Thursday, January 15, 2015

Be Careful Who You’re Following

Sheep have an annoying tendency for not watching where
they're going, as well as for leading others astray.

Recently I read a brief account about some really stupid sheep in Istanbul, Turkey. In 2005, one sheep in the flock decided to jump off a cliff, and nearly 1,500 others subsequently followed. Approximately one-third of the sheep died, and I’m sure at the very least each of the others must have been wondering, “What was I thinking?”

This seems like a crazy happening, and you’re probably wondering if it was just a rare occurrence, an aberration in the history of sheepdom. But it wasn't. Years ago my friend, Ken Johnson, and his family devoted more than a decade of their lives to raising sheep on their “hobby farm” outside Minneapolis, Minn., and they witnessed abundant examples to prove dumbness is not a trait exclusive to Turkish sheep.

Early one morning Ken was cleaning up in front of the barn where his sheep were housed. As he let the animals out for the day, he went to the door and held the handle of his hoe in front of the first sheep as it came out. He just wanted to see what it would do. Without hesitation, the sheep leaped over the hoe and casually strolled into the pasture. Ken pulled the handle away, but when every sheep exiting the barn reached that point, they proceeded to replicate what the lead sheep had done, leaping as if the hoe handle were still there.

So apparently to a sheep’s way of thinking, jumping off a cliff because the one directly in front did it makes perfect sense.

Why bring this up? Because the Bible uses the sheep metaphor extensively, in both the Old and New testaments. In fact, the prophet Isaiah wrote thousands of years ago, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…” (Isaiah 53:6). The problem is, as anyone that has spent time with sheep can attest, when one sheep strays, many of the others are likely to follow – sometimes to their doom.

This is why in Israel and other parts of the Middle East, as well as countries like New Zealand – where sheep actually outnumber the populace – shepherds are important, even though they have little social status. Shepherds not only protect their flocks from predators; they also protect the sheep from themselves.

In Ken’s book, Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart, which I had the privilege of co-authoring, he offers numerous other illustrations. But the point is this: As Isaiah declared, in many ways we are indeed like sheep, prone to be misled and get into all manner of mischief. We desperately need a shepherd – the Shepherd – to guide us, watch over us and care for us.

The 23rd Psalm is beloved for its poetic style, but it also communicates enduring truth:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Each of these verses could be discussed individually and applied to our lives and circumstances. But collectively they tell us one thing – we desperately need the Shepherd, and He’s promised to faithfully provide for our needs as we follow Him.

This is why Jesus made what might have seemed a bold declaration when He told His followers, “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…” (John 10:11-18).

In that simple statement Jesus was assuring us that He is our true shepherd, He knows us personally, and at that moment was foretelling the sacrifice He soon would provide atonement for our sins and offer redemption to each of us.

The question we each must answer, one no one can answer for us, is who are we following? Today there are countless “leaders,” many voices calling out and offering to serve as our “shepherd.” Sadly, all but one is leading toward a cliff and too many are blindly, mindlessly following them.

More than 35 years ago I made the determination that the Lord is indeed my Shepherd, and true to His word, I have never been in want. My needs have always been met, sometimes in ways I could never have imagined. And I’ve resolved to follow Him ever since, even though at times I’ve lapsed into my foolish, sheep-like ways. Thankfully, although at times I’ve looked away from Him, Jesus has never looked away from me.

What about you? Who are you following today?

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