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Smell Like Sheep?

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Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved Scriptures in the world, but early Hebrews probably found it hard to swallow. God a shepherd? Definitely not kosher.

For us, shepherds evoke pastoral hillside settings near Bethlehem bathed in Spielbergian light. Angels are singing like the Eastside Baptist Church of the Holy Ghost choir, rocking the stars with news to sleepy shepherds that Christ is born. Each Christmas season we dust off the pleasant fellows kneeling with the aid of their crooked staffs peering with awe at the baby Jesus in holiday crèche scenes. And one of the earliest depictions of Jesus in Christian art was that of a broad-shouldered shepherd lumbering back to the fold of ninety-nine, carrying on his shoulders a weary lost lamb.

Not so for the early Hebrews! Even in Jesus' time, shepherds held low social and religious ranking. Why? First, long hours with the sheep in distant pastures made it impossible to follow all the law's religious regulations. A shepherd simply could not comply with the requirements to be a fine, upstanding member of the local worship community. Second, they often slept outside with their sheep on the hillsides and, well, frankly, they stank. Lack of daily hygiene made them the butt of many a joke. Third, shepherds rarely were actual sheep owners; most often they were "hirelings" paid low daily wages to watch someone else's sheep. Such "day workers" held little status in Jewish society of that time.

David was the first to see something sacred in the otherwise derisive occupation of shepherd. Nearly passed over as insignificant while out watching sheep (1 Sam. 16:11), David penned the beautiful poem we know as Psalm 23 in which he compares God to a shepherd. Jesus took it further. He compared the Messiah to a Good Shepherd who loves the sheep of his fold and gives up his life for them (John 10). Even one of the most mundane and disdainful occupations was given sacred significance by the Lord.

Look again at what you do. Jesus called himself a Good Shepherd and told simple fishermen they would one day use their fishing skills for the Kingdom of Heaven. What about your occupation has lasting significance? Which of your skills help you understand people better? What lessons from work relate to your walk with God? People probably thought David was ridiculous to consider such questions about shepherding. If David had listened to them, we would not have the beauty of Psalm 23!

Psalm 23 A Psalm of David
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

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