Testament references to sheep are to actual animals – not surprising as herding was the major form of agriculture in most of the areas where the Israelites historically lived. That is still true today – if you visit areas like Sinai, you still see Bedouin shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats. The Old Testament references to lambs and rams most commonly relate to animals for sacrifice.
The use of the analogy of people being like sheep is mostly found in the psalms and the prophets, and often in bad contexts. For example, in 1 Kings 33 the prophet Micaiah, after his advice to the king of Israel not to go to war was rejected, said “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd.” Ezekiel criticised corrupt leaders as bad shepherds who neglected the flock so that God’s people were scattered and became vulnerable to predators (Ezekiel 34:1-6). Isaiah, in the passage well known to us through Handel’s Messiah, saw that sin on the part of the people meant they “like sheep, have gone astray, each has turned to his own way…” (Isaiah 53:6)
The Isaiah quote comes in the extended description of the suffering servant, which points us to the New Testament sheep analogies. In his teaching ministry, Jesus saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd and had compassion on them (Matthew 9:36, Mark 6:34). Luke recounts the parable of the lost sheep, the first of the three parables in chapter 15 which show God’s love and care even for sinners: the others are the woman searching for the lost coin and the prodigal son. The good shepherd knows each of his sheep as individuals, which is why he cares enough about the missing sheep to leave the other ninety nine to search for it. Perhaps it had had an accident, like the ewe we found – or perhaps it was the greedy and adventurous individual who thought the grass might be greener away from its family and community.
The most theological treatment of the people as sheep analogy is found in John’s Gospel, particularly chapter 10. Here Jesus tells us that he is the gate to the sheep pen, through which his flock must pass to have life “and have it to the full”. He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The good shepherd knows his flock, those who listen to his voice and follow him. Before his ascension he tells Peter to look after his sheep (John 21:15-17). The identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God is also found in John’s Gospel, made by John the Baptist (Jn 1:29, 36). The most extensive identification of Jesus with the sacrificial lamb of the Jewish atonement rituals is found in the Book of Revelation.
In this country, we are used to seeing sheep controlled and moved by using dogs – many of you will have watched ‘One man and his dog’ on TV. As wolves are traditional predators of sheep, this use of dogs is based on instinctive fear in the sheep. That is not how the Jesus the Good Shepherd controls his sheep. In the Middle East, shepherds still move the flock by walking ahead rather than following, and they use their voice to control their flock rather than by fear through using dogs. Unfortunately, historically the Church has often preferred to use fear to keep its flock under control.
The flock had to learn their shepherd’s individual call, so the shepherd lived with his sheep to the extent that the sheep regarded him as, in effect, the lead sheep of the flock. Our Good Shepherd Jesus lived with us as a human being for the same reason. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book ‘The Preaching Life’, talks about seeing several different flocks owned by Bedouin shepherds mixing at the local waterhole at the end of the day. She says:
“Their shepherds do not worry about the mix-up, however. When it is time to go home, each one issues his or her own distinctive call – a special trill or whistle, or a particular tune on a reed pipe, and that shepherd’s sheep withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home. They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd’s voice, and it is the only one they will follow.”
We also mix with other flocks; our neighbours, work colleagues, people we meet in shops or yoga class – do we know and listen for our Good Shepherd’s voice? Is he the only one we will follow?
We may often behave like wandering sheep, but Psalm 23 shows us a positive aspect of being like sheep. In saying ‘I am the good shepherd’ Jesus may well have had this psalm in mind, as may his hearers. Our shepherd knows and cares for each of us as individuals. When we follow our shepherd and listen to his voice, we get good food, rest and protection. We have a companion through the darkest times. Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Amen.