Sheep, wolves and shepherds
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, July 3, 2022
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith.”
HUMANS HAVE BEEN RAISING FLOCKS of sheep for over 10,000 years. From these grazing animals, shepherds have gained the fleece, wool, meat and milk they produce in abundance. Sheep are not intelligent animals, and do things harmful or dangerous to themselves. They need looking after. Animals larger, keener and more capable see sheep as easy game, a lamb is a tasty supper for a lion’s pride or a wolf pack. A shepherd’s life is one of danger, for dangerous animals lurk and hunt, day and night, seeking whom they may devour.
The Hebrew descendants of Abraham were shepherding people, nomads that wandered, leading flocks of sheep and goats from grassy field to green slopes, in search of the food the sheep might not find by themselves. Most of the great spiritual leaders of early Judaism herded sheep. And they learned a great deal of spiritual truths while leading lives as shepherds.
David kept sheep as a young man. He was the disfavored youngest boy of Jesse of Bethlehem, born around 1000 BC. Old Samuel, the last Judge of Israel was sent by God to find a new king among Jesse’s sons. The older seven weren’t God’s choice, and Samuel asked if there were any more. “Well, there’s David, the runt of the family, out tending his sheep.” He was brought and he was chosen by God to be king after the failed monarchy of Saul. Soon after, the Goliath battle proved his worth. When Saul tried to fix David up in his own armour to meet the giant in combat, David shrugged off the cumbersome suit, saying, “I have killed both a lion and a bear with this sling, and caught their chin in my hands and with a knife I killed them. I won’t need that sword or lance, thanks.” And so he killed Goliath with his shepherd’s sling, one smooth river stone, and the giant’s own sword to finish the job.
We all like peace. We like food. We like taking our time and living life where it’s easy, slow moving and not too challenging. We put our feet up, close our eyes, and rest. In this way, the ancients observed, we are much like sheep: foolishly optimistic, easily satisfied, careless, often hopelessly lost, and stupid. Sheep. Sheep fit for the slaughter. Now: you and I don’t see ourselves as being mere prey. We never look at each other in such an unkind light. It’s not us that think so. It’s the wolf. There is a wolf. There are quite a few of them. And they do see you, and are aware of you. This is no game. They’re hungry, they’re angry, they’re quite crazy, and they have you in their sights.
Like the lion from St. Peter’s Epistle today, we have adversaries. Let’s call him wolf, for it’s a shepherd’s analogy. Which one amid the flock does this enemy of ours likely select for the hunt? He would like to devour us all. But he’s like the wolf, and he picks easy targets. He looks for stragglers. He looks for the wounded. He looks for the very young, and if we can’t get those, the very old. The wolf is a pack animal who organizes a hunt. He studies his game. When he makes a final dash, it’s planned out and studied. It sounds hopeless for us sheep. But it isn’t.
There are sheep and there are wolves. But there also are shepherds, and while they can’t watch the flock at every point, the shepherds have sheepdogs. Dogs and wolves are alike in ways. They’re related, far back in time. But the dogs are for the sheep and work for the shepherds, and their job is entirely anti-wolf. It’s their nature to be protectors.
Sheep live about 10 or so years. Wolves and dogs live 14, give or take. We live 70, 80, 90 and more years. In those years, we are in the Lord’s flock, or else we belong to the world, the flesh and yes, the devil. God wants us all, but we must seek His protection and walk in wisdom. It’s not a safe world, entirely. Even where no physical violence ever seems to happen, in our safe homes and orderly neighborhoods: an enemy stalks us, our children, our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our souls. The answer is not necessarily to go out and buy a gun. He’s not that kind of enemy. Such intruders do exist, but let’s keep on this topic.
St. Peter tells us to humbly submit to authority, for grace comes to the humble. Grace is God’s favor, and His watchfulness. Be humble toward God, making less of yourself, and in time, He will praise you. It’s not all humble pie. Let your worries and concerns be known to Him. He cares. And remember there are lions and wolves, spiritual enemies. Keep a watch for them. They’re on your TV, your iPhone, in certain school curricula, in politics, and next door. What seems like entertainment can be the devil’s puppet speaking nonsense, empty words to lull you or incite you or lure you or tempt you. These feelings are familiar enough. Watch where they come from. Mark them out. Identify your wolf. And shut off the channel he uses to get into your home. Resist him, put a light on him, tell others where he is, and lock the door.
