Sermon Illustrations on Shepherds
A Basic Set of Wants
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 describes the nature of David’s requests in the 23rd psalm:
The psalmist [in Psalm 23] has a very basic set of wants that the shepherd provides for his sheep. That list includes food, drink, tranquility, rescue when lost, freedom from the fear of evil and death, a sense of being surrounded by the grace of the Lord, and a permanent dwelling place in the house of God.
An ever-rising mountain of material possessions is not on the list. There is no hint of any need for power or control. An externally generated set of compulsive desires and the need to be constantly entertained are also absent. The sheep knows that only with the shepherd’s help can they secure the above limited list of basic wants.
Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, p.39 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Christian Symbols of the Early Church
At the same time Church historian Philip Schaff was writing his 8-volume history of the Church, the Roman catacombs were being discovered. Schaff had this to say about symbols Christians used to adorn their tombs:
Roman Catholic cemeteries are easily recognized by crosses, crucifixes and reference to purgatory and prayers for the dead; Protestant cemeteries by the frequency of Scripture passages in the epitaphs, and expressions of hope and joy in prospect of the immediate transition of the pious dead to the presence of Christ.
The catacombs have a character of their own, which distinguishes them from Roman Catholic as well as Protestant cemeteries. Their most characteristic symbols and pictures are the Good Shepherd, the Fish, and the Vine.
These symbols almost wholly disappeared after the fourth century, but to the mind of the early Christians they vividly expressed, in childlike simplicity, what is essential to Christians of all creeds, the idea of Christ and his salvation, as the only comfort in life and in death. The Shepherd, whether from the Sabine or the Galilean hills, suggested the recovery of the lost sheep, the tender care and protection, the green pasture and fresh fountain, the sacrifice of life: in a word, the whole picture of a Saviour.
“The Lord is my Shepherd”
“The Lord is my shepherd,” among other things, means “I have no police protection.” In those open trackless spaces the traveler and his companions are alone. Thieves, wild animals, snakes, sudden blinding dust storms, water shortages, loose rocks and furnace-like heat are all potential threats to any traveler.
All of this was affirmed in the twelfth century in the Armenian Orthodox tradition through the extensive commentary on the Psalms composed by Archbishop Nerses of Lambron in Armenia.
“The Lord is my shepherd.” In other words, I wandered in the midst of beasts, dogs and bulls (that) surrounded me; lions opened their mouths and wished to ravish me. I was terrified, and because of fear I made a treaty with the Savior. Therefore, do not be afraid, O my soul, for He is my shepherd, and “I shall not want.” The good archbishop knew full well that the opening verse of this psalm is a profound commitment to the Lord as the source of security in the midst of many dangers where no other help is available.
Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, p.37-38 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The “Popular Religion of the First Christians”
What was the popular Religion of the first Christians? It was, in one word, the Religion of the Good Shepherd. The kindness, the courage, the grace, the love, the beauty of the Good Shepherd was to them, if we may so say, Prayer Book and Articles, Creeds and Canons, all in one.
They looked on that figure, and it conveyed to them all that they wanted. As ages passed on, the Good Shepherd faded away from the mind of the Christian world, and other emblems of the Christian faith have taken his place. Instead of the gracious and gentle Pastor there came the Omnipotent Judge or the Crucified Sufferer, or the Infant in His Mother’s arms, or the Master in His Parting Supper, or the figures of innumerable saints and angels, or the elaborate expositions of the various forms of theological controversy.
Arthur P. Stanley, “Study of Ecclesiastical History,” in Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church (n.d.), p. 283; quoted in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1859; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).
The Shepherd’s Staff
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 “rod” and staff” mentioned in Psalm 23:
The Hebrew word here translated “rod” (shbt) has a long history. Its meanings include rod, scepter and weapon. It does not refer to a “walking stick.” Rather it is the shepherd’s primary offensive weapon for protecting the flock from enemies, be they wild animals or human thieves. The instrument itself is about two and a half feet long with a mace-like end into which heavy pieces of iron are often embedded. It becomes a formidable weapon.
…… The shepherd’s staff is not for defending the flock from any external threat, but for caring for the sheep as he leads them daily in search of food, drink, tranquility and rest. These two instruments are a pair. The first (the rod) is used to protect the flock from external threats. The second (the staff) serves to gently assist the flock in its daily grazing. The sight of these two instruments comfort the sheep.
Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.50, 53 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
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.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
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 context to the 23rd psalm, specifically the phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” (v.4):
The former shepherd Krikorian describes such a valley that is just south of the Jerusalem-Jericho road. He writes, There is an actual valley of the shadow of death in Palestine, and every shepherd knows of it. . . . I had the good fortune of having at least a passing view of this valley. . . .
It is a very narrow defile through a mountain range where the water often foams and roars, torn by jagged rocks. . . . The path plunges downward . . . into a deep and narrow gorge of sheer precipices overhung by frowning Sphinx-like battlements of rocks, which almost touch overhead. Its side walls rise like the stone walls of a great cathedral. . . . The valley is about five miles long, yet it is not more than twelve feet at the widest section of the base. . . . The actual path, on the solid rock, is so narrow that in places the sheep can hardly turn around in case of danger. . . . In places gullies seven and eight feet have been washed
Valleys of the shadow of death are paths which wind in between mountains where there are dark shadows and deep gorges. Travelers march slowly and silently in order to avoid being seen or heard by bandits. The fear of death is constantly in their minds. They tremble, they expect trouble or death at any time while they are passing through.
Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.47-48, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
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
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.”
The Drama of Humanity & Nations
In his excellent little book, A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly describes the inward reality that governs the course of history:
Out in front of us is the drama of men and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of men an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others.
And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history. It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of man. It is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hills comes the wiser Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. It is the drama of the Eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare. It is the drama of the Double Search, as Rufus Jones calls it. And always its chief actor is—the Eternal God of Love.