Today is a special day, we celebrate the birth of the Good Shepherd. What does that mean? We are not familiar with shepherds in this day and age. To understand their role, it is important to understand more about the animals they looked after—sheep.
Sheep are small, woolly creatures that are weak, defenceless and foolish. That so aptly describes me, although the young would not necessarily agree, it is with age and life experience, that we get this insight into ourselves.
Sheep were kept for milk, wool and reproduction, not so much for food. They were considered precious property and were bought at great price. Being defenceless and prone to getting lost, they needed 24/7 care and attention. Periodically, they were taken out into the fields where they were guarded and cared for, the duty and task of the Shepherd. The primary threat and enemy to the sheep, was wolves.
Sheep cannot be driven from behind, they need to be led. Shepherds knew the paths, the ways to take and would lead the sheep safely to good pastures. When the sheep wander from the Shepherd’s guidance, they get lost. The shepherd knows the strength and weaknesses of each sheep, those that were likely to stray, or be stubborn, so he works with them until they trust Him. So great was his love for the sheep, he was willing to die for them. It was also important for the shepherd to maintain his reputation with the sheep, for His name’s sake, so that the sheep knew him to be a good, faithful shepherd. He trained them, cared for them and often carried them on his shoulders.
He provided food for the sheep, chosen for where it was easily digested, fresh, rich and never exhausted, good for needs and health of sheep. When sheep are hungry they will not lie down and come to rest, the shepherd would need to ensure that the sheep fed regularly in order to sustain them.
He also provided water, sheep will not find their own water and will not drink from fast flowing streams, the water has to be quiet or they are easily spooked. The shepherd would have to dam the water in order to help the sheep drink. So sheep need to be quietly led to water that will satisfy their thirst, refresh and revitalise them.
Sheep have poor vision and are easily frightened in new circumstances, especially when it is dark. The shepherd calms them, causes them to walk and not run, and by His presence with them, causes them to trust in his guidance through the scary circumstances.
Sheep have very poor sense of direction, so shepherds guide them with their rod of authority, usually with nails protruding from it, designed to protect the sheep and used for discipline or chastening for their own good. He also used his staff, usually long and slender with a crook on one end of it. This was used to draw the sheep closer, examine them, care for them and reach down into clefts and lift to safety. It was also used to get them untangled from brambles, which may have caught and trapped them. The rod and staff enforced the boundaries for the sheep, within which they were kept safe.
When one sheep strayed often or was stubborn, the shepherd would purposely break the leg, splint and carry the sheep on his shoulders until the sheep learnt to trust the shepherd and listen to His voice. The shepherd loved the sheep, he called them each by name and the sheep knew his voice. They were his family.
They would be led to “tables” of grasslands between the hills, cleared and specially prepared for the sheep and at night the shepherds would bring them into a fold, sometimes shared with other shepherds, together taking turns, to protect the sheep from the wolves that were always prowling. The stone enclosure of the fold would have one opening, the shepherds would sleep across the opening so that the wolves could not enter, even though this meant the shepherds themselves were in danger. In the mornings, the shepherds would each call their sheep and their sheep would separate out from the others because the sheep knew the voice of their shepherd.
As the sheep entered the fold, the shepherd would examine each sheep to ensure that it was not hurt or sick. He would apply oil to sores and other oil to chase away insects, gnats and lice. These were not fatal to the sheep, but highly annoying. The nose fly, would lay it’s larva in the nasal passages which would be quite painful for the sheep, so shepherds would rub special oil on their heads to protect their heads.
Every day, the sheep would experience the goodness and mercy of their shepherd and they would experience the days of full and abundant blessing until finally they reach the Shepherds home and the journey is ended.
Now read Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The shepherd more than provides for the needs of His sheep, I have everything I need in the Lord, both now and evermore.
May it be a happy Christmas for you and your family as we celebrate the birth of the good Shepherd, and enjoy the company of those closest to us.