Once you get chickens it’s a slippery slope to other farm animals . . . or so I’m told. Besides the assortment of dogs that are always around, Conlee and I have had between six and twelve chickens for nearly twenty years. With plenty of property, I often dream of having a cute, cuddly lamb or two. They could graze, keep the grass cut, and make the whole place look like a pastoral watercolor painting.
Then Conlee brings me back to reality: Lambs grow into sheep; sheep get dirty and matted; they need to be sheared regularly; they are notoriously stupid, and they require more attention and care than either of us would be willing to give.
His logic (although definitely prejudiced – he does not want sheep!) prevails and I am content with reading about sheep instead of owning one. My interest is not random, however, because I did a good bit of research on the habits of sheep when I wrote my latest book, Divine Conversations. Jesus used the imagery of sheep so much to describe His relationship with us that I wanted to know more.
In Bible times (as today in the Middle East) sheep were everywhere. In ancient Israel, they were raised for meat for feast days as well as for sacrifices in the Temple. There was even a special gate, the Sheep Gate, in the wall around Jerusalem where the sheep used for sacrifices were brought into the city. And there was a special pool where the sacrificial lambs were bathed and groomed.
People were used to seeing them grazing in fields and secured in sheepfolds near villages. Because of this they provided great illustrations for Jesus to use to explain concepts that were new to the people. He even referred to Himself as the Chief Shepherd who watches over the flock and the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for them. Oh, so many illustrations! He separates the sheep; He judges them; He is the doorway of the sheepfold where they are protected; He cares for those who get lost; He knows them intimately because of all the time He spends with them. But for my purposes in writing about conversations with God, I was most interested in how sheep recognize their own shepherd’s voice even though many other shepherds may be calling out for them.
Trusting the Shepherd’s Voice
Jesus said, “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:26-28)
This kind of relationship and protection can only happen when trust is present. If a sheep does not trust the shepherd, the sheep puts itself in danger on many levels. They are in danger of becoming prey, getting lost, getting hurt, getting sick, or having no provisions. How does this kind of trust grow?
Here is where the illustration of shepherd/sheep sets my heart on fire as it becomes one of Jesus/me. Perhaps it burns in you as well as you consider yourself as a sheep of Jesus’ own fold. Trust comes with intentional time and attention spent together. Trust is composed of layers and layers of experiences and conversations. Trust is proven in many ways.
Sheep will trust a shepherd because a good shepherd will risk his own life, even give his life if necessary, to fend off any predators or enemies of the sheep. He brings all his healing skills to any sheep who are injured or diseased. He does all within his power to find the best pastures and streams, making sure the sheep are well-fed, watered, and healthy. He spends hours and hours in solitude with his sheep. He names them, observes them, and learns their individual personalities. He discovers which ones are wayward, which ones are needy, and which ones are leaders. He is present at their births and he cares for the helpless ones. He provides shelter during storms and builds warm fires when it is cold. He sets up boundaries for them so they will not wander away into danger. He talks to them, listens to their bleatings, sings over them, and carries them when they are weary. He is their source of survival. Whether the sheep know it or not, they are utterly dependent on their shepherd.
At times sheep from many flocks will be gathered in a common sheepfold. During the day each shepherd will come to gather his own sheep, leading them to pastures to graze for the day. The sheep, who have become totally dependent on their shepherd, recognize his unique whistle or song or sound he makes and they follow him, not another shepherd that they do not know. His unique voice has become their favorite sound in the whole world. It recalls security, love, protection, provision, care, attention, and well-being. Their ears perk up and they head toward the one shepherd they can trust, ignoring the calls of all the others.
Trances and Possums
We, like real sheep, have only a limited understanding and appreciation for what our Shepherd does for us. He protects us even when we are unaware. As I said, we don’t have sheep but we do have chickens and here is a personal analogy. When chickens roost at night they go into a kind of trance. If left unprotected, they are easy prey for predators. One night Conlee went out to our coop to check on the chickens and close them in for the night, making sure the gate was secured. When he opened the door to the chicken run, there was a possum just about to sneak into the hen house for a midnight meal. Conlee caught the possum and closed up the chickens so they would be safe for the night. The chickens were in their trance; they never knew about the danger that almost took their lives. When he came in and told me what happened, my first thought was, How many times have I lived in a worldly trance and the Lord has rescued me from danger and I never knew it? I was overwhelmed with a sense of awe, gratitude, and praise for my Good Shepherd!
Jesus said, “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; if fact they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.
I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep . . . I know My sheep and My sheep know Me – just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father – and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to My voice, and there shall be one flock and one Shepherd.” (excerpted from John 10).