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Sermon illustrations

Sheep

Finding A Quiet Pool To Drink From

In this short excerpt, scholar Ken Bailey provides context to the 23rd Psalm: “He leads me besides quiet waters”:

M.P. Krikorian grew up in a village near Tarsus in southeast Turkey. Born into a family of builders, his father took him out of school to herd a flock of more than a hundred sheep. Later in life, after becoming an Armenian Methodist pastor in America, he wrote a book about his experiences as a shepherd. In that book he records his surprise on discovering that his sheep would not drink from moving water.

He writes, Within sound and sight of water they (the sheep) would all begin to run toward it, showing that they were very thirsty. Yet, at their arrival, as I watched them, only a few would be drinking, while others all along the edge of the water, like the pedestrians on a fashionable street in a great metropolis, keep passing each other up and down the stream. . . . I learned the valuable lesson that they do not drink from rippling waters. They continue until every last one of them had found a quiet little pool between stones showing up above the ripples. . . . No turbid streams or ruffled rivulets will tempt them. . . . They want waters that move quietly.

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, p.43, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Finding their Way

In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides helpful context to what shepherding looks like in the Middle East, even up to today:

While visiting Greece in the late 1990s, I was privileged to have an informative chat with a Greek taxi driver who had worked as a shepherd in his youth. He told me of how on one occasion he fell asleep in the field with his sheep during the afternoon siesta and awoke some time later only to discover that the flock was gone.

Terrified, he rushed back to the village and to his delight discovered that the flock had, on their own, wandered home. The homeward path from the “still waters” was familiar to them, and when the time came they followed it, much to the relief of the shepherd.

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, p.60 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Leg is a Leg…

Abraham Lincoln once asked a deputation, “How many legs would a sheep have if it called his tail a leg?” The deputation promptly answered, “five.” “No,” said Lincoln, “it would not. It would have only four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.”

Source Unknown

The Lost Sheep

Shepherds in Lebanon, and in the Holy Land (in addition to some of my students), have told me that once a sheep knows that it is lost, it tries to hide under a bush or rock and begins quivering and bleating. The shepherd must locate it quickly lest it be heard and killed by a wild animal. On being found it is usually too traumatized to walk and must be carried back to the flock or to the village.

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, p.44, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com 

Priorities and Nibbling Away at Life

The biggest issue in life is priorities.

You don’t have to be religious to know that. We all acknowledge it every day, dozens of times a day. It is the essence of life for us list-makers; we draw up the list of the things we plan to do, then start numbering them in order of priority. Those whose budget is stretched to the limits stack up their bills according to the priority rule, “Which creditor will be most heartless?” For some it gets no more existential than a box of chocolates: Do I eat the creams first. Or the caramels?

Most of us manage our priorities reasonably well at these levels. Interestingly enough, we also do pretty well at the frightening extremities of life.

If our house catches fire, for instance, we’ll probably decide quickly and incisively about what to carry out and what to leave behind. But life itself is a more complicated call. Renowned preacher and author George Buttrick came one day upon a farmer who had just retrieved a lost sheep. When Buttrick asked how sheep wander away, the farmer answered, ‘They just nibble themselves lost,” They go, he explained, from one tuft of grass to another, until at last they’ve lost their way. And that, of course, is what happens with life. Unless we purposely establish a structure of priorities, we will nibble away at each inconsequential tuft of decision until life is gone, and we have little idea of what has happened to it.

J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Ten Commandments From the Backside, Abingdon Press, 2013.

The Problem with Sheep

In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides helpful context to understand why it is that the psalmist chose the metaphor of a good shepherd and sheep to describe his relationship with God.

Sheep have a special problem. They have no defenses. Cats have teeth, claws and speed. Dogs have their teeth and their speed. Horses can kick, bite and run. Bears can claw, bite and crush. Deer can run. But the sheep have no bite or claws and cannot outrun any serious predator. They can butt other sheep, but that ability will not protect them from a wolf or a bear. The sheep’s only security is the shepherd. Indeed, “you are with me.”

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, p.49, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Remaining Calm Amidst a Good Shepherd

One glorious autumn…I spent an afternoon climbing with a friend who grew up raising sheep in the Alps. We were climbing near the bottom of a ski area …[near] this steep green slope where [a] delightful flock of sheep [ate] all week, their bells ringing as they gaze and munch the lush Alpine meadow…[When I got close to the them] I tried to speak gently… and though this was their slope and not mine, their food and not mine, their country and not mine, my presence was no comfort to them. They began talking loudly to each other and instantly fled from me as if I were a wolf.

