July 2012
“That was a narrow escape!  Those horrible people were chasing me, and I only just got back to the safety of my mummy.  Baaaa!”  He shot a murderous look at Rachel and me, which clearly conveyed the sentiment.  Neither mother nor child thanked us in the slightest, and if ever I saw the bible phrase ‘the wrath of the lamb’ acted out, it was then.  You have realised, of course, that we are talking about a lamb.  We were on holiday, and as we drove towards Port Patrick, we came across a small lamb which had squeezed under the fence and was running up and down the road in a state of distress, calling to its mother with a pitiful bleating; she stood with her other lamb, calling back.   Clearly, what had been achieved in one direction was proving impossible in reverse, and the agitated lamb posed a threat to passing traffic on a deregulated stretch of road.

Rachel was game for a bit of shepherding, so I went to the gate; the lamb immediately cantered up the road away from the gate, but Rachel was walking up the road on the opposite side until she could get beyond the lamb, who was watching her warily.  Rachel started clapping her hands, walking towards the lamb, who darted towards me, then back, then closer, caught between two ‘monsters’ intent on harming it.  By now I had the gate open, and the lamb’s oscillations had brought it to within eyesight of gate and mother.  With a sudden last dart, it skidded around the gate to its mother and stood there defiantly bleating at the defeated ‘monsters’.

Rachel and I ‘high fived’ in success, and got back into the car; Diane had been looking after grandson Ben, who had slept through the whole episode.  We drove around the corner, and there was another, bigger, lamb quietly grazing at the side of the road; I looked at Rachel the shepherdess, and we both went, “Nah!” and drove on.  The lamb was content and no threat, and there are only so many murderous looks you can take in a day.

Sheep are peculiarly stupid animals, and despite our considerable efforts, we knew there would be no understanding of our efforts to save the infant, only a perceived threat.  Our every action was interpreted in a malignant manner.  Many other species can begin to understand that you are trying to help and even begin to co-operate, but not sheep.  So why does Jesus – and the bible as a whole – use sheep and shepherd so frequently as a metaphor for our relationship with our heavenly Father?

From Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd…” (The Bible, Ps 23.1) through to Jesus “I am the good shepherd…” (John 10.11), via Old Testament prophets to the parable of Jesus about the lost sheep “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home…” (Luke 15.5), we are the sheep and he is the shepherd.  Isaiah declares “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isa 53.6), showing that the view of sheep – and us – has not changed, whilst giving us one of the most evocative lines from our confession.  Psalm 23 offers encouragement – the shepherd guides us, (verse 1), finds us the best pastures (verse 2), keeps us on the right path (verse 3), and even walks us through the valley of the shadow of death (verse 4a), but in the second half of the verse “I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23.4b) is a mediation no mere sheep could ever contemplate.  The rod is a club for beating off predators like wolves, so perhaps even sheep would recognise its protection, but the staff is the shepherd’s crook.

The crook is used to drag the errant sheep back to the path from whichever crevice it has stupidly entered; it is applied to a leg or the neck, and force is applied, dragging the struggling sheep back to safety.  It cannot be a pleasant process for the sheep, who is stupid enough to have got itself into the predicament in the first place, and doubly stupid in not being able to recognise that the shepherd has been working energetically to rescue it.  So the big question is ‘Just how sheep-like are we?’  All we like sheep have gone astray; the shepherd has put his life on the line to pull us back.  Do we stand and glower at him?  Ignore him? Or do we see what he has done, and give him thanks, resolving to let him guide us to the best pastures by following his way of righteousness?

Praying that you may see the love of the Good Shepherd Jesus, rejoice in his saving acts, and know peace and direction in your daily life.

            Your servant in the Lord Jesus Christ,

                                                Simon Cox.