*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.
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.
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.
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.