January 20, 2013
Rev. John Watts
HOW TO BE A BETTER EWE
I want to talk to you today about how you can be a better ewe. And I am spelling “ewe”, e-w-e. Yes, I know that ewes are female sheep. That doesn’t mean I’m just talking to the women today. You don’t need to take my title that literally.
Actually my title, which I am rather proud of, came to me in a flash as I was reading a book by the well-known pastor, Joel Osteen, with the title, Become a Better You.
He spells it y-o-u. But I made a note that some day I needed to preach a sermon about sheep that would have a little fun at Joel Osteen’s expense.
I’ve probably had a little too much fun this week. Here’s what Joel Osteen’s book might look like with my new spelling of that one word.
Perhaps you noticed that we’ve had a ewe in the news the last few days. I’m sorry to say it didn’t have a happy ending. A family was doing some backcountry skiing near Tamarack Resort when they came upon a ewe with his head sticking out of the snow. They reported their find to the ski patrol. They ordinarily wouldn’t risk lives and spend money saving the life of a sheep, but in this case they thought it would be good practice for a human rescue in the future. As it turned out the rescue was quite challenging. But they were successful. This was Sunday, January 6. That ewe was given the best care possible, but five days later she died. It’s estimated that she got separated from her herd when they were passing through the area in October and that she may have been trapped in the brush and snow without food or water for two weeks.
Sheep have a tendency to get themselves into trouble. Kind of like us. Maybe that’s why all through the Bible we are compared to sheep. Including today’s passage. Jesus is the shepherd. We are the sheep. Jesus is the one who is strong and who is capable. We are the ones who are weak and who are vulnerable. We are the ones who are always getting ourselves into trouble.
It’s not a real flattering comparison, comparing us to sheep. Sheep are not particularly heroic creatures. I don’t know of a sports team that uses “sheep” as their mascot. It’s not going to be theSan Francisco49ers against the New England Sheep in the Super Bowl. Sheep are actually kind of ridiculous looking animals. With their wool grown full out they look top heavy. It looks like you could just tip one of them over. And have you ever seen a sheep run? They have sheep races posted on youtube because it’s so funny to watch them. Sheep don’t have an ankle where the ankle should be. They look like they’re limping, even when they are running normally. If you should tip a sheep over, you wouldn’t have to worry about the sheep getting revenge. I’m not even sure if the sheep could get back up. And if so, most any of us could outrun a sheep.
You would think there would be other animals the Bible could use to illustrate the human condition. But everywhere you look, we are sheep. Clear back in Numbers, Moses worried that when he died his people would be like sheep without a shepherd (26:17). In First Kings, we’re told thatIsraelis “scattered over the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd.” There’s Isaiah 53: “For we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way” (vs 6). In Ezekiel, God says, “My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (34:6). In Romans, the book I know quite a few of you are studying right now, it says, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (8:36).
Of course there’s that chapter we all love, the 23rd Psalm. It begins, “The Lord is my shepherd . . . ” It speaks of green pastures and still waters, things sheep really like. You know why sheep like still water as opposed to running water? Because they really don’t like it when the water splashes up on their noses. Sheep are such geeky, laughable creatures, and yet God says they are us.
I wonder why God didn’t say we could be lions. There is after all a football team called the Lions. Lions don’t care if they have water dripping off their chins. Lions are tough. Lions are impressive. Wouldn’t we rather be lions? Here’s what God says about lions. It’s in First Peter. “Your enemy, the devil prowls around like a roaring lion” (5:8).
No, I think God knows us pretty well and knows that of all the animals of the animal kingdom, we are best described as sheep. For several reasons. We’ve already mentioned that sheep are very good at getting themselves into trouble. That poor ewe trapped in the snow up in the high country. We wouldn’t do anything that stupid.
I was over in our GPS building. The bathroom door had been accidentally locked. The lock mechanism is not all there. There’s just a hole about the size of a finger in the middle of the door knob. To unlock the door, I just needed a screwdriver, but I didn’t have a screwdriver, so I used my finger. My finger wasn’t long enough to reach, so I was just going to have to go back to the main building and get a screwdriver. Except I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I couldn’t get my finger out of the door knob. I was able to get my finger in, barely. I was not able to get my finger out. I might have been in the GPS building for two weeks without food or water. Finally I managed to pull that finger out without scraping up my knuckle too badly. Sheep aren’t the only ones who do stupid things.
And then sheep have that proverbial herd instinct. They follow their leader. They follow each other. They don’t think for themselves. They do what everyone else does. Sheep have been known to follow the herd over a cliff.
