Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The Hefted Sheep On my early morning Sunday ramble over the fields in the nearby village, I usually take a circular route. This week, I decided to do a figure of eight. The normal walk will take me an hour and a half. At that time in the morning, the church was still closed as I walked by, and the roads still relatively calm, until I decided to record my thoughts. As the morning wakes up, so do the vehicles. The quietness of the country lane was broken by the morning traffic and the frequencies invaded my peaceful space. I waited a moment for the intrusion to pass by. As most of the drivers were elderly, my thoughts assumed or should I say hoped that they might be going to church. Half way through my walk and just as I started to record my thoughts on my mobile phone, the church bells rang. Was it that time already. I wondered how many of the villagers consider their peal a nuisance.
As I crossed the farmer’s field, my eyes were drawn to three distant fields, each with varying numbers of sheep in them. I find this site more than coincidental in the matter of the topic of this letter.
I am constantly blessed when in conversation with my farming friend and brother in the Lord. In my meetings with him, I often find myself asking a lot of why’s, for example, why do moles come up in certain areas, and other topics on horses and chickens, and sheep. We talk about how crops grow and why farmers apply their processes. I’ve learned how the land is restored when left fallow, and how the meat of older sheep can remain tender when normally it might be considered mutton, that is of course with grassroots rearing methods. It all boils down to the land and what grows on it. Looking after the land and the animals in the way God wants us to, restores harmony between land and earth.
In my last conversation with him, I learned something about the specific nature of sheep. What was revealed was something not too dissimilar to the way in which we respond to our Christ, the shepherd of our souls.
There is a tendency in the rebellious nature of man to go where he is told not to go— to stretch over the fence or the line. God gives us boundaries, generally they are invisible, some are written on parchment and scroll and others nature shaped or hewed by hand in the form of boundary stones. God has set His boundary stones all over the place and many of them are written in covenants. The most visible were the words on the commandments written upon the stone tablets. God tells us that His boundary stones should not be moved. They themselves are markers to our lands and territories. The stones commanded by God to Moses to place around Mount Sinai before the giving of the Torah, were God’s boundaries. Other boundary stone markers can often be found hidden in woods on old farmland, yet others are completely invisible and can only be seen on deeds of ownership. State and county lines are often all but hidden among the coloured lines of the legend of a map.
God tells us that boundaries should not be moved or crossed, because they can bring consequences.
When Nimrod built the tower in order to reach heaven, he broke the boundaries. When Noah went into the ark, his boundary was the inside of the box. He could not leave it until the soaking had all but dried up.
God gave the laws to Moses as boundaries for Israel. Prison cells are boundaries; Joseph knew that, and even the status of a King brings boundaries. The greatest boundaries are found in covenants, especially those within the marriage agreement.
How does all this apply to sheep? You may have noticed on your walks in the country side, or even in your drive, flocks of sheep in fields. You may have noticed as I did, an innumerable number gathered in one field, not so many in another and probably one or two in a field much further away.
Without knowing why the sheep are spread out it is impossible to answer the question. They may, of course, be allowed to roam as they wish, and the farmer has just opened up a large portion of land for them to do so. On the other hand, they may have just had an argument with some of their friends and decided to sulk for the rest of the day. Sheep generally stay together and follow each other to different parts of their roaming area. They will stay in the larger flock and the allotted area. These are called ‘hefted’, but there are some who just decide to roam and break the boundary. Practically, the shepherding method trains the sheep to remain in borderless, but contained areas. To define this a little better, I quote: A heft is both the name for the group of sheep and the area to which they restrict themselves, or are restricted by shepherding, and this has its origin in the bond between the ewe lamb and her mother (Hall and Clutton-Brock, 1989).
Sheep instinctively know the area they can roam even without seeing a boundary. They know the invisible lines that can’t be crossed, which is more than can be said for us humans.The hefted sheep remain in the community of its kin. Those that stray beyond, make the job of the shepherd harder.
We find this same scenario and impulse among human beings and peculiarly among the young. It is no less peculiar among the mature flock of Christ. The human instinct is called rebellion and this too is a marked characteristic of those among the brethren who refuse to stay within the boundaries set with the laws and covenants given to us by God. Jesus called these types of rebellious characters ‘Lost sheep’, as the other sheep know and observe their boundaries intrinsically. A believer knows and learns the laws of God through the voice of His Spirit, his peers and teachers and by reading the word of God. However, those who choose to ignore God’s word will give birth to others like them, and they in turn will inherit the lost sheep temperament and become rebellious and disobedient. These ones will remain outside the community of hefted ones.
As the un-hefted sheep go further afield, they as the person, will eventually forget the sound of the shepherd’s voice. They will wonder to and fro and someday may hear the faint voice of a man calling in the distance. This voice will seem familiar but it will not be the voice of their true shepherd. It will be another. They will choose to enter that flock and listen and be directed by a similarity, a false shepherd. This flock will have forgotten who they are . The original mark of the shepherd upon their fleece, will be long gone and faded. Now, another will put his mark upon them. The un-hefted sheep lives beyond its boundaries and the man that does the same will be as lost until he realises that he is. But Jesus, the shepherd of our soul, never gives up in His search for a single lost sheep. He waits just as the father of the prodigal son waited for his lost son’s return.
What does this message say to us today, now, in this moment? The sheep of Christ must know His voice. We are two thousand years on from His voice that entered our world. I wonder what it sounded like. Since the pouring out of His spirit upon his disciples, His voice now comes across the void from heaven to earth resonating across the cosmos, vibrating the atoms and breaking the boundaries of space to rest upon His peculiar breed. I remember the story of a young man. Sitting high on the hills, he looked down to see three flocks of sheep coming from different directions. All the flocks were heading for a watering hole. As the sheep approached the watering hole, they began to get mixed up. How on earth were the shepherds going to separate them, he wondered.
The answer was simple; each separate flock knew the sound of their own shepherds voice. The shepherd will call, and the called out ones, bearing his mark will come out from amongst the mix.
Jesus will come to those of His choosing and will commune with those who know Him. As we are attracted to His voice we will equally recoil and ignore the voice of the false shepherd. God the father, also knows the voice of the false shepherd; to those who lead His flock astray, He will deal with them in His own way. The good news is that no sheep of Christ’s flock will remain lost. Through the undulating hills, shadowy valleys and the winter storms, they will find their way back, eventually. Why, because His sheep know His shepherd’s voice.