Last week was a first for us as shepherds of a small flock of sheep. Like clockwork, the sheep graze the land throughout the day, but always return to a topographical high spot at night, usually in one of two places both of which are visible from the main house. One night while doing the final rounds of chores I noticed that the sheep were not in their expected resting place, so I moved across to the other side of the property where their second routine spot is, again nothing to be seen or heard. I then began calling out for them. Sheep, as should be noted by our Lord’s reference (John 10:27), actually do recognize the voice of their shepherd and will call out in return as they make their way towards the voice. However, on this night, there was no return call, no signs of sheep meandering towards the voice. Because of the nature of the land and the time of year for brush and weeds, I decided to wait until morning to locate them. Sure enough the following morning the sheep were seen grazing on a lower flat. While there are principles here that we may be able to glean with applications from Scripture’s use of sheep/Shepherds, there’s more. The following day, I noticed one of the sheep was missing. I went out searching for her, fearing the worst, but nothing. The following day I did a wider search, calling as I went, again with no sights or sounds. As I went about searching part of the fenced 50 acres, surrounded by a wilderness of hundreds of acres, the parable of our Lord searching for the lost sheep came to mind.
10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.Matthew 18:10-14
With this passage circling through my mind, I began praying for the little lost sheep, even that I may just find evidence for what had happened or a body to bring closure. Having been several days since she had gone missing, I gave up the search and assumed that the only hope now would be buzzards that would locate where she was for me.
Fast forward 3-4 days, all hope had been lost in finding the sheep. I had secured the remaining sheep in a small paddock in case a predator attack had been the reason for the loss. On Monday morning, nearly a week since the sheep had been missing, I heard a small voice yelling excitedly outside. When I checked, it was a sound of joy that the sheep, Bessie, had returned. She was laying outside the fence where the other sheep were, no visible injuries or wounds other than an old piece of high-tensile wire wrapped around her hind leg causing her to limp on the swollen appendage. I was able to unwrap the wire and secure her back among the sheep, who were noticeably excited to see her return.
Are there lessons from the farm that can be gleaned from this experience, especially when viewed in the light of Scripture?
We ought to be reminded that history began in an agrarian setting with Adam and Eve in the Garden. Israel too was primarily an agrarian people both under the economy of the Mosaic Covenant which required animal sacrifices and their wandering into the Promised Land. It was into this context, that our Lord was born and uses the agrarian imagery in many of His parables and preaching analogies, such as the one of the Lost Sheep cited above. The reason for this is how easy it was to take the practical experiences and make the connection with the spiritual analogy.
In the case of my lost sheep, there are several noteworthy analogical applications. First, sheep are inherently communal. In fact, I would not recommend owning a single sheep and a male ram isolated from the flock is a recipe for disaster. They need each other for comfort and a feeling of safety. They need each other to know where the good fodder is and isn’t. But there is also something else that happens among a flock of sheep, perhaps more so among smaller flocks than larger. If one is stuck, missing, outside a fence when they should be inside, the flock will call out to them as will the sheep call out to the flock. This is normally an immediate response, meaning when the separation has first happened. In my case, I did not hear this either because I wasn’t there, time had passed, or the sheep was snared. The application here is clear. Because like sheep, Christians are meant to be in community, fellowshipping with other believers, there should be an immediate recognition when one becomes distant or separated from the flock. The response should be both from the sheep AND the flock. As previously mentioned, this becomes very difficult if not impossible in larger flock sizes.
This brings up a second application. Just because a sheep may be seen among the flock, does not mean all is well. As in the case with my sheep, it may well have been that she was near to the flock initially but was snared in the old wire. Because the other sheep were either unconcerned or unaware, all may have appeared well. This speaks to the indvidual responsibilities within our Christian fellowships to pay attention to one another, taking time for one another. It also is a reminder that a good shepherd is alert and aware to dangers and the well-being of individual sheep.
Third, in my case I gave up looking for the lost sheep, assuming or rather fearing the worst. The remarkable thing about the Good Shepherd is that He never gives up searching for the lost sheep. Referencing the parable above, our Lord doesn’t hint in anyway about a failure to find the lost sheep, in fact just the opposite. Because it is not the will of the Father to lose any of the sheep (see also John 17:11-12), Jesus will never fail to do the will of the Father (Luke 22:42), in this case to find, rescue, even wound for their own good, lost sheep. A never resigning, High Preist Shepherd who protects, rescues, and secures all His sheep (John 10:16).
Fourth, having firmly established that Jesus will accomplish the rescue of His lost sheep, there is another parable that is applicable in our case. The parable of the prodigal son does not highlight the relentless efforts of the father to search for his son, rather his resignation to let his son wander. The point of the parable is the return of the son and the overwhelming joyful response of the father to receive the son back. Unsaid, is that God draws His wandering children back with cords of grace. In my own case, I did not find the lost sheep, unlike the Good Shepherd. However, I did rejoice at the return of the sheep, tending to her snare, and welcomed her with joy back into the flock.
Having an agrarian lifestyle, even part-time, should not be wasted. If that situation is not available or even appealing, we ought to make every effort to spend time in God’s creation, especially in day when technology from every angle is calling for our attention. Spiritual applications and analogies abound as God Word itself so often uses examples from nature in order to explain a theological reality. Our Lord is the Good Shepherd and as He sheep we ought to ensure that we always stay close to Him.
When cattle from your fields are gone astray,John Flavel, “Upon the Seeking of lost Cattle”, Husbandry Spiritualized, The Works of John Flavel, Vol. 5
And you to seek them through the country side;
Enquiring for them all along the way,
Tracking their footsteps where they turn’d aside;
One servant this way sent, another that,
Searching the fields and country round about;
This meditation now falls in so pat,
As if God sent it to enquire you out;
My beasts are lost, and so am I by sin;
My wretched soul from God thus wand’ring went;
As I seek them, so was I sought by him,
Who from the Father’s bosom forth was sent.
Pursu’d by sermons, follow’d close by grace,
And strong convictions, Christ hath sought for me;
Yea, though I shun him, still he gives me chase,
As if resolv’d I should not damned be.
When angels lost themselves, it was not so;
God did not seek, or once for them enquire;
But said, Let these apostate creatures go,
I’ll plague them for it with eternal fire.
Lord! what am I, that thou should’st set thine eyes,
And still seek after such a wretch as I?
Whose matchless mercy, and rich grace despise,
As if, in spite thereof, resolv’d to die.
Why should I shun thee? Blessed Saviour, why
Should I avoid thee thus? Thou dost not chase
My soul to slay it; O that ever I
Should fly a Saviour that’s so full of grace!
Long hast thou sought me, Lord, I now return,
O let thy bowels of compassion sound;
For my departure I sincerely mourn,
And let this day thy wand’ring sheep be found.