Sheep flying or plummeting from the cliffs, we need a shepherd Mark 6:30-56 by Revd Alex Pease

Mark 6: 30-56

Last week (at the BCP) we discovered, from Mark’s breathless narrative, that the disciples had been sent out two by two to the surrounding villages with nothing, but trust in Jesus to support them.  And that trust turned out to be enough, they had done incredible things: urged people to repent, driven out demons and healed the sick.

Our new passage starts now they have returned to report back to Jesus.  They are exhausted.  Jesus is surrounded by loads of people to-ing and fro-ing. He suggests that they all leave for  a deserted place to rest.  They go off by boat. And yet when they reach the place of rest, there are even more people thronging to see Jesus.  

The disciples must have been pretty disappointed.  But Jesus doesn’t just drive them away so that he and his disciples can have some quiet time together.

34 As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and so he began to teach them many things.

Sheep without a shepherd…..

Sheep without a shepherd…..

Shift if you can, in your mind, to 1970s Britain and BBC 2…I think

A tourist dressed in a business suit and wearing a bowler hat approaches an old world shepherd, leaning against a gate who is wearing a smock with a straw in his mouth. The sounds of sheep and the countryside are heard….

‘I say, those are sheep aren’t they?’ says the tourist

‘Ar’, replies the shepherd

‘Yes, yes of course, I thought so…only…er why are they up in the trees?’

‘A fair question and one that in recent weeks has been much on my mind. 

It’s my considered opinion that they’re nesting’.



‘Like birds?’

‘Ar. Exactly. Birds is the key to the whole problem. It’s my belief that these sheep are laborin’ under the misapprehension that they’re birds….witness their attempts to fly from tree to tree. Notice that they do not so much fly as…plummet. 

Sound effect: Baa baa, flap flap flap, whoosh, plummet!

‘But why do they think they’re birds?’

‘Another fair question. One thing is for sure; a sheep is not a creature of the air. They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perchin’….. The problem is, sheep are very dim. Once they get an idea in their ‘eads, there’s no shiftin’ it.’

‘But where did they get the idea from?’

‘From Harold. He’s that one over there by the elm. That most dangerous of animals….. a clever sheep’. 

‘He’s the ring leader. He has realized that a sheep’s life consists of standin’ around for a few months and then bein’ eaten. And that’s a depressing prospect for an ambitious sheep. He’s patently hit on the idea of escape…..’

I hope that some of you will remember the classic Monty Python sketch from the 1970s which then descends into an even more zany critique of the Concorde project.

Sheep have been ridiculed in the popular imagination for being stupid.  I suspect that this is because they show little independence of thought.  They are flock animals whose main objective is to stay together in the herd so that they are individually less likely to become prey to some passing wolf.

But the flocking instinct is so strong that when one sheep decides to go somewhere, the rest of the flock usually follows, even if it is not a good “decision.” If one sheep jumps over a cliff, the others are likely to follow. 

It all depends upon who is leading them.

When the sheep are being led by a shepherd (which is the way that shepherds look after sheep in the middle east rather than followed and rounded up by dogs as in the western Europe) then the Shepherd will lead them to good pasture where they can flourish and to a pen where they can spend the night in safety.

Mark tells us (verse 34) that Jesus has compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  What did he mean?

Well, like sheep, we human beings have a very strong instinct to follow the same path as everyone else.  Maybe because we are told that it is the ‘right’ thing to do. 

We see this today in the widespread acceptance of the push towards one way of thinking in a whole range of political and social issues: political correctness, if you like; enforced by bullying and characterised by hate.

One example is the movement towards no platforming at universities for people with whom the students disagree.

Frankly, its just easier for most of us to follow the strongest voice and not engage in the battle. We don’t want to put our heads above the parapet and endure the hatred which accompanies this movement, as society gets led in a direction where it doesn’t know really where it is going or who is leading it…..

Are we being led to green pastures to flourish? Or into the trees, or towards the cliffs, to plummet to our destruction?

