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Sheep and the good shepherd

It is a little while since I have rescued a sheep, well at least a year.

In the Bible there are more than 500 references to sheep beginning in Genesis chapter four where we discover that Abel was a “keeper of sheep.” Little is known about the origin of the domestic sheep so far back in time does it go. The sheep of Palestine were the “broad tailed” sheep whose tails could weigh between ten and fifteen pounds and which were considered a delicacy. The flocks provided food, milk, wool some rough clothing as hides, materials for tents and of course were also sacrificed. Sheep are gentle, affectionate, and unaggressive but in constant need of care, attention and supervision.

My first sheep rescue took place in a Kentish garden, or more precisely in a Kentish dining room. We had been invited to lunch by a neighbour and just as we sat down to a light soup the French doors burst open and in came a large and very heavy Jacob’s sheep. There he was head on the table eying up the celery. The room was small, too small to accommodate the sheep and he threatened to tip over the table so three of us, and it took three of us manoeuvred him around and pushed him outside back to his proper place.

A second happened in Cornwall where a chubby black lamb had unaccountably escaped his field and was bleating piteously on the wrong side of a fence. As I picked him up to put him back I was struck by the oiliness of his coat. From afar a lamb appears to be a soft furry animal but not so, the lanolin (I suppose that is what it is) was so rich that he felt quite stiffly greased like the hair of nineteen-fifties Teddy boys.

On Sundon Hills I found a heavily pregnant ewe transfixed by brambles who needed cutting free with scissors and then last year a young strong ram had somehow got his foot hopelessly stuck in a wire fence. We had to summon help but after a tussle he was eventually freed.

So a full time shepherd, based on my amateur infrequent meetings with the species, must have been busy. The sheep are in constant need of care seeming to be able quite easily to get into scrapes of their own making quite apart from the predations of wolves, hyenas, jackals and other dangers. Shepherds had to be watchful, spending most of the year out of doors with their immense flocks (usually several thousand strong) armed with a cudgel, a sharp knife or like David the shepherd boy with a slings and a pile of stones. All this would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners as indeed is the New Testament picture that you have heard since childhood, perhaps like me with the aid of a Ladybird picture book, the image of Jesus the good shepherd.

But hang on a moment, is this familiarity leading us astray? There is a shock in what Jesus says: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Surely not! I have not reviewed all five hundred Biblical references to sheep but I should be surprised if there are any stories of shepherds doing battle with wolves to their own death. It makes no sense, you would NOT lay down your life in this way for then the whole flock would be exposed, you would not any longer be able to protect them. It would be foolishness.

But Jesus did. He laid down his life for the sheep and as John tells us it was for the one whole flock. Jesus says the one shepherd will lay down his life and will take it up again for his sheep.

That lamb of mine, fluffy and furry and soft close up was not as I expected and this parable of fluffy, soft and good shepherds close up was not what the people listening expected. They recognised the shock of what Jesus was saying: this was no ordinary shepherd who weighed the risks, nor even A good shepherd but the ONE and ONLY shepherd of us all.

Amen.

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