When I was about eight years old our church called a new pastor, who was fresh out of seminary, the Rev. Billy Rutrough. Now if you have ever had a pastor straight out of seminary, you know how they are filled with wonderful new ideas and theories they have been mulling around in their heads all though their time in school. Well, Pastor Billy had one such elaborate idea that he brought to life as the Christmas season approached.
His idea was to take an 8mm camera (state of the art in that day) and film the Christmas pageant. Rather than have children act out the nativity story in a chancel or fellowship hall against a background of cardboard cutouts, he decided to film outdoors, on location as it were. For every scene in the beloved story, he took child actors and placed them in appropriate settings and filmed the action. Narration and music would be added later, when he played the movie for the congregation.
He took the actors who played the Wise Men to the Knoxville Sand and Gravel Company. Then, as the sun was setting he had them walk to the crest of a sand dune, stop and point to a star in the distance then proceed to walk down the dune out of the frame. Ultimately, the congregation would hear the story of the Wise Men from Matthew and sing “We Three Kings,” as they watched this segment of the movie. The plan was to do the same for every scene, having the congregation sing appropriate carols while watching the other scenes.
Then he came to the scene that is perhaps the most beloved part of the Christmas story, the shepherds watching over their sheep in the fields. For this he drove several of us to a farm when they actually had a large flock of sheep. I was one of the actors chosen for this scene and I was placed in my costume, given a small shepherds staff, and about five of us were led across the field to the flock.
From a distance the flock looked pretty against the green grass of the pasture. However, as we got closer the sheep began to change in their appearance. They became huge, dirty, stink and unruly animal. In their defense, from a great distance they might have mistaken me for Charlton Heston, but up close I was a tiny 8 year old boy. The sheep were huge and they had massive, ugly, green stained teeth. They were enormous beasts, and Pastor Billy just placed us right there in the middle of the flock. As I stood there in absolute terror I tried to think about everything I had been told about sheep. Well, there was Sherry Lewis and her puppet Lamb Chop. There were the tiny cotton ball sheep we had glued to construction paper in Sunday School.
I realized that I had been duped. I knew nothing about sheep….were they strictly herbivores? If not, they could make short order of me before Pastor Billy could get there. While I was wrestling with these thoughts, one of them stood on my foot. Sure I had a staff, but what would become of me, if I used it.
I could have gotten the Academy Award for Best supporting Actor by the time the angels appeared, because I was truly afraid, and it showed on my face. As with most traumatic childhood experiences, I was scarred for life. In fact, to this day I do not like sheep at all, …not even with mint jelly.
So when we come to this beloved passage of scripture where Jesus compares himself with a shepherd and us to sheep, I am not flattered. Couldn’t Jesus have picked an animal that is a tad more majestic? What about an analogy where we are powerful like horses or noble like eagles? But the more I have thought about it, the more I understand just how perfect the analogy is. As sinners, we are all stained and dirty. Spiritually, we stink. We are certainly unruly and prone to wander off and get lost. Face it; there are times in our lives when we are every bit as stupid as sheep. It is the perfect analogy.
If we are honest, we have to admit that our sinful human nature makes us very much like sheep. Now that I have destroyed your self-esteem, there is good news in this passage. Here we are told that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. God loves his dirty, stinking, smelly flock so much, that he was willing to give his life for our salvation.
In Romans 5:8 we read these words “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us..” Because of Christ Jesus, God does not see us the dirty stinky sheep we are. Clothed in the righteousness of Christ, with our sins forgiven we look like a beautiful flock of sheep against the green pasture of the world. Spotless – just like the spotless Lamb of God.
The photo is from the 2007 New Zealand movie, “Black Sheep.” It is a comedy-horror movie about genetically engineered sheep that turn on humans. The movie was produced by the New Zealand Film Commission.