The Problem with Sheep
When I was in college I had a friend by the name of Lynne Brown. Lynne farmed with his father in central Illinois, and they grew the usual central Illinois crops of corn and soy beans. But unlike most central Illinois farmers, they also raised sheep. Actually, they made a pretty hefty extra income by raising sheep, especially in years when the crops weren’t so good. But Lynne hated those sheep. I can remember him saying that there are three levels of stupidity in this world. There’s dumb. There’s dumber. And then there’s sheep. I also remember him saying that if someone says that sheep are as dumb as a brick, they are actually insulting the brick!
Now I have to admit that perhaps other than at a petting zoo with our children, I’ve never actually been around sheep. I can’t speak for the presumed stupidity of sheep from my own experience. So I turned to our friend the internet, and it didn’t take me long to understand why my friend Lynne said those things about sheep. For example:
1. Sheep spend their days eating grass. Hour after hour after hour eating grass. Eating is pretty much all that they do. It sounds very peaceful, doesn’t it? But this constant eating creates problems. For starters, when sheep show up to eat – especially in past times when they would move from one pasture to another – they eat everything. When they leave, there’s no grass left. This caused a lot of problems in the days of the “old west,” because when sheep came through an area, they left nothing – absolutely nothing – for grazing cattle to eat. Not only that, but sheep are so focused on their eating that they don’t see what the other sheep are doing – and they can easily stray away from the flock. Sheep also can’t digest all the grass they’ve eaten until they lie down – but they don’t always lie down on their own. So the shepherd sometimes has to make them lie down for their own good.
2. Psalm 23 mentions sheep being led beside the still waters – and those words are very important if you’re a shepherd. If sheep fall into moving water, they can drown. Their coats are already heavy, and their wool rapidly absorbs water. And they can’t swim. The end result is that sheep actually fear moving water and are reluctant to drink from a lake or stream unless the water is still.
3. Sheep are born followers. Stories are told about a sheep falling off of a cliff and the rest of the sheep follow right off that same cliff.
4. Sheep are helpless against predators. In Biblical times, predators such as lions, wolves, panthers, leopards, bears and hyenas were common in the countryside of Israel. Before he became King David, the shepherd boy David defended his sheep from lions and bears. The problem is that if some kind of predator finds a flock of sheep, the sheep don’t fight back. They don’t try to defend themselves. They don’t try to spread out or run or get away. Instead, they huddle together – giving the predator a nice, big, easy target.
5. Under certain circumstances, a sheep can get turned over on its back and is not able to get back up. This can actually be fatal! Many of a sheep’s vital bodily functions depend on gravity. When a sheep is turned over on its back, the blood drains out of the legs, the stomach can’t digest food, and breathing is blocked. If the shepherd doesn’t act quickly, the sheep will die.
6. My friend Lynn told me about the time that he had taken some large bulk containers, cut them in half and set them up in the pasture so that the sheep could have some shelter. But what soon happened is that one of the ornery rams got inside one of the shelters and began to butt it around the pasture. The ram kept butting the shelter around until he pushed it hard against a fence. Then the ram was trapped inside – and couldn’t figure how to get out.
Jesus often refers to people – to us – as sheep. In John 21, Jesus tells Simon Peter to feed His sheep. In Matthew chapter 9 and Mark chapter 6, Jesus says that He had compassion on the crowds that followed Him because they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” But when Jesus compares us to sheep, He’s not exactly giving us a compliment. He’s saying that we are helpless, we are stupid, we are stubborn, we are disagreeable. We need constant supervision. Because a sheep without a shepherd can not take care of itself. A sheep without a shepherd will die.
In our text today, Jesus begins by saying “I am the good shepherd.” This is another of those times when our English translations just can’t fully relate what Jesus is saying. The original Greek for the words “I am” are “Ἐγώ εἰμι.“ What Jesus is saying is “I – I am.” It’s an emphatic statement – “I – I am.” Jesus makes seven of these self-descriptive “I am” statements in John’s Gospel, and every time that He uses these words His listeners would have thought back to Exodus chapter 3, where we read: Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’
In Exodus chapter 3: “I am who I am.” In John chapter 10: “I – I am” In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the voice that is speaking is none other than the voice of God. Jesus – God – is the good shepherd.
In our world, the word “good” means about the same as “OK.” “Good” is better than “bad” or “mediocre,” but it’s not in the same league with “excellent” or “outstanding” or even “tremendous.” But in the original Greek, the word “good” refers to a fine moral character or value – providing superior benefit – pertaining to a high status – intrinsically good – the ideal. In Mark 10:17, Jesus says that “no one is good except God alone.” So the good shepherd – the only good shepherd – is God.
In these five seemingly simple words – “I am the good shepherd” – Jesus is absolutely proclaiming that He is God. And is true of every word of Scripture that has been inspired by the Holy Spirit, the word “shepherd” carries a special significance, a lot of importance for His Jewish followers. Sheep represented the single most important domesticated animal in the entire history of God’s people. In Genesis 4 we read that the second son of Adam and Eve – their son Abel – was “a keeper of sheep.” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Moses, David – as well as the very first people to hear the announcement of Jesus’ birth – were all shepherds. They raised their sheep primarily to provide wool, milk and lambs. They did not raise sheep to be killed – except to be eaten for a Passover meal – or to be offered as a sacrifice at the Temple.
