For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. - Ezekiel 34:11-16
Ezekiel lived in exile in Babylon both before and after the fall of Jerusalem (588 B.C.) and his message was addressed to people who were living in exile or in fear of exile and feeling lost and abandoned.
As I contemplated this passage, I heard echoes of Psalm 23:1-4 and, of course, of Jesus’ description of the Good Shepherd (John10:1-16.) All these passages tell us that God’s people may be scattered over the world, but we are all part of one flock. We’re not abandoned. The Good Shepherd rescues us, leads us, knows us, lays down his life for us. What might surprise you is that, as I read, my mind went, not to sheep, but to cows, and not to a shepherd, but to a herding dog.
My great-grandfather, Albert Marple, had a dairy in West Virginia, where my dad spent his summers when he was growing up. When I was a child, Daddy told me many stories about Albert’s collie, Sport - according to Daddy, the world’s smartest dog. Once when a storm was approaching, Albert sent Sport to bring in the cows. The cows were widely scattered over the hillsides, but Sport ran around, gathering them up and herding them together, until he could bring all the cows down to safety in the barn, leaving not one behind. Another time, when the cows had overgrazed a pasture and needed to be moved to greener fields, Albert was leading the herd along a fenced path. There was an open gateway in the fence, leading out to the main road. As they approached the gate, Sport ran ahead to stand guard in the gap, being sure none of the cows turned aside into danger. And Sport knew all of the cows by name. Albert could say, for example, “Go fetch Daisy,’ and Sport would run to the pasture and bring back that particular cow. Although Sport was never called upon to lay down his life for the cows, I’m sure if they had been attacked - perhaps by wolves or by a bear-he would have done so, because they were “his” cows.
It may seem irreverent to use a dog as an allegorical representation of the Good Shepherd, but if C.S. Lewis could use a lion in his Chronicles of Narnia, perhaps I may be excused for using Sport. Sport herded up all the cows to save them from the storm; Christ is unwilling anyone should perish. “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also... So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16.)
“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed....” (Ezekiel 34:16.) “Sport led the cows to green pasture; Christ leads us ”...he goes before them and the sheep follow him....” (John 10:4.)
“He leads me in paths of righteousness....” (Psalm 23:3.) Sport stood in the gap to keep the cows from danger, Christ stands in the gap to “...deliver us from evil....” (Matthew 6:13.)
Sport knew all the cows by name; Christ knows us so intimately and completely that “... even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30.)
Albert’s cows knew Sport and trusted him to guide them in the right paths, to lead them to pastures green, to keep them safe, and at last, to gather them into Albert’s barn.
May we be like those cows, knowing Christ and trusting him to guide us in the right paths, to lead us in the way we should go to deliver us from evil, and at last, to gather us into God’s barn. Amen.