When my 4 children were young, we had a gate at the foot of the stairs. It served a very useful purpose. There was always a toddler wanting to try out his latest gravity-defying balancing act. It meant that we had peace of mind at least as to one part of the house. But you need the mind of a child to think of all the hazardous things you can get up to at home.
Sheep are like that. When we were living in that house, we were on a farm that had sheep. There was one important rule with respect to sheep: please close the gate. The farm was crossed by a number of public footpaths. Walkers passing through the farm were always leaving a gate open on one of the footpaths, and the sheep would escape. Someone would report seeing them on the road. Then the farmer had to be notified and someone sent to round them up and get them back inside. The best person to send was the shepherd, because the sheep knew him. He knew how to lead them back to where they were safe, inside the fence in the field where they were grazing.
Have you heard of Handel’s ‘Messiah’? It contains a chorus with the words ‘all we like sheep have gone astray.’
Handel is quoting from the bible, from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah lived some 2500 years ago. For the thousands of years that sheep have been raised by humans, people have found them to be a bit stupid in looking after themselves. They need boundaries, and they need someone to help and guide them to stay safe.
I observed a lot of sheep while we lived on that farm. A sheep would spend most of its time feeding, because the vegetation was very thin on the ground. It would follow its nose from one blade of grass to the next. They had no goal, no pattern, except to stuff the mouth and satisfy their cravings, wherever it might take them.
While we lived on the farm, we would take the children for walks on the footpaths. They they hated walks, so there were usually great protests, and cries of ‘carry me’ and ‘are we nearly there?’ While complaining about the length of the walk, the children would end up covering at least three times the distance as the adults, because they kept running back and forth and up and down. This would cause us panic because there was always a cliff edge or sheep poo or some other hazard. The children wandered mindlessly just like sheep, with no thought as to where it would take them.
One of the sports that kept the children amused on the walks was scaring sheep. The sheep would run wildly in just about any direction, and then just stop and resume eating, without the slightest thought of where they had got to, just like the children.
And the point of all this is that children are like sheep, which probably anyone can accept. They need boundaries and a decent shepherd to look after them. And we hope they don’t grow up just living to satisfy all their cravings and desires, with no thought for where it might take them.
The next jump, however, may be a little hard for some to accept. The bible says that all of us are like sheep. We have all just been following our cravings, and we have wandered off the course which we should have been following. The course we should have been following, the way most likely to bring us happiness in this life and eternal bliss in the next life, is God’s way. God is quite aware of this, so he went to the trouble of sending a loyal and devoted shepherd for us.
In Israel, just outside Bethlehem, there are some fields called ‘Shepherds’ Fields.’ These are the fields where local tradition says that the angel appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The fields are in a valley, and on the slopes of the valley there are some caves. In ancient times shepherds away from their homes would have used the caves as pens for their sheep, to protect them at night from predators. There would be no gate or barrier across the entrance to the cave – the shepherd himself would sleep across the entrance and use his body as the gate. Where there were no caves, they would use a low stone wall as a sheep pen at night; and again, the shepherd would himself be the gate, to guard and protect his sheep from predators and poachers.
The wisdom of the ancient people of Israel is that, as they observed sheep, they concluded that human beings need a shepherd too, someone who guards and protects us and leads us in the best way. Someone who is for us a gate of protection.
Many people think, what do I need a shepherd for; I’m doing all right without one. Or maybe I’m not doing all right, but I’ve got to work this out for myself. We might think there are a lot of other people who need shepherds. Keep them in line, like children. They go around like sheep, don’t they, just after the next green blade of grass, stuffing the mouth on whatever turns up.
Jesus talked about the good shepherd who is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep. He will go as far as necessary to protect his flock. Just as a parent will for their child.
And then Jesus lived it out – he gave his life for the world. So we might be forgiven for all our wanderings after pointless blades of grass. Jesus is the shepherd acting as the gate; through him we are led into eternal life. Through him we come home, our true home that we were made for in the beginning, the sheepfold of God’s love.
Jesus said, I am the gate for the sheep. We have a shepherd who forgives, accepts and welcomes us across the threshold of home. He is the threshold, the way in, the so-glad-you-have-come-home gate.
Jesus might be saying this to you: come home. The shepherd’s role as the gate is not to keep the sheep out but to keep the predators out. And there is no other gate, no other barrier, unless we have erected one in ourselves. Jesus is the good shepherd. He is so glad to welcome us into his fold.