Sheep: Surprisingly dim-witted, fearful creatures who, when left on their own, will wander into dangerous or precarious situations.
Sheep Dog: Surprisingly brilliant, faithful, obedient servant whose sole purpose is to communicate the shepherds will to the sheep and carry it out.
Shepherd: Benevolent overseer of both sheep dog and sheep, focused on leading all into good and safe pastures.
On a recent trip to North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate, we had the opportunity to watch this relationship in action. What I learned was for me, very profound and a very visual, literal reminder of God’s love and care over us sheep.
The first thing we noticed was the wonderful relationship between the man and his trusty sheep dog. The dog never left his side while he talked to us. He waited patiently for his turn. He explained some simple commands to us that the dog knew and told us what would happen. He softly said to the dog ‘away’, and in a flash, the collie was gone, heading out to the sheep. ‘Away’ means to go in a counter-clockwise direction, to approach the sheep from the right and circle around them. Before we could blink, the dog had circled the four little sheep and had them tightly knit together exactly where the shepherd wanted them to be. He called the dog to return and he did immediately. The sheep began to wander the second the dog left. Now he called out a new command, ‘Come By’, which meant approach in a clockwise direction from the left. Once again, everyone was back to where they needed to be. The sheep squished as close as they could to one another and did as they were directed. Amazing! The dog returned to his master and was given a cool drink and a treat.
A Strangers Voice
Next the owner asked us if we would like to try it and call out some commands. He approached my father in law and asked him if he remembered how to make the dog run clockwise around the sheep. Sure, easy – ‘come by’. The man gave the go-ahead, and my father in law called to the dog ‘come by!’. We waited. And waited. The dog looked up at his master and did nothing. ‘Try again!’ the man said laughing. ‘Come by!’ hollered my father in law. Zip. The owner took a couple of steps back near us behind the dog and gently called ‘come by’. Off went the dog as fast as he could to round up the sheep. Of course! We were duped. The dog only responds to his masters voice! In a show of perfect timing, my mother in law nodded her head and quoted from John 10: “The sheep know Him and know His voice, and a strangers voice they will not follow.” No matter how many times someone else commanded that dog, he would not go. He knew only his masters voice and obeyed only him.
Watching the sheep was quite comical to me, they looked so completely stupid, like they had absolutely no idea where they were going, what was going to happen, they just followed whatever was leading them at that moment. When the dog came, they followed him like they were being drawn by a magnet. When the dog left, however, they aimlessly followed one another, almost like they were blind. Dangerous for a sheep. I asked the owner if the sheep ever simply did not respond to the dog. He laughed and told me that was not possible. It’s in their very make-up to respond to the dog. They need to be lead. They are inherently fearful and lost creatures who will follow each other off a cliff if left alone. The dog’s presence, he told me, is very reassuring to them, it gives them direction and purpose. They know they are going to be lead into safety and away from danger. They need a leader.
Something that struck me about these sheep is that wherever they were lead to, their first response was to simply start eating the grass. They never really looked around to see where they were or what was around, they just put their heads down and enjoyed themselves. When the dog returned to take them someplace new, they stopped eating and went. I thought about this for a minute and started thinking that it may not be all that bad to be a sheep. They are content wherever they are. They know instinctively that the Shepherd and the dog are leading them into good pastures where they can relax and eat. What a great picture of how God wants his flock to respond to His leading! How often do I run around and try and figure out where I am, where I am going next, looking all around in a panic, when all God is asking me to do is relax and enjoy the pasture He’s brought me to! He told us sheep need to feel safe before they can lie down or eat. The dog’s guidance made them feel that way. They had no problems relaxing and enjoying where they were. When it was time to move on, they instinctively understood that they needed to move on. Instead of making fun of the dumb sheep, I was beginning to see that I AM a sheep and I actually WANT to be a sheep!
Follow the Good Shepherd
It didn’t take a whole lot for us to see what God was revealing to us through this wonderful encounter with this shepherd and his little flock. God has not left us alone in the fields, without instruction. He has clearly articulated His love for us and His desire for us to trust Him through his Word. The basic difficulty is not that we don’t understand His instructions, it’s that we are not willing to lay down our will for His. Our love for Him is demonstrated through our obedience to Him, in our delight to carry out His will. Without Christ as our mediator, we are powerless to do what the Father wants. The man clearly demonstrated this to us when he held the border collie by the collar and called out a command to the sheep, ‘come by!’ he yelled. Nothing. The sheep are incapable of carrying out any obedience without the help of their mediator. Interesting and profound thought for me! Without Christ, we can do nothing. We are wandering sheep.
Psalm 23 is a beautiful reminder of this relationship. It’s so often associated with funerals though, that I had to take a step back and try and read it as though I had never heard it before. “The Lord is my Shepherd… I shall not want… He makes me lie down in green pastures…” This is a fascinating relationship! We are fearful, wandering creatures, prone to total self-destruction when left to our own devices. God takes great delight in leading us and loving us. He desires to “prepare a table for us before our enemies” and let us experience just how secure we are in His presence. He not only leads us, He enjoys our company. We are not made to go it alone. We need our Shepherd and we need our sheep dog. When Christ approaches me, whatever the direction may be, I want to respond. I don’t have to worry about where it’s all heading, my job is to respond to where He goes. I am thankful to be a sheep.