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Sheep May Safely Graze...

This morning we were scheduled to lead worship in a small Methodist Chapel at the farthest end of the local circuit of churches.

When the preaching rota for this quarter came out in April, I imagined we’d “make a day of it”—perhaps with a picnic on the North York Moors or ice cream on the beach at Whitby.

Well, it started raining during the night, and it hasn’t stopped raining even for a minute for the whole day.

The British summer, eh?

I didn’t see many sheep out on the North York moors today in the pouring rain—but I’ve always been fascinated by sheep and their role in the Christian story.

Fun Fact: There are over 1000 different breeds of sheep and about 1 billion sheep worldwide at any one time.

They are often thought of self-evidently stupid creatures—but research has shown they aren’t as daft as we thought.

  • They can recognise up to 50 faces of other sheep and remember them for up to two years.

  • They can also recognise human faces and facial expressions —and prefer a smile to a frown.

  • And as they were the first livestock to be domesticated, they have worked out that sticking together in a flock works best for them as a survival strategy.

Sheep were first domesticated 10,000 years ago in Central Asia, which is why shepherding is sometimes called the oldest profession in the world.

Shepherding is first mentioned in Genesis 4:2—where it says that Abel keeps sheep. “Sheep” and “flocks” are mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible, using twelve Hebrew words and four Greek words. They are, by far, the most prominent animal mentioned in the bible.

In Biblical times, shepherds were considered dishonest and unclean according to the standards of the law. In the New Testament, they represent the outcasts and sinners for whom Jesus came.

But such outcasts were the first recipients of the good news—remember the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus in the stable.

Jesus embraced the Shepherd monicker, announcing he was the “Good” Shepherd.

This is probably because shepherds were often considered “bad”—dishonest and dirty layabouts. Not many people wanted to brag about being a shepherd—but Jesus grabs hold of the title and gives it a positive spin.

Here’s a question for you. What’s the best-known Psalm in the Bible?

Top marks if you plumped for Psalm 23!

It begins with “The Lord is my shepherd” and is often used at funerals because it brings comfort and consolation to grieving families and friends in times of loss.

Even people with zero church connection are aware of Psalm 23—that's why it is so popular at funeral services, even for people who never set foot inside a church.

Why does Psalm 23 resonate? I think it’s a very personal psalm.

There are no references to “we”, “us", or “they,”—but only “my”, “me”, “I", and "You."

Tradition says King David wrote it, and—if he did—it is undoubtedly a powerful testimony of his experience with God.

It covers all of life with simple beauty; it speaks of green pastures, still waters, dark valleys, enemies and adversities.

All of which David had experienced in his life.

But what I think most comforts and helps us is the psalm's confidence.

David believes what he writes about God. As we look at these words, what David writes is not a poetic musing or theoretical construct for him.

He has experienced God in these ways, heard His voice, followed His lead, and felt His care.

Beneath the beauty of his words, solid convictions are formed in the crucible of crisis.

In the first three stanzas, David refers to God very personally: "The Lord is my Shepherd. He makes me lie down . . . He leads me . . . He restores my soul."

Then, David changes his wording, referring to God: "I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff comfort me. You prepare a table before me . . . You anoint my head with oil."

Why does David switch from 'He' to ‘You' when discussing God? Why didn't he say, 'I will fear no evil, for He is with me; His rod and His staff, they comfort me'?"

Perhaps because he speaks of the valley that he has personally walked through? He has felt the shadows closing in. And in those times, something deep happened between him and God.

Have you noticed we are more prone to talk about God when things are going swimmingly and more prone to speak to God when we're struggling in the valley?

Perhaps in the light, we are inclined to wander off in pursuit of greener grass. But in the dark, we cling to him.

When you walk through the dark valley, know your Shepherd is with you. Indeed, there is no valley so dark that He will leave you to get through on your own.

So when you find yourself weak, in the dark, uncertain of the future. When all the colour has drained out of life, and your soul is downcast, look up.

Fix your eyes on Jesus, your Good Shepherd. Stick close to Him. Trust that He knows the way through this valley and will see you safely through.

Believe that He has good reasons for taking this route, even though it is hard and unfamiliar.

And hold on to the truth that there is something better waiting on the other side of this valley if you know the shepherd and allow him to guide your life.

My prayer is that God so imprints His truth in your heart so that you will find your confidence in Him and rise above the storm clouds in your life.


This blog has been adapted from a sermon by Sandy Walker at Glaisdale Head Methodist Church on Sunday, July 23rd.


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