Jeremiah 23:1-6, Mark 6:3—34, 53-end
The bible is pretty keen on sheep and shepherds. They pop up all over the place - think of the invention of farming, as described in Genesis; Cain worked the soil, while Abel kept the flocks. Or think of King David, who was a shepherd when picked to be the next King of Israel, and who had developed the sling skills which would do for Goliath while out in the fields protecting his flocks. Sheep are mentioned in Psalms, 23, 28, 74, 78, 79, 80, 95, 100 and119. The great prophets Micah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Hosea and Jeremiah all talk about sheep - we heard Jeremiah contrasting the bad shepherds who scatter the sheep with the good shepherd in our first reading. The first people to meet the baby Jesus are shepherds, who are out guarding their flocks by night. Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, and today, those he is teaching as being like ‘sheep without a shepherd’.
There in fact more than 500 mentions of sheep, which makes them by the far and away the most popular animal in the bible.
Clearly that’s because they’re were (and are) an important part of Middle Eastern life. But often they come to be used as a metaphor, with the people as the sheep and God as the Shepherd, as in ‘The Lord’s my shepherd I shall not want.’ And this image is one of the great biblical ones - God as the shepherd of his people.
Now I have to be honest and say that I have always struggled with this image - not because I don’t like the idea of Jesus as a shepherd, although some of the cheesier paintings of him in perfect white robes with immaculate hair while out in the fields with his perfect white sheep don’t quite do it for me - no, the reason I struggle with the image is that it makes us the sheep. Now I’m no expert in sheep, but it’s pretty clear to me that they’re not the brightest of animals! There are plenty of animals I wouldn’t mind being compared to - cats can be cool, dogs too sometimes; lions, bears, dolphins have all got positive characteristics - but sheep?
I acknowledge that they’re pretty sweet as lambs, but as soon as they grow a bit bigger, they lose all their charm. Where once they were frisky and fun, they grow up to become ungainly and cumbersome. And all that following each other around, and the crazy charging off when one of them gets a bit jumpy doesn’t make me think - great, thanks for the comparison God.
So, preparing for this sermon I did a bit of research into sheep, and I found out some interesting things. Here are 4 facts that I didn’t know.
Sheep have no protection from predators except to bunch up and hope the predator only takes one of them.
Because of this, sheep are afraid of anything unfamiliar, and will run from it.
Sheep are gregarious, and will move toward another sheep, or toward other living things that are familiar to them.
Sheep will follow each other, even into trouble.
Now knowing that doesn’t make me want to be a sheep particularly, but it does help. Sheep it turns out are pretty scared. They live with a constant fear of the world around them and see potential predators in anything unfamiliar. They haven’t got big teeth to protect themselves with, they can’t fly away or hide in their shell. They don’t have holes to escape into. All they can do when threatened is to bunch up and run.
And maybe that’s why all those biblical authors pick up on sheep as a metaphor for humanity - because we are also pretty scared much of the time. Back then people were scared of very real threats - invasion, hunger and illness, and that remains the reality for many, many people in the world, even today. In the rich West, we have managed to stave off many of those threats, but still we are scared much of the time. Scared of failing, scared of what other people think of us. Scared that we’re too pushy, scared that we’re not ambitious enough. Scared for our kids, scared of getting old. Scared of being found out, scared of what might happen. We are all scared.
And some of our fears are for very real reasons - there’s something going wrong and the consequences are gong to be serious.
And some of fears are less clear and may be harder to pin down. These fears are hidden within us - often so deeply that we can’t really talk about them. And sometimes these fears burst to the surface and overwhelm us, and we suffer horribly from depression or anxiety, or we fall into behaviours that we think will help, but which just make it worse.
And sometimes our fears and other peoples fears join together, and like a flock of sheep, we see predators all around us, and we charge off in no clear direction, and our fears are compounded by screaming newspaper headlines. And that can lead to dangerous situations for everyone.
Let’s be honest. Many of us are scared a lot of the time.
And the thing that sheep need most of all - the thing that stops them feeling so scared - is someone that they can trust. And sheep, it turns out, are very good at recognising faces - both of other sheep and of humans. And when they get to know someone, then they relax and trust that they’re safe. They need, in other words, a good shepherd.
In the gospel reading Jesus has tried to take his disciples away for a time of rest. They’ve just returned from their first mission to the villages of Galilee where they’ve healed and taught, and they’re tired and they need to tell Jesus about everything that has happened. But when they get out to the middle of nowhere, it turns out the crowds have got there already, wanting more healing, more stories about God, more of the peace that Jesus brings. They’ve seen something in Jesus that they trust, something that calms their fears.
And it’s clear that they are desperate. Look again at the gospel reading and notice how the crowds are described. First, verse 33, when they figure out where Jesus has gone they ‘hurried there’ - the greek has the sense of people rushing to join a crowd, desperate not miss out. Then verse 55, when Jesus gets out of the boat again, the people recognise him and ‘rushed about that whole region’. And then in the last verse, verse 56, ‘wherever’ Jesus went, people ‘begged’ him to help and tried even to get hold of the edge of his cloak. There’s a deep, deep desperation driving them to Jesus. They’re scared.
And Jesus ‘had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd’. He saw their fears and he responded. He is trustworthy and his sheep know it.
Compassion is a wonderful word. The greek word means, to have your guts moved. And the literal translation from the latin is ‘to suffer with’. Jesus is trustworthy because he gets it. He gets us, and he never leaves, he never deserts his sheep. Even in the midst of our darkest times, our gut-twistingly awful moments,when we are most scared, he is there, alongside us. The Good Shepherd stands with us throughout every situation.
To be a Christian, to follow Jesus, means to put our trust in him as the Good Shepherd. To trust that we are never abandoned and that our fears cannot be the final word. To be a Christian is to trust that Jesus is always with us and that his love for us is faithful, it is to learn to recognise his face and to let our fears subside in his presence. It is no coincidence that ‘do not be afraid’ is one of the most used phrases in the bible. Do not be afraid.
And when our fears subside, we can deal with the issues. We can see what needs to happen next, whether that’s something practical or something more internal. We are not overwhelmed any more. The challenges remain. The problem may still be there, but we are no longer afraid.
Are you afraid? Afraid of something specific, or something intangible, something that lurks there, just behind the horizon of day to day life?
Jesus says, I see you. I see your fear. I have compassion for you. Do not be afraid. Come to me, I am the good shepherd; I am trustworthy. Give me your fears and let’s face the world together.