It happened inTurkeyin 2005. I’m reading from the Associated Press story:
First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds watched as nearly 1,500 others followed. In the end 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned. “There’s nothing we can do. They’re all wasted,” said Nevzat Bayhan, a member of one of 26 families whose sheep were grazing together in the herd. The estimated loss to the families tops $100,000, a significant amount of money in a country where the average annual income is around $2,700.
It’s a good thing we’re smarter than that. We don’t have any herd instinct at all, do we? This picture was taken on Black Friday. All these people who can’t wait to buy what everyone else wants to buy. Going into debt just like everyone is going into debt. Looking for that special article of clothing with that certain label that doesn’t even show when we wear it, but that marks the wearer as one who stands out in the crowd. Just like everyone else who is wearing the very same thing. Just like, well, sheep!
It’s not flattering to be thought of that way. Weak. Vulnerable. Stupid. Afraid to be different. Needing a shepherd every minute of every day to take care of us and watch over us and protect us from harm. I don’t like to think of myself that way. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a sheep. I see a strong, capable, self-sufficient adult. After all, I know how important it is to maintain a positive, self-image.
But when I look in the mirror, it’s kind of like this kitten looking in a mirror and seeing a lion. We like to see ourselves as we would like ourselves to be. But God sees us the way we really are. And when God looks at us, sorry to say, God doesn’t see a lion. God sees a sheep. A sheep who needs a shepherd.
It’s one of the most familiar images of Jesus. The Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” And you know who all those sheep around him are? They are us. Jesus is taking care of us, watching over us, protecting us.
Being a shepherd is a 24-7 job. Sheep need constant care. But when the shepherd needed a little time away, a substitute shepherd would be hired. A “hireling”. Under normal conditions, the hireling would do as good a job as the regular shepherd. But what if there was an emergency? What if a wolf attacked the herd? That’s when you would see the difference. The hireling would run away. The hireling cared about himself more than about the sheep. After all, sheep aren’t worth dying for. But the shepherd who had gotten to know these sheep and love them would never run away. If that wolf wants to kill one of those precious sheep, he will have to kill the shepherd first.
Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, did lay down his life for his sheep. For you and for me. That’s what happened when he died on the cross. That’s how much the shepherd loves us. And on the third day, our Good Shepherd rose from the grave. That means he is now a glorified Good Shepherd. God has exalted him and given him all wisdom and honor and power and authority. That’s who is on our side now. That’s who is always there to help you whenever your sheep nature gets you into a fix.
Jesus told the parable about the hundred sheep, Ninety-nine of them were right where they belonged. One of them had wandered away. You know the story. The Good Shepherd leaves the 99 behind and goes in search of the one. But let’s embellish this story a little. The one sheep that is lost is in very serious trouble. There happens to be a lion in the vicinity. This lion hasn’t eaten for two weeks. And here is dinner walking by. This is too easy. The lion moves in for the kill. The sheep sees the danger. But what can he do?
There are two options. Option number one is that he can fight. This probably isn’t the best option. It would not be a fair fight. It would not even be a fight. I would be real quick and real ugly. But what do we do when we get ourselves in serious trouble? We fight. We’re going to solve it ourselves. We’re going to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And we end up with broken bootstraps. Because sometimes it’s a fight we can’t win.
The second option is to run. In the case of the sheep, that sounds like an equally ridiculous option. Sheep, as has been noted, are not great runners. Lions are. But the smart move for the sheep is to run. Not to run away from the lion. The smart move is to run to the shepherd. Because the shepherd is there now. The Good Shepherd. So the sheep runs to him, grabs onto his leg, looks back at the lion, and says, “I’m with Him!”
Remember that verse in Romans? “We are like sheep waiting to be slaughtered.” Let’s read the next verse. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am certain that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:37-39). The love of God in Christ Jesus, our Good Shepherd.
All week the beautiful harmonies of that wonderful Gaither song, “Gentle Shepherd”, have been going through my head. The harmonies were so wonderful, I wonder if you heard the words. They are wonderful, too.
Gentle Shepherd, come and lead us
For we need You to help us find our way.
Gentle Shepherd, come and feed us
For we need Your strength from day to day.
There’s no other we can turn to
Who can help us face another day.
Gentle Shepherd, come and lead us
For we need You to help us find our way.
We may have a lot in common with sheep. Weak, vulnerable, stupid, and all the rest. But we have a Shepherd who is just the opposite. “We are weak, but He is strong.” Stay close to that Shepherd. Stay close to Jesus. Whenever trouble comes your way, and it will, get extra close and say, “I’m with Him!”
Gentle Shepherd, Lord Jesus, you are with us always. We couldn’t run away from you if we tried. So why not run to you? In times that are good, in times that are difficult, in all times. You are there for us. Your rod and your staff, they comfort us and strengthen us and provide for us our every need. Thank you, Gentle Shepherd. Amen.