Marked Sheep


“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
John 10:11-15

I stumbled upon an unexpected sight when I was hiking in Ireland last month.
I was taking a break from a steep ascent and noticed two sheep on a craggy meadow not far from the trail. They were a bit grubby. The recent snow and mud had made the critters more barn-like than cuddly-cute. But that’s not what got my attention. The sheep had been painted. Their white wool had been painted with a bright splotch of red paint.
The sheep had been marked. Their owner had branded the sheep as his or her own property. It was clear to everyone who could spot the sheep on the mountain. The sheep were not stragglers or orphans. They belonged to someone who had claimed them. And by the looks of the stone fences that carved up the landscape, they had made arrangements to care for their sheep.
As I caught my breath and sipped from my water bottle, it occurred to me that I found these marked sheep to be an encouraging reminder that I am cared for, as well.
Christ is the Good Shepherd. He knows his flock and they know him. The Good Shepherd will not desert his sheep in their time of need. His love and commitment for his sheep is extraordinary and unusual. The Good Shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep.
Which is absurd, of course. They’re sheep. No shepherd in their right mind would sacrifice their own life for their sheep. Yes, sheep are a valuable commodity. And yes, they represent an investment on behalf of their owner. But to sacrifice one’s self for livestock? Laughable.
Well, not to Jesus.
Jesus used this pastoral metaphor to help his hearers to understand the depth of God’s love and provision for His own. The farmers and shepherds, hired hands and rural, migrant workers would have understood this imagery. They would have understood that a hired hand would have faced the temptation to flee if predators descended upon the flock. Jesus, however, is clear. He is no hired hand. He is the owner of the sheep. He cares for them. His love for them will prompt sacrifice when needed. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he’s not laughing at the prospect of laying down his life for them.   
Once I had caught my breath and renewed my hike, I found myself relieved that I have a Good Shepherd. Although I don’t have a splash of red paint on my back to signal my owner’s identity, I can claim my baptism as the mark of my maker. Christ’s love for me in sacrifice helps me to feel the assuring presence of the Good Shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus states. “I know my own and my own know me.”
But it doesn’t always feel that way. In fact, I frequently forget the fact that I belong to someone else. Jesus tells us that he knows his own, and I believe that wholeheartedly. In my better moments, I can confess that I know my owner. When I fail to recall that I do not belong to myself, I make poor decisions and fall victim to feelings of isolation, vulnerability and anxiety. When I don’t know that I belong to the Good Shepherd, I feel the threat of predators too numerous to count. Christ knows that I belong to him. It’s me that forgets about him.
By remembering our baptism, we can recall that the Holy Spirit has been sealed upon our hearts and upon our lives. We belong to the God who has saved us, and whose love for us is beyond our comprehension. We may feel like sheep, but the One to whom we belong is the one who defines our true value. When Christ laid down his life for us, we could see firsthand the depth and measure of God’s love.
Brothers, sisters and fellow sheep, we are valuable beyond belief. We are God’s flock and we belong to Him. He surrounds us with love and encloses us with his warm embrace. God is our Good Shepherd. What should we fear?
Not one thing.
As we reflect on the reality that we belong to the Good Shepherd, please join me in praying this verse from an ancient Celtic prayer:
By Christ this day my strong protector,
Against poison and burning,
Against drowning and wounding,
Through reward wide and plenty…
Christ beside me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ within me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ to
right of me,
Christ to
left of me;
Christ in my lying, my sitting, my rising;
Christ in heart of all who know me,
Christ on
tongue of all who meet me,
Christ in
eye of all who see me,
Christ in
ear of all who hear me. Amen.