So later that day I’m climbing with my friend Martin, and at one point I’m just hanging from the rope…Then I notice, far up the slope, a man and his son walking down the mountain, passing through the sheep. Suddenly the man says a few German words. He isn’t shouting or cajoling; he’s just speaking.

The effect, however, is immediate. All the sheep come running toward him, first the older sheep and then the lambs. Their bells are really ringing now as some of the sheep are running toward the shepherd. When they’re all within spitting distance of the shepherd, he walks down to the ski area parking lot, and they follow.

From there, he leads the sheep through town, right through the main street, where some people are sitting down to eat ice cream and roasted chestnuts and where other people are buying their clothes and doing their banking. Right in the midst of all these terrifying people-sheep! And on they walk, in the middle of commercial chaos, as fearless as American tourists because of the presence of their shepherd.

Richard Dahlstrom, O2: Breathing New Life Into Faith, Harvest House Publishers, 2008.

Re-Wilding and Restoring Balance to Nature

In 1995, the gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after a seventy-year hiatus. Scientists expected an ecological ripple effect, but the size and scope of the trophic cascade took them by surprise.?

Wolves are predators that kill certain species of animals. But they indirectly give life to others. When the wolves reentered the ecological equation, it radically changed the behavioral patterns of other wildlife. As the wolves began killing coyotes, the rabbit and mouse populations increased. Thereby attracting more hawks, weasels, foxes, and badgers. In the absence of predators, deer had overpopulated the park and overgrazed parts of Yellowstone. Their new traffic patterns, however, allowed the flora and fauna to regenerate. The berries on those regenerated shrubs caused a spike in the bear population.

In six years’ time, the trees in overgrazed parts of the park had quintupled in height. Bare valleys were reforested uvirh aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees. And as soon as that happened, songbirds started nesting in the trees. Then beavers started chewing them down. Beavers are ecosystem engineers, building dams that create natural habitats for otters, muskrats, and ducks, as well as fish,’ reptiles, and amphibians.

One last ripple effect.

The wolves even changed the behavior of rivers—they meandered less because of less soil erosion. The channels narrowed and pools formed as the regenerated forests stabilized the riverbanks.

My point? We need wolves!

When you take the wolf out of the equation, there are unintended consequences. In the absence of danger, a sheep remains a sheep. And the same is true of men. The way we play the man is by overcoming overwhelming obstacles, by meeting daunting challenges. We may fear the wolf, but we also crave it. It’s what we want. It’s what we need.

Picture a cage fight between a sheep and a wolf. The sheep doesn’t stand a chance, right? Unless there is a Shepherd. And

I wonder if that’s why we play it safe instead of playing the man—we don’t trust the Shepherd.

Playing the man starts there!

Ecologists recently coined a wonderful new word. Invented in 2011, rewilding has a multiplicity of meanings. It’s resisting the urge to control nature. It’s the restoration of wilderness. It’s the reintroduction of animals back into their natural habitat. It’s an ecological term, but rewilding has spiritual implications.

As I look at the Gospels, rewilding seems to be a subplot. The Pharisees were so civilized—too civilized. Their religion was nothing more than a stage play. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing. But Jesus taught a very different brand of spirituality.

Foxes have dens and birds have nests,” said Jesus, “but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” So Jesus spent the better part of three years camping, fishing, and hiking with His disciples. It seems to me Jesus was rewilding them.

Mark Batterson, Play the Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, Baker Books, 2017.

The San Francisco Sheep

While teaching on Jesus’ sending out of the disciples in Matthew 10, pastor John Ortberg uses the analogy of sports teams to describe the absurdity of Jesus’ description of the disciples as “sheep.” being sent out among wolves:

There are animal nicknames for all kinds of sports teams. There are the Bears, Tigers, Lions, Diamondbacks, Wolverines, Badgers, Sharks—these are dangerous animals—Eagles, Hawks, Bulls, Panthers, Bengals, Raptors, Bobcats, Broncos, Grizzlies. I don’t know of a single team—professional, college, or high school—called the Sheep. “The San Francisco Sheep” just doesn’t inspire terror in anybody.

Jesus says, “I’m sending you out like sheep.” He doesn’t stop there. “I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves.” Question: How does a sheep go among wolves? Answer: Very carefully. Very humbly. The sheep doesn’t go out and say, “Hey, wolves, I’m here to straighten you out! Hey, wolves, I’m going to get you to shape up!” // This assignment doesn’t sound very glamorous. But when you think about it, it takes some courage for a sheep to be sent to the wolves. // To be sent as a sheep means I don’t lead with how smart or strong or impressive I am.

