Finding Home in God’s Flock – Br. Todd Blackham

Br. Todd Blackham

Isaiah 40:1-11
Ps. 96
Mt. 18-12-14

If someone came up to you and called you a sheep, I would imagine you’d take it as an insult rather than a compliment.  In our day, referring to people as sheep or sheeple, is to call down a whole host of insulting imagery.  The idea of sheep following blindly, obedient to a fault, unable to think or act for themselves, is hardly suited to our society’s notions of informed decision making, questioning of authority, and devotion to personal autonomy.  But neither of these ways of being in their exaggerated forms are appropriate for the people of God.

It’s true that sheep are popularly considered rather stupid animals. Perhaps it’s not so much that they’re stupid but that they get so fixated on one thing that they need a bit of prodding to move them along.  Corporately, sheep will graze a pasture all the way down to the roots, destroying the very grass they depend on, and so the shepherd must constantly move the flock from one pasture to another in order to be able to return again when the grass is renewed.  Individually, a sheep may wander from the flock because of a tempting stream, or the promise of greener grass on the other side.  But alone, sheep are helpless against predators, liable to get tangled in the bushes they seem so attracted to, and even if they do manage to survive for a while, without shearing, their fleece will eventually weigh them down so much that it will almost certainly lead to disease and death.

In scripture, it’s the propensity of sheep to wander off and get into trouble that is taken for granted.  Far from self-sufficient, it’s known that sheep need lots of help to live and thrive.  Sheep had already been domesticated for 5000 years by the time of Christ.  They have essentially been molded into a dependent relationship with humans.  We may cringe at the thought of dependence but we too are creatures who were always meant to exist in connection with the source of our life.  Holy Scripture, the story of God people, is all about that human propensity to wander and God’s calling us to return.

It’s easy to see the similarities.  Corporately humankind tends towards greed and over-consumption trying to get as much as we can, as quickly as we can, as cheaply as we can.  Individually, we long for autonomy and fulfilling our own particular needs and desires gradually drifting into isolation and dissipation.

But into that, there is a gentle call in our readings tonight, a call to return not to anger and retribution but to joy and welcome as part of the flock.  And there is also a responsibility, having been welcomed home to condition ourselves to remain ready and responsive to the shepherd’s call.  We aren’t called to be stupid sheep who can’t think for ourselves, nor can we risk going rogue because there is nothing but death and destruction waiting for us out there.  Rather, remaining just the right sort of sheep, attentive and alert, we can entrust ourselves to the good shepherd.

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.

There is a similar tenderness and mercy that I hear in those lines of the hymn, Come thou Fount.  It’s the kind of honest humility that opens up my heart to accept God’s leading for the hope of something that I would otherwise miss; being able to accept my own limitations and propensities but striving to let God’s voice lead me home.

What do you hear when the voice of the prophet cries out?  Perhaps it’s the corporate call for the whole flock to regather and move to the new pastures set out for us.  Repenting of past wrongs and turning in a new direction.  Or perhaps the shepherd is goading you individually to steer clear of that familiar distraction that would lead you away.  In our Advent preparation, let us recollect ourselves as we turn together to the glorious hope set before us.  We need not follow blindly, nor stubbornly push on our own way.  In light of God’s overwhelming joy at finding us may we be kept close by the loving attention of our shepherd.  Amen.

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