The cowboy symbolizes the rugged individualism of America and our westward expansion. He is tall and tough; honest, but friendly only to his horse; a protector of women-folk, but not family-focused. He rode hard, worked hard, and probably drank hard. Cattle were his livelihood. He did not mistreat them, for that would be of no advantage; but compassion for a cow is not an image conjured up by the word, “cowboy.”
Our mental picture of a shepherd is very different.
I grew up on a farm, but we did not have sheep. Therefore, the descriptions I share with you today must come from others. I am drawing from Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (1970) and W. G. Bowen’s, Why the Shepherd? (undated). Both of these men raised sheep, and they wrote to illustrate and explain that life.
We must meditate on shepherding and sheep because God chose that metaphor to explain important relationships. The cluster of words for “sheep” and “shepherd” are used about 500 times in the Bible. Many refer simply to the animal; but we also find that God is our Shepherd, and we are his sheep. And the Chief Shepherd, Jesus, places men in his church—men to comfort us through life’s difficulties, men to care for our souls, men to protect us—as a shepherd does his flock.
The Apostle Peter understood well Jesus’ command to “shepherd,” and he draws from that image to remind us that God gives elders to love us and lay down their lives for us. Our church designates September for nominating men to office, so it is appropriate that we begin in 1Peter 5 to embrace God’s job description for elders. [Read 1Peter 5.1-11. Pray.]
“At sunrise, he makes for the sheep fold. As he rattles the gate and gives his morning call, they spring forward, anxious for the shepherd to lead the way to fresh grass and cool water. His path is different than it was the last several weeks. The lead sheep are at first unsettled, they want to return to the well-trodden ways, but they reluctantly follow as he directs them to fresh, clean pastures that have not been grazed for months.
After entering this new range, the flock comes alive. Each sheep tries to out-step the others in a search of the first morsel—a sweet wildflower, a ripe seed head, a rich bottom clover. Each tender morsel is nipped off on the move, a bite at every stride.
Some sheep run ahead, pushing and jockeying for position, demanding the first and best morsel for themselves. Eventually they will charge beyond the field and up a barren rock plateau. The shepherd turns the rest into a path leading to the sweet side valley, then he goes back to the greedy sheep, turns them, and brings them back, making sure they have had ample time to nourish themselves on the first fruits.
As the sun climbs and the day grows hotter, the mob searches for shade—each sheep showing signs of thirst—the drooping ear and licking of lips. But the sheep must be persuaded to move down a steep, rocky path. It is often difficult going. They would rather climb then descend. The path is narrow and perilous. The rocks hurts their tender feet. Finally, they make the low ground and a spring, gently gurgling, provides a still pond of crystal clear water. Within a few minutes, thirst is replaced with refreshment.