But more than that, in the Old Testament, God is called the shepherd of His people. Isaiah says that the Lord God will “tend his flock like a shepherd.” In Psalm 80, David addresses God when he says: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel … come to save us.” The people of Jesus’ time were accustomed to hearing God described as their great, as their good shepherd. And what does Jesus do here? He clearly announces – He clearly identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd.
Jesus continues by describing how He cares for His flock. Verse 10: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Verse 15: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Verses 17 and 18: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” A true shepherd – a good shepherd – slept at the entrance to the sheep pen not only so that the sheep could not wander off – but also so that he could defend his sheep if a predator tried to enter. A true shepherd – a good shepherd – would voluntarily defend his sheep even to the point of death. But there’s a subtle difference if these words. Jesus doesn’t say that He will die if it comes to that. He doesn’t say that He will die only if some predator attacks and takes his life. No. Instead, Jesus says that he will voluntarily die. He will lay down his life for the sheep on His own accord. He has authority from God His Father, God the shepherd of Israel, to lay down His life. But even more, He has authority to rise from the dead! He tells us that he will make the ultimate sacrifice – giving His life for His sheep – but after He has guaranteed the safety of His sheep by that death, He will return for His sheep. He will continue to care for them. In these few words, Jesus lays out God’s entire plan for the redemption – for the salvation – of His people.
We began today by talking about the problem with sheep. How dumb they are. How helpless they are. How they need constant care. How they absolutely must have a shepherd to guard and tend and care for them – because on their own, they will die.
But do you want to know what is the real – the ultimate – problem with sheep? The real problem is – we are the sheep! We spend all of our days looking downward, gorging ourselves on the sin of this world. If we fall into the moving waters of sin – something that can’t help but happen to every man, woman and child ever born on this earth and ever to be born on this earth – we will drown. We follow the paths of this world, the paths of evil, and fall over the cliffs that lead us into the depths of hell. We are helpless – absolutely helpless –to defend ourselves from the great predator Satan and all of his demons who threaten to consume us by the same evil that consumes them. When Satan turns us on our backs – when sin leads us to that place where we cannot turn over and turn away – we suffocate and die. When sin surrounds us, we – just like sheep – can’t find our way out.
But that’s the wonder – the absolute, totally magnificent wonder – of God’s love. Even before the creation of the world, God knew that His beloved creation – mankind formed by His loving hands and formed in His perfect image – would sin. He knew that after mankind sinned, His people would be no more than helpless, pitiful, dumb sheep. But that didn’t stop Him from loving us. That never stopped Him from being our good shepherd. God the Father sent God the Son to be our shepherd, to lay down His life for you and me and every one of His helpless – and otherwise hopeless – sheep. Our good shepherd knows that we could not live without Him, so He did all of the work! He assured our lives with His holy life, His innocent suffering, His sacrificial death and His resurrection form the grave. We are His lambs, because he has bought us at a heavy price – His suffering and death on the cross. He is the one who knows His sheep, who calls us by name as the Holy Spirit brings us to faith through His Word. He is the good shepherd who lovingly feeds us through His Sacraments. He is the one who gives us forgiveness of sins through the cleansing waters of Baptism and Christ’s own body and blood that we receive in the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus paid the ultimate price for us. He suffered the wrath of God against each and every one of our sins. Our salvation cost Jesus everything, but it costs us nothing. Jesus gives this precious, precious salvation to us as a free gift.
Since we are His lambs, He leads us on the path of everlasting life. We know this because He rose from the dead. Just as He rose from the dead, so also the day will come when God will raise all people from the dead. On that day all those who believe in Jesus will be united body and soul in the eternal joys of heaven.
A famous actor was a guest of honor at a large gathering where he received many requests to recite favorite excerpts from various literary works. An elderly pastor who was in the audience asked the actor to recite the 23rd Psalm. The actor agreed – but only on the condition that that pastor would also recite it.
The actor went first, and his recitation was everything that you might expect – it was beautifully intoned, with great dramatic emphasis added to the words. When he was done, he received a thunderous round of applause.
The elderly pastor went next. Age had taken a toll on his voice, and his diction was anything but polished. But when he finished there was not a dry eye in the room. When someone asked the actor what made the difference, he replied: “I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”
In verse 16 of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The word that we translate as “fold” refers to a specific area – a specific place – similar to a sheep pen that is surrounded by rock walls, with only a single small entrance. The word that we translate as “flock,” however, refers to an area without walls or boundaries. An area that could and, indeed, does represent all of God’s creation. All of God’s people in all of the earth.
The “fold” of verse 16 refers to the Children of Israel – the descendants of Abraham who were led by God to the promised land of Israel. But the flock represents all of mankind – Jews and Gentiles alike. All of mankind that needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All of mankind that needs forgiveness of sins. All of mankind that needs Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. All of mankind that most assuredly will die – will suffer the eternity of suffering and the living death of hell – without the protection of the Good Shepherd who has already laid down His life for them – and longingly seeks to bring them to his flock.
The actor said: “I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.” My friends in Christ, we know the Shepherd, too. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we have been brought to faith entirely and only through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we have received forgiveness of sins through Holy Baptism and continue to receive forgives of sins through the absolution we receive in the Divine Service and every time we approach this altar to receive the Lord’s Supper. We know the Psalm, and we know the Shepherd. Let’s hope – let’s pray – that we can introduce the Good Shepherd to someone who does not know Him yet. A lot of helpless sheep are stumbling around right here in Saline County, falling off the cliffs of sin and drowning in waters of death. A lot of sheep are lost – and need to be found. Let’s all go looking for them.