The only way we can know is by knowing the character of who is leading us: is it Harold, the clever, but ambitious, sheep; ambitious for himself, leading the sheep into self destruction in the trees, trying to be something that they are not. Or is it one sheep after another doing the leading, not really knowing where they are going and edging closer and closer to the cliffs. Or is it, on the other hand, someone of unimpeachable character who knows us;  who loves us; and who teaches us to love our enemies, whatever their views are?

Have you ever wondered why Jesus healed people; why he drove out demons?

He clearly wasn’t ending the world’s suffering.  There were still sick people in Judea after his ministry.  There were still people who were oppressed by demons. So why not heal everyone? Why not end the world’s suffering while God walks on earth, as a human being?  Bring it to an end for ever?

Because, as Mark writes, right at the beginning of his gospel and Luke writes in Chapter 10:9, the miracles are signs that “the kingdom of God has come near”. The miracles were signs; signs that the Kingdom of God had come near to those who witnessed the miracles.  The miracles were not just for the few who were healed, but for the many who witnessed them.

You see I have been wondering, when looking at this passage, why is it that in verse 36 the tired disciples who had hoped to have some quiet time with Jesus and who find that they are faced with huge crowds, when they had specifically gone to the deserted place for a rest, why is it that when they say to Jesus ‘send the crowds away to find some food for themselves’ Jesus insists that the disciples feed them and then (because they plainly cannot) performs the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 but then immediately afterwards, verse 45, after they have been miraculously fed, Jesus dismisses the crowd anyway….

What was the point?  He wasn’t feeding the starving, they were hungry, but we can easily go without a couple of meals, the Jews were used to fasting, he wasn’t relieving starvation. They could have been dismissed without being fed and gone and bought food in the surrounding villages anyway as the disciples suggested? So the point of the feeding of the 5000 cannot be about relieving hunger.  So what was the point then?

The point was to show that the Kingdom of God had drawn near. This was a Jewish way of saying (without actually saying it) that God has drawn near. The Creator God who can suspend the natural laws, whenever he wants to do so because he created them….

But why do that miracle of feeding all those people? What are we to learn from it?

I think it was so that we might learn to take his teaching seriously  not just dismiss it as wise words spoken by a learned teacher. 

Notice again what is written in these verses – back to verse 34: Jesus and the disciples have landed, hoping to reach a deserted spot to rest but the crowds are there waiting for them; “when Jesus landed and saw a large crowd he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherdSo he began to teach them many things

The feeding of the 5000 was to reinforce the many things that he had taught;  to reinforce that what he said was not just worldly wisdom; that what he was teaching comes from God our Creator, who loves us and who has compassion for us; not from just any old philosopher or wise teacher; not from Harold, the clever sheep; but from our Creator, who loves us.

And notice also that he made them sit down in groups on the green grass (like sheep, incidentally, being led to the grass) in groups of 100s and 50s, and he fed them.

There is something incredibly special about eating together.  Indeed I think eating together is the hall mark of relationships.

Jesus is saying by the feeding of the 5000; by placing people in groups: ‘learn from me in relationship, in community together with others; discuss what I have taught you together – wrestle with it; find the truth together’:  as you in Avington do on Sunday evenings after Evensong!

When people say to me as they do from time to time ‘my faith is very private to me’ I question if it is faith at all.  Our faith is to be learned and discussed in community.

It is for this reason that when we are running the Alpha course in September.  We will eat together in community, in groups, as we learn from Jesus.

It is for this reason that the home groups that we hope will start after Alpha will comprise those people who have eaten together and learned together from him.

It is for this reason that we hope that those who attend Alpha will find a different way to live; will stop following Harold the clever sheep and learn to follow the one who created them; the one who loves them and wants them to flourish.

And if you feel a sense of interest in doing that (not a sense of dread) a little prompting, then you are probably being invited…please do join us…


Mark 6:30–56(NRSV)

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.”When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

47 When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

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