“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-18)
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16)
Of all the images of Jesus the Scriptures give us, the most gentle and comforting one is that of the Good Shepherd. The old Latin name for Good Shepherd Sunday is Misercordias domini – the merciful heart of the Lord. David, the shepherd-king, wrote that wonderful 23rd psalm by the Spirit of God. A sheep boasting of his shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a shepherd’s town, the birthplace of His ancestor David, the shepherd-king of Israel. The first to worship Him were shepherds from Bethlehem’s field. Though Jesus grew up in a carpenter’s house, shepherding was His true vocation.
The Good Shepherd literally lays down his life for the sheep. His sheep are his life. He brings them out to green pasture. He leads them to fresh pools of water. He sets them upright when they’ve fallen down and can’t pick themselves up. He leads them along well-worn paths, through places sheep don’t naturally want to go, the dark valleys where predators abound. Where the good shepherd leads, the sheep will follow in trust. He feeds them, anoints their wounds and sores, cares for them, pampers them. At night, after the flock is safely tucked in their pen, the good shepherd lays down at the entrance to become like a door. If anyone wants to get to the sheep, they’ll have to get through the good shepherd first, literally over his dead body.
The good shepherd stands in sharp contrast to the hired hand who runs off at the first sign of danger. For him, it’s just a job and a paycheck. He cares nothing for the sheep. But for the shepherd, the sheep are not only his livelihood, they are his life. They are his own, like family. He calls each of his sheep by their name, as we do our pets, and they hear his voice and follow only that voice and no one else’s. That’s what Jesus is and does for us. He lays down His life for the world, for you in particular.
To say Jesus is our good shepherd is also to say that “we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” That will prove troublesome to our egos. While it’s nice of think of Jesus as the good shepherd, we might desire something a bit more flattering to ourselves than the image of sheep. Sheep are stubborn, often mean, prone to wandering. Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, everyone has turned to his own way.” We don’t naturally like to stay close to the flock.
Sheep are prone to straying, and so are we. We’ll drink from any putrid, polluted puddle that promises refreshment – religions, philosophies, self-help fads. We’ll sample any weed in the pasture that looks tasty, no matter how poisonous it might turn out to be. We’ll wander off on our own, thinking we can go it alone. Just me and God, thank you. Who needs all the complications of congregation and community when you can go it alone? Remember, the lone sheep is easy pickings for the wolves.
Our wandering waywardness comes from the original itch of wanting to be gods in place of God, sticking our hand into the middle of the garden to pluck fruit that brought death instead of life. Doing it our way instead of God’s way. You and I have that same inborn tendency, and it manifests itself in our spiritual restlessness, our boredom, our continual flock hopping from one church to another, our itch for the novel and exciting over those well-worn ruts of righteousness that lead to eternal life. Left on our own we’d be dead sheep, devoured by the wolves.
My in-laws are Kansas cattle folks. They don’t think much of sheep. They put the sheep over at the other end of the exhibition hall at the county fair. Sheep are high maintenance – prone to wandering, requiring constant attention. A rancher doesn’t hang out much with his cattle, not in the way a shepherd does. A shepherd gets right down there and joins the flock. He becomes one of the sheep. They think of him as one of their own.
Had the Son of God not joined the flock by becoming man, we would be doomed by our own sin and death. But this is the merciful heart of the Lord. He became one of us. The Word became flesh and pitched the tabernacle of His flesh among us, the way a shepherd dwells among his flock. He didn’t sit there on a throne in heaven somewhere saying, “They sure look lost; I hope they find me.” The Good Shepherd, joined the flock. He laid down His life. Lifted up on the cross, He gathered all to Himself, a sinful, damned humanity, in the embrace of a loving shepherd God who is willing to lay down His life, to suffer and die to save us.
