A quick image search of the word “shepherd” will bring you any number of bucolic images of Jesus with a crook in one hand, a baby sheep in the other, and a flock of well behaved, perfectly aligned sheep following dutifully behind. I don’t know much about sheep or shepherding, but I know enough to know those images are garbage. Jesus didn’t teach the Parable of the Lost Sheep because sheep are well known rule followers. Rather, as you can see in this photograph of a modern-day shepherd, sheep kind of do what they want, even as they reluctantly follow. Notice in the back left, as a parcel of sheep veer off to find green pasture while those in front look eager to run off on their own.
This Sunday, we will pray not only that we might hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and hear him call us each by name, but that we might also, by God’s grace, follow where he leads. That’s all well and good when the Good Shepherd is leading us beside still waters and right pathways toward the green pastures of Psalm 23, but what happens when the path of life leads us through the valley of the shadow of death? Following the Good Shepherd doesn’t mean we will forever walk in green fields below bright blue skies. There will be times when the grass looks a whole lot greener on the other side. There will be moments when the path ahead looks dark and foreboding. There will come a time when we have to make a real choice between following the Good Shepherd and forging our own path. What happens when where the shepherd leads looks like a place we don’t want to go?
That’s where trust comes in, I suppose – trust that comes through an ongoing relationship. When the path ahead looks scary, we can recall other moments when the shepherd safely brought us through moments of trial with care and love. We can take solace in knowing that the goal is always green pastures and still waters, even if the natural course of life sometimes brings onion grass and dangerous rapids. It isn’t the moment by moment promise of safety and security that God offers. Instead, it is the ongoing presence of the Good Shepherd, who has a plan, who watches the skies, and who knows then and where to slow down, hold back, and wait for the storm to pass by. The journey long, and arduous at times, but the Shepherd is good and there is a whole flock of other sheep who walk alongside to encourage us to stay the course toward the ultimate goal of life abundant.