I WILL never forget my first real encounter with a lamb. From babyhood I had been taught the jingle about my namesake's lamb with snowy fleece. I knew lambs by greeting cards, children's picture books, and sentimental stories. But I had never come face to face with the actuality until, as a college graduate and high school teacher, I was invited to vacation on a farm in southern Minnesota.
At once I was excited over a flock of sheep I could see feeding in a distant pasture, with young lambs sporting near their mothers. I wondered that they did not look as white as the greeting-card darlings, but I laid it to distance.
At first it had not been convenient to go out to the flock. But one day the farmer said they should really get Mary and a lamb together. With considerable difficulty he maneuvered one into a pen near the barn; and I was invited to pet it and be photographed in the act. I still have the snapshot about—not on display. They got it as I made one grab for the beast that was less unsuccessful than my other efforts. Then I was ready for a bath and clean clothes. The brown, smelly lamb with wool matted with mud and filth was anything but friendly and angelic and cuddly, or like the pictures.
So I found out that sheep, as well as sparrows, were well chosen by God as symbols for human beings. Sheep are quite human-likable and unendurable, winsome and intolerable, stupid, irresponsible, wayward, easily led astray, dirty, and malodorous. Yet sheep are capable of improvement. I have since seen orphan lambs carefully raised that were as charming as the storybook lambkins. And I have known of real affection between sheep and shepherd.
But it dawned on me that day in Minnesota that the love begins with the shepherd—the sheep isn't worth loving; it only needs loving. Goats are a lot more attractive than sheep. They are more intelligent for one thing; they bunch before the attack of predators, instead of running in every direction, to let the killer pick out any one he chooses. Human beings will run right out into temptation, instead of staying dose to God.
I have found that the very helplessness and defenselessness of sheep appeal to the heart of a born shepherd. The goats—they want none of him. But the sheep repay affection. The discerning shepherd recognizes humanlike traits in sheep personalities, and he finds himself understanding God better. We did not win God's love for any deserving. He loves us because we need His love. All we like sheep have gone our own way, and the wolf has mauled us. We have chosen sordidness and worldliness and worse, and we need cleaning up. The Shepherd provides it.
Then He does the supreme thing: He calls Himself by the name we are that we may begin to be what He is.