Fourth Sunday of Easter
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A blessed Good Shepherd Sunday to you, as it's often called. Today our lectionary sets before us this grand metaphor of shepherd and sheep - which begins in the Old Testament and culminates in Jesus.
Most of us are familiar with sheep and shepherds not first hand, but beginning in Sunday School. And while you may have been to a farm or a petting zoo here or there, sheep and shepherds aren't as much a part of our daily life as they were for people in Jesus' day. Still, it's a universal relationship that we can easily understand – caretaker and care receiver. Him, and us, respectively.
In fact Jesus contrasts himself with a mere hired hand. An employee who is only a temporary caretaker, but really doesn't care. Jesus cares. He cares for his sheep A LOT. He cares so much that he lays down his life for the sheep, as he says over and over in the passage. Who is the hired hand?
Here Jesus is speaking to both his own disciples and his opponents, including the pharisees. The “hired hand”, who doesn't sacrifice for the sheep rather sacrifices the sheep for his own sake – let the wolf have them while I run away – is the false teacher and false messiah of any age. Anyone who's not pointing you to the Good Shepherd, and speaking the words of the Good Shepherd, leads you only to danger and destruction.
And there is danger in this field. There's a wolf out there. Sometimes he comes in sheep's clothing, sometimes as a serpent, sometimes a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. He is our ancient enemy – that's what “devil” means, “adversary”. He wants to snatch the sheep and scatter the flock. He wants to destroy your faith, and isolate you from each other.
Do you feel the danger? Sheep often can't. Sheep need the guidance of the shepherd. They need the staff to direct us. We need that curbing law, but also to be shown our wandering ways. God's law judges us rightly as lost sheep. People so lost and hopeless in our sins that we have no future but death.
And sheep are needy – incapable of caring for themselves. Sinners, too, are incapable of solving our own spiritual dilemma. We will always, only wander away into danger and death – were it not for our Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd's way to rescue the sheep is not to simply lead the way. It's not that he simply calls us to follow, or worse, brutally herds us into a pen.
Our Good Shepherd is a good, kind, loving shepherd. He comes to rescue us. Here's how:
First, he knows us. Yes, a good shepherd knows each and every one of his sheep. He knows you. Jesus doesn't forget you or ignore you. He isn't your part-time savior, only there when you need him. Unless you realize you need him all the time! He knows you better than you know yourself. He knows the number of hairs on your head. He knows your weakness. He knows your temptation. He knows your suffering. “I know my sheep” he says. Believe it.
Second, he cares for us. It may not always seem so. It may seem he's making your life miserable, or at least allowing it to be. It may seem like words, words, words, and that he is as distant and absent as the Devil wants us to believe. But his promise stands, “I am with you always”. And if you ever doubt his love and caring you need only look to the cross. There he shows us his love in the biggest and best way.
For finally, and most importantly, the Good Shepherd rescues the sheep by laying down his life. This is so important Jesus says it three times in the passage – beginning, middle and end. He dies... for you. And what a strange and wonderful thing it is that a shepherd would die for a sheep. But greater love has no one than that he lay down his life for his friends. And greater still that he lays it down for us when we are his enemies. And as helpless and hopeless as the poor lost sheep are, dirty, injured, bleating out our woes in the ditch of our own making.... Jesus lays down his life for ours.
The Good Shepherd is also the perfect lamb. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The Lamb seen in the foreshadowing of passover, a perfect male lamb, whose blood marked the doors of Israelite homes and chased away the destroyer. So too, the blood of Christ routs the enemy of his sheep, that howling wolf who would have us. Death destroyed by his death. Victimhood averted by the perfect Victim.
The blood of the Lamb covers the sins that would deny us entry into the pastures of paradise. The blood of the Lamb sustains us, along with his body given for us. The blood of the Lamb forgives our sins, gives us life, and salvation.
And then there's the flock. Comprised of many sheep from many folds. But all with one great, good shepherd. All whom he knows, and who know him. All who hear his voice, and listen to him. The church. The people who are known by Christ. The people who belong to him, claimed as his own in Holy Baptism. The people who gather around his voice, his word, and listen to it. The people for whom he has laid down his life, and who believe and trust in him. You and I are of that one flock of sheep, for whom the shepherd died. You and I are known and cared for by the Good Shepherd. In his holy name, Amen.