Peter uses the terms steadfast and faith. We are told by St. Paul to wear armour, the full armour of God. He never says for us to take it off, so steadfastly, we keep the guarding layers about us of truth for a belt, righteousness for our breastplate, proclamation of the Gospel as shoes, helmets of salvation, faith as our shield, and the sword of the spirit, God’s holy Word. None of these are actually made of steel. They are spiritual qualities, so they won’t trouble your sleep. Keep them on, at all times, steadfastly. The enemy walks about, looking for weakness, frustration, the letters that spell H.A.L.T.
H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Everyone experiences these common states daily. We get hungry, and our stomachs speak more loudly than good sense. That’s why there’s McDonald’s. We get angry. I don’t mean you, of course. But all those other people at the wheel of cars around you who can’t drive worth a… you know what happens. We are social animals and we get lonely. And all alone, we get weird ideas, and we say, “Nobody’s watching. If no one knows, no one gets hurt.” There is always someone who gets hurt. Me. And Tired is how many of us feel a lot of the time. We overdo it. We get weary of the world, our common lot, the daily grind, doing the dishes again. Our everyday hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness make us vulnerable, turn us into sheep. HALT. Watch your processes. It’s so natural to let down your guard.
Talk about it. Everyone has trials. We all could write long books about our failures. We don’t want to. We want to look good, like this is easy, we’re doing great. Ask anyone how they are. And they will lie and say they’re fine. Fine is the word. I have no idea what that word means. Connotatively, I believe that fine means Don’t ask: I’m not ready to unload my dump-truck on you, so can we both pretend we’re both okay? Is that alright with you? Fine. But the same afflictions are met and struggled against and eventually conquered by other Christians throughout the world. Read the saints. Every one of them battled with HALT, and every known demon. Peter says that, after the suffering, which lasts a finite time, God will make you perfect, and will establish and strengthen you. The trials are there for you to learn. Learn. Watch. Pray.
Sheep stray. It’s their nature. When we are being sheep, we aren’t watching where we’re going. We just go where everyone is going. Or we wander off, led by curiosity – where does that path lead, I wonder? And when we wander off, we get lost. Sin is us wandering off, traveling away from our good shepherd. We get lost, taking turns in our wayward paths so that, looking back, we can’t see Him anymore. We felt guilty looking back and seeing Him. Thoroughly lost, we can’t see Him and it may, for a moment, feel better. But it isn’t. Pray. God is a good shepherd. He comes for His lost sheep. If you hear Him, He may be using the word, Repent! That’s not a scolding or angry word. It’s His love song. It means, Come back to me. Hear my voice and follow it until you see me again. Come close now. It’s me. You’re not in trouble. I’m so happy I found you again. There is much rejoicing in heaven over one lost sheep that is found.
There are shepherds and there are false shepherds too. Jesus called Himself the good shepherd, meaning there are bad ones. The thieves break in and steal. Ezekiel wrote about God’s judgment of the shepherds of Israel, leaders who made use of the sheep, but never looked out for their welfare. They ate them, abused them, taxed them, pushed them around, but cared nothing for them. Jesus even warns of there being wolves in sheep-clothes. This can’t mean they are dressed as sheep. The rest of the passage would make no sense. It starts by warning against false prophets. False leaders. Sheep clothes are shepherd coats made from sheepskins. Just because a minister wears a robe, or a pastor sports a tie or fancy title, is not enough to know who is telling the truth. There are false shepherds. Use your discernment.
Finally, some of us will always be sheep. Most of us. But from among us, God calls out sheepdogs. He is the shepherd, but some of us are by nature protectors, guardians, warriors, soldiers mentally and emotionally equipped to do battle in order to make peace for the flock, to seek out and destroy the wolf, and to keep the flock together in safe pastures. The sheep don’t know what to make of the sheepdog. He smells and acts and even looks somewhat like a wolf. They’re not sure they can trust him. He barks and they get back in line. They talk about defunding him. But when they’re in trouble, they hope he’s close by.
I wish we lived in better days. There is a whole lot of trouble in our world today, many forces at work, a wolf pack well organized that seeks your soul, our nation, the world. And I can’t talk about it. I only hope your guard is up and your armour shining. And I pray that God will once more save America, 246 years old, tomorrow.
Little sheep: keep your eyes on the good shepherd, pray, and trust the sheepdogs. These are evil days.
But the Shepherd is coming.