Sunday, April 17, 2005

You are a sheep . . .

What follows is my sermon from today, April 17. It's a longish post for me, so read on at your own peril. ;-)

You are a sheep.

Just close your eyes for a few moments, and imagine that you are a sheep. Well, a flock of sheep I guess would be more accurate. That’s not too hard, is it? After all, today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and the Bible is filled with images comparing God’s people to sheep.
So, you all are sheep. Now, what are your sheep-y needs? You need sheep food. You need sheep shelter. You need sheep protection . . . and you need sheep guidance. Where are you going to get that? From the other sheep? Is there a head sheep we can look to, some sort of super-sheep that will look out for us?
I don’t think so. The other sheep are just pretty much the same. Sheep, as a rule, are not particularly bright, and a flock of sheep all put together is a bit dimmer yet. So what we need is a shepherd.
So, now imagine a shepherd—he can be anything you want him to be, tall, short, thin . . . whatever. The important thing is that he’s a shepherd, that he’s watching out for us sheep.
Since he’s watching out for us, he’s going to make sure he leads us where we need to be in order to get the things that satisfy our sheep needs. Now, I suppose that this shepherd could just herd us all together into a pen, but I think that our imaginary shepherd wants better for us. So he calls us out of the pen and we follow after him. And he leads us up, up, up. Up to a fine, soft meadow where we can stop and rest. A little spring is bubbling up nearby so we can get a cool, refreshing drink. NOT a rushing river—it would be too easy for one of us to get swept downstream—but a nice spring of quiet water. It is a refreshing place to be in.
And our shepherd, he takes us from place to place just like this. We follow him day by day as he leads us from one good place to another. The paths he chooses are firm and sure, and he moves with a quiet confidence of one who knows the mountains well.
Well now, that sounds rather nice, doesn’t it? Kinda makes me want to be a sheep. To have a nice, quiet, ideal life filled with pleasant things, good food, and nice, sheepy friends. Could anyone argue with that? If we could just stay on the mountain top forever, we’d live out a good life. If we could stay on the mountain top . . .
But . . . I didn’t say we were staying on the mountain top, did I? No, what I said was that our shepherd leads us from one good place to another. And I don’t know a lot about sheep, but I do know that once a flock of sheep gets to a nice, lush pasture that that pasture isn’t going to be good for very long. The shepherd knows that we can’t stay on the mountain top forever, so he leads us from one good place to another. And to get to the next good place, our faithful shepherd is going to have to lead us through the valley.
It’s rough in the valley, sometimes, did you know that? On the mountain top we had great food, fresh water, open country, and an abundance of light. But in the valley . . . who knows what could happen? The valley is in the shadow of the mountain. And it can be a deep, dark shadow. A shadow so thick that it feels like it’s taken a life of its own . . . no, that’s not right, because it doesn’t feel like life at all. The mountain top—that feels like life. But the valley—that shadow grips our hearts like death itself. And our shepherd is leading us down into it.
Let’s not be coy about this, now—the valley is a dangerous place. It’s full of things that like nothing more than a few sheep for breakfast. And the darkness is so thick that we won’t even be able to see the dangers very well. Down there in the valley we’ll find the sure, firm paths the shepherd is choosing are harder to see, and if we’re not careful we could lose our way. If we’re not careful we could get separated from our shepherd. Down there in the valley we’ll find wolves in sheep’s clothing—wolves just trying to mix in with the flock until they can pick one of us off. Oh, they’ll look nice enough . . . until you get up close. Down there in the valley we’ll find thieves and robbers—sheep hustlers, if you will—and they’re going to want to steal us away from our shepherd, to take us to their pen, and we’d never see the mountain top again. Down there in the valley is not a place for sheep to be alone. It’s just not safe.
But down there in the valley is where our shepherd leads us. Should we be afraid?
Our shepherd is a good shepherd. He’s taking us from one good place to another, and the valley is on the path between the two. Yes, the valley is dark. Yes, the valley is scary. No, I can’t tell you how long of a journey the valley is . . . but I can tell you that our shepherd is with you in that dark, dark valley.
The valley is full of real dangers, but our shepherd is prepared to deal with them. One, he’s got a weapon. Now, this isn’t quite right [a baseball bat], but you get the picture. Our shepherd carries a rod with him. His is probably something like this . . . but his is coated with iron. And anything that is going to go after you is going to have to get by him first. Those wolves? WHACK! Sends them off scampering and whining. Thieves and robbers? WHACK! Leaves them looking like they got beat with the ugly stick . . . which they just have. Anything that comes out of the dark, anything that is going to threaten the well-being of us as his sheep—our shepherd is right there to deal with it. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, he speaks softly, but he carries a big stick.
But the rod isn’t for us. Sheep don’t get clubbed when they get out of line. Our shepherd also carries his shepherd’s staff. A long, graceful staff with a curve at the end. The rod is for beating off attackers, but the staff is for guiding us sheep back onto the straight and narrow path. The staff keeps us grouped together. Yes, I suppose that some sheep might get a small whack with the staff now and then, but it’s to keep us all in line. The rod defends us sheep against attackers, but the staff guides us in the shepherd’s way.
And as we travel through the valley of darkness, our shepherd uses both of them for our benefit. We’ve left one mountain top, and we’re heading to another. But to get there, we’ve got to pass through the valley, and if we’re sheep—which we still are—knowing that our shepherd has both a rod and a staff is a comfort to us.

But what if you weren’t a sheep?
What if you were just another person living in a messed-up world, just doing your best to get by? What if you had nothing but a dream that maybe, someday, somehow, you could be a sheep, that a shepherd would appear and pull you out of the valley and bring you to a place of green pastures and quiet waters? What if your life was stuck in the valley, and you weren’t sure if you could ever get out on your own?
Our shepherd is a good shepherd. He’s taking us from one good place to another, and I want you to remember the valley is on the path between the two. Yes, the valley is dark. Yes, the valley is scary. No, I can’t tell you how long of a journey the valley is . . . but I can tell you that our shepherd is with you in that dark, dark valley. I know it because I’ve seen it. I know it because I’ve lived it. And more than that—I know it because God promises me in His word that it’s so. You have God’s promise that no matter how dark the valley is, that no matter how dangerous the path has become, that no matter how afraid you are of what is up ahead, God has already been there, and He is protecting you and He is watching out for you and He is leading you on a path that will take you to from good to good, and there is no way the valley is going to stop Him from getting you to where He wants you to be!
Jesus Christ knows about pain, and He knows about danger, and He knows what it feels like to be dragged through Hell and back . . . because He did it all. He did it all on that cross. He didn’t come down off that cross on His own . . . they took Him down because He was dead. He was dead—rejected by God and condemned for sins He never committed—ours. He laid His life down for you, and for me. He laid His life down for His sheep. But He took His life back up again in victory and in power, and it is through His life that we will have life with Him forever. He is your shepherd.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

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