Taken from John Ortberg, All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know?: God Has Placed before You an Open Door.  What Will You Do?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

The Sheep Follow the Shepherd’s Call

During the riots in Palestine in the middle thirties a village near Haifa was condemned to collective punishment by having its sheep and cattle sequestrated by the Government. The inhabitants however were permitted to redeem their possessions at a fixed price. Among them was an orphan shepherd boy, whose six or eight sheep and goats were all he had in the world for life and work. Somehow he obtained the money for their redemption. He went to the big enclosure where the animals were penned, offering his money to the British sergeant in charge.

The N.C.O. told him he was welcome to the requisite number of animals, but ridiculed the idea that he could possibly pick out his “little flock” from among the confiscated hundreds. The little shepherd thought differently, because he knew better; and giving his own “call”, for he had his nai (shepherd’s pipe) with him, “his own” separated from the rest of the animals and trotted out after him. “I am the Good Shepherd and know my sheep—and am known of mine.”

Eric F. F. Bishop, Jesus of Palestine (London: Lutterworth, 1955), pp. 297-98.

An Unfortunate Comparison 

Jesus doesn’t just use the shepherd metaphor when he refers to himself as the door. Over and over in the Bible we are compared to sheep. Some people think it’s heartwarming. But I hate to tell you, it’s not flattering. You won’t find a dumber animal than sheep. Dogs and cats can be trained, but you’ll never go to a circus and buy a ticket to see a trained sheep.

They have poor eyesight. They have no common sense. Left to their own, they’ll walk into a stream and drown. Sheep are prone even to walk off a cliff and plummet to their death. We are different from sheep in at least one way: we worry. Sheep are too dumb even to worry that they can’t take care of themselves.

James Merritt, 52 Weeks with Jesus, Harvest House Publishers.

Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs*

In his book On Combat, Lieutenant Dave Grossman talks about people being in one of three categories on a bell-shaped curve: wolves, sheep, or sheepdogs. Most people fall into the category of being sheep. They don’t want trouble, and they don’t cause trouble. Sheep willingly follow the status quo.

…Wolves are predatory and prey on sheep. Sheepdogs, like wolves, also make up a small percentage of the population. Like wolves, they are aggressive and willing to fight. However, the powerful motivation of sheepdogs is what differentiates them from predators. They are fiercely protective of their flock. Wolves are a powerful minority.

  • Wolves target and take advantage of the weak.
  • Wolves look for sheep that are not paying attention. When you are not paying attention to your health you are vulnerable to predators.
  • Wolves prey on sheep that are sick. The sick are not likely to put up much of a fight.
  • Wolves stalk sheep that have been separated from the herd. Loneliness and social isolation are associated with early death.
  • Wolves avoid sheep guarded by sheepdogs, even though the wolves are often stronger than the sheepdogs. Wolves want to avoid a fight or the possibility of being hurt.

Sheep are the majority of people on the curve.

  • Sheep are best known for their strong flocking behavior. They go with the herd and do what the majority of the other sheep do.
  • Sheep follow. When one sheep moves, the rest of the flock tends to follow, even when it’s a bad idea. In Turkey in 2005, a sheep jumped off a cliff to its death; then 1,500 others followed. In China in 2014, a lead sheep was blown off a cliff; 58 sheep dutifully followed it to their deaths. Sheep are docile and usually nonaggressive, so they are easily led. Sheep don’t want to believe that tragedy can or will occur.
  • Sheep live in denial and don’t want to see problems. Sheep pretend that all is okay and the wolf will never come.
  • Sheep have two speeds—graze and stampede (groupthink).
  • Sheep are often annoyed by sheepdogs—they remind them that trouble may be nearby.
  • If your kids are annoyed by your sheepdog behavior, consider it normal.

Sheepdogs are at the other end of the bell curve; they are also a minority.

  • Sheepdogs are purpose driven to protect their flock.
  • They live to make a difference. Sheepdogs need training to be effective.
  • Sheepdogs are serious. It is not a seasonal job.
  • Sheepdogs love their flock, even when the love is not returned.
  • Sheepdogs will give their lives to protect their sheep.
  • Sheepdogs have a major advantage. They can survive in a hostile environment, while sheep cannot. When sheep get attacked, they often give in to death. When sheepdogs are attacked they fight back and are much more likely to survive.

Daniel G. Amen, The Brain Warrior’s Way, Penguin Publishing Group, Penguin Publishing Group, 2016, p. 27.

*Editor’s note: While I do not necessarily agree with the overall categorization of people, originally espoused by Dave Grossman, I do think there are some interesting insights here that could be helpful to someone teaching on the subject of sheep and wolves.

See Also Illustrations on Shepherds