The Lord is your Good Shepherd. He pastures you in the green pastures of His Word; He leads you to the quiet waters of Baptism; He restores your soul, lifting you from death to life in Him. He guides you in the well-worn ruts of righteousness, the way of repentance, daily dying and rising, for His name’s sake. Though daily you walk through the dark valley called the “Shadow of Death,” where threats to your life are all around you, where death and the grave loom large, you need fear no evil. Fear not, little Flock. Good Shepherd Jesus has gone ahead of you through suffering and death to resurrection and glory. Your Shepherd lives and in Him you live too. The grave couldn’t hold Him, and it can’t hold you either.
He is with you, comforting you with His Word and presence; the rod of His Law, the staff of His Gospel always assuring you of His presence. He prepares a banquet table for you, the gifts of His sacrifice, His own Body and Blood which He offered up once for all right there in the presence of your enemies – sin, death, hell, the devil, the Law. Nothing can harm you. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
That love that lays down its life has an effect on the sheep too. They take on the character of their shepherd. He is so much a part of them and their lives that the sheep reflect that same lay down their life love toward each other. Without their shepherd, they’d be butting heads, competing, struggling for their own survival. Without Jesus, all we are is isolated sheep turned inward. But something marvelous happens when that lay-down-its-life love of Jesus has its way with us. We become like Him.
John writes about it. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” The love that flows from the merciful heart of the Lord overflows to the brother, to the sister, to your fellow Christian who shares the same baptismal birth, the same Body and Blood, the same forgiveness, the same Jesus. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The sheep see the Shepherd in each other, and they reflect the Good Shepherd to each other.
Luther said we are as little Christs to one another in all the little ways we lay down our lives for each other. It might be helping a young mother with her squirmy children so she can hear a sermon all the way through, helping a young family who can’t make ends meet, teaching a Sunday school class so that the children can learn the Bible and the catechism, mentoring a young person, visiting someone who is homebound or sick. There are countless little ways to lay down our lives because we know that love of Jesus who laid down his life for us. We are as little reflections of Jesus to each other. And we see Jesus in each other. “As often as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to me.” We serve Christ in the other, and we are as Christ for the other.
This is what impressed the surrounding culture of the early church. Not Christianity’s impressive doctrines; not it’s glorious worship; not its magnificent buildings and programs. But a very simple observation that set the Christians apart from the rest of the dog eat dog world. “See how they love one another.” It was their love, an alien, strange sort of love – unselfish, self-sacrificing, laying down its life like a shepherd with his sheep. The world saw something different in the way Christians dealt with each other, and they actively wondered and sought out what made them tick. Why would people love one another in this way?
I have to wonder today amidst all the reports of declining church attendance, lack of interest in Christianity, apathy from our own baptized youth who readily abandon the faith as soon as they turn 18, whether it’s because that self-sacrificing love is no longer apparent. James reminds us that the world can’t see faith; it can only see faith’s love. John says the same thing. One of his churches, the main congregation in Ephesus, was known for its pure doctrine, its patient endurance, and its rejection of all heresies. But at the close of the first century, the Lord had this to say about the Ephesian church: “You have abandoned your former love. Repent.” “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
This is God’s mandate, not simply that we believe in the name of the Son of God Jesus Christ, but that we love one another. Jesus said so when He bent down to wash the feet of His disciples and told them the world will know that you are my disciples if you love on another. And if that causes you a bit of unrest this morning good. If your hearts are condemned then turn to God; He is greater than your heart, and He knows everything. Let His love turn you inside out again and take that step of love in confidence. You cannot fail; He won’t let you. Try it. Dare to love as you have been loved. While faith in Christ is always whole and entire, love is always one little step at a time, what Eugene Peterson calls “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” The world will note a difference; so will you.
You are sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock. Your Baptism marks you as one of His own. You were bought with a price, the blood of Jesus. You are precious to Him. Literally to die for. There is not a day that goodness and mercy do not flow from the merciful heart of the Lord to you. Oh, you may not always feel as though it were so, but it is for the Lord has promised. He will not leave you like a hired hand. He is your good shepherd, who laid down His life for you. And at the end of it all, there is a promise held in trust that is as sure as Jesus crucified and risen from the dead is sure: You will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In the